Glorious Bread You’ll Only Find in Southern Italy

Unless you try to make it at home with the help of this book

Photos: Ed Anderson

Rome-based writer Katie Parla is in the middle of an ambitious book tour for Food of the Italian South, a follow up to her 2016 cookbook Tasting Rome. With an emphasis on home cooking, the new release is a collection of classic and increasingly rare dishes from Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria.

In the bread section of the book, there’s a recipe for what she called in an interview, “a bread Stegosaurus” — a giant loaf of pane di Matera made from fine-ground durum wheat. It comes from the town it’s named after in Basilicata, known for its pale architectural landscape and its district called the Sassi, where generations have lived in caves for centuries.

Here’s what Parla had to say about the region and its distinct loaves — recipe included (and it’s no joke).

Katie Parla

Melissa McCart: How do Italians perceive Matera?

Katie Parla: Probably 15 years ago, when I was updating The Rough Guide to Italy, which was one of my first gigs, my dad and I went to Puglia and Basilicata. We went to Matera, among other places, which was just starting to be reborn. In the ’50s and ’60s, the sort of rock-hewn, prehistoric-looking part of the city was evacuated because of poor hygienic conditions. The residents in the old part of Matera were living in essentially cave dwellings with animals, where there was widespread disease, so the government relocated people, mainly to housing projects on the hill above the city.

New Matera was born there, and the thousands-of-years-old cave dwellings were left to decay until they were starting to be transformed in the early aughts with funds that region of Matera and the city of Matera had gotten from the European Union.

MM: Talk to me about why bread there is such a standout.

KP: I think it’s important to state that you can eat really good breads and focaccia and all sorts of baked goods in Matera because the bakeries are excellent. There is an awesome cheese shop in a converted industrial complex. There is a wonderful market. All those things are in new Matera. And they are great because people from Matera cook at home. Most people in the South are home cooks. They go out very seldom, and when they do, it’s often for a family get-together, when they want to eat a lot of food, and it doesn’t have to be good.

Because poverty has been at the center of Matera’s modern history in the past 200 years, people are frugal. And home cooking is the best way to save money. So it’s definitely worth acknowledging that, like many parts of Italy, we have this romantic vision that we’re going to go to these quaint places and eat really simple rustic food, but that’s not always the case. In Matera, you’ve got a lot of government workers, and there are tons of pretty decent cafeterias that serve simple pastas. But as far as a proper trattoria meal, the great experiences are few and far between.

There is all this great portable stuff you can buy, like pane di Matera; focaccia; and cookies made with wine must; and all those classic baked goods, which are very traditional and very historic and made with durum wheat, which grows in the high plains that separate the coastal part of Puglia from the mountainous part of Basilicata.

MM: For pane di Matera: Walk me into it for someone who doesn’t know anything about it.

Sassi di Matera

KP: The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘Someone made a Stegosaurus bread.’ It looks like a prehistoric animal. It’s super crusty on the outside and yellow on the inside, and the formats are huge because historically, people baked once a week. You’d make your dough, and sort of create a pattern that identified it as your own, then send it to the baker. And the baker would bake it off and bring it back. Then you would have to live off that bread for a week. The first few days, you might have fresh bread and the rest of the week you would have stale bread, and so pane di Matera would be used in the slices that were used to soak up a brothy soup or, later, a pasta sauce. A lot of it was being used as bread crumbs or croutons that you’d soak in various seasonings and stuff into peppers as fillings. So it didn’t have to look pretty.

So, while it’s very interesting-looking, it’s not a beautiful bread. You shouldn’t confuse it with some elegantly formed symmetrical sourdough from some expert baker in Brooklyn or San Francisco. It definitely has a lot of texture and character and looks a bit lumpy and weird. But it was really meant to be fuel for people, so it didn’t have to be pretty. It just had to be a lot.

MM: Did you try making it? What stood out for you when you were making it or watching people make it?

KP: I definitely tried making it. It’s kind of an advanced dough which is why people don’t make it at home. The shaping isn’t something that comes easily to me, either.

The recipe in the book makes two ten-inch loaves. No one in Matera has made two ten-inch loaves: They make it in these huge mixers. The dough is super-elastic and really, really springy. It has this bright yellow color almost like a panettone dough. And it’s really wonderful to watch bakers do the shaping to make it into that crescent with the slices.

I have an amateur interpretation of the shaping on page 200 of the book, but it’s also really typical of Southern things: You put the three incisions in it and make it into this sort of crescent, and those three incisions represent the Trinity, because, God forbid you don’t have some sort of Catholic symbolism (or, in other cases, Pagan symbolism).

