This web site was launched by the students of class 3H of Liceo Scientifico “Federico II di Svevia” (Altamura – BA) to participate in the Competition “La scuola per l’Expo 2015” proposed by the Ministry of Education, University and Research.
In accordance with the announcement of the competition, on whose basis stands the educational programme, this work is linked to the themes expected by Expo 2015, The Universal Exhibition ,whose theme is “Nourish the Planet, Energy for Life”, which will be held from 1st May to 31stOctober in Milan. This web site is the achievement of a multidisciplinary educational programme involving 24 students, from October 2014 to January 2015, and different school subjects: Italian, Science and English. The research of Altamura’s bread affected the historical-cultural context when this product was bornand flourished as well as the different phases of the kneading, the analysis of raw materials and the recognition of the mark DOP (“The origins of Altamura’s bread”- Documentary video).
The bread of Altamura, a town of Apulia in the Province of Bari, comes from far away. Its journey goes through centuries, hiding in the folds of history and reaching us with its scent of wheat, water and sun.
The surrounding hills of the Murgia, where Altamura is located, is sown thanks to the hard work of the farmers producing the golden spikes from which you get durum wheat, the basic substance which is used to make one of the most renowned bread in both Italy and all over the world. The goodness and genuineness of this product was recognized in Europe, and awarded the mark DOP in the product category “Bakery and Baked Foodstuffs”. This recognition DOP was finally ruled on 19th July 2003 with the publication of the Official Gazzette of the European Union.
Durum wheat, salt, water and yeast base or sourdough yeast, are the few and simple ingredients useful to the preparation of the bread of Altamura, whose main characteristic is its firmness and hard crust which, it can be kept soft and delicious for many days.
In ancient times, the significant production of bread in the town was intended to meet the food needs of a population that had derived its income mainly from sheep farming since the Middle Ages.
Together with sheep-farming , the extensive cultivation of cereals was basically done by hardworking, low-paid farmhands who worked for large landowners since these farmhands lived on the farm where they worked. Every fortnight, they went into town, where their families lived in order to change their linen and to get vital necessities. The main necessity was bread whose main feature was not its freshness, but its durability.
Large loaves of bread varying in size and weighing anywhere from two to five kilos, were kneaded to the traditional form of the “scuanète”, or overlapped bread, and the “puène muèdde”, or the soft bread.
These forms were obtained by kneading wheat flour, later replaced by the durum wheat flour, with salt, water and yeast base, a natural yeast obtained by the natural fermentation when mixing flour with water. This little heap of sour dough was jealously kept as if it were the treasure of the house.
The durum wheat which was used belonged to the local town, considering that the local output of wheat was relatively high. Similarly, the grinding of the wheat occurred in the town, which we can see in the prosperous milling activity characterizing the town both then and now.
Until not long ago, people used to knead the bread dough at home, while the baking was done in public bakeries. This method dates back to the beginning of the Contemporary Age and can be documented in the Statutes of the town corporations. Citizens were not allowed to cook bread in their houses, otherwise they had to pay significant fines.
Bread baking was to take place in wood-burning public bakeries on payment of duty. At home women prepared the dough in the wooden bread chest, mixing the yeast base with the carefully sifted flour, warm water and salt.
The bread dough was kneaded with both hands until it was stiff. Then it was left to rise. In order to warm it, the uncooked bread was wrapped in cloths and heavy blankets and put on the bed surrounded by the heat of the wool. Symbolically, it was said the bread on the bed had to grow as if it were a baby in the cradle.
The bread dough was then rolled out again and divided into pieces of risen dough. These were collected house to house by the baker’s boys who lined them up on a long narrow plank which was carried on their shoulders to the wood-burning ovens. The bakers completed the kneading of the dough, giving it the final form, the characteristic loaf of bread. In order to distinguish each loaf of bread produced by the different families, the baker used to write the initials of the owner on the bread before baking them.
Nowadays, the productive methods have partly changed, because the modern milling activity is very often characterized on a large scale production in order to satisfy both the needs of the local and foreign markets. Currently, bread is made in the bakeries with modern mechanical tools, as for instance the kneading machines, which are able to work large quantities of raw materials. However, a lot of importance is given to manual labour and bakers’ experience.
The dough is left to stand for 2 or 3 hours. Then, the dough is weighed and several loaves of bread are formed (250 gram- loaf of bread, 500 gram-loaf of bread, 1 kilo-loaf of bread, 2 kilo-loaf of bread or 4 kilo-loaf of bread).
Now the final form is given to the dough and it is left to rise under cloth for the second time. The pieces of bread are then baked in either traditional wood-burning ovens, as people did a long time ago, or in electrical ovens.
In accordance with tradition, Altamura’s bakers use oak wood which gives a particular flavor to their bread. Besides, the characteristic hardness of this kind of wood allows the oven to reach and maintain high temperatures, about 250 °C.
About one hour is needed to bake the loaves of bread in the wood-burning oven, while about 1 hour and a quarter is needed to bake them in a 210-220° electrical oven.
