The great bread debate

Altamura bread is famous in all of Italy. It’s made from semolina, giving it its characteristic golden color, and is baked in wood-fired ovens. People say the crusty tender bread will stay fresh for days, even a week or more.

Altamura is a city in Puglia, in the south of Italy, and on our recent trip to Southern Italy, I was determined to go there and taste that bread. But first, Steve and I went to Matera, a town in the region of Basilicata, only a little more than 10 miles away from Altamura.

Matera is known for its fascinating ancient city built from rock and the natural caves where people have lived from Neolithic times.

But we also found a lot of residents who said the city should be as well known as Altamura for its bread! In fact, said the man at the tourist office, the bread of Matera was better than Altamura — more home-made and less industrial, he said.

Well, clearly I was going to have to do a bread comparison!

The Panificio Fratelli de Paolo, above, was a good example of a classic Matera bakery, the tourist office man said. As other customers streamed in for their pane and panini, we gazed at all the kinds and shapes of bread and rolls–and all the tempting varieties of focaccia.

We got a piece of tomato-olive focaccia for the train ride to Altamura, and a half-kilo loaf (full size loaves are one kilo) in the traditional crowned shape known as the “priest’s hat.”

This is just half the size of the normal loaf in Matera or Altamura

While waiting for the train to Altamura, I struck up a conversation with a woman at the station. She and her husband were returning home to Altamura. I told her we were going there for the bread.

Was it really different from Matera bread? I asked.  Si, si, it was far superior, she insisted vigorously.  I was glad I’d tucked the big loaf of Matera bread into my backpack, so she couldn’t see it.

From the train, we saw the landscape historically known for wheat growing: the Matera hills and the “Murgia,” the limestone plateau of Puglia.  Different kinds of durum wheat from this region are blended for this area’s special bread. Semolina, the coarsely ground prime endosperm of durum wheat, is more granular than flour, high in protein and golden in color.

When we reached Altamura, the nice lady and her (somewhat reluctant) husband guided us (walking– buses weren’t running) to the old city center, about a mile away. Eventually, after a couple false leads, we found Antico Forno di S. Chiara, which had a wood-fired oven from the 1400s.

Though we were a little too late to see the breads coming out of the oven, the workers were keeping the fire going. I bought another 1/2 kilo loaf of bread, which looked just the same as the Matera bread. It cost the same too: 1 Euro.

We also bought another big piece of focaccia to eat right then (the bread would have to wait) and walked back along the street of the old city, stopping to admire the wonderful stone carvings of Altamura’s 12th century cathedral.

Walking back to the train station, I stopped at a fruit stand to buy some fresh strawberries and mandarins to balance out all this bread. Then we spotted a street that our Altamura guide had pointed out to us on the way to the historic center. On via Pimental, she’d said, there was another fine wood-fired oven bakery. Well, we couldn’t pass it up! After all, how often did we get to Altamura?

Once again, at Panificio DiGesu’, there were loads of great looking breads– including the priest’s hat shapes– and biscotti and focaccia. We could see the huge stainless steel ovens behind the counter, so we figured this was a good example of the mass produced Altamura bread.

Well, naturally, we bought another 1/2 kilo loaf. Again, 1 Euro. The man in this photo asked us where we were from, and when we said we were from the U.S., he said, “Wonderful,” and cut us two big pieces of focaccia to sample, one dough made with oil and one without.

We gobbled them up as we walked back to the train with our three loaves of bread, and I have to say, that was the best focaccia I ever ate! This was the focaccia that defeated McDonald’s in Altamura. Seriously, you can read about it here. We should have bought some of it too, but by then we were getting so overloaded on carbohydrates, we just couldn’t do it.

Back in Matera, we went to a salumeria to buy some roasted marinated peppers and small onions (they were the most incredible tasting marinated onions) to have with the bread for our supper.

The results of this survey? The bread from the industrial-size bakery, DiGesu’, was the sliced loaf and it didn’t have that blackened aspect of the crust. But it couldn’t be said that it suffered in any way from being baked in a newer, larger wood-fired oven.

So which bread was the best? Really, I cannot say. The three breads were remarkably similar–and all were magnificent. The great bread debate will not be resolved by me.

I also can’t vouch for how long they would keep fresh. We couldn’t eat all the bread by the time we had to leave Matera–this being carb-overload even for me–so we left some behind for the birds. A shame, I know! I wish I had some now…..

P.S. Watch the kneading of Matera bread on this Youtube video and the baking of bread in Altamura here. Amazing. And let me know if you’ve tried baking or eating semolina bread.

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2 Comments

Filed under baked goods, bread and pizza, Praise for other cooks, Uncategorized

2 responses to “The great bread debate

  1. Laura Sanderson

    Incredible! I love your blog.

    • lemonodyssey

      Thanks, Laura and Paula, Jennifer and Martha and Jamie and all of you who have written comments, recently or not. I meant to write another post during Passover about matzo brei and my dad’s matzo caffe but I never got to it, and the holiday ends tomorrow. Anyway, I love reading your comments!

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