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. It’s located in the remote lands of the lying at the top of the Italian heel, in the southern region of Basilicata and close to the border with Puglia, and seen humans roam its cliffs, caves and rivers for thousands of years.
The film has its World Premier today (Tuesday, 28 September 2021) and goes on general release in two days time.
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 has featured in several international productions in the past, including Mel Gibson’s controversial ‘Last Temptation of Christ’.
I visited 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 was studying for a Masters in Food Culture & Communication. It was towards the end of our time in the region having already made pizzas in Naples, tasted wine in Campania and watching mozzarella being crafted at 5am in the morning that we arrived in Matera.
Palaeolithic, Renaissance and modern times
Wandering around this ancient city we were able to understand its long, long history from the Palaeolithic Age; through Renaissance times memories that 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 being moved out to bleak, modern housing estates in the city’s new town. Long an isolated, forgotten part of Basilicata its barren landscape make it hard scrabble for farming and olive growers it’s one of the among the least populated, visited or understood regions of Italy. But today it’s a World Heritage Site and home to a Michelin starred restaurant, Vitantonio Lombardo.
After several decades of neglect and being ignored by mainstream society, Matera is being rediscovered and slowly gentrified 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, and remembering the short, hard lives of many of lived in the network of natural caves, a sometimes sad atmosphere.
Around where the old town merges with the old Matera, narrow streets make 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.
Bread, Pane di Matera
As part of our stay in Matera we visited Panificio Perrone, il Forno di Gennaro, a traditional bakery to hear about a traditional, but dying art of making a very local bread. Bascilicata 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.
Matera Bread has been recognised by Slow Food International as been of historical interest and worthy of preserving the knowledge of its ingredients, making and social history. Its history and usage is recorded in the Ark of Taste, a fantastic resource for learning about foods that are in danger of disappearing from our plates.
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.
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, important for seeking out meals by the historically impoverished people of the Italian south.
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 those it is divided into balls weighting 500 grams, one or two kilograms’.
The dough balls are left and rest in steel drawers for half an hour, before being characteristic mountain shape and baked at 250°C for a time proportioned to their size, ranging from one hour and a half to two or more. Baking heat is provided by burning dry olive and oak branches which adds to the depth in flavour of the bread.