Category Archives: Matera

Mangia! Mangia! – Dante Would Have Loved the Prato Bread Festival

Tourist are frequently surprised when they first taste traditional Tuscan bread that is always made without salt. Tuscans, especially those from Florence and Prato, would not eat it any other way.

The best bread in Tuscany
The best bread in Tuscany

Dante agreed. “Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e comè duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale.” In these lines from the Paradiso of ”The Divine Comedy,” Dante learns of his exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties he will face. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and the climbing another’s stairs,” he is told.

Some say the best Tuscan bread is made in Prato. Pane di Prato is justifiably famous throughout the region. There are Florentines who virtually refuse to eat any other bread than Pane di Prato, even if their regard for the rival Pratesi is of a somewhat lesser degree. The bread of Prato was already being sold in the Florentine markets of the 16th century as a prestigious brand. It is said that the Medici served only Pane di Prato at their villa at Poggio a Caiano.

Official Website

Last weekend was the first, and hopefully not the last, annual Festival del Pane di Prato. All of the bread bakeries were showing off their best breads, including the famous bozza, a small quickly rounded loaf with a rustic crunchy crust. The soft middle part of the loaf is honeycombed in appearance and somewhat elastic. When you squeeze a bozza, it springs back into shape. The taste is salt-free, yeasty and slightly acidic.

Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds
Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds

The Festival served up hot schiacciata for all attendees. Street performers celebrated the bakery theme. Despite the unseasonable rain nobody could be depressed when there is the unlimited supply of yeasty bread.

Making schiacciata with fresh Tuscan olive oil
Making schiacciata with extra virgin Tuscan olive oil

The bread is baked in the pre-dawn hours in a variety of forms that adapt themselves to every need: the cazzottino (‘a small fist”) is for breakfasts and snacks, perfect with a few slices of Pratese mortadella; the filone seems made to be sliced and slathered with flavorful marmalades, or drizzled in local olive oil and sprinkled with salt — the pan con l’olio used for snacks for kids and just about anyone else – or to make the traditional fettunta (toasted, rubbed with garlic and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper) reserved for the dinner table. But the best is the bozza, which goes well with everything and when it is stale and hard as a rock, it becomes the prime ingredient for panzanella, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro and other tasty dishes.

Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato
Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato

The Pisans get all the blame from some pundits for the salt-less bread made in Prato. Supposedly, they attempted to force Florence to surrender in one of their endless battles against each other by blockading the salt that arrived at the Pisan port, preventing it from reaching Florence via the Arno River. Prato, as Florence’s nearest neighbor, was caught in the fight.

Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato
Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato

Others claim that the wide spread poverty in the Middle Ages is to blame – that salt was too costly for the Tuscans to use in bread-making. (It’s hard to credit this story because poor Italian peasants in other regions couldn’t afford salt, but didn’t give up making salted bread.)

I like to think it was the pope’s fault. During the 14th to 16th centuries, it is said, the popes, who controlled much of the Italian peninsula (known as the Vatican States), levied a tax on salt. Pope Paul III raised the tax in 1539 and the Perugians and the Tuscans refused to pay it. The government of Perugia even went to war over the issue – the Salt War of 1540. The Perugians lost the war, but some say the citizens then refused to buy the salt, thus forcing the fornai (bread bakeries) to produce salt-free bread. (Tuscan bread is one of the few that remains salt-free today, but there are many historical references to bread made without salt in other parts of Italy.)

The perfect Pane di Prato
The perfect Pane di Prato

During the 16th century in Tuscany, the Tuscan Medici dukes controlled all of the resources, including salt, for Tuscan towns such as Prato. When they needed cash (for a war or for building a new villa) they raised the price on salt and other commodities. Thus, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) became bread famous throughout Italy for being sciocco, from the word in the Tuscan dialect for “insipid” (to Tuscans “sciocco” also means “stupid”, but that doesn’t fit this situation because they think salt-less bread is anything, but stupid). Those who are not Tuscan make fun of the bread of the region, but Tuscans, like Dante, mourn it when it is not available.

Salt-less Tuscan bread is not intended for eating on its own. It’s usually served along with the main meal and is meant for sopping up thick, rich, spicy sauces. The bread doesn’t compete with the flavors in the dish, both are enhanced.

 

Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread
Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread

The Bread of Prato’s lack of salt helps keep it fresh for several days. Since it has no salt to hold in water, it does not form mold – it just becomes hard as a rock when it is stale – thus making it the basis of many of the tasty dishes that are renowned in Tuscan cuisine.

Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato
Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato

The following Italian dishes are made with stale salt-free Pane di Prato:

Ribollita – a twice-boiled thick vegetable soup (ribollita means ‘re-boiled’), made of black and white cabbage, white beans and other vegetables, made thick with crumbled stale Tuscan bread or poured over toasted Tuscan bread.

Pappa al pomodoro – a bread-based thick tomato soup in which stale Tuscan bread is rehydrated and crumbled; then cooked with the tomatoes, basil and garlic to make a tasty pappa.

Panzanella – a summer salad dish. Stale Tuscan bread is soaked in water, squeezed into a damp mass, crumbled into a big salad bowl and cucumber, raw onion, fresh diced tomato and fresh basil leaves are added. The ingredients are tossed thoroughly with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

 

Cacciucco – a fish chowder from Livorno made of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. The Livornese claim that the recipe should contain at least five types of fish to match the number of ‘c’s in the word cacciucco. Once cooked, the cacciucco is served on a bed of toasted Tuscan bread that has been rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic.

Fettunta – “garlic toast” made with slices of hot toasted Tuscan bread, rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic, splashed with fresh extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Don’t try to cut into a completely stale loaf of Tuscan bread to make this; it’s too hard to cut. Use slightly stale bread – too dry to eat untoasted, but perfect for fettunta.

(Tuscan Traveler will go anywhere for great bread. Matera bread is a a past and present favorite. While in Prato Tuscan Traveler, of course, stopped at Mattei for a kilo of brutti ma buoni cookies.)

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Tuscan Traveler Goes to Matera – City of Stone

To escape the tourist-packed streets of Florence and trendy Tuscany, going south to the Amalfi Coast or Capri doesn’t give much relief.  To find a different Italy, the adventuresome traveler goes to the southeastern region of Basilicata and the unique town of Matera and tours the Sassi (Stones) of Matera.

The Sassi of Matera
The Sassi of Matera

History Made Matera a Cultural Jumble

Almost everyone across Europe and the Mediteranean claimed Matera at some point in time.

Palaeolithic findings and Neolithic and Bronze Age underground settlements have been uncovered in the stone caves in the ravines below and across from the city. The original town center above the Sassi (where the cathedral is now) was a Roman settlement in the 3rd century BC and there is evidence of earlier Greek inhabitants. To either side of the plateau lie two limestone/tufa basins that are home to the Sassi districts of Caveoso and Barisano, home of the ancient cave dwellers.

Ancient caves of the first residents
Ancient caves of the first residents

In the 6th century BC, the Goths invaded Matera. After them came the Lombards, who fought it out over the centuries with the Byzantines. The town was destroyed and rebuilt three times due to invasions between 867 and 994.

13th century Cathedral of Matera
13th century Cathedral of Matera

Matera came under Angevin (French) dominion in the period between the 12th and 13th centuries. Matera was then taken over by the Aragon (Spanish) dynasty. In the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a large influx of Albanians and Serbo-Croats compelled to flee their countries by the invading Turks.

The Aragon rulers (also the Kings of Naples) granted the town to Count Giancarlo Tramontano, but his heavy-handed taxation regime caused the populace to rise up and kill him in 1514.

Matera was chosen in 1663, as the seat of government of the Basilicata area in the Kingdom of Naples, a position it occupied until 1806 when Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples, moved the bureaucracy to Potenza.

Explore the ancient walkways into the Sassi
Explore the ancient walkways into the Sassi

The town then followed the fortunes of Southern Italy until the unification of Italy in 1861. Since 1927, it has been a provincial capital of Basilicata. 

In the late 1800s, over-population of the town site drove people back into the Sassi, making them the neighborhoods of the abject poor. At first families lived in the bare caves. Later these developed into house-like structures. 

Matera was the first Italian town to rise against German occupation (September 21, 1943).

Sassi House circa 1950
Sassi House circa 1950

The Sassi were evacuated by law in 1952, when 15,000 people, living in extremely poor hygienic circumstances, were resettled to new quarters. 

Today, Matera is defying the legacy of southern Italy to become a relatively prosperous agricultural and manufacturing hub as well as a popular tourist destination.

Matera, Famous for Stone, Art and Food

Matera is unique for its architecture and its food.  The regional Aglianico and Primitivo wines, the Matera bread, the Senise dried peppers, Lucanica sausages, the lamb slow-cooked in an earthenware pot (pignata), and the cheeses lure people to the Basilicata region of southern Italy.  Touring the caves, convents and churches of the Matera Sassi helps to burn off the calories.

