And no, you can’t make it at home.
Usually I return to America to see my family in August. But this year, for obvious virus-related motives, I decided to take the train down to Puglia instead. The stiletto of Italy’s boot, Puglia has endless coastline along both the Adriatic and the Ionic seas. It also happens to have one of the most remarkable cuisines in all of Italy, which is kind of like having a remarkable smile in a Miss America Pageant, or a remarkable car on Rodeo Drive. To be famous for your food in Italy doesn’t mean you are merely the crème de la crème (or, we should say, the crema della crema). It means you are the richest, creamiest, most high-quality pasture-raised, organic, grass-fed crème in the history of all crème.
The traditional Pugliese cuisine looks like the textbook example of the venerated Mediterranean diet. Whole-grain breads and pastas, endless fruits and veggies, briny olives, fatty nuts, fresh seafood, hearty legumes, daily wine, and the occasional ball of mozzarella (all served in a swimming pool of extra-virgin olive oil, of course). Simple, healthy, flavorful. And since it was August and the countryside was drowning in a river of ripe red tomatoes, I decided to test the simplicity of Pugliese cuisine with the simplest of all summer dishes: spaghetti al pomodoro.
Needless to say, it was the best spaghetti and tomatoes in my life. Whole hunks of tomato just thrown into the pan, their skins bursting under drizzles of glistening olive oil, acidic and pleasantly spicy, rounded out by the fresh basil that gave each bite a lingering herbal note. The waiter never brought or offered cheese and I never noticed. Even a toppings-obsessed American such as myself didn’t even think of desecrating such simple perfection with a spoonful of parmesan.
In Italy, when a dish is this delicious, it is a criminal offense to leave a drop of sauce on the plate. While I’ve personally never committed such an egregious act, I’m pretty sure the carabinieri show up at your house and arrest you, or at least give you a good scolding. So what do you do when all the pasta is gone and only the sauce remains? Easy. Take the leftover bread from the basket on the table and use it to wipe the plate clean. Italians even have a name for it, fare la scarpetta (literal translation: make the little shoe). That way you can savor every last heavenly morsel.
In order to comply with the Italian gastronomic law, I dutifully grabbed an innocuous-looking slice of table bread. It didn’t look particularly flavorful. It wasn’t some fancy focaccia with rosemary or a crunchy grissino stick. It just seemed like the standard calorie-filler waiters leave on the table to tame customers’ hunger until the real food arrives.
But, as any foodie knows, looks can be deceiving.
This bread, which I intended to use as a mere sauce-to-mouth vehicle, ended up being even more delicious than the main dish itself. The crust was thick and crunchy with this delightful aftertaste of smoke and fire. The crumb had that wonderful yeasty tang that makes your mouth pucker and air pockets that make the soft inside feel like a cloud floating on your tongue. What was this gluten magic?
Turns out we were in Altamura, famous in Italy as the “città del pane.” Yes, that’s right. The City of Bread. Was I dreaming?
And yes, I know, it sounds like some clever gimmick to lure in tourists. I had the same thought. But Altamura garnered this title way before mass tourism. In fact, the Roman poet Horace proclaimed in 37 BCE that Altamura possesses “the best bread in the world, so much so that the diligent traveler brings some as provisions for the pursuance of the journey” (“sed panis longe pulcherrimus, ultra callidus ut soleat umeris portare viator”). And given that the nearby prehistoric caves boasted ovens (well, semi-enclosed fire pits), I wouldn’t be surprised if the citizens of Altamura have been breadmaking many millennia before Horace stopped by for a bite of bruschetta.
By the Middle Ages, bread was so important to the people of Altamura that they had developed their entire societal structure around it. Families gathered in the town square every week to bake their loaves together, marking their dough with a hot branding iron before giving it to the town baker to slide inside the giant communal oven (that way they always knew which loaf was theirs). They even based their taxation system around bread. A 1420 edict from the town exempted clergy from paying the communal oven tariff, meaning they could bake their loaves for free. (Just like today, the Catholic Church got out of paying the taxes that provided essential public services for the community, but that’s another article for another time…).
