James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Italian Brioche

Photo by: Aaron Gillett

Italian Brioche

Brioche in Treviso

Breakfast in Italy sounds like it would be amazing. It is not.

That’s a little unfair, maybe. Breakfast is a ritual in Treviso, the small town where I live. Each cafe has a multi-thousand dollar espresso machine, and someone behind the counter who has been going through the same motions—grind, drip, froth, pour—for at least a decade. You drink standing up, one arm leaning against the counter and your body facing outwards, the better to see and greet people. Italians have a lot of food rules that are enforced with a look of withering disgust if you try and break them. Milky coffee after 11am is a faux pas, but at breakfast, you can have a delicious cappuccino.

The coffee is price-controlled, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an espresso or macchiato for more than one euro in most places, which begs the question: is coffee a human right in Italy? Probably. What is decidedly not a human right is the rest of breakfast. Because as you’re standing at the counter surrounded by old Trevisian men wearing newsboy caps, basking in the Fellini-ness of it all, you realize you’re hungry and you order what everyone else is having.

Italians like a sweet breakfast. Donuts, biscuits, cakes, and cookies line the glass containers, but most people eat brioche. Well, it’s called a brioche, though it looks like a croissant, and if we’re really splitting hairs here (we are) it should be called a poorly defrosted croissant. Un brioche mal scongelato. A brioche is stuffed with cream, jam, chocolate or Nutella, and the flakeless dough has a vaguely lemon-y flavor. It is occasionally doused in powdered sugar, a half-hearted attempt to distract you from its profoundly disappointing stale taste.

As you chew, you look around to see if anyone else feels violently cheated. You’re alone. More than the fascism, the men’s fashion, or the highly complex recycling system, this is what has baffled me the most about Italy. How can a country so revered for its food, so in love with ingredients and culinary technique, so attuned to creating pitch perfect lunches and dinners, start its day with such a shitty breakfast?

“Because you’re going to shitty cafes!” an Italian friend told me, incensed. Recently, the baristas at a popular cafe chain in Treviso told me the brioches did in fact come frozen, provided by a handful of frozen food companies that control the trade. Each specializes in a different flavor brioche, and so the taste can vary between pastries. And how many of the cafes here sell frozen brioches? “90%”, one woman said. “The only place to get fresh ones are the pasticcerias.”

Tomorrow, I’m going to try a cookie.

(The author of this piece would like to stress that she loves Italy, its people, and especially its food, and is sorry for the offense she has definitely caused any Italian readers, but would also really love for them to try, just once, a bacon egg and cheese sandwich at 9am.)

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