From the ‘Shame of Italy’ to 2019 European City of Culture and now a glamorous location for the latest 007 James Bond movie, No Time To Die, the southern Italian city of Matera has had a roller coaster history. You’ll find it in the remote lands lying at the top of the Italian heel, in the southern region of Basilicata and close to the border with Puglia. The area has witnessed humans and their beasts roam its cliffs, caves and rivers for thousands of years.
So, why are we here? Well, the new Bond film’s World Premier is happening today (Tuesday, 28 September 2021) and it goes on general release in two days time.
Chasing the spy
In his final outing as the British secret agent, Daniel Craig’s James Bond spends time being chased and chasing the bad guys around the narrow, ancient warren of streets and natural caves of the Matera’s Sassi district. Literarily ‘stones’, Sassi’s distinctive landscape features in several international cinematic productions of the past, including Mel Gibson’s controversial ‘Last Temptation of Christ’.
I’m visiting Matera in the Spring of 2019 as part of a study trip with my Masters’ class from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy where I am studying for a Masters in Food Culture & Communication. It was towards the end of our time in the region of Bascilicata, southern Italy, a place of ‘povera cucina’. Our journey sees us making pizzas in Naples, tasting wine in Campania and watching mozzarella being crafted at 5am in the morning before we arrive in Matera.
Paleolithic, Renaissance and modern times
Wandering around this ancient city we began to sense its long, long history from the Paleolithic Age; through Renaissance times and onto the present day. Indeed, memories remain on dank cave walls through amazingly well preserved friezes and religious icon paintings. However, I doubt Bond will have time to admire the sights in any great depth without being chased, shot and generally under pressure to save his own life.
During the late mid-twentieth century, impoverished Italians made their homes in the caves, before civic regeneration moved out to bleak, modern housing estates in the city’s new town. Long an isolated, forgotten part of Basilicata its barren landscape makes it hard scrabble for farming and olive growers. Indeed, it’s among the least populated, visited or understood regions of Italy. But today, attitudes are changing. Today, It’s a World Heritage Site and even home to a Michelin starred restaurant, Vitantonio Lombardo.
So, After several decades of neglect and being ignored by mainstream Italian society, Matera is being rediscovered and slowly modernised with boutique hotels and private houses. Very few of its steep, cobbled streets have room for anything more than a Vespa to get around, and so the place retains a magical mystery. Nevertheless, It’s full of memories reflecting the short, hard lives of many who lived in the network of natural caves. Indeed, on an overcast day it does have a melancholic atmosphere.
Around where the new town merges with the old Matera, narrow streets make for an ideal location for high speed motorbike chases and for an another outing of Bond’s iconic Aston Martin DB5 sports car to screech around tights corners, tyres squealing on ancient cobblestones.
Bread, Pane di Matera
During our stay in Matera we visited Panificio Perrone, il Forno di Gennaro, a traditional bakery to hear about a once popular but now dying art of baking a very local bread, Pane di Matera. Bascilicata’s relationship with bread and pasta goes back thousands of years and is intimately linked with durum wheat, a crop that thrives southern Italy along with other staples such as tomatoes, artichokes and leafy greens.
An iconic food of the region is Pane di Matera, bread of Matera. Made with re-milled durum wheat, particularly the heritage Cappelli variety, salt, yeast and water, and is sold either with a croissant shape or panella shape , also called high bread.
Matera Bread is recognised by Slow Food International as of historical interest and worthy of preserving the knowledge of its ingredients, making and social history. Its history and usage is recorded in the organisation’s Ark of Taste, a fantastic resource for learning about foods that are in danger of disappearing from our plates.
Crunchy, perfumed crust
Matera bread has a crunchy, perfumed crust, brown with greyish streaks in colour; its crumb is ochre-yellow, with sizeable air holes.
It’s long rising and cooking time makes the bread easily digestible and gives it a shelf life of up to two weeks. This is is important for the historically impoverished people of the Italian south seeking out meals that lasted for several days and needed less time in the oven where wood was in short supply.
Slow Food International notes that the yeast used for rising is naturally produced by fermentation of local apricots, regenerated every 34 hours to preserve a constant relative acidity. Flour, salt, mother paste and water are mixed, then the dough is left to rise for about two hours, after which it is divided into balls weighting 500 grams, one or two kilograms.
The dough balls are left to prove in steel drawers for half an hour, before being shaped into its characteristic mountain shape and baked at 250°C for a time dictated by size and weight. This ranges from 90 minutes to two or more hours. Baking heat is provided by burning dry olive and oak branches which adds to the bread’s depth in flavour.
For more about the Slow Food organisation, click here.
To learn more about Bascilicata, click here.