Altamura bread is a Puglian product made from a specific variety of durum wheat that is cultivated in the zone of the Murge plateau near the Alta Murgia National Park in southern Italy. Appearing today on tables all throughout Europe, it obtained the DOP mark of origin protected by the European Union in 2003. It is considered to be of unique quality as durum wheat is used—accounting for 80% of the varieties Appuro, Arcangelo, Duilio, Simeto, and other grain products within the territory. Further, it is a product that has relied on a habitat with specific geo-environmental factors, including the water that must respond to the characteristics of potability and certification.
There are rules to respect established as safeguards to guarantee the originality of this product that has thousand-year old origins. For example, Altamura bread always weighs at least half a kilo and has two shapes that are most common: twisted (locally known as “skuanète”) and the shorter, known locally as “cappidde d’ prèvte,” which takes its name from its shape of a priest’s hat. In addition, the crust should be dark and at least 3 millimeters thick. Conversely, the crumb should be soft and pale yellow in color with a homogenous porosity, and a unique, characteristic fragrance.
Like many products that are a part of the Italian gastronomic tradition, Altamura bread was born of customs from distant eras. In fact, this is one of the most important, if not fundamental, elements of the food for the people who have lived in the Murgia regions since the Middle Ages.
Encouraged by the climate and the landscape, the farmers cultivated grains of the highest quality, using their harvest in the preparation of various products. The housewives of that era constantly strived to prepare it at home. The dough was sampled by “u carrésciapéjne” or the bread-carrier who had the task of transporting the bread from the house where the dough was made to the communal oven to be baked. Here, the oven gave the loaf the defined, twisted shape, as well as the distinctive mark of the brand in the wood or in the iron that bore the initials of the head of the household. After about an hour, the oven was opened to help the crust dry and become crispy. After baking, the bread was allowed to cool on a wooden rack and the bread-carrier returned it in exchange for raw dough and chick peas that could then be used to prepare bread for his family.
Thanks to its principal characteristic of a naturally long shelf life, Altamura bread was the perfect lunch of past shepherds who were away from home for several days.
The Original Recipe
The process of making the bread can be laid out in five phases: kneading, shaping, proofing, molding, and baking in a wood-fired oven. First, renew the sourdough at least three times, adding water and durum wheat semola to let it grow in size. Cover the dough with a thick, cotton cloth of to help it rise at a uniform temperature and let it rest for the first time at least 90 minutes.
Next, proceed with the weighing and the first round of shaping the dough by hand. This allows the dough to be laminated in its own natural fibers. After resting thirty minutes, there follows another stage of manual shaping, after which the dough is set aside to rest for an additional fifteen minutes. Before baking, flip the bread upside-down and place it in an oven—preferably a wood-fired one—at 482°F. The first part of the baking is done with the oven open. After fifteen minutes, close the mouth or the door of the oven and let the bread cook for another forty-five minutes. Then, open the oven again for about fifteen minutes to allow the steam to escape, which will help dry out the crust and make it crispy.
The DOP Altamura bread can be set aside for several days, provided it is kept in a cool, dry place. Tasty and fragrant, it is best eaten alone, sliced and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and salt, or with the addition of tomato.
There are many traditional recipes, from savory waffles with tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and olives. Then there’s Sliced Francesca, made with sliced stale DOP Altamura bread, soaked in milk and egg, and enriched with mortadella, cheese, and mozzarella and then baked in an oven. You could make the bread into a toasted sandwich that envelops cherry tomatoes, scamorza cheese, and herbs. There’s also, pancotto, or bread soup, made with garlic and drizzled with oil and grated pecorino. So, nowadays—as was true in the past in Altamura—even after several days, the bread is never thrown out, but is repurposed in different ways.
The Ingredients to Make It at Home
1,32 lb of double-milled DOP durum wheat semola
4 liters of water
0,26 lb of sourdough
0,03 lb of fine salt
Before starting to prepare the bread, it’s best to have an adequate sourdough. In fact, for the best Altamura bread, it’s important that even the starter be made with double-milled semola (the same you’d use for the bread) and water. At least one week beforehand, take a piece from the sourdough and refresh it daily with the double-milled semola, so that it maintains room temperature. The sourdough will assume the classic yellow color of the semola and, as a result, the soft part of the bread will as well. It will be ready for kneading when it doubles in size (after about 3-4 hours).
Once the sourdough becomes a yellow dough, it should be mixed with the flour and let rest for half an hour. To begin, arrange the flour on a pastry board in the shape of a mountain and make a well in the middle with the sourdough starter, gradually adding the water as it begins to form a dough. Toward the end, add the salt, but not directly to the sourdough yeast, and continue to mix and knead for about half an hour. Let the dough rest for about three hours. After this time, knead the dough again to interrupt the rising and let it rest for another ten minutes. Shape the bread and arrange it on the baking sheet with parchment paper. With a sharp, thin knife make three or four cuts across the surface, dust generously with flour, and let rest for another thirty minutes. Bake at 482°F for the first fifteen minutes and then at 428°F for the next 30-40 minutes. Let the loaf cool in a dry place and wrap it in a dish cloth to preserve it.