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E - 147 : Pane di Altramura or the Beauty of Poetry

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

The famous Pane di Altramura from Puglia made from Durum Wheat

Wanted to come back on my Puglia Food blog from the other day. Was intrigued by the quote from the Great Italian Chef site I recommended (part of text put in bold by myself):

So why do people rave so much about this marvellous bread? It all comes down to its inimitable texture and taste; a three-millimetre crust gives Pane di Altamura a crisp, compact shell, which makes for a hearty, crunchy bite. This honey-coloured crust conceals a soft, straw-coloured crumb with a fluffy, aerated texture. The multitude of small holes are a proud indication of a successful natural leavening, and show off the bread’s moist, chewy qualities…

Durum Wheat Field

…The bread’s distinctive yellow colour comes the from the use of semolina, which has a 10–15% higher capacity of water absorption than traditional flour. A high percentage of water allows the bread to stay fresh for up to two weeks without any chemical preservatives.

Throughout its history, Pane di Altamura was eaten by both peasants and royalty, bridging the gap between rich and poor, and reflecting the unity of the community of Altamura. Their pride in this cherished product is what turned a local bread into a celebrated champion of the baking world…

Can’t wait to test this Pane – it sounds incredible. But could it be true that it was "eaten by both peasants and royalty, bridging the gap between rich and poor"? Sounds very idyllic. In poor countries, rich and poor never eat the same food. The rich refuse to eat the gruel poor people can afford and the poor have no money for better food. Throughout history, it has always been like this. It is a sign of wealth when the two diets start to merge. Never forget the paper of one of my fellow history students who covered the spread of the Sunday roast in Switzerland. It was not until the end of the 19th century, that it appeared on the tables of ordinary families. One of the first signs of affluence.

My little Bread Oven in Chantrou - we use it every Summer for making Pizza - so yummie!

But let’s not speculate and address the issue from a purely practical perspective. Poor people could not afford to buy bread. They had to make it themselves. Usually, one family in a hamlet built a bread oven and baked once a month or every two for everybody. It was a communal thing. Everybody brought their dough and got the baked bread back. But it was never consumed fresh. People overindulge with fresh bread. I remember this from my Army days when we were instructed to let fresh bread “age” for two days before serving. Our troops ate 70% more when they got their hands on fresh bread for breakfast!

Once baked in the communal oven, bread was stored in people’s kitchen, usually by hanging it from the ceiling so mice could not get to it. When eventually consumed, it was so hard it had to be cut by razor sharp knives (which peasants did not have) or by an axe. Bread was consumed by putting it into stews and soups or later in hot coffee or hot milk with sugar – a dish I got every single morning as a child!

Firewood for two Months for Winter 2021/2022 - we had to cut 20 medium size Trees

So bread was never fresh as the marketing text above suggests - it was only baked once a month. But could they have baked more frequently? It is a question of energy. The Puglia Region did not have a lot of forest – since natural parks were created after WW2 there are now many more. To fire up a bread oven and keep it working for a whole day, you need about three baskets of logs, the same amount as for a big, open fireplace. Having just prepared the wood for winter 2021/22, I happen to know how much wood you need to cut and chop – what you see on the photo above is firewood supply for two months – only! And we cut 20 medium sized trees. Stack on picture = 60 days of a 12 hour fire. Or one big bake a week for a hamlet. Question is: was there enough wood in Puglia? Have my serious doubts. Peasants were not allowed to cut trees since forests were the property of the nobles. Poor people could only get fall wood. I guess this answers the question.

Whilst I love marketing, we need to remember that most people who write these texts never baked, never baked with firewood, never cut a tree and never prepared firewood for a whole winter. What we read is poetry. Not necessarily true but still beautiful.

Am actually 100% sure that the rich, noble families ate Pane di Altamura. If it is as good as praised, it is too good to be missed. Am glad the bread is now available today to everybody. We are lucky that we can afford, what was completely out of reach for most only 100 years ago.

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