It’s very early in the day, and already the labyrinth of white marble alleys and stairways of Matera’s famous Sassi – the old town, famed for its ancient cave dwellings carved into the rock on which the city sits – are filling with visitors. Breakfast is being served on the restaurant terraces where espresso, fruit, walnuts, honey, pastries and yoghurts are the order of the day. But for many it’s the bread that’s the star of the show.
The large, triple-crowned Pane di Matera is hard to miss – and resist – and is very much a symbol of the city named European Capital of Culture 2019. The bread has a protected status, governed by a European PGI where it must only be produced in a traditional way and within a specific region, to retain its unique character.
And unique it certainly is.
Materan bread is a monster – loaves come in either 1kg or 2.5kg sizes. It’s similar in taste and style to a sourdough, with a spongey, yellow open texture, but with a deeper, crispier crust. It’s truly delicious just as it is, but toasted and slathered with butter and honey, it’s amazing. One bite and I was hooked: I just had to meet whoever made this food of the gods.
Massimo Cifarelli is a third-generation artisan baker and runs a small bakery a short walk from the old town. “My grandfather started to work here when all the people lived in the Sassi, the old part of the town, and he built the oven here in 1947, where we still are. But around here at that time: nothing. Only fields of durum wheat. In fact, his friends asked him ‘Antonio! Why do you go to the countryside?!’ Today, of course, we’re in the middle of the city.”
“We produce the typical bread of Matera and respect the old recipe.” That includes using a fruit-based starter rather than yeast as a rising agent. “At the moment we’re using figs and grapes, fermented for 48 hours. And we only use durum wheat from the area, specifically an old variety called senatore cappelli, which grows very tall, and is very rich in proteins.”
“After the dough has risen twice, we make the special shape for Matera bread: on the top there are three cuts, the symbol of Matera bread. People were very, very poor. Malnourished. So, they always blessed the bread with three typical cuts in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, because the bread was everything to them. They ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it’s still important today, of course. People buy a loaf for the family and it’s still the king of the table.”
There’s only one, very cavernous oven at the bakery, and it’s part of the PGI that only wood-fired ovens are used. “We used to burn a local wood called lentisco, but it’s protected now, so we use oak branches instead,” explains Massimo as we watch one of the bakers reach deep into the oven to stoke the flames. The oven is the beating heart of the bakery, and was for many years central to the community, too.
“In the past, the women made the dough at home and they’d get up early to come here and cook the bread in the large oven. It was important to be able to know whose loaf was whose, so they’d stamp the family initials on the shoulder of the dough. Sometimes someone would forget the stamp, so my grandfather would invent ways of marking the bread – a special cut with a knife, or maybe placing an olive in the bread.”
It wasn’t only having the right family loaf that was important. Having the bread baked in the right place in the oven was also jealously guarded. Families would fight for pole position (literally, where the dough was placed inside the oven by way of a very long pole!), with many a madre coming to blows over having the favourite spot. “My grandfather was referee more than once!”, smiles Massimo.
Things are lot more sedate these days. In the shop, the bread is carefully, lovingly, wrapped in decorated waxed paper, and another satisfied customer leaves with the king of the table held firmly in their arms. Back in the bakery, the oven is swept and made ready for another bake. And long may it continue.