Dispatches from Italy: Pane di Altamura | CookingDistrict.com

Dispatches from Italy: Pane di Altamura

“It is the best bread in the world,” the Roman poet Horace wrote in 37 B.C., “which the wise traveler carries off loads of, upon his shoulders, as a reserve for the rest of his journey.”

The best bread in the world? Bold claims from a renowned critic—and the first recorded mention of the Pane di Altamura, the lifeblood of Puglia’s Murge plateau. Of course, Horace may have been a bit biased. Born in the town of Venosa, not at all far from the province where the bread originates, the poet was not exactly an objective judge. But in the two millennia since Horace, this classic peasant bread has hardly changed in composition or importance.
Historically baked in communal ovens, Pane di Altamura was such a cornerstone of its namesake village's life that regulations for breadmaking were outlined in sixteenth-century town codes. And today, it is the first and only bread in the European Union to earn the coveted PDO designation—guaranteeing that any loaf labeled “Pane di Altamura” is produced within the province, of entirely local ingredients and in accordance with strict guidelines. Every aspect of bread production is specified exactly, from the pH of the water (between 7 and 8.5) to the wood used in firing the ovens (only oak). And all wheat farmers, millers, and bakers must be formally authorized in order for their product to earn the PDO stamp.

So what exactly is this bread whose production is so carefully controlled? A dome-shaped crusty peasant loaf with an airy, golden interior. A base of semolina flour gives the crumb its characteristic yellow color; the inclusion of sourdough starter, its distinctive aroma. And the traditional baking process—firing the bread in a nearly-500 oven, with the door left open for fifteen minutes, then closed for forty-five, then re-opened for a final five minutes to allow steam to escape—ensures a thick, caramelized crust and a dry bread crumb.

It is this baking process that allows the Pane di Altamura to keep for weeks without spoiling, its longevity essential to sustaining local shepherds, isolated farmers, and—as Horace notes—travelers along their journeys. Of course, with modern methods of preservation, a loaf’s lifespan is no longer so critical. But with millennia of unbroken baking tradition behind it, the bread itself has been acknowledged as a product worth preserving.

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