For centuries, all residents of Altamura baked their bread together in the communal oven. In fact, it was illegal to do it anywhere else: anyone who tried baking in the privacy of their own home faced a hefty fine up to one-third of the total cost of production, which included the oven and infrastructure itself. Whether this law was to prevent fires, reduce smoke, or simply to ensure everyone paid their weekly bread tax, we have no idea. The romantic in me likes to think that the rule was created to build a sense of community, the weekly bread baking bringing everyone in the town together in a ritual encouraging social cohesion. But the historian in me assumes that the real reason was the taxes.
Since the days of the communal oven, the loaf hasn’t changed much: durum wheat, water, mother yeast, and a bit of sea salt. The durum, usually stone ground, is coarse and naturally rich in gluten, which gives the center that delightful chewiness and similarly sized holes, and gives the crust that thick, crackable shell. Along with providing its signature taste, this hard exterior (combined with the low level of moisture and strong acidity from the yeast) makes the bread much longer-lasting than your standard white loaf, which is why the residents of Altamura could bake everything together only once a week. This also made it a sort of proto-granola bar for pilgrims, something durable you could put in your bag and snack on whenever hunger strikes.
The only defect of this bread, if any, would be its appearance. Let’s just say this is not a loaf for the ‘gram. Some people say the loaves look like dog poop. Others describe it as a morbid glutinous tumor. My partner Andrea, always colorful with language, said it looks like a misshapen nipple left to shrivel up in the sun. But, trust me, what this bread lacks in beauty it makes up for in taste.
So how can you make this mind-blowing bread at home?
You can’t. Even if you managed to get the high-quality pure grain from the region and found yourself a woodfire oven with beech tree branches to burn, whatever lumpy nipple-shaped loaf you created wouldn’t be “il pane di Altamura.” Today the bread is a product of Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, which means no one outside of the province of Altamura can make “il Pane di Altamura.” So call your bread whatever you want, but it’s never going to be “il pane di Altamura.”
This PDO label is designed to protect both consumers and producers from profit-seeking imitators willing to cut corners to turn a profit. Those three precious letters after the product name guarantee it is made in the proper manner with the proper ingredients, no shenanigans. The “pane di Altamura PDO” is made with the finest durum wheat planted, cultivated, and ground in the province of Altamura. This flour then gets combined with fresh water from the aqueducts of Puglia and left to rise using mother yeast from Altamura. Then, of course, it must be baked in the traditional wood ovens.
Once baked, the resulting “pane di Altamura PDO” loaf must weigh at least 0.5 kg (1.2 lbs) with a crust of at least 3 mm thick, have homogeneous pockets of air and a yellow-straw colored interior, and cannot have a humidity exceeding 33%. I know, nothing kills the romanticism of rustic bread than a list of regulations, but for the bakers who have baked these loaves this way for centuries anyway, it doesn’t change anything in practice. It just renders official what has always been done anyway. While I have mixed feelings personally about production denomination seals and the culinary trap of standardization, in this situation I think it’s a win-win for everyone. After all, it seems unlikely that the recipe was going to organically evolve anytime soon, given that it hasn’t changed for centuries.
Anyway, the point of the story is that if you can’t fly home for the summer to see your family because a global pandemic has limited all international travel for the foreseeable future and you’re stuck in Italy with two weeks off of work and nowhere to go, take the 6-hour train down to Bari and then drive 35 minutes to the Panificio di Gesù in Altamura. It sounds like a hassle, I know, but once you bite into your first ugly-AF loaf of Pane di Altamura PDO you’ll realize that it merits the seven-hour commute.
Unless you have a gluten allergy, in which case the smell of the town alone will likely kill you. But at least you’ll die under the heavenly waft of fresh bread.