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From the grain to the loaf: learning to make bread

Organized for 25 participants.
This lab lasts for about 2 hours and is divided into 3 parts, formed by the following 10 key points

Part A: 40 minutes
1. Introduction of the cereals (see theory #1): as the basic nutritional food to humans. Plant types: grasses (see theory #2) angiosperms (see theory #3) monocotyledons (see theory #5). Where they are cultivated for their comestible parts, and what substances they provide: fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and salts.
2. Investigate the plants and the leaves of wheat (see theory #6) and maize (corn) as well as the seeds of plants used around the world: rice, wheat, faro, rye, barley, oat, maize, and millet. At this point you can play a game of ‘recognize the seed’. Have a participant stand in front of the seed bins; say a seed name and have them pick the seed you asked for.
3. Take a trip in the country to see and pick the wild cereals: barley and oats and explain how they feed wild animals. Explain how these plants have come to be cultivated from their wild forms and how forms rich in nutrients, and those more resistant, are crossed to obtain diverse qualities (see theory #6). Investigate how the cereals are cultivated on farms, while explaining how the practice of biological (organic) agriculture leaves part of the harvest to wild animals. This is possible because pesticides and other chemical substances are not used.

Bread laboratoryPart B: 40 minutes
1. Pick and shuck ears of corn (when possible)
2. Prepare to cook the bread (see theory #7) explaining why it is necessary to preheat the oven, and to what temperature, as well as the use of refractory stones. Explain also the choice of the heat source used in cooking (in our case wood), and how water and the other ingredients influence the taste and how the bread comes out. Send the participants to gather wood for the fire.
3. Prepare to make the flour necessary for the production of bread while explaining that only wheat, faro, and some barley contain gluten and have the ability to rise. Explain how the cereals can be used in the form of grains (see rice) or flour (see polenta [corn meal]: white or yellow).
4. Use an electric mixer to grind flour from both maize and wheat (if possible introduce a game of the senses in which a blindfolded participant has to distinguish wheat flour from corn flour). Show them the sieves, or "tamisi", and sift the wheat flour for the bread dough while explaining what it means for flour to be whole wheat and what is lost when fibre is eliminated.
5. Show how to make polenta.

Part C: 40 minutes
1. Talk about bread making (see theory #8): dried forms of bread yeast and fresh "cake" yeast or compressed yeast (in French, the word yeast has two different meanings: yeast for bread is "levain" while yeast for beer is "levure"), the times required to rise for each; which other ingredients to use for bread and how they work; make the first dough with brewer's yeast which must rise for 15 minutes.
2. Proceed with making the dough and then leaving it to rise (depending on the age of the participants, you can be their guide or let them make their own) about one hour
3. Make the dough balls into loaves giving each participant their desired form and ready them on a cooking sheet to go into the oven, resting them in a warm place as they may rise more (about 30 minutes) before cooking.
4. Cook the bread in the oven for about 15 minutes.
5. Observe the finished loaves noting the results of our work; what is good and where there are defects in respect to our expectations and our eating habits.
6. Respond to questions regarding everything we have learned during the lab.


1. Cereals are the collective denomination of various species not grouped under the grass family. Cultivated for their seeds, they are used largely as a source of food for humans. The term is derived from the Roman goddess Ceres, the protector of the land and agriculture. The use of this plant within the nutritional field seems to be related to the size of the seeds, as well as the simplicity of the methods of cultivation and the ease of removing the husk. The more common cereals, cultivated since antiquity, are grain, barley, rye, wheat, rice, millet, and sorghum. All of these originated in Asia, Europe, and Africa, except maize, which is native to the American continent. The most important cereals to human nutrition are rice, grain, maize, and barley. Since the survival of humanity depends in large measure on these cereals, the damage of even a small part of their crop could be cause of hunger, famine, or economic disaster.

2. Grasses are the angiosperm most prevalent around the world and can boast a distribution that covers the entire planet, from the Arctic Circle all the way to Antarctica, passing through the temperate zones and the tropics. Grasses, which grow in the most disparate of environmental conditions, can have extremely varied dimensions (such as that of giant bamboo, over 40m high, to the hay rolls of the meadows, which generally don't exceed 10cm), and are the primary nutritive source for herbivores, both wild and domestic: the former graze in pastures, while the latter get nutrition from harvested hay and silage. Not all of the grasses are useful species: some are considered infestations as they grow in the middle of other agriculture and compete for resources and diminish the crop. However, remember that although many grasses are considered as such by growing amongst what has been planted, they are often comestible, good to eat, and in certain cases, possessive of dietetic or curative properties (i.e. dandelion, horsetails).

