The Hunt For Altamura’s Secret Italian Bread – Part 1

This post is one of a two-part series, The Hunt For Altamura’s Secret Italian Bread – Part 1 and Part 2.

Every culture in the world has their version of it. The Russians have their rye, the German’s their white braided breads. India has her naans and puris, and France has her world-renowned boules and baguettes. Italy, however, is not the place I think of when I think of good bread.

When I think of Italy, I picture squishy, pure white balls of mozzarella. Shiny sun-ripened tomatoes. Earthy, cloudy extra virgin olive oils. I picture a place where pasta fresca is as ubiquitous as American corn.

But exquisite bread? That belongs somewhere else.

Admittedly, I’ve been wrong about things before. And so I must now hang my head when I say: I was wrong about this.

My Italian-American other half is a bread lover (a lover of all foods, you might say). During our first trip together to the south of Italy he showed me around his Mother’s family’s homeland, Puglia (Apulia in English), where we visited ancient cave towns and pointed elfin dwellings, bathing in the region’s warm waters, and reveling in her olive trees, olive trees everywhere.

Ancient Olive Tree
Puglia is littered with ancient olive tree’s like this one.

Mostly, we sampled the fare. There were frutti di mare antipasti, hand-baked taralli, and a flavorful pasta called orichiette (or, little ears). Not to mention the perfectly synchronistic, sweet and creamy stracciatella—a soft, soupy cheese so well balanced that one bite will put a kick in your step lasting several days, at least (but that’s another story).

Sweet green olives
Sweet green olives

Jason hadn’t planned to introduce me to any of Puglia’s breads. In fact, he hadn’t even known about it.

On the fifth day of Puglia excursions, Jason got a phone call from a friend up north and, between many utterings of “si” and “certo”, he learned of something that would literally change our lives (simply because, to this day, we haven’t stopped talking about it).

Turns out, every year this friend makes the 9-hour trek south, from Trentino to Puglia, to gather Puglia foods. He swings by Gioia del Colle to get mozzarella, picks up olive oil from his family’s land, and then heads to Altamura…to collect her famous bread. Fifteen loaves that he hauls back north and freezes in his cantina (a cold cellar).

Jason and I had been making our Puglia basecamp in the “White City” of Ostuni, and when we discovered that this Altamura place was only ninety minutes away, we looked at each other, our expressions equally steady. Chiming in unison, “We have to go.”

Ostuni—a.k.a. "The White City" (Puglia)
Ostuni—a.k.a. “The White City” (Puglia)

So we set off on an unplanned adventure: to find the one and only Pane di Altamura. Like archeologists alerted to a mysterious artifact found in the desert, we eagerly wound our way through the hillsides, hunting for the infamous non-conformist loaf of all loaves. A bread of high regard, to be elevated above the rest (or so we imagined when we learned that Altamura literally means, “high wall”).

But the place this bread calls home…well–it sorta’ belies the glorious bread bounty you’ll find within.

Altamura's grain-planted surround (Puglia)
Altamura’s grain-planted surround (Puglia)

Altamura sits in the heel of Italy’s boot, near the central southern edge of Puglia. It’s a bucolic place, nestled in rolling hills of wheat and other grain crops. While certain areas of town are a jumble of cars and wacky southern traffic, there are a few streets sectioned off as pedestrian zones and some well-cared-for historic buildings/churches/piazzas that give the town a nice feel.

But the town does have an other-worldy quality to it. Tuscany this ain’t, folks—but it’s alright.

Main pedestrian area in Altamura (Puglia)
Main pedestrian area in Altamura (Puglia)
Home to the infamous 'Caffe Ronchi' (Altamura)
Home to the infamous ‘Caffe Ronchi’ (Altamura)
Famous church in Altamura's historic center (Puglia)
Famous church in Altamura’s historic downtown (Puglia)

Finding the bread, however—that was its own challenge. You won’t come across any oversized, flashing neon arrow signs pointing to the bread. You won’t find billboards that have commercialized it, that shout from the roadside, “Welcome to Altamura! Home of Italy’s BREAD!”

But thank God it’s a regular old place. Thank God the droves of tourists haven’t found it yet—or that they can’t be bothered to go so far off the Florence-Venice-Rome path for something as everyday as gluten-plenty pane.

Sign pointing towards the bread place (Altamura)
Sign pointing towards the bread place (Altamura)

We pushed through the harried streets of the hilltop town, looking for this bread. We wandered the diminutive pedestrian areas, passed underwear shops and vegetable stands and horse meat counters. We searched and searched for her 600 year-old ovens—but we could find no bread.

Finally, as a last ditch effort, I talked a reluctant Jason into inquiring at the Tourist Office (at that time, the extent of my Italian language consisted of ordering a coffee and thanking a person on the way out). He agreed…and it paid off.

Jason on his way out of the tourist office (Altamura)
Jason on his way out of the tourist office (Altamura)

“Ehhh,” the man behind the counter uttered, leaning back and into himself. He walked us halfway out of the office and crossed the cobbled stone parking lot, where he rattled off directions. His gestures were demonstrative, and Jason nodded, appearing to comprehend.

I stood wide-eyed and waiting. “So?  What did he say?”

…continue to Part 2

[Featured Image Credit: Breads by Scott Bauer, licensed under Public Domain]

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