ITALIAN DELICACIES: ALTAMURA BREAD
A look at the Altamura bread, an amazing variety of Italian bread famous all over the world and made in Apulia, in southern Italy.
A century-old Italian bread appreciated worldwide, the first to have obtained PDO status (products with protected designation of origin) in 2013: the Altamura bread. A round loaf with a crisp crust, inside it is soft, yellow and slightly honeycombed. Every morning, 600 quintals of this bread are produced and its scent wafts through the town.
WHERE IS ALTAMURA BREAD PRODUCED?
The location is Altamura, an area of Apulia located on the Murgia upland plateau, in Bari province (southern Italy). This ancient municipality dating back over a thousand years, which was founded by the Saracens and reconstructed by Emperor Frederick II of Swabia, is a land extensively covered by the Protected National Park of Alta Murgia.
THE HISTORY OF ALTAMURA BREAD
The same bread which, as far back as 37 B.C. prompted the Latin poet Horace to call it the “best bread in the world”. It was a staple food for the population and, owing to its long “shelf life”, it used to be transported by farm labourers and herdsmen. From time immemorial, the womenfolk would prepare the bread dough and take the loaves to the public oven to bake. Some of these ovens are still operative. Two of the most characteristic ovens worth mentioning are those of Santa Chiara, one of the first public ovens of the town in which eight generations have baked their bread, and the Santa Caterina, both built in the first half of the 1700s.
The actual walls of these ancient ovens give the bread its characteristic flavour, acidity and consistency. Each family had a stamp to identify their own bread and prevent the loaves from getting mixed up. They could only go into the oven after being stamped by the baker. In the early 1600s there were as many as 26 ovens working full time.
HOW IS ALTAMURA BREAD MADE?
The recipe for Altamura bread has remained unvaried since the Middle Ages. The ingredients are durum wheat flour, mother dough, salt and water. Nothing else. But each of these ingredients has to be special to ensure that the magic works. There are five important steps in the process: kneading, shaping, leavening, modelling and baking in a wood-fired oven.
Only the flour of certain durum wheat varieties may be used. The ancient grains have the oddest of names, such as “appulo, arcangelo, duilio, simeto”, all grown in the area of Altamura and the neighbouring municipalities. Production regulations forbid the use of foreign grains in the making of this bread. The wheat grains are rich in a high-quality protein-rich gluten. The mother dough used contains lactic acid bacteria selected strictly from plant sources which, in their turn, combat mould and humidity. Even the water must be controlled: the managing body of the Aqueduct must periodically inspect the waters used by the bread-makers.
The kneading operation lasts 20 minutes and is carried out by means of a diving arm mixer. The leavening operation takes place under a cotton cloth and has to last at least 90 minutes before going on to the second and third steps: the 3 stages of modelling and resting are alternated. The loaf is then taken to the stone oven wood or gas-fired to 250 degrees. The first baking phase takes place in an open oven. After 15 minutes, the oven mouth is closed and the bread is left to bake for a further 45 minutes. Two loaf shapes are permitted, the higher version, called “u sckuanete”, meaning crossed over, and the low type called “cappidde de prevete”, meaning priest’s hat.
HOW TO ENJOY IT
The result is genuine PDO Altamura bread, whose loaves weigh about half a kilo with a crisp dark crust. On the nose, Altamura bread suggests aromas of roasted hazelnuts, or coffee and vanilla at times. When fresh, it is soluble and doughy when chewed, becoming more resistant with time. Like all great Italian products, this bread is best enjoyed on its own, or in the ancient recipe originating from this same territory: bruschetta. Slices of toasted bread seasoned with sea salt, Apulian oil and a hint of garlic rubbed onto its surface.
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