Updated: Aug 26, 2020
But you can’t make it at home.
Given that we’re all in the same virus-infested boat this year, I don’t think I need to explain why I didn’t end up flying back home to the USA to see my family. And while I know on the scale of 2020 tragedies not being able to take an international flight is about as low on the list as can be, I was still disappointed that I didn’t get to go home. After months of phone conversations starting with “when I see you in August,” it has been a bit of a blow to not play peekaboo with my 10-month-old niece or solve a jigsaw puzzle all together around the kitchen table. Lucky for me, I have the most caring partner in the universe, and he refused to watch me mope around the apartment for August vacation. So Andrea whipped together our last-minute, plan B vacation using his magical Italian wiles, somehow snagging us two fiercely sought-after tickets on the socially distanced train to the heel of Italy.
Our trip began in Puglia. Despite its crystalline blue water and breathtaking cliffside beaches, Puglia was virtually unknown until about a decade ago. Sure, there were tourists -- it's still a peninsula of pristine coastline off Adriatic and Ionic sea, c'mon --- but less than a generation ago old fishing towns like Monopoli and Otranto were still secret gems hidden well off the tourist track.
But what a generation ago was abandoned feudal farmland or grimy fisherman's quarters now host luxury suites with private swimming pools and restaurants with ten-course tasting menus. Now when you see photos of celebrities vacationing on Italy’s white sand beaches, there’s a good chance that they’re in Puglia.
Because region's tourism industry developed practically overnight, there’s something truly bizarre and psychologically incongruent about it, which I think it's best explained, like everything in life, through food. The traditional cuisine in Puglia is a textbook example of the Mediterranean diet. Whole grain breads and pastas, rich and varied fruits and vegetables, olives, nuts, fresh (mostly smaller) fish, legumes, daily wine, and the occasional ball of mozzarella. The region has been primarily rooted in agriculture for centuries, where farmers and fishermen lived on whatever they could find, catch or grow. The dishes are extraordinarily simple, usually fresh vegetables or fish drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with sea salt. Occasionally -- as in, maybe, once a month -- some pig, cow, horse, sheep or whatever animal happened to be most convenient to slaughter would get roasted on a spitfire.
But mostly Puglia is known as one giant Garden of Eden. Even today if you check the label of origin on the grocery-store produce, an overwhelming majority comes from the fertile soil of Puglia. So I was obviously stoked to go down myself and bite into a fresh tomato straight from the vine. Every night in bed, I fantasized about figs bursting with seedy pulp, meaty olives swimming in oil, ribbons of grilled zucchini slices overlapping inside a toasted Puccia (a delicious pita-like bread with which I've become completely obsessed). Instead, I found myself faced with restaurants hawking massive cuts of steak. Angus, Herefordshire, Piedmontese, Waguyu ... more steak than could ever be locally produced. Steakhouse after steakhouse tried to reel us in, as did the seafood restaurants with slabs of salmon and tuna (once again, flown in frozen from who-knows-where), along with boat-shaped buckets of overly seasoned and overly-fried shrimp. We went in August, with ripened figs dripping off the trees and tomato skins cracking open under the sun all around us, and yet every restaurant seemed hellbent on selling us angus beef. WTF.
On the fourth night, we finally found a trattoria with a more rustic menu, what Italians would call "cucina povera." Being obviously a tourist, the waiter made a helpful suggestion. "If you want a classic Pugliese dish, I recommend the orecchiette con cima di rapa e acciunghe'" (A timble-sized semolina pasta with broccoli rabe and anchovies).
"Huh. Interesting. In Bologna broccoli rabe is a winter vegetable," I told her for no reason whatsoever.
"Here too," she said.
"So how do you have it on the menu?"
She squinted at me like I was the idiot tourist that I obviously was. "We defrost it."
In that moment, what I wanted to say more than anything was "Why in the name of all that is holy are you serving frozen vegetable that have been sitting in plastic packaging in the back of the freezer for eight months when your backyard is literally overflowing in a river of tomatoes, zucchini and eggplants? This is insanity."
