the Life around the Loaf

Everyday bread can be Extraordinary. I am a baker and good-bread-seeker with a particular interest in Sourdoughs (see first post for explaination) but also a general interest in Life and Happiness and the role bread can play in it.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Panificio e Biscottificio F.lli Di Gesu', Altamura

I enter through the thronged shop and, on my way being pressed to take a slice of scorched onion focaccia, I'm led through a single doorway to the large production room. I have come here to see the famous, D.O.P.-marked bread of Altamura, which I first saw in the Salumeria in Bari.

It's hard, as usual, to divide the process from everything else that's going on. This bakery only completely closes once a week, on Saturday night, so the rest of the week sees a constant round of shift-workers and a rolling production. Albano, one of the apprentice bakers who's keeping an eye on the mixers, has a go at explaining to me the order of things, but it's a matter of feel and he gives up trying.

In very general terms, then, the D.O.P. Pane di Altamura ('P.D.O.' in English: 'Protected Designation of Origin') is made with a pasta madre which is reinforced then mixed to a production dough with Durum wheat flour, water and salt. A fist-full of pasta madre dough sits is the mixing bowl throughout the day, being refreshed and built-up with durum wheat flour and water, two or three times, until it has reached the desired strength and acidity. “It's about 3.3pH, but your can tell by its fragrance when you pinch off a piece.” Beppe DiGesu' says, showing me around. Using the lively, though dry, paste at one-fifth of the final production weight, the baker adds the same flour, about 58-60% water and locally-produced sea salt. To claim the D.O.P. title, DiGesu' must use the approved rimacinata Durum wheat flour, and local water and salt: Is the quality of ingredients given a personal assurance – do you know the producers? -I ask. No, for Giuseppe, the certificate of quality suffices. He has enough to do already!

The production dough is mixed by the night-shift man in the small hours. After about half an hour of mixing, he covers it and leaves it to rise in the bowl for 3 hours. The morning-bakers then heap the dough onto the metal worktable where it trembles, light and soft, as one man cuts and weighs pieces from one end. He tosses them along the semolina-dusted table to another worker who balls them, one at a time, and puts them between cloths on a board for a second rise. After about an hour, depending on the speed of rising, the rack of boards is pulled, via a ramp, into the oven room.

The oven is enormous – 20 metres squared approximately, high-ceilinged with a fairly large door and the kind of worn-away floor that I have become used to seeing. The fire, which has had time to burn down to embers, has been scraped to the front left of the oven – for the D.O.P. bread, only oak may be used, and the fire must be in the same oven as the bread itself (a 'black' oven, as opposed to a 'white' oven, where the fire is contained in a separate chamber).

The bakers set-to energetically shaping the loaves (again, only five official loaf forms are permitted). Though they work at an aggressive speed, they have a lightness to their gestures that allows the dough to keep some of its puff. It's very marshmallowy stuff, with its dusted skin. As the end of a row is reached, the oven-man starts to load from the first two. He pushes smaller loaves together in pairs before he peels them into the deep oven. This makes the loaves 'kiss', leaving the joined part of each without a crust. This is generally undesirable if you're not making 'batch' bread, but I guess that's how they've always done it. Now these shapes are protected by law, that's how it'll always be done. There's probably someone in every family who loves to get that bit of the bread.

The oven is filled in a little over 30 minutes, the last loaves so close to the fire that the oven-man lays branches in front of them to deflect some of the fierce heat. Then he stops up the door, filling in gaps with wet sacking. Forty minutes later, the door is opened and the loaves are pulled out as rapidly as possible, everyone suddenly moving fast and getting red-faced. The bread 'dink's like popping light bulbs as it is brought out from the depths. The oven-man flips loaf after loaf onto the hearth stone, where his assistant grabs them with gloved hands, smacks the flour off their bases, splits the 'kissed' loaves and nestles them together on boards so that they can cool in sympathetic humidity.

The salesman from the attached shop comes through asking for loaves for the queueing customers. One lady wants a well-done one, another always has a blonder bread... He bears the piping loaves through to the counter at arm's length and calls out further orders as he sees familiar faces entering the shop.

The bakers have nearly finished unloading, but with an oven so vast is would be easy to lose a few: the oven-man tosses torn pieces of flour-sack onto the embers and uses their glow to find and gather in the few loaves that eluded his peel first time around. The air outside in the street is heavy with the heavenly smell of the new bread – within the panificio it smells of oregano, olive oil and onions. Distracting varieties of focaccie are sizzling in the electric ovens next door.

Giuseppe DiGesu', the man in charge (at least, the man most in charge – there is a constant mellee of family members) sits me in his office to tell me about the history of the business, and I discover that this bakery and the DiGesu' family is not only a torchbearer for the D.O.P. Pane di Altamura, but was instrumental in its recognition and preservation. His office is the type that many bakers would recognise: a tiny table tucked in a niche opposite the oven. Making, marketing, selling, distribution, everything is done under the same roof. He must hold a lot of his business in his head. The bakery is definitely an institution, one seems to run under its own steam.

What really impresses me about Giuseppe's spiel is the first thing he says: (and it is a spiel, he's honed it. His family's ambassadorial skills have ensured the success of the company which now sends bread not only around the region, but around the Continent)

“The bread of Altamura is different: It's not better, it's different.”

He goes on to explain that it is rarified air here (600 metres above sea level) that holds a special quality of muffa – mould – cultured in their pasta madre, that makes the difference. Oh, and everything else, as specified in the D.O.P. list.

This panificio was born in the hands of Giuseppe's great-great-grandfather, Francesco DiGesu', in the 1820/30's. When he first acquired the oven (which was already in use. It is, then, even older) it was used only to bake off loaves made in private houses in exchange for flour, eggs, meat etc. In the 1870/80's Giuseppe's great-grandfather took on the business with his brothers. They began speculatively to make their own doughs and sell breads from their oven. The oven was still used communally, though today there is only one Signora who continues, every Saturday, to bring her own dough to be baked in DiGesu's venerable forno. Guiseppe's grandfather and 9 children began to make other products, local sweets and specialities, but the quality of their Pane di Altamura was central, historical and, they decided, worthy of protection from imitation.

After exactly 30 years of legal battles, they achieved protection of the title Pane di Altamura from the E.U.. Giuseppe's uncle and father founded the Consorzio di Paneficatori di Altamura to ensure the continued checking of any bakery that is allowed to sell its bread as Pane di Altamura. Today, running from job to job, Giuseppe and his cousin Beppe tirelessly seek to maintain the standards that were instituted generations earlier.

I wondered what it would be like to be born into such a family. Giuseppe says he wouldn't want his children to follow him into the business. Unless one really wants to work for the work alone, to be part of an historic business that is so hugely respected, 'the rewards don't outweigh the pain'. He says he hasn't had a Sunday free in ages, because when not here, he's out promoting his product. For himself, however, he can't not do this job – bread is his family's life (he uses the word 'campare' - to sustain oneself). He loves the creativity, the fact that every day is different and nothing's ever static. This rings true for me, the idea that literally nothing stands still, from the fire to the dough, from (sorry for mentioning them) the creeping flour weevils to the fact that if you don't sell your bread, it'll go stale! The oven, particularly this colossus, never falls cold.

I watch Beppe sweep semolina grains from the work-table to do his paperwork, and ask him if he and Giuseppe get their hands in the dough too. “Of course, always!” Perhaps to prove his point he goes to make business calls with one hand whilst squodging soft chocolate biscuits onto a tray with the other.

“Without passion, you couldn't do this work.”

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Madeleine (Dilly) Boase