Italian country bread is a type of traditional Italian bread which is known for its very chewy, coarse texture. The texture of this bread makes it ideal for dipping and sandwich making, because it holds moisture very well without becoming soggy. This bread is also referred to as pan bigio, or “gray bread,” in a reference to the unrefined flour which is traditionally used to make it. Many Italian bakeries offer this bread, and it can also be made at home.
By tradition, pan bigio is made from minimally processed flour. Typically, this means that the flour is whole wheat, lending a very rich, nutty flavor to the finished bread. Some bakers prefer to use a mixture of lightly processed white flour and whole wheat flour so that the bread is not as heavy, creating a bread with a flecked texture and a slightly more open crumb. Cornmeal may be added as well to make the texture even more coarse.
Italian country bread is made with a biga, a traditional Italian starter which pulls wild yeasts from the air. Breads made with bigas tend to be chewier and they have more complex, savory flavors as a result of the slow fermentation of the wild yeasts involved. Making pan bigio with dried yeast is not recommended, as the bread will tend to have a bland, lackluster flavor which will not be very enjoyable, and the texture will be fundamentally different.
A good loaf of Italian country bread has a thick, chewy crust, a medium crumb, and a chewy texture. The dough includes salt, water, and oil in addition to the flours discussed above, and it is traditionally very wet and sticky. This can make the dough very hard to handle, but it produces a chewier bread; bakers tend to flour their hands heavily when working with the dough to prevent it from sticking.
The flavor of Italian country bread is savory with an earthy note; the strength of the earthy note varies, depending on how much whole wheat flour is used. In the event that the bread is made in a traditional brick oven, the bread will have a thick bottom crust and a slightly smoky flavor; the conditions of a brick oven can be mimicked with a bread cloche and a baking stone, for those who do not have access to a brick oven.