The origins of “Altamura’s bread” is linked to the farming tradition of the typical production area. It was the basic nutrition for the high- Murgia population. The most traditional shape (“U sckuanete” – i.e. dialect for overlapped bread) came in outstanding sizes: it was mainly kneaded and moulded at home, then finally baked in public ovens (bakeries) – this also had social and cultural implications related to the mingling of the private with the public spheres.
The baker would mark the shapes with a wooden or iron craftmade stamp on which were engraved the initials of the head of the family, thus he would bake them.
Its main characteristic – kept till today – was its durability, necessary to ensure nourishment for the farmers and the shepherds for a week or, most frequently, for the two weeks they spent on the farms (masserie) scattered on the Murgia plateaus: indeed their nutrition was based mainly on bread flavoured with an oil and salt dressing, then plunged into boiling water.
Up until the middle of the past century, you could still hear through the alleys of Altamura the bakers calling out loud at dawn to tell everyone that the fragrant bread was ready.
The first quotation to the place of origin of the product – if not clearly referable to Altamura, definitely to the “Murgia” area – can be found in the I,V Book of “Satyrs” by the Latin poet Horace, who, when visiting the place of his childhood in the spring of the year 37 B.C., comments on the existence of “the best bread in the world, so much so that the wise traveler takes a supply of it to continue his journey.”
Traces of the traditional bread making system of Altamura can be found in the “1527 Municipal Statutes of the city”.
Another document, which goes back to the year 1420, ratified the tax exemption on bread for the clergy of Altamura.
The tradition of baking bread in public ovens was based on the prohibition extended to citizens “of every state and condition” to bake any kind of bread or focaccia (flat bread) at home, or else they had to pay a consistent fine – a third of the total of baking costs.
Thus, the agropastoral context gave birth to the typical bread shapes traditionally made for farmers, shepherds and their families, but still produced today by the bakers of Altamura: shapes that come in large sizes, obtained from durum wheat flour, yeast, salt and water, at the end of a five-phase working process: 1. Kneading; 2. Moulding; 3. Leavening; 4. Shaping; 5. Baking in wood-burning brick ovens. These characteristics differentiate Altamura’s bread from any other kind of bread.
Furthermore, it is highly probable that the milling business was also all concentrated in Altamura, considering there were 26 transformation plants in full activity in the early years of 1600.
We may conclude by stating that, notwithstanding changes and adaptations of the times, the bread that today is produced in the Murgia city of Altamura, is the direct heir of the farmers’ and shepherds’ bread produced since the Middle Ages until today without interruptions.