The Mark of a Good Bread
We always say that the further south you travel down the peninsula, the richer the coffee gets and the better the bread gets. Lifeless, salt-less Tuscan bread cannot hold a candle to the thick, crusty loaves you find in Puglia and Basilicata. So famous and delicious is their pane that they have been granted the DOP designation, a marker of regional authenticity.
Matera DOP and Altamura DOP honor those cities’ commitment to producing bread the old-fashioned way, but this traditional product is not limited to those two towns alone; it is found throughout the southern regions, still made the way it has been for generations. Some even claim that this particular bread dates back to Roman times, and claim that Horace referred to it in a letter in 37 AD!
The large loaves have a soft golden interior, because it is made with finely milled semola flour (hard durum wheat which is also used to make pasta). The crisp crust is sometimes splotched with black marks from wood-fired ovens. Natural leavening known as lievito madre or biga, is used, with a piece of dough always being reserved for the next round of baking. The lumpy, irregular loaves are said to reflect the peculiar landscape of the Murgia.
Long before the bread was designated with its prestigious DOP status, however, it was marked in another way – with a timbro di pane. Bread stamps were used to imprint a symbol or initial onto the top of the loaf to designate who the bread belonged to, as it was baked in communal ovens.
The women prepared and kneaded the dough in the evening, left the bread to rise, stamped it with their seal, and a baker came to take the dough to town, or a nearby masseria in the case of rural folks, for baking. Bread ovens were –and often still are – fueled by olive and oak wood. The finished bread was then retrieved by the family for the next several days’ consumption.
Nothing was wasted. Dough scraps were fried in oil and dusted with sugar as a treat for the children, and crumbs from the very crusty bread were reserved to be sautéed in olive oil with garlic and peperoncino and sprinkled as a topping on the pasta, an everyday garnish still enjoyed throughout these regions today.
The timbri di pane were often made of wood, carved into fanciful shapes by local shepherds. Others were forged in iron or cast in terracotta. Many families still have their grandmother’s timbro on display in their kitchens, a reminder that while bread generally is no longer kneaded at home, the ancient tradition is still very much alive and treasured, and preserved by countless bakeries.