The City of Bread

The Italian city of Altamura is home to some truly special bread called Pane di Altamura

Pane di Altamura

Pane di Altamura

PHOTO BY NEIL HEINEN

Every region in italy has its own distinct cuisine. And each has its own bread. The bread of the north is very different from the bread of the south. The bread of Piemonte is very different from the bread of the Veneto.

Bread is admittedly important to us; we are susceptible to basing our impression of a meal, or a place, on the quality of the bread served. And we’ve had some Italian breads that we weren’t especially crazy about. But we had our bread-loving doors blown open on a recent trip to Puglia in southern Italy, in particular to the city of Altamura in the Apulian province of Bari. Here was bread we could, and did, sink our teeth into.

Altamura is known for its Pane di Altamura. There are street signs welcoming visitors to “The City of Bread.” This particular bread is so important to the identity of this particular area that Il Consorzio per la Tutela e la Valorizzazione del pane di Altamura, the Protection Consortium of the bread of Altamura, was formed in 1979 to make sure the brand was cared for. It represents more than twenty producers today.

Our travelling companions Rossana and David arranged for a behind-the-scenes look at one of the best, Panificio La Maggiore. In the spotless bakery where a half dozen workers were putting the mid-morning finishing touches on the day’s loaves, we got a crash course in a bread so tied to its geography that it carries a DOP certificate, “Protected Designation of Origin,” the only bread in Europe to do so. The bread is by law made of flour from four different grains: Apulo, Arcangelo, Duilio and Simeto. All four are produced in one of five provincial municipalities, again by law.

The recipe itself calls for flour, water and two absolutely critical ingredients: natural yeast and, as a starter, a little of the “mother” ingredients from yesterday’s batch. Natural yeast is used because “it has a longer life in creating the bread” and that long life is part of the essential nature of Pane di Altamura. Use of the previous day’s mother yeast is common in breads like sourdough; it adds to the complexity of flavor. It is especially important in Pane di Altamura because some the mother yeast used is so treasured it is kept at the international Sourdough Library in Belgium.

A loaf of Pane di Altamura is big—intended not to weigh less than 0.5 kg, or a little over a pound. The importance of its “shelf life” dates back to B.C. times, when Horace is reported to have declared the bread “so good that the wise traveler takes a supply of it for his onward journey.”

The dough at Panificio La Maggiore goes from the fermenting machine to a kneading machine, a mixer, but with two separate attachments that, in the words of our host, “mimic the movement of hands.” Each loaf has a label made of special paper and “natural” ink applied before it is baked. The number on the label guarantees it’s from Altamura. The loaves are baked in ovens outfitted with a series of doors and fired by dry oak. For the first fifteen minutes, the doors are open so the crust forms more slowly and carbon dioxide is released. Then the doors are closed and the bread bakes at about 470 degrees or so for an hour. The result is a beautifully dark, golden loaf with tender but unmistakable crust at the required thickness and soft but chewy interior of yellow crumb.

Giuseppe Barile, the owner of the bakery and the founder of the consortium, proudly showed the awards his bread has won and the celebrities who have enjoyed it. And that’s when we noticed, on the wall and then in the bread case, mention of a flour called Senatore Cappelli. What we learned was a rather remarkable story. We’ll share it with you next month.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. 

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