Touring the Sassi is like stepping back in time
Touring the Sassi is like stepping back in time

Matera’s Sassi are the best surviving and most complete examples of rock-cut settlement in the Mediterranean region. Nature provided this location with a belt of soft tufa, with two natural depressions. Today, the Sassi have been reborn with trendy, wealthy homes being built to incorporate both the caves and restored external structures.  Many new B&Bs, popular with tourists, have sprung up in the last five years.  Ribboned with stone stairways and paths, the Sassi are an intriguing mysterious place to take a daylight or nighttime tour. The experience is one of stepping back in time, but with startling glimpses of a modern prosperous future.

Matera's special traditional bread
Matera's Traditional Bread

While hiking through the Sassi, find a small cafe to sample the savory bread of Matera and the various cheeses of the Basilicata region. The unique Pecorino cheese made in nearby Filiano is made from the milk of sheep that are bred in pastures. For producing this cheese, the shepherds from Filiano still use traditional techniques. The milk that comes from two milkings, the morning one and the evening one; thus, each wheel of cheese has a slightly different spicy taste depending on the time of the year and the type of pasture for the sheep. Pair this piccante cheese with a glass of Primitivo wine, a red wine made of a grape that is the ancient cousin of Zinfandel.

Painted clay traditional figurines
Painted clay traditional figurines

Materani artisans are justly famous for their sculptures carved from the native tufa stone and the colorful ceramic whistles and figurines.  This cultural center for the Basilicata region has attracted painters, jewelry designers and interior designers.  After a day hiking the Sassi, another can be spent perusing the galleries and workshops of these talented artists.

Tour Guide

Contact Amy Weideman for the best English language tours of the Sassi. Email: aweideman@libero.it

Cave House Museum

To view a cave home as it was pre-1950, visit Casa Grotta of Vico Solitario in Sasso Caveoso.

Dove Vai? – Go to Matera for the Best European Writers’ Conference

Europe is not known for its conferences for writers.  There are many great gatherings for readers, including those in Edinburgh, Wales and Turin.  But only the small town of Matera hosts a great symposium for writers and, despite its name, Women’s Fiction Festival (WFF), it’s not just for women anymore.  This year the speakers included Nick Hornby (About A Boy) and his editor, Penguin UK’s Publishing Director Tony Lacey.

The roots of WFF are in romantic fiction – Harlequin Mondadori and Book Cents Literary Agency are sponsors. One story has it that Elizabeth Jennings, founder of the festival, followed her physician husband to Matera years ago, but missed her friends in Florence and Brussels, both places where she had worked as a translator.  Elizabeth also wrote romantic fiction and was connected via the internet to a world of authors. In 2004, she figured out how to get all of her friends to make the trek to Matera – create a conference of writers with the added bonus of simultaneous translation.Now, using the most modern equipment, the conference is perfect for those who speak either English or Italian. The whole town of Matera is invited to participate along with authors, agents and publishers from Italy, Germany, England and the United States.

Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby

This past September, master classes in Crime Fiction (including a trip to the local Criminal Investigation Laboratory), Memoir Writing, Short Story Writing and Young Adult Fiction (led by Nick Hornby, talking about his new book Slam) were offered as well as sessions on the international publishing forecast, query letters, literary contracts, and foreign rights.

WFF is small enough for authors to hang out with agents, editors and publishers, as well as other authors.  It’s a friendly place, unlike many of the huge U.S. writers’ conferences with their “speed dating” style of author-agent meetings. The agents, editors and publishers this year included those from Penguin (UK), Headline Publishing (UK), Blanvalet (Germany), Mills & Boon (UK), Dorchester Publishing (US), Mondadori (Italy), Memori (Italy), Writer’s Digest (US), Tea (Italy), Verlag (Germany), Serendipity Literary Agency (US), Greyhouse Agency (US), Sarah Jane Freyman Literary Agency (US), Mary Sue Seymore Literary Agency (US), Book Cents Literary Agency (US), and AP Watt Literary Agency (UK).

WFF held in Matera Monastery
WFF held in Matera Monastery

From the opening greetings to the closing gala, the Women’s Fiction Festival of Matera, held each September, is the most educational, fun, edifying four days an aspiring author can experience. 

To read more about the 2008 Festival, see the following:

Jenyfer Matthews does the Women’s Fiction Festival (Killer Fiction Blog)

My Adventures In Italy (Guide to Literary Agents: Editor’s Blog)

Crime Fiction Events (Shotsmag: The Crime & Thriller Ezine)

And the 2004 Festival:

Women’s Fiction for Europe: No Cowboys, No Babies (International Herald Tribune)

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.