The Hunt For Altamura’s Secret Italian Bread – Part 2

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

“He said go that way,” Jason explained. He was nonchalant in his lack of concern for precision.

“What do you mean, ‘that way’?” I urged. But he ignored me.

I followed.

We wound onto side streets and shimmied through narrow corridors between buildings built so closely together you could reach out of one window and touch the other.

Narrow passageway to get to the bread (Altamura)
Narrow passageway to get to the bread (Altamura)

There was an old two-story, stone apartment building that we’d passed several times, and it had begun to seem like we were going nowhere, when Jason reached out and pointed, “I think that’s it.”

“What?” I implored.

“That.”

“That’s somebody’s house, Jason…”

“No, that’s the bread place. Look…you can almost see the sign.”

A barely visible sign for the St. Chiara bakery (Altamura)
The barely visible sign for the St. Chiara bakery (Altamura)

“You mean…that thing? Behind the ivy? I can barely—”

“Follow me,” he said.

I dug in my heels. “I’m not going in there.”

There was some kind of chain-link “curtain” hanging over the doorway, a white and windowless van parked along the exterior wall, and the yellow sign obscured by overgrown trees made it all seem so…staged. I thought for certain we’d were interrupting some family at their midday meal, and be chased off by a hulking and protective nonna if we dared enter.

It all seemed so unimportant. So lacking in pomp and circumstance to be a real place.

The grand entrance (Altamura)
The grand entrance (Altamura)

“It looks like some old lady’s basement,” I wined.

“Trust me,” he said.

That wasn’t going to be easy. If I had learned anything living with Jason over the years, it was that ‘trusting’ him meant I had a 50/50 chance of ending up in an uncomfortable situation. I wasn’t keen on feeling clumsily out of place. Jason, however—he lived for it. The more awkward the moment, the wider his smile would grow.

The man inside the bread place reminded me of full-sized hobbit meets The Mario Brothers: balding, a pate of charcoal black hair from ear to ear, a tight white t-shirt over a noticeable paunch. He wore a dirty red apron and carted a long instrument I can only call “the bread mover”.

The bread man (Altamura)
The bread man (Altamura)

He’d reach into a giant metal drum filled with gooey dough, plunging his right fist in, and pull dough from its comfortable complacence—up. Into the air. Turning it in circles, then sequestering it back into the drum. He did this a few times until he emerged with an piece he’d turn and slap onto a flat surface. Then onto “the bread mover”.

His motions were eager, his gate heavy-footed. He walked across the room, slid the dough into a rounded brick oven in the far wall, and went back to the drum.

The famed bread dough (Altamura)
The famed bread dough (Altamura)

The bread man helped a few other customers, who gave their orders in high-spirited Pugliese vocals, then returned to the oven with “the bread mover” in hand. He slid its flat metal end into the cavern in the wall, and began unloading fresh, rounded loaves into a wheeled cart. Flump, flump, flump, they went, laying into one another. They were pointed like Hershey’s Kisses, and as large as pumpkins.

Apparently, this same oven has been baking bread since the 15th century, and I ruminated on whether it’s ever even had a a day off. Suddenly, I stepped up and shouted, “We’ll take one!”

Jason looked at me, his eyebrows raised, “So she does speak Italian.”

We also snagged some homemade focaccia and chatted with other customers, “No, we’re not English. We’re American. Yes, first time to Altamura. His mother’s Pugliese. But we’re American. Yes, Barak Obama is our president…” We backed out the beaded curtain, its fluttery sound like the snapping of small, elfin fingers. “Grazie, arrivederci!”

Jason drooling over the focaccia (Altamura)
Jason drooling over the focaccia (Altamura)

As we retraced the streets, I snuck my hand into the plastic sack and started conservatively tearing off small pieces. But the pieces got larger as we went along, and like a magnet drawn to a charge, I kept going back for more. And more. And more.

By the time we’d reached the main piazza, I’d eaten half the loaf.

Between its butter-colored, fluffy inside, and its dark, crusty outside, was a flavor explosion resembling what I imagined baked and lightly salted clouds to taste like. My hand shot out, stopping Jason—letting him in on the secret, “Wait ‘til you taste this bread!”

He moaned. “Here we go, again. Mindlessly munching away at something, are you?”

“That’s true,” I admitted. “I do do that sometimes. But this—” I pointed to the bread, “this is different.

The color of the bread, alone, was beginning to put all other happiness tactics to shame. I wondered, Why haven’t I found it before?

The streets of Altamura's historic center; Jason carrying the bread, on the right (Puglia)
Altamura’s pedestrian zone; Jason carrying the bread, on the right (Puglia)

We sat on some church steps and I ripped off a chunk, thrusting it into Jason’s lap. He bit into it, but before he’d even finished chewing, a few inaudible words fell from his mouth. He was trying to tell me, “We’ve gotta’ go buy another loaf.”

We bought two.

It was appallingly cheap, less than four euros for two stout loaves larger than my head. Worth every last centesimo, though, even for a bread that we still don’t have a name for. We simply call it, “That bread from Altamura.”

Large, teardrop-shaped bread of Altamura (Italy), scattered on a shelf.
Pani di Altamura (Breads of Altamura). Author: Francesco Paolo Fumarola. CC BY-SA 2.0.

We weren’t the first people to have discovered this leavened godsend, but it sure felt like it that day. Felt like we’d been let in on a secret the world would goad us to know about.

When I think back on the original bakers, the one’s who built the ovens in 1462 (or before), I imagine it was more a matter of a happenstance that the recipe developed and evolved as it did. Built around the ingredients that grew in the area, influenced by factors like unmitigated heat, humidity, and lack of refrigeration.

No matter the technique or contents or generations of know-how that go into it, no matter who has and hasn’t experienced this particular golden-lovely carbohydrate, it has earned its place among the world’s other well-known breads. Even if it remains largely unknown—as anonymous as a Narwhal, a peasant among the elite.

Ireland’s Soda Bread, Moroccan Pita, the Jewish Challah, Scandinavia’s Crisp Breads, Mexican Pan de Muertos, the infamous English Muffin, America’s Southern Cornbread…meet: The Bread of Altamura.

You’re welcome.

[Feature Image Credit: Pani di Altamura (Breads of Altamura). Author: Francesco Paolo Fumarola. CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been resized.]

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