Notwithstanding the great variety of species, grasses present numerous structural characteristics in common. In general their roots are primarily fibrous or roots that occasionally sprout from nodes in the stem. The latter can be herbaceous (as grass used for lawns) or rigid and hard (as is the case for bamboo). Exceptions can be found in the stem of the maize plant, which contains a marrow, as well as woodier varieties of bamboo.

Another trait typical of grass is the ligule, a thin outgrowth at the junction of leaf and leafstalk. Although the function of the ligule is as of yet unknown, it is presumed to keep water from infiltrating the interstices between the stem and the leaf. The leaf is typically long and narrow with parallel veining, and in each species this helps provide numerous variations on the theme.

Most grasses pollinate by air, and in so doing, do not require a flashy corolla (flower) to attract insects or birds for pollination. Therefore, these species generally have small flowers, simple and insignificant but usually gathered in a big inflorescence (a bloom or shoot) to form the ear or cob (you can see, for example, the ears and beards formed by the respective feminine and masculine flowers of the maize plant).

These little flowers are usually gathered in the inflorescence of an ear or cob. Each ear is made up of a bearing axis into which the flowers embed, and contains one or two couples of bracts (the outer ones are called lemma; the internal ones are called palea). At the base of the bearing axis of the ear is contained two scaly hollow formations called glumes. Glumes and lemmas have a generally tough consistency and usually give rise to the long and stringy form of the rest of the plant. The palea is formed from a delicate membranous tissue.

3. Angiosperms, or plants with flowers, represent the most important source of food for nourishment to humans and other mammals, and provide many raw materials and natural products. The angiosperms are comprised of shrubs, common trees (with the exception of pines and other conifers), many herbaceous species, and highly specialized vegetal organisms such as cactus and seaweed.

The name angiosperm comes from the Greek words aengeion, "vessel", and sperma, "seed". Around 1,000 species each have a notable economic importance and 15 of these provide the major food crop for nourishment of the planet.

The distinct characteristics of angiosperms are the flowers, which are the reproductive organs that carry on the seed producing function. This part is the truly unique biological aspect of the angiosperms and it develops the seed internally in an ovary (the gynoecium protects the ovule and seeds from predatory insects), which by way of growth transforms into a fruit. The ovules and seeds are not structures exclusive to angiosperms: plants considered "semi nude" (gymnosperms), that comprise the conifers, have ovules exposed on the outside of specialized leaves, similar to scales, arranged in the form of cones and almost all of which are pollinated by wind. The development of the gynoecium inside the ovule, the process of pollination, and the development of the other parts of the flower were designed to increase the probability of reproduction of the plant. Angiosperms are subdivided in 2 classes: dicotyledons and monocotyledons.

4. Dicotyledons take their name from the embryonic structure which produces two cotyledons, that is, two small modified embryonic leaves that sprout from the seed. In the dicotyledons, the flowers generally have parts in multiples of 4 or 5 and the leaves present a central vein from which separate various lateral veins. Distinguished from monocotyledons, dicotyledons are also composed of trees, woody plants, and those with stems containing vascular tissue arranged in rings just under the bark; the plants, moreover, have the capacity to grow secondary shoots and, thus, the diameter of the roots and stems at times can thicken dramatically.

5. Monocotyledons probably evolved more recently and comprise of more herbaceous species, including irises, lilies, orchids, and grasses. Palms are from the monocotyledons but behave live trees. Monocotyledons present the following characteristics: only one cotyledon (the first leaf that sprouts from the seed), veins that typically run parallel to the leaf, the inability to grow secondary shoots, the inclination to grow vascular sacs, and to cluster spread bundles inside the entirety of the stem (see: photo comparing monocotyledons and dicotyledons).

6. Grain or Wheat is the common denomination of various annual species belonging to the grass family, originating from the Middle East and widely cultivated since antiquity by peoples in temperate regions, and for which represent one of the most important agricultural products. The grain plant can grow up to one and a half meters tall and is characterized by long net-veined leaves that develop prematurely on the stem before the flowers, typically joining in ears holding up thin stalks arranged in "cobs" of grain.