Instead I ordered a plate of fricelli, a local semolina pasta stretched out with a knife and curled. The waiter smiled, "You made the right choice" she said, as if the orecchiette suggestion was some sort of test. She was right: it was the right choice. The fricelli were fresh and chewy and the chicory sauce they were served in was pleasantly zesty and bitter. Yes, chicory: a green leafy vegetable with a similiar flavor profile to broccoli rabe that happened to be in season. In fact, the chicory has been harvested that very morning. Once again, insanity.
Obviously, in the end, we ate extraordinarily well in Puglia. But it wasn't a given: the fact that every restaurant wanted to sell us the orecchiette with broccoli rabe was -- and I know I'm saying this for the third time, but I honestly can't say it enough -- insane. It felt like they needed to sell us some mashup best-hits version of Puglia already pre-canned and pre-packaged irrespective of the season or circumstance. They assumed we already had some pre-notion of the region before arriving and they seemed hellbent on delivering it. But, of course, who travels only to experience what they expect? Doesn't that sort of defeat the entire purpose?
But, in the end, was the trip worth it? Absolutely. Puglia is an extraordinarily beautiful place with a breathtakingly rich and diverse landscape. I only mention the cookie-cutter tourism because it’s something you should be prepared for, and no one writes about it. We all want to claim that we found the unique vacation no one else did. We want to feel like discovered some secret paradise adventure no one else has ever witnessed. That we got there first. So we wake up at 5 am to take a picture of a sparkling, empty beach and turn a blind eye to the opposite side littered with yesterday's beer cans and forgotten umbrellas. But no one is paying me to write this. I don’t need to sell a fantasy. And, I think if you go to Puglia knowing what to expect, the good and the bad, you will actually end up more satisfied with your trip than if you chase some perfectly filtered dream-version of a hidden white-sand cove offering the shade of a single palm tree. So considered yourself warned: Puglia is touristy. Restaurants will try to sell you steaks from Canada and "typical" dishes out-of-season. Lines of cars will battle to find parking near the beach and bars will try to charge you double for your drink. However, long as you know that these traps exist, they're remarkably easy to avoid.
After a day or two, we figured out how to navigate around the tourist traps and the rest of our trip was a dream -- and by a dream I mean, of course, delicious. The wine was good, the pasta excellent, the figs and almonds sweet enough to bring tears to your eyes. We sipped iced coffees in almond syrup served with a lemon peel (in Lecce), crunchy-soft potato focaccia with pulpy tomatoes on top (in Bari), and pie-crust-esque pastry dough with ricotta or cream filling (throughout Salento). And, masses of tourists aside, the beaches were also spectacularly beautiful: dramatic cliffs, iridescent grottoes, glittering fish nibbling off the crusted rocks. Multiple times I had to ask myself, is this real or did I get trapped inside a desktop background image?
We also visited the Jewish ritual bathhouse (the mikvah) from the 16th century in Lecce, as well as toured some of the Italian Baroque palaces and churches that give Lecce the nickname of the “Florence of the South.” We explored the many seaside castles and fortresses of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V was clearly a practical person and for this his castles kind of suck. They have no badass coat of arms or secret trap doors, no clever-but-useless 16th century design hacks or strangely shaped torrets. But they do have thick walls, which probably made them difficult to invade, which I guess was the point. Charles V clearly mastered the art of thick walls.
After exploring the towns and beaches around Lecce, we left Puglia and moved on to what could be described as Italy’s “inner arch,” that long bay between Puglia (the heel) and Calabria (the toe). The capital of this often-forgotten region of Italy, Basilicata, is the ancient town of Matera. Here we visited the houses and churches carved straight into the cliffside. These structures are dug in vertical layers, one on top of another, such that your roof is your neighbor’s porch, and your porch is your neighbor's roof. While these cave dwellings have become quite extensive and refined as tourism inspired the city to restore and renovate, they used to be the living quarters for the most destitute. In fact, the conditions of living were so bad in the 1950's that government officials forced residents to move out of their caves and into the modern structures of the developing city, ashamed and horrified that a modern country like Italy still had cave people without basic utilities. Yet despite the fact that the caves were malaria-ridden cesspools, residents still resisted, bitter at being forced to abandon their ancestral homes. After all, these caves had been in the family for many generations. And by many I mean at least 300. And, no, that's not a typo. Three hundred generations survived in those caves, making them the longest continuously inhabited residence in the world. Fires burned inside these hollows since the Paleolithic.
