We took off today for parts unknown to Ricardo and I. We had heard about Altamura bread but that’s about it. And didn’t know anything about Matera. What a surprising day we had in store for us!
When we reached the town, we went straight to the bread oven to learn about Altamura bread and focaccia. Making potato focaccia. Ricardo being told he would not pass as a master baker. The rest of us were told we were doing a good job. Our loaves of bread baking in the oven that is so big it can bake 350 kilos of bread at a time. I couldn’t capture the depth or breadth of this oven because it was too hot to get too close. They bake until about noon and then start adding wood to get the oven hot again and ready for the next day. The chunks of wood they were adding were about 3-4 feet long and 6″ in diameter- they were very large logs!
While waiting for Guiseppe to teach us how to make the bread, we watched the master bakers pulling at least a hundred loaves of bread from the oven, and we showed up at the end of this task! Focaccia made earlier by their bakers. The ones we made were oblong shaped like we’re familiar with. One had potatoes, herbs, and a few olives (that was it) and the other was the traditional tomato and herbs. Both were excellent and so simple to make. Some of the bread pulled out of the oven before we arrived. We walked to the store side of this operation and observed the staff selling the loaves of bread to customers that were still hot from the oven.
What I found interesting about the ingredients of this bread (although they did not reveal the true recipe – if they did they might have to kill us) is they use a sourdough starter and semolina flour. And after they let the bread rise the first time, kneaded and rested again, it is folded over itself several times instead of kneading. And there is quite a technique to achieve the shape that you see in this picture.
In the olden, olden days, most people in the town did not have an oven. So the women would make their bread dough and stamp their initials in the bread so when a man from the bread company came around town to gather all the bread from the homemakers to take them to the bread oven, they would know which loaves were theirs. When they were cooked, the man would deliver the finished loaves to the families. You wanted to get your own bread back because you knew your own ingredients AND how it was made. You didn’t want to get your neighbor’s bread because she may not have washed her hands after milking the cow. Yes, even we put initials on our bread!
While we were waiting for the bread to bake, we walked around the town and peeked into a church and few shops. I bought a sweatshirt because the rain is following us from town to town and it does get cold. It started pouring in this city as we were leaving. So odd, once down the hill, it quit for a while.
I’m calling this a “stairway to heaven” found in a church. The photo doesn’t capture the beauty of this wrought iron winding staircase to the pulpit.
Finding Nemo – Finding Lunch
We left Altamura and headed for Matera for lunch and a tour. Antimo had arranged lunch for us at a cave restaurant today. We were either very determined or very hungry because we just kept going up and down the city streets (and several phone calls and inquiries to passersby to direct us to the restaurant) until we found it. It is the best-kept secret – mostly because they cannot put out signs so it’s very hard to find anything off the beaten path, and this was!
It was very cool (literally). I know you will be disappointed to learn that we didn’t take one picture of lunch. I don’t know if we needed sustenance after going up and down all those stairs and steep hills to get to this place or what. So I’ll just have to describe it to you.
We each ordered something different. Antimo ordered eggplant that was chunked and had a wonderful flavor. Daniel ordered caponata that was out of this world. Bryan had a spinach dish dressed with slivered almonds. I had pureed fava beans and another dish of thinly sliced zucchini baked with a crust of cheese on top – yum! And Ricardo? He had lamb shanks with sausage. Well, he had to get his meat! It was good too!
We went inside this church on the hillside. Several columns were reinforced and wrapped with wood and wires. The guide said they are working on a solution to whatever the structure problem was. Eeek gads!Some places in this town were researched to be as old 9,000 years before Christ. That doesn’t even compute in my brain. This town was built out of the hillside which is made out of limestone.
A few of the original hillside caves.
It is a perfect backdrop for the filmmaking industry which has used this town for pictures such as the Passion of Christ, the remake of Ben Hur, to name a few. Here is a list of movies filmed here.
A few interesting facts our guide shared:
Families lived in these small hillside caves with their animals. It was merely a hole in the hillside. There were no windows, water, or ventilation of any kind back in the day, just a rough opening to the cave. It was not a clean and healthy life.
Rainwater was collected in cisterns that were shared with other cave dwellers. They put eels inside cisterns to eat the insects. These eels lived about eight years and then they were eaten by the families.
People still live in the cave houses, however, in the 1960s the government took over all the cave properties and moved people out so they could be restored. About 50% of them have been restored at this time (2017) and rented back to residents for 99 years. This one has a water collection system and a chimney.
For me, navigating these streets was a nightmare. I can’t imagine how the residents do it. Most streets in the older parts of town can’t accommodate cars. Very impracticable city to live in, but so interesting to visit.
I found the community oven! Well, actually our local guide pointed out that this was the oven that all the homemakers would bring their bread to bake once a week (just like in Altamura). There is this rivalry between Altamura and Matera about their bread. One boasts they have the original recipe and their bread is better than the other town. We were politically correct in saying we liked the Matera bread best when we were in Matera. Would not want to be thrown off one of these cliffs for treason of not professing loyalty to their bread!
Antimo got us safely home, although a few times I had to hold my breath as he maneuvered around cars and trucks. In one instance he passed two large trucks and a bus – in one pass. I almost needed oxygen at that time!
No dinner tonight – we stayed in, munched on our focaccia, and did laundry. That’s starting to sound like an old married couple settled into Italy.