We continue our round of breads with a bread that almost made me famous among French-speaking Jewish housewives: Tunisian Italian bread aka khobz talian!
In 2012, Vera and I met on a Facebook group. This group is a recipe sharing group for French Jewish women. It is in this “chicken coop” that I was sharing many of my creations at the time. And it’s probably thanks to the originality of my recipes and slightly provocative humor, more than my culinary skills that I got to know more than 20,000 women who are now part of this group.
A few months later, I suggested the idea of 196 flavors to Vera and the adventure began!
One of the recipes that I had shared at the time was that of khobz talian or Italian bread. The irony is that this recipe is not mine originally, but just a recipe that I tested and that I shared. But the damage was done, I had become “Mr. Italian Bread” in addition to becoming the reference when it comes to boeuf bourguignon (beef Burgundy) and (failed) macaroons rightly renowned macapoops…
This bread brings back so many memories. Tunisians call it Italian bread, and you can find it in bakeries run by Arabs (mostly Tunisians) in some neighborhoods of Paris where I grew up. This bread is used in at least two traditional Tunisian dishes: “Tunisian sandwich” and mloukhia. The Tunisian sandwich is a sandwich stuffed with canned tuna in oil, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, harissa, torchi (pickled vegetables) as well as other condiments. The mloukhia we are talking about here has nothing to do with Egyptian mlokhia that Vera shared with us during our first virtual world tour. This mloukhia, originally a poor man’s recipe, is also prepared with Jew’s mallow but in ground form as opposed to fresh leaves in the Egyptian version. This main saucy dish is often served with meat and/or merguez. It is nicknamed the “dish that never ends” due to the fact that there always seems to be as much sauce, and you need a lot of Italian bread to finish it.
But back to our Tunisian Italian bread. Why is it called so?
You should know that there was a rather large Italian immigration in Tunisia during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
But this immigration had actually started much earlier. It is the Genoese who originally arrived in large numbers on the island of Tabarka between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century. During the sixteenth century, the Jews from Livorno, a city on the Western coast of Tuscany, started to migrate, mainly to Tunis.
Following the post-war decolonization, Europeans, mainly the Italians and the French began to leave the country, but not before leaving their mark on the culture, and particularly the cuisine of Tunisia!
My mother was born in Ariana, a suburb of Tunis, and her family lived in the area for generations. All my mother’s family, like many other families left Tunisia for better days and migrated to Paris, with no resources and forced to start a new life. My mom, who passed away 4 years ago, never had the opportunity to go back to her hometown. Even though I never saw her bake khobz talian, as she always bought it at the Arab bakery like many families, I am dedicating this recipe to her.
Although I’ve never been there myself, I often heard of Ariana, Tunis and La Goulette! La Goulette is a town located about 6 miles from Tunis. It is emblematic of the Italian presence in Tunisia. The development of this town started in the eighteenth century with the influx of Sicilians and Maltese, who came for job opportunities in the maritime industry. The original name of the district, La Goletta, probably came from the fact that visitors were taken to a small river channel or “gullet” (gola in Italian). This area, often called Little Sicily, is not only at the origin of delicious recipes, but also very gorgeous women… like Claudia Cardinale, who after being voted the most beautiful Italian in Tunis in 1957, quickly became a very successful actress.
Italian influences in Tunisian cuisine are innumerable. Some of the most common recipes include makrouna bel salsa, a variant of spaghetti bolognese with harissa or zabaglione, an iced version of the famous Italian dessert, or also bottarga, salted, cured mullet roe.
But what about Italian bread?
There is a long tradition of bread baking in Italy, at least dating back to the Roman times. Besides the famous focaccia and ciabatta mentioned above, there are numerous other breads, especially in Sicily.
Filone, sfilatino or pane francese, which resemble French baguette in every way, are prepared with biga, a slightly fermented sourdough. Cuddura, on the other hand, is a braided bread that is quite common, especially in Sicily, but also in the rest of southern Italia. This bread can be sweet or savory.
Of all Sicilian breads, it is the ones baked with durum wheat that are the most traditional, especially mafalda, a bread topped with sesame seeds that os prepared in two forms: panuzzo (elongated) and stortella (S-shaped). These breads that have a lower water content tend to have a longer shelf life. Also note, pagnotte di Enna, a bread from the province of Enna in Sicily, which is more akin to a rustic bread.
The origin of khobz talian (Italian bread) as it is called in Tunisia is quite mysterious. This bread is a type of what is called pain brié, with a dough that is pounded (“brié” in Norman). Kneading for a long time and a lesser water content produce an Italian bread that is quite dense.
I remember very well the texture of the bread with very white crumb, but it is nigella seeds that give this bread a characteristic taste. Nigella seeds are definitely one of my favorite spices. I often use those seeds, including in my coleslaw.
If you are looking for a different type of bread with a delicious unique texture, which can be stored for a longer time and is perfect for making sandwiches, look no further. Khobz talian is your next addiction!
- 8 cups flour
- 2½ tablespoons active dry yeast
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 4 teaspoons salt
- 1½ cup warm water (more or less)
- Nigella seeds
Dissolve the yeast in warm water with sugar. Pour the flour, salt, oil and yeast/water/sugar in a bowl and knead the dough with a stand-mixer for 10 minutes.
Let rise in a covered bowl for an hour, until the dough doubles in volume.
Divide the dough into 4 (or 8) pieces. Flatten each piece with a rolling pin to obtain a rectangle with a thickness of about ¾ inch. Roll each piece diagonally and make cuts on top of each bread. Place the breads on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or even better on French baguette pans.
Let rise for another 1 hour. Brush with warm water and sprinkle nigella seeds.
Preheat oven to 450 F and place a small bowl of water in it to prevent bread from drying. Bake breads for 5 minutes. Lower to 390 F and continue baking for another 20 minutes.