Khobz talian or Italian bread is a very popular Judeo-Tunisian recipe.
What is Tunisian Italian bread?
Tunisians call it Italian bread, and you can find it in bakeries run by Arabs (mostly Tunisians) in some neighborhoods of Paris too. This bread is used for 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 Tunisian mloukhia is not the same as Egyptian mlokhia. This mloukhia, originally a poor man’s recipe, is also prepared with Jew’s mallow but in dried ground form as opposed to fresh leaves in the Egyptian version.
This mainly 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.
The history of Italians in Tunisia
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.
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.
What is the origin of Tunisian Italian bread?
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 is 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.
The texture of the bread with a very white crumb is characteristic, but it is nigella seeds that give this bread a characteristic taste.
- 8 cups flour
- 2½ tablespoons active dry yeast
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 4 teaspoons salt
- 2 cups warm water (more or less)
- Nigella seeds
Dissolve the yeast in warm water with sugar. Add the flour, salt, oil and the yeast, water and 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 (2 cm).
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 the oven to 450 F (220˚C), and place a small bowl of water in it to prevent bread from drying. Bake the breads for 5 minutes. Lower to 390 F (200˚C), and continue baking for another 20 minutes.