The various species of grain in existence are classified by the number of chromosomes contained in the cells. The species cross spontaneously and frequently. They tend to form natural hybrids which, over the centuries, have come to form all of the various selections adapted to industrial cultivation. The most widely commercially cultivated species are those for bread (Triticum aestivum) and those for faro (Triticum spelta). Various other species are cultivated in various parts of the world are selected conveniently for their ability to adapt to the local environmental conditions and for their productivity. In Russia, the United States, and Canada, they cultivate principally spring species (which are planted in spring and are harvested in summer) and autumnal species (planted in autumn and harvested in spring) with grains in various colors. Generally, the autumnal varieties have white grains, while the spring varieties have red grains. Faro is characterized by spaced-out ears, glumes with square points, and long stretched grains. Durum has big husks and is cultivated mostly in Mediterranean regions to make flour for pasta. In 1978, ancestral species were discovered in the Middle East which are particularly rich in protein and resistant to drought. Thanks to this important discovery it may be possible to breed a new stronger variety more productive than those in use today.

Grain plants are subject to various diseases caused in particular by parasitic fungi (which come from, for example, rust and coal) and the attachment of various harmful insects (for example, gnats). For the most part industrial countries will plant the seeds in a row with a mechanical planter, made especially for working the land (aerating, plowing, and weeding); the cultivation of grain doesn't require particular care or technical processes. In wetter regions the cultivation is alternated with maize and species destined for hay or at least for grazing; in drier regions, with that of oats, barley, or fallow. Above all the grains go to be used for the production of flour with which we make bread, pasta, and pastry. In general the variety of flour that keeps is destined for the production of pasta while those that go are used for bread and pastry dough. Grains are utilized to produce cereals for our breakfast and, in smaller quantities, beer, whiskey, and alcohol for industrial uses. The lower quality varieties, and by-products from the machining process, are used to prepare beer and their distillates and further used as fodder for livestock. Grains of other varieties are used as substitutes for coffee.

In the course of archaeological excavations conducted in the Middle East, grain species have been revived dating back to the seventh century B.C. which had been cultivated in ancient Egypt in an epoch preceding the first dynasty. In Europe, prehistoric peoples had already cultivated a combination of barley and faro. Durable grains dating back to the sixth century B.C. have been revived through archaeological excavations in Turkistan, in the ruins of Knossos, on the island of Crete. The Spanish conquistadores introduced grain cultivation in Mexico, while the first English colonizers that immigrated to the United States founded cultivations in New England and in Virginia.

7. Pane is obtained through a mix of wheat flour or other types of cereals with water, a leavening agent, salt (not obligatory), and eventually other ingredients. The ground up flour for bread making is obtained from grains (the most widely used) of wheat, rye, barley, maize, rice, and soy. Depending on the ingredients used, the bread can be leavened or not. The leavening agent provides fermentation, the production of carbon dioxide, and by consequence gives the dough more volume. Generally, brewer's yeast is used together with other ingredients, such as flour, sugar, salt, fats and a liquid, but also natural yeast can be used (in place of brewer's), which is a piece of bread dough fermented and kept apart for use in making new breads. Numerous regional varieties of bread exist in Italy: examples are Tuscan bread, deprived of salt; Ciabatta, which has achieved great fame abroad; Sicilian bread, with sesame seeds; "sheet music" bread, typical of Sardinia; and the bread of Apulia, from hard grain flour. From unleavened bread, with a base of flour and water, we remember the traditional Jewish matzo, which, existed without yeast, is not considered bread according to the legislative laws of Italy.

Preparations from a base of ground grain have been eaten since the end of prehistory. The first breads were probably made of shattered acorns mixed with water, then subjected to heat, natural or artificial, to create some sort of focaccia. Fragments of unleavened bread have been found in excavations which have set back the birth of sedentary life of cavemen in Europe. The ancient Egyptians had already used ovens for cooking before 2,000 B.C. and we have retained, in a casual fashion, what they had discovered as the process of fermentation. The first public ovens were instituted in Rome during the Republic. Commercial production began during medieval times, when many different varieties of bread were starting to be made. Social conditions had an impact on what types of bread were consumed: affluent classes ate white bread, while most of the population was permitted to eat only dark breads. At the end of the nineteenth century bread was principally made at home or local village bakeries, and eventually the manpower required in bread making was replaced by increasingly sophisticated machines.

