Photo courtesy of Aaron Smith and Allison Wallace Image by: Photo courtesy of Aaron Smith and Allison Wallace
"Use your hands, your hands!” shouts the baker, gesticulating wildly. We’re holding field-fresh Roma tomatoes, and at his command we tear into them, their juicy pulp spilling onto plump dough that glistens with olive oil and sea salt. Then we head to a 600-year-old wood-fired oven so that our humble ingredients can be transformed into authentic Puglian focaccia.
I’m in Forno Antico Santa Chiara bakery in the small town of Altamura, Italy. It’s the first day of a culinary tour that will include feasting on clay-pot lamb stew and artichokes (foraged in an underground crypt!), devouring shellfish on a beach, and sharing a lunch of bread salad and local cheese with sheepdogs on the Murge Plateau.
Altamura is in a region of Southern Italy known as Puglia, a picture-perfect landscape of rolling hills, fertile fields, ancient olive groves, centuries-old stone huts and millennia-old burial sites. The nearby coastal cities of Bari and Locorotondo are all about sea-and-sky vistas, but not Altamura: The ancient residents built their settlement in concentric circles behind huge walls to ward off invaders. Over the centuries, additions were made to the many narrow town houses in order to accommodate growing families, resulting in a pleasingly ramshackle vibe. According to Antonio Creanza, founder of the â€¨Messors Foundation (which runs the culinary tour), “The urban development of this town was driven by two things: fear and love.”
One morning, we head to a small dairy housed within Casal Moscatella, a restored 17th-century farm where Antonio and his wife, Maria, introduce us to cheese-making, Italian style. It’s amazing to witness how heat, rennet and a wooden spoon can turn raw sheep’s milk into pudding-like junketa, and then, after the addition of fig branches (which contain a natural coagulant), into ricotta. As Antonio presents the cheese, we applaud, causing the 72-year-old to break into a surprised, shy smile.
The cheese, which we enjoy later, is incredible. Slice it open, and out spills the freshest, most delicate broth and curds. Even better, we mop our plates with hunks of Pane di Altamura, a heritage sourdough recognized by the European Union for its stringent adherence to regional ingredients and traditional baking methods.
The next day, we nibble polenta while a food researcher from the University of Bari explains the fascinating ways of yeast and wheat. Then we tuck into lunch. While the succulent fish stew is a treat, I’m most floored by the spherical cucumbers—the melon-shaped cukes are phenomenal. I return for seconds, thirds, and even fourths.
On our final day, just before a much-anticipated community dinner—in which we travellers will join the Messors Foundation in cooking an alfresco feast in a public square—we visit the shop of Domenico Dileo, a.k.a. Mimi the Butcher. He carves the lamb we’ll be charcoal-grilling on skewers that night. We try his knives, including the two-kilogram bone-crushing mannaia cleaver. Then we load up on Altamura’s best salami so that we can gorge on it later… or perhaps smuggle it back to Canada.
That night, Antonio plays the guitar. Wine is sipped, as well as a herbaceous local liquor called Padre Peppe.
Here, food is a conversation, one carried through the centuries. From the incredible sun-dried bell peppers we crunched one night at a pizzeria built into a grotto at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Matera, to the braciola (beef strips seasoned with Parmesan, parsley and garlic, then simmered in tomato sauce) we made at a kitchen party, food here is a source of pride—and maybe one of the region’s brightest economic opportunities.
Legend has it that when a McDonald’s opened in Altamura in 2001, its oversized arches blocked out the sun, preventing locals from drying their tomatoes. This is what happens in the film Focaccia Blues, a 2009 docu-fiction about the town’s culinary changing of the guard. Local shopkeepers fretted—especially the owner of the tiny focaccia shop next door. Would Happy Meals be the end of hand-kneaded dough, hand-torn tomatoes and wood-fired ovens?
By 2002, the McDonald’s was gone.
Looking for more places to visit in Europe? Check out 5 reasons to visit Athens and Santorini.
|This story was originally titled "Mangia! Mangia!" in the June 2014 issue.
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