The growing of cereals on the Murgia dates back to remote times. Since the Neolithic Age, wheat and other cereals were grown and from their milling, man was able to get the first rough flour, from which the first loaves of bread were made. The most ancient origins of this precious product can be found in this kind of bread.
Altamura ‘s bread is a product of the traditional bakery of this town in the province of Bari Its mark DOP stands for “Protected Designation of Origin “ and its ingredients are water, salt, durum wheat , semolina and yeast. An important feature of Altamura’s bread is durum wheat, while other basic differences are water and microclimate. Yeast is a mixture of water and flour that is left to sour from 6 to 24 hours in which we can find yeasts and lactic bacteria. It consists in a process in which oxide is reduced due to an organic substrate which operates both as a donor and as an acceptor of electrons within a sequence of reactions which bring to the synthesis of ATP. Wheat flour contains at first 60% of starch, which has a low fermentation, so that an enzyme called a-amylase activates. As a result, lactic acid, carbon dioxide , ethanol, diacetyls, hydroxyl acids and other unimportant molecules develop and the mass grows bigger progressively.
The most ancient evidence, dating back to the Neolithic Age, concerning the growing of cereals and their preservation and transformation, were collected in a permanent exhibition in the State Archeological Museum of Altamura.
The exhibition, named “The Origins of Bread” was first held in 2005 and it represents a local edition of the initiative sponsored by the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture “Food and Tastes of Ancient Italy.” Mrs Donata Venturo, archeologist and officer of the Office of Monuments and Fine Arts, illustrates the features of the exhibition.
During the Paleolithic Age, man had to move continually chasing his own preys and looking for new territories which offered food for his survival. Instead, thanks to the birth of agriculture, in the Neolithic Age people lived a sedentary and organized life, assigning roles and creating the first social organization.
As time went past, villages were born as men built their own houses on tablelands near water and rich soils, in a commanding position from which people could see what was happening around them.
In the territories of the Murgia, agriculture appeared about 7,000 years ago, thanks to the climate change which occurred in the Neolithic Age. Since there weren’t any seasons as in the Paleolithic Age, the territory was characterized by forests and underwood and therefore man found it difficult to move around or nourish.
With the climate change, many areas were burnt down by man and turned them into wide plains. At first, they could not be cultivated since the burnt-down layer prevented the seeds from sprouting and taking root. However, later on in these areas, typical Mediterranean plants, such as the artemisia and pistachio, grew wild, encouraging the growth of cereals in the territory.
Wheat, emmer and barley were the first plants to be cultivated, while lentils, peas and little grass peas were the first legumes. For this new agricultural economy, specialized tools were needed in order to grow cereals, to harvest wheat and to transform the crop into food.
The archeological excavations regarding the Neolithic villages brought to light different evidence, such as burnt seeds, several containers with water and cereals, and prints of spikes of corn on plasters and vases. Furthermore, in many of the recent digs in the area surrounding Matera and in northern Apulia, silos for the preservation of foodstuffs have been found.
As far as the instruments regarding farming, hatchets and sickles have been found. On the hatches, we can notice the so-called “lucore”, which is a shiny patina on the tool formed through use during the harvest .
After the reaping, the harvest was carried to the village where it was grinded in the mills. These had an irregular form, with an oval and quadrangular base, and their upper face smoothed and hollowed out due to the continuous rubbing of the mills by hand. Around the stone, a leather cloth was placed were the flour fell. Archeological data and the study of human bones show that during the Neolithic Age men of the Murgia nourished on cereals. The enamel of their teeth, for example, appears eaten away and sharpened by the chewing. However, we don’t know for certain how cereals were used. Probably some of them were eaten as soups.
From the flour obtained, man was also able to make bread and buns, which were baked in primitive ovens made of mud and stone. Some archeologists have reconstructed these ovens. Probably, the buns and the uncooked bread and buns were placed against the hot walls of the oven and they fell off of it when they were cooked.
These methods of using cereals have been proved by the finding of (broken) pieces of bread in Eastern Neolithic sites including Turkey, Mersin, or in the nearest village of La Marmotta, in Lazio. One example is also displayed in Altamura’s museum. Nowadays, in some villages in the Amazon or Siria, where the living conditions are completely similar to those of the man of the Neolithic Age, the people still make bread in this way.
The seeds of the cereals were kept in silos. Some examples of large containers were found in the settlements of Trasano and Passo di Corvo with a holding capacity of 30-40 quintals/30-40 hundred kilograms. Another method of preservation was the creation of clay egg-shaped vases decorated with sticks or nails in order to make them rougher and facilitate the hold. These vases were used to keep cereals and its by-products, legumes and, of course, water.
We can say, therefore, that the long history of the bread of Altamura, which leads us back in time, has the taste of everyday life, where the basic need is food. As centuries passed, the answer to this primary need has been different, but it has always benefited from the raw materials of the territory, up to the product we know very well, the DOP bread of Altamura. In past times, it was the farmers’ and shepherds’ fragrant food, nowadays used to prepare finer food dishes; a product which has sublimated simple ingredients as water and wheat making it a real form of art.