Fermentation is a process that happens often in nature: the way grape must ferments into wine, or how cabbage immersed in salt ferments in particular conditions to produce the sauerkraut loved in northern countries. Fermentation initiates the production of carbon dioxide and transforms the food in question with an alteration in taste, an improvement in nutritional properties, and, in general, an increase in acidity. The process of fermentation has many important properties: the duration and the temperature at which it takes place; fermentation time in excess can promote decay, which in general ruins the food; while temperatures too high can impart excessive acidity. In the case of flour, when not interested in the production of acidic dough, it is possible to obtain bubbles of carbon dioxide with yeast that will ferment more quickly: brewer's yeast allows bread to be made in two hours.
Yeast - when making bread as it was once made in the countryside, when they did not have commercial yeast at their disposal, a preparation time is needed for the allowance of the yeast to sit and ferment for 12 to 24 hours, in lukewarm flour or water; the fermentation happens when bubbles begin to appear on the surface with a typical odour of fermenting dough. Another 1/3 should be taken aside with new water and new flour to augment the density of the compost compared to the original batch which will have to be semi-liquid and left again to ferment for another 12 hours. For fermentation to occur, this must be done repeatedly to increase the density until it eventually thickens to attain the consistency of bread dough; once fermented, the last dough can be used as bread yeast to ferment dough for baking. Naturally leavened bread always needs under 8 to 12 hours to rise, en masse, and under 2 hours for loaves. To make bread again, without having to repeat the entire process of making yeast, set aside about 1/5 of total yeast before baking. Store yeast in a cool place.
Gluten - the process of fermentation used with various types of yeast produces miniscule bubbles of carbon dioxide inside of the flour. These remain inside the dough and keep it full. The substance that enables this function is gluten, present mostly in wheat flour, and once wetted it assumes an elastic structure that keeps the air bubbles full and renders the bread light and porous. Remember that gluten is a protein, an indispensable substance for growth; for this reason, commercially available types of pasta loaded with extra gluten are marketed towards children. A similar process happens when beating egg whites, allowing them to take in air, in which case care must be taken when mixing in flour as not to break the delicate structure of the miniscule air pockets formed and thus to maintain a fluffy texture while cooking, as with the famous "Spanish bread" that does not require leavening.


Bread is a simple mixture of flour, water, salt, and carbon dioxide. The mass of water and flour produces the bubbles of carbon dioxide that would then remain inside the matrix of gluten, when mixed with yeast which could be fresh "cake" yeast (which can be bought in cubes at the supermarket), dried "instant" yeast (also available at supermarkets and must be rehydrated in warm water), or baker's yeast (which can be bought from a bakery or made by naturally fermenting flour and water).

To make tasty, nutritious bread, it is important to pay attention to the ingredients chosen:

1. Water: depending largely on the water used in each place, which should contain a small amount of calcium and should never be chlorinated, it is the influence of the local water that gives each and every different country unique tasting breads.
2. Flour: biological (organic) flour has to contain not only starch (which can be found in caryopsis) but also vitamins and salt minerals (calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and manganese) which can be found in the outer part of the caryopsis, inside the of the grain, and which is practically inexistent in white bread, from which bran is removed completely.
3. Fresh yeast or fermented dough: when using fresh yeast it works best to dissolve it in a bit of lukewarm water (to speed this process it is well to add a teaspoon of sugar, which feeds the yeast) and then mixed with the flour to be set aside in a warm place for about half an hour. Dried yeast can be used in the same fashion but requires a longer resting time of at least one hour. When using baker's yeast the dough must be left to rest, in a warm place, for 4 to 12 hours.

Bread dough from fresh yeast

Take a cube of fresh "cake" yeast (also called compressed yeast) measuring 20 grams for every 500 grams of flour and about ¼ litre of water along with one teaspoon of salt. Leave part of the flour, mixed with the yeast and water slurry, to raise for about 15 minutes and then mix all the ingredients well taking care to work the dough. Kneading is important as it imparts elasticity to the bread. Leave the mass of dough to rest in a warm place in a covered bowl for about 45 minutes. Distribute a piece of the dough to each participant so they can knead it into the form they desire (it is necessary to incise the top of the loaf once or twice to permit the continuously expanding dough to grow better by respiring humidity); then arrange the loaves on a baking sheet ready for the oven, at which point they should be left to rise for about a half hour; put them into the oven which should be preheated to about 200°C (to ensure the bread is cooked on the inside without burning the crust, place a container of water to maintain humidity) for 15 to 20 minutes after which the bread should be cooked (to make sure the bread is cooked, insert the tip of a knife – if it comes out clean the bread is cooked). The larger the loaves the more time required as well as slightly lower temperature.



