When it comes to bread, Italian know-how dates to several centuries ago. Today every city from