Mangia! Mangia! – The Bread of Matera, Italy’s Best?

Matera, located on Italy’s anklebone, boasts of being a UNESCO World Heritage Center with its ancient caves carved in the soft tufa that date back to prehistoric times. (Matera is one of the only places on earth where the residents are still living where their ancestors lived 9,000 years ago.) But what the Materani and visitors alike are more likely to be discussing at any minute of the day is the bread of Matera.  Like the Lardo di Colonnata, the Pane di Matera has been awarded the designation IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), the only food so honored in the Basilicata region.

UNESCO World Heritage Site - Stones of Matera
UNESCO World Heritage Site - Stones of Matera

A van driver tells his clients about the time he was at school in the north and three fellow students each brought back bread from their region.  His soft, yeasty, fragrant, slightly salted bread with a crunchy crust won hands down over the finely-textured saltless bread from Toscana and the tasty wheat bread from Bolzano. On the train heading north out of Bari, every third person is carrying a kilo or two of Pane di Matera.

One kilo loaf of Martera Bread
Two kilo Loaf of Matera Bread

The tradition of Matera bread goes back to the Kingdom of Naples in the 15th and 16th centuries. It still uses the ancient varieties of hard wheat grown in the area, such as CappelliDuro Lucano, Capeiti and Appulo, whose flours give the bread its unique flavor. These typical varieties must make up at least 20% of the bread’s composition under the IGP rules. The preparation of the yeast, which uses fresh fruit in the process, is unique. Matera bread can only be made with a cone or crested shape and must weigh one or two kilograms (2.2 to 4.4 pounds) per loaf. It has a straw-colored, soft interior with a characteristic honeycomb look, which is surrounded by a hard crunchy crust.

Crunchy Crust and Soft Center of Martera Bread
Crunchy Crust and Soft Center of Matera Bread

Not more than thirty years ago, the bread-making day was a fixed event for the Matera housewife. It began the evening before by collecting the yeast, kept over from the last bread-making day, and making the starter dough that was then left to rise in the majustr, a large clay container. The next morning, a larger amount of dough was made using as much as 15 kilos of flour for big families. After leavening, the local baker made his rounds to pick up the dough. The women then went to the baker’s forno where they carefully watched over what happened to their own bread in the wood-burning oven. To recognize their own loaves, they used to mark each loaf on the fold with a hard wooden stamp. The stamp is still used in artisan bakeries today as are the practices of the Matera housewives of yore, although with the help of large kneading machines and long leavening tables.  Today, few people make Pane di Matera at home.

Is Pane di Matera the best bread in Italy? Tuscan Traveler invites your comments.

9 thoughts on “Mangia! Mangia! – The Bread of Matera, Italy’s Best?

  1. pur essendo toscana e amante del pane ‘sciocco’ devo riconoscere che il pane di Matera e’ BUONISSIMO! specialmente la mattina tostato con una bella spalmata di burro.

  2. Bella Matera e buonissimo il pane, lo abbiamo mangiato nel nostro recente viaggio.
    Marta e Sandro Saverini

  3. The best! The best! The best! I have traveled nearly my entire life and I had never before come across such wondrous bread. Everyone loves it. Young, old, Italians, Americans. Northern Italians, Central Italians, Southern Italians. I could live on bread and water when I’m in Matera. Better yet, bread and wine!

  4. Maybe no one in Firenze MAKES the bread, but if you are lucky you will find the crostone at Volpe e l’Uva, and it is made with this sensational bread. It is so good it defies description! And the Volpe crostone makes damn good use of it!

  5. I would love to go there next year by April with my son who was born in Vicenza, Italy. I need to know any Bus Excursion we could go to in Matera alone for 1-2 days.

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