While the city of Matera's caves have been decked out with every modern comfort imaginable, if you descend to the bottom of the ravine that borders the town, cross the river a suspension bridge, and climb up the other side, you can visit the most basic cave residences. Some are larger, some smaller. Some have a longer awning over the front (by which I mean stone, of course), and some have tunnels connecting two chambers. But all of them would be what we call today an “open floor plan.” One main room with a niche for sleeping or sitting, a niche for a fire, and various wall niches for shelving. Sometimes there’s a small dug-out niche to the side of the home, which I’m guessing was for storage, like grain, or a cistern. Collecting rainwater was a big challenge for residences, because the porous limestone absorbs everything instantly, so residents had to create cisterns of non-calcarenite (and everything is calcarenite) to collect precious freshwater. After visiting the caves of Matera, I remember how incredibly grateful we should all be every day that we live in homes where drinkable water magically surges out of a pipe whenever we’re slightly parched.
But let’s get back to food. After all, that’s why you’re reading this, isn’t it?
After almost a week of rich, over-abundant meals (the South of Italy is infamous for its generous portions and heavy cuisine), I ordered a simple plate of spaghetti with tomatoes for dinner in Matera. Needless to say, it was excellent. The tomatoes were so succulent, whole pieces just thrown into the pan and the olive oil as pure and flavorful as can be (after all, the entire region is practically one giant olive grove). The chef scattered the perfect amount of fresh basil throughout the dish such that every bite had a lingering herbal note. The waiter never brought or offered cheese and I didn’t even notice – when the ingredients are this good, even my American self didn’t feel the need to dump a spoonful of parmesan or chili flakes on top. If done well, the holy trinity is all you need: olive oil, tomato and basil. Even though we were at a pretty nice restaurant (our friends from Matera invited us out to dinner and pulled out all the stops), I couldn’t resist wiping the plate clean with a hunk of bread. Honestly, it would have been a mortal sin to leave such perfect sauce to waste.
I dug into the bread basket and pulled out what looked like a rather innocuous slice of table bread, the standard empty-calorie filler to pacify hungry customers until the real food arrives. But, as every childhood fairytale has taught us, looks can be deceiving. This humble-looking bread was nothing of the sort. It was the best bread I ever tasted. The crust was thick and crunchy, with that wonderful burnt aftertaste of a smokey wood-fire oven. The inside was tangy with sour yeast and cloud-like in texture, with the perfect pockets of air to collect up leftover sauce or soak up a drizzle of olive oil. I looked at our friends wide-eyed. Speechless. What was this magical bread?
The next day we continued our journey to Altamura, about twenty kilometers (12 miles) northeast from Matera. Despite being a half-day walk in distance, the people of Altamura dress completely differently, walk completely differently, and even speak a completely different dialect (it never ceases to amaze me how drastically dialects and accents change between neighboring towns in Italy). I liked Altamura immediately; it’s the kind of place with a strong personality, a sense of self that emanates from every corner. But the best part about Altamura? The welcome sign says it all: “BENVENUTI nella Città del Pane.” The city of bread.
At first I rolled my eyes, thinking this was a clever gimmick to attract some surplus tourists from Matera. But no, it really is Italy’s bread capital. I don’t know exactly how long they’ve been making bread, but given that there were ovens in the prehistoric cave dwellings and there’s been grain in the region for millennia, I would guess a long, long time. The first written testimony to the bread of Altamura comes from the poet Horace in 37 BCE, who called it “the best bread in the world, so much so that the diligent traveler brings some as provisions for the pursuance of the journey.”
