Sometimes it’s good to head into the unknown without a plan. The only thing that was certain was the accommodation for the next two nights and that it might be nice to stop in Altamura, renowned for its bread. Indeed, upon entering the city one is welcomed by a sign stating that it is “the city of bread.”
On late Saturday morning in May, the main street of the old town was full of people spilling out of cafes, pastry shops and churches (it was a great day for weddings). Urgent need brought us to Caffe Ronchi, which housed several display cases which housed several delightful looking pastries.
My eyes alighted on soft looking mounds dusted with icing sugar, and somehow I instinctively knew that these were going to be something special.
The “tette delle monache” (which literally translates to breasts of the nuns) are so special, in fact, that I ended up returning to the same place precisely 4 weeks later (more about that later). They are made of soft sponge pastry that is filled with silky crème de patisserie.
To the touch, they really feel just like titties, although I don’t personally know whether specifically nuns’ titties (for that matter, does anybody know? Isn’t that forbidden?). And they taste just like heaven.
Encouraged by the quality of the pastries, we hunted down a bakery to buy some of this famous bread. It actually has its own denomination of origin label and some very specific criteria, such as a crust that is at least 3 mm thick and use of the local grain flour. However, we wandered into a side street and there came across a throng of people around a small, inconspicuous door, and all of them were stuffing their faces with focaccia. The smell coming from the place pulled us in and we found ourselves in Forno Antico S. Caterina.
There was a pile of wood in the corner and next to it was an iron door leading into a huge wood-burning oven.
This was being serviced by a man with iron hands… he was popping focaccias in tin trays into the oven on a 3 m long “shovel” and pulling others out, which he proceeded to flip over in their trays with his bare hands before placing them back in – this is to make sure they are nice and crispy all over.
The far wall was lined with wooden shelves, stacked with golden loaves of bread in various sizes and a stunning array of piping hot focaccias with all sorts of toppings.
There were at least twenty people huddled around the small counter, everybody shouting their orders and hurrying off. We spirited away one whole focaccia with peppers and a piece with mixed vegetables. Hot! Hot! Hot! It was eaten much later in the day, and in fact I barely tasted a piece, but there is nothing like sharing with new-found friends 🙂
Behold the beauty…
Besides, precisely four weeks later, I returned Altamura and enjoyed exactly the same places. Having now experienced it twice, I can make two qualified observations. The first is that tette delle monache are definitely better if they’ve rested for a while after being made. We had them the second time around straight from the pastry shop, and the dough was just the tiniest bit on the dry side. A few extra hours in the display case would doubtless allow the cream inside to moisten the dough, making them positively heavenly.
The bakery at S. Caterina was empty (as we were there very early in the morning), but we got a chance to speak to the master baker himself and take a more detailed look around. I have decided that my favourite is focaccia bianca, which is essentially the most basic type with no toppings other than salt and perhaps a dash of oregano or rosemary. And of course it has to be “unta”, meaning properly soaked with olive oil, so as to create a crispy crust all around and leave a greasy stain on its paper wrapper. It’s the only way.