Pane in Cassetta di Altamura

Written by: Georgina Ingham | Posted: 12-05-2009

“What you might call the ‘industrialisation’ of food doesn’t exist in Puglia; food comes straight from the land or sea to be eaten. It isn’t processed, it’s simply fresh and delicious.” Antonio Carluccio

It is said that la cucina Pugliese nasce cucina povera (the cuisine of Puglia was born as the cuisine of poverty) and it is certainly correct that this poor area has made the best of its excellent local produce, egg free pasta, wild vegetables such as chicory and wild tassle hyacinth, but the ultimate treat to come from this area has got to be the bread made from the local durum wheat. 

The semolina (durum wheat) bread of Altamura is the pride and joy of the area and has recently been awarded D.O.P (denominazione di origine protetta) status. D.O.P is a government designation reserved for agricultural and food producers whose properties are essentially or exclusively derived from their geographical environment. This bread is the only bread in Italy to be honoured with the D.O.P label.

To get an idea as to how long and how much this bread has been part of the local food culture, the latin poet Orazio in the 37 BC was hailing it the best bread he had ever eaten.

I still struggle to fathom how such a basic combination of ingredients (water, yeast, flour and sometimes oil, salt and sugar) can produce such amazing food; no wonder bread is often referred to as the staff of life.

It goes without saying that the star of the show is the type of flour used – semolina flour! A lovely golden yellow flour ground from durum wheat; it is the only flour to use here, there are no possible substitutes. The semolina flour used needs to be finely ground and will feel as smooth as powder with no hint of grit from the bran or wheatgerm. I bought my semolina flour from Fratelli Camisa (a fabulous online Italian delicatessen, don’t blame me if you end up buying more than you need when you visit the site)

The most traditional way to make Altamura bread is to use a sourdough starter but for a first attempt at this bread I decided to go with a more simple version from Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole Grain Recipes from Europe’s Best Artisan Bakers by Daniel Leader, the recipe can be found here. Don’t get me wrong this is a simpler recipe but it is no less authentic, it is baked by Altamura bakers to this day.

This more basic version lends itself to slicing as a sandwich bread as the larger sourdough breads area rather tricky to use for this purpose. The bread has a gorgeous red-gold colouring and a delicate crust holding beneath it a soft, golden crumb. Rich in flavour from the wheat, perfumed with excellent olive oil and greatly tender due to the added sugar content. I would advise you use a very good quality olive oil and by that I mean an extra virgin one that you’d be happy to dunk your bread into or drizzle over a salad, trust me the flavour really comes through.  I used an organic one bought from Riverford.

The dough does need kneading longer than many other doughs as semolina contains a lot of gliadin and glutenin (the proteins that form gluten when mixed with water); the gluten is responsible for giving the bread structure and strength, so well made semolina bread rises beautifully in the oven and has a lovely even crumb when finished. To develop the gluten fully it requires more kneading than lower protein bread flours, at least ten minutes using a free standing electric mixer – after this much kneading you’ll end up with an extremely elastic and extensible dough that will rise dramatically.

I have never tasted bread like this before, so delicate yet highly scented with flavour. Surprisingly it is as suited to serving with a dish of olive oil for dipping and a good plate of  antipasto as it is buttered and made into ‘regular’ sandwiches. 

Of course I couldn’t resist having a piece (the crust of course) as soon as it was cool enough, slathered with home made butter, yum!

It goes without saying that this gorgeous bread will be entered to YeastSpotting.

Before you ask, yes I am inspired to make the sourdough version and I will be doing as soon as possible.

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