To recognize the difference between monocotyledons and dicotyledons: a soy or bean sprout and a wheat sprout.

To recognize the grasses: a wheat plant and a maize plant to observe the primary fibrous roots, the ligule, the leaves, the veins, the ears, and the cobs (and also the beard of the maize) as well as the bracts and inner structures (which constitutes the chaff when shucking).

Seeds and ears of the following cereals: whole grain rice, peeled barley, wheat, faro, hard grain, soft grain, rye, millet, maize, and sorghum. Also show white rice and pearl barley in comparison with the whole grain versions. Use a blindfold to play the game to recognize the seeds with the senses.

PART B (it will be necessary to arrange 4 or 5 clean tables as work surfaces)

A basket for the ears of corn that will be harvested by the participants.
• 5 containers to hold the ground grains.
• A machine for grinding grain.
• A wheelbarrow to fetch wood from the lumberyard which to be placed in a niche under the oven.
• An electric grinder to grind the grain and two mixing bowls: one for feeding the mixer and one to collect the flour.
• Two sieves and two towels to collect the sifted flour.
• A large container to hold all of the finished flour (sifted bran goes to the animals in the courtyard).
• A large pot with water to boil for polenta.

PART C (it will be necessary to make sure there is a warm spot near the oven to rest the dough)

Different types of bread yeast to investigate
• 5 packets of fresh yeast, 2.5 kilograms of flour, 1.25 litters of water, and 5 teaspoons of salt
• 5 rolling pins
• 10 bowls for dough
• 2 pitchers of lukewarm water
• 25 forks
• 4 baking sheets
• 5 dishcloths
• An oven mitt
• 5 knives to incise the loaves


Begin with part C with the preparation of the dough to make the bread as the technical parts, following part A and B during the rising of the bread dough.

Part C point 1; make the first dough with fresh yeast while explaining theory #8: 15 minutes

Part C point 2: make dough for the bread: 5 minutes

Part A point 1: talk about cereals and get the flours to be used for the bread explaining theory #1 and the types of plants with the characteristics in theories #2-3-5: 10 minutes

Part A point 2: investigate wheat and maize plants and seeds of the various cereals, theory #6 and play recognize the seed: 15 minutes

Part A point 3: take a field trip to see the wild and cultivated cereals and then Part B point 1 pick ears of corn: 20-30 minutes

Part C point 3: make dough balls into loaves: 30 minutes

Part B point 2: prepare the oven for the bread while explaining theory #7: 7 minutes

Part B point 3: explain natural fermentation and the role of gluten in the flour according to theory #7: 7 minutes

Part B point 4: divide the participants into three groups; send one group to fetch wood, one to grind flour, and one to sift the wheat flour: 10-15 minutes

Part C point 4: 5 minutes

Part C point 5: 15 minutes

Part C point 6: conclude with fresh hot bread for all to see: 5-10 minutes


1. What does yeast do?
2. Can flour rise without the aid of fresh yeast?
3. Why is it better to use whole wheat flour?
4. In which part of the grain can you find starch and in which part salt minerals?
5. What has to happen in the dough to cause it to rise?
6. Why is it necessary to leave bread dough to rise in a warm place?
7. Why is it necessary to put a container of water in the oven with the bread?
8. Why is it necessary to incise the bread dough before baking?
9. At what temperature should bread be cooked?
10. Where do we get the name cereal?
11. To which family do cereals belong?
12. List all of the cereals you know
13. How can you tell if an oak or cherry tree is a dicotyledon?
14. How can you tell a dicotyledon plant from a monocotyledon?
15. What is the most important characteristic of angiosperms for which they are also named?
16. Why aren't the flowers of the cereals necessarily attractive or odoriferous?
17. Can the wheat plant grow secondary shoots?
18. Which of the cereals don't have a hollow stem?
19. Where is the ligule and what seems to be the function?
20. Which cereals are the most widespread as food?
21. What would you do with infested plants?
22. Can infested plants be used?
23. What are the current uses of hard grain?
24. How many times a year is wheat sown in the Po Valley?
25. Why does flour ferment during natural fermentation?
26. What is the purpose of the gluten in wheat flour and why do children often eat glutinous pasta?
27. How do egg whites resemble gluten?

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