In the Middle Ages (and still today), residents of Altamura baked their bread in the communal oven in the center of town. In order to know which loaf belonged to you, each family would brand their dough with a molten iron stamp bearing the initials of the family before putting in the oven. That way you would be sure to have your own bread when the baker pulled out the town’s weekly loaves. We know from an edict in 1420 that clergy were exempt from paying the tariff to use the oven. Just like today, the Catholic Church, along with the Mafia and Donald Trump, have always found a way to skip out from paying the taxes that fund essential public services for the community.
The communal oven didn’t exist just because not everyone had access to an oven at home, it was actually required that all residents use the communal oven to bake their bread. Anyone who tried to bake in their own home faced a hefty fine up to one-third of the total cost of the bread production (which I assume means the ovens and infrastructure). Whether this law was to prevent fires, reduce smoke, or simply to make sure the town received their weekly bread tariffs, we have no idea. The romantic in me likes to think that the rule was created as a social equalizer, the weekly bread baking bringing everyone in the town together for a communal ritual that encourages everyone to have the same bread together, without indigence nor extravagance. If you all bake your bread together, you can’t help but want to make sure everyone has some good bread to don their table.
The bread from Altamura is what Italians would probably call rustic, and what Americans would call ugly AF. Honestly, it’s not an aesthetically pleasing loaf of bread. It looks a bit like a deformed nipple left too long under the hot sun. The ingredients are like any other bread: wheat, water, mother yeast, and a bit of sea salt. The hard durum wheat, usually stone ground, is coarse and naturally super-rich in gluten, which gives the center that nice chewiness with perfectly sized holes, and a thick, hard crust that makes a mess of crumbs all over the table.
Along with providing its signature taste, the bread’s hard exterior, low moisture and strong acidity means that the bread of Altamura lasts much longer than your standard white bread loaf, which is why the residents of Altamura could historically bake everything together once a week. Even by the seventh day, families could still enjoy their daily bread without chipping a tooth or getting mold poisoning. This also made the bread a sort of ancient granola bar for pilgrims, who needed reliable and long-lasting sustenance for their travels.
Today the bread is a PDO product (Protected Designation of Origin), which means no one outside of the area of origin can claim to produce “il Pane di Altamura.” This not only helps to maintain the quality of the product, but protects producers from imitators that might try to sell and profit from a lesser-quality or ersatz version of the real thing. The real bread of Altamura must be made with grains cultivated and ground in the region, with the local mother yeast, and with fresh water from the aqueducts of Puglia. It must weigh at least 0.5 kg, the crust must be at least 3 mm thick, the pockets of air must be relatively homogeneous, the inside the color of yellow straw, the humidity must not exceed 33% and, of course, it must be baked in the wood ovens according to the traditional methods. It seems like a lot of rules and standardization, but for the bakers who have baked these loaves this way for centuries anyway, it really doesn’t change anything in practice. It just renders official what has always been done anyway, while preventing counterfeiting. I have mixed feelings personally about production denomination seals, especially DOC, but this time I think it’s a no-brainer. And if it ensures that the bakers of Altamura can keep making these ugly lumpy loaves of pure gluten heaven, then by all means I’m in favor. There a few bakeries that make this bread, granted the ovens they use are the size of a large living room, so you don’t need many to make a preposterous amount of bread. We tried a few, but without question the best one is the Bakery of Jesus (Panificio di Gesù) about five minutes’ outside the city center.
Anyway, the point of the story is that if you can’t fly home for the summer to see your family because a global pandemic has limited all international travel for the foreseeable future and you’re stuck in Italy with two weeks off of work and nowhere to go, take the 6-hour train down to Bari, then rent a car and drive 35 minutes to Altamura, then buy a few nipple-shaped loaves of Pane di Altamura PDO at the Panificio di Gesù. Trust me, all the problems of the world will melt away when you fill your belly with the warm, smokey morsels of Christ. Unless you have a gluten allergy, in which case don’t even walk through the town because the smell alone will probably kill you.