MM: Anything else we should know about your new book?

KP: What’s really exciting about the book is that it brings together recipes that are classics: You’re not going to find eggplant Parm in here, but you will find other things that every person in the South would recognize. But there are also these disappearing and lost dishes, things that over more than a decade and a half of eating through the South, I’ve watched either vanish because there are no longer people in a village to prepare them or things that are on the verge of extinction.

This book isn’t just a cookbook: It’s a document of vanishing traditions that I think will be preserved only if we keep eating them. Unfortunately, I think it’s too late to preserve everything in its place of origin. But at least we can honor villager traditions by creating modified versions of their historic dishes.

Pane di Matera: Matera-Style Durum Wheat Bread

This bread made from farina di semola rimacinata is named for Matera, an ancient city in eastern Basilicata close to vast grain fields. For centuries, bakers have milled durum wheat and fermented it using sourdough starter. The shape of the loaf is unique to each bakery, but all make three incisions in the surface of the dough before baking to represent the Holy Trinity. You will need to prepare a sourdough starter hydrated to 50 percent at least a week ahead of baking the bread. One hundred percent semolina loaves can be challenging for beginners, but practice makes perfect!

Makes: two 10-inch loaves

Time: Weekend project

Ingredients

150 grams (5.3 ounces) 50% hydration sourdough starter (below)

430 grams (1 ¾ cups plus 1 tablespoon) filtered water

600 grams (3½ cups) farina di semola rimacinata (fancy durum flour; see below), plus more for dusting

1 ¾ grams (1/2 rounded teaspoon) active dry yeast

13 grams (2 rounded teaspoons) sea salt

Neutral oil (such as grapeseed, canola, peanut or corn), for greasing

Instructions

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the starter with 360 grams (1 ½ cups) of the filtered water and set aside for 5 minutes to hydrate, then break up, partly dissolve, and mix using your hands or a wooden spoon. Fit the mixer with the dough hook and add the farina di semola rimacinata to the bowl. Mix on low speed until there is no more dry farina di semola rimacinata in the bowl, about 2 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes. This helps with the hydration of the very hard farina di semola rimacinata granules and will help them attain elasticity.

2. Add the yeast to the bowl and mix on low speed for 25 minutes, slowly adding the salt and remaining water, alternating the two, over the course of 5 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 5 minutes more. The dough should be smooth, elastic, and somewhat shiny.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, shape into a ball, and place in a lightly oiled bowl. Brush with oil and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside to rise at room temperature until the dough doubles in size, about 1¾ hours.

4. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface, allowing it to gently release from the bowl. Using your fingertips, press down gently to deflate. Divide the dough into two equal pieces using a dough scraper or a knife. Working with one piece of dough, grasp one side and fold it two-thirds of the way across the dough, then fold the opposing side over the first flap like a letter. Starting at the short end facing you, roll the dough away from you into a loose roll.

5. Position the dough so the seam is facing downward. Press down gently, so the seam closes. Repeat with the second piece of dough.

6. Transfer both pieces of dough to a floured baking sheet. Lightly dust the surface of the dough with flour and cover the baking sheet tightly with plastic wrap. Set the dough aside to rise at room temperature until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour.

7. Preheat the oven to 480ºF. Set a baking stone or an inverted baking sheet on the center rack to preheat as well.

8. When the dough has risen, transfer it to a lightly floured work surface, seam-side up. Sprinkle a little bit of flour over the dough. Working with one piece of dough at a time, press down gently on the dough to deflate it partially, working the dough into a rectangular shape measuring about 10 x 8 inches and 1 inch thick. Starting with one of the shorter sides, fold in the four corners until they meet in the middle. Roll one corner of the folded rectangle toward the center of the dough. Stop before reaching the center. Turn the dough 180 degrees and repeat with the opposing corner. You should now have two “rolls” connected by a thinner piece of dough in the middle. With the side of your hand, press down on the center piece to compact it. Fold one of the “rolls” over the center piece and press it against the other “roll.” You should now have two stacked rolls. Press down slightly on the rolls and press hard on the thinner piece connecting the rolls.

9. Dust the loaves with a little bit of flour and cover with plastic wrap on the work surface. Allow to rest for 15 minutes.

10. When the loaves have rested, uncover them and, using a sharp knife, make three vertical cuts at equal distance in the side where the “rolls” are joined together. Transfer the loaves to a pizza peel or a parchment paper-lined inverted baking sheet (see note below). Reshape them slightly by curving the ends to form a crescent shape, opening the cuts somewhat.

11. Transfer the loaves (including the parchment paper, if using an inverted baking sheet) onto the preheated baking sheet or baking stone in the oven. Spray with a bit of water to create some steam and immediately close the oven door.

12. Bake for 5 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 420ºF. Bake until the loaves are very dark brown, feel light, and sound hollow when tapped on the underside, about 1 hour.

Notes: Durum wheat, referred to as semolina or semola di grano duro, is used in bread baking and pasta making and is high in protein, coming in at around 14 percent. Durum means “hard” in Latin, and durum’s hardness makes it great for achieving an al dente “bite” in cooked pasta doughs. Its gluten network, created when flour is hydrated, lacks elasticity, however, so it can make strong, short, thick pasta shapes like orecchiette and carrati but isn’t great for long, thin pasta strands that need to “stretch.”

In Italy, durum wheat flour takes on a number of forms. Semolino is a really coarse grind and is used for porridges, desserts and couscous-like pastas. Farina di semola is ground to medium fineness, has a deep yellow color, a lot of flavor, and is used for making pasta. Farina di semola rimacinata, on the other hand, is fine, whiter than farina di semola, and is ideal for baking. In the US, farina di semola is called semolina flour or pasta flour. Meanwhile, durum flour may be coarse like farina di semola or fine like farina di semola ramicinata. To be sure you are choosing the correct flour for baking, look for the so-called fancy durum flour, which is farina di semola rimacinata.

Inverted Baking Sheet: When using, preheat the sheet on the second rack from the top for at least 45 minutes before baking.

Lievito Madre — Sourdough Starter

Ingredients

500 grams (17.6 ounces) bread flour

500 grams (17.6 ounces) whole rye flour

Filtered water, at room temperature

Instructions

1.In a large resealable container, combine the flours.

2. In a small glass bowl, combine 100 grams (3½ ounces) filtered water and 100 grams (3 ½ ounces) of the flour mixture and mix until smooth. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for 48 hours.

3. Begin to check for signs of fermentation, such as bubbles on the surface and around the edges of the mixture. Cover and allow to sit for another 24 hours. Check again to confirm that the bubbling has intensified. You should be able to smell the wonderfully musty and acidic aromas of fermentation.

4. Place 25 grams (.88 ounce) of the fermented starter in a small bowl, discarding the remainder. Add 1.76 ounces (50 grams) of filtered water and 1.76 ounces (50 grams) of the reserved flour mixture and mix well. Cover and allow to sit at warm room temperature for 24 hours. Repeat the feeding and discarding process once more.

5. To hydrate to 50 to 60 percent, place 50 grams (1.76 ounces) of the starter in a small bowl and add 50 grams (1.76 ounces) of room-temperature filtered water and 110 grams (3.88 ounces) of the flour mixture. Knead it together into a smooth dough. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for 12 hours.

6. Place 50 grams (1.76 ounces) of the fermented starter in a small bowl, discarding the remainder. Add 50 grams (1.76 ounces) of room-temperature filtered water and 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the flour mixture. Repeat the feeding and discarding process every 12 hours for about 1 week. You will observe the rise and fall cycle: volume will increase after feeding, then decrease. The aromas will change as well: at first funky and acidic, followed by pleasantly sour aromas reminiscent of yogurt. On the day prior to using, feed the starter twice, 12 hours apart.

7. To make bread with another kind of flour (semolina, for example), make the two last feedings before baking with that particular flour instead of the flour mix.

8. Continue to perpetuate the remaining sourdough following the same base recipe of 50 grams (1.76 ounces) mature sourdough starter blended with 50 grams (1.76 ounces) of filtered water and 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the flour blend every 12 hours. If you’re not baking for a few days or can’t maintain your sourdough starter, you can slow the fermentation process down through refrigeration. First, feed the starter normally, leave it for 2 hours at room temperature, then transfer to the refrigerator. You can feed the starter this way every 48 hours. Just be sure to do at least two 12-hour room-temperature feeding cycles prior to using.

9. To scale up the recipe, adjust the discarding and feeding amounts. For example, to make 400 grams (14.1 ounces) of starter, combine 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the starter with 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of water and 200 grams (7 ounces) of flour blend. Allow the starter to mature for 4 to 8 hours, until doubled in size following a feeding, before using.

10. Note — to make a successful sourdough starter, forget about cup measurements and weigh everything on a kitchen scale.

— From Food of the Italian South by Katie Parla

Editor of Heated with Mark Bittman on Medium. Dog mom. Pho fan. Send me your pitches: melissamccart@gmail.com

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