Updated: Jan 25, 2021
I can luckily say I have been to so many corners and towns in Italy over the years, that I consider myself to know is all but one region of Italy, I have never stepped foot on Sardinia, but the other 19 yes! So it came as a surprise, no shock when I entered Matera! How is it possible I have missed this treasure? I took a side trip from Puglia upon hearing whispers about the Pane di Matera.
Slipping out of Puglia and into Basilicata by a hair, I found this amazing picturesque town inhabited for 9,000 years famous now for its complex of ancient caves called sassi. Actually, it is regarded as some of the oldest human habitations in all of Italy. Since Basilicata is right in the center of the grain belt and its farmers have been cultivating many strains of wheat for thousands of years, it would be natural that bread has been made here and is a staple. The breads were cooked in the town’s communal ovens, an oven assistant would walk through the streets announcing the open time slots with a blast from a whistle.
Flour, water, yeast, salt – the same ingredients that make up most loaves of bread. Yet Pane di Matera is different – a hulking beast of a loaf with a hard, dark brown crust and pale yellow crumb. The locals say the shape – roughly conical, the intense flavour and aroma comes in part from the quality of the wheat here – true Pane di Matera is made with a Lucanian-milled semolina grain known as Senatore Cappelli – but also from the fermentation process. The bread is made with natural yeast taken from grapes and figs fermented in local spring water; the dough is then left to ferment and rise over a long period of time, much like sourdough. So in reality it is no mystery.
The mystery is Matera itself - why was it not on the radar? Actually the city was hidden in shame as it lived in extreme poverty, where families lived alongside their animals within this harsh cave dwellings carved into the rocks, no running water; actually the only water was rain water stored in cisterns, no electricity or heat, thus the communal ovens were open up until the 1950s. The Italian government forcefully relocated the populous to housing blocks. The Italian artist and author Carlo Levi published his memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his year of political exile in Basilicata under the Fascists. Levi painted a vivid portrait of a forgotten rural world that had, since the unification of Italy in 1870, sunk into a desperate poverty. Levi’s book caused an uproar in postwar Italy, and the Sassi became notorious as the disgrace of the nation.
Walking the maze of alleys, few are wide enough to be called streets, you are transported back in time imagining the generations of families that continually carved more and more into the soft volcanic stone cliffs. Their cave-like rooms are built one on top of the other. What is amazing is that 70% of the town is hidden inside or below ground, like their cistern system to channel water to the families. Even the churches for worship were carved out of the cliffs and underground caverns. Unlike other Paleolithic settlements, here the inhabitants never left. The ravine that separates the two sides is a great hike up to the natural caves perhaps enlarged by the monks that settled here.
One of the most magical sites is to see the caves light up in the evening sky. I could not stop taking photos as the dark descended. It was a wonderous experience and is well worth a trip solely for the dwellings that are coming alive by renovations. The ancient cityscape is truly biblical and thus has been used as the background for movies like Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and the movie Ben Hur. But it was the UNESCO designation in 1993 that brought fame and Tourism. And in 2019 it was the European City of Culture. I came for the bread but stayed for this mouth dropping extraordinary city wedged between the heel and foot of southern Italy.
Stay at Palazzo Gattini Hotel, 5 star on Piazza Duomo 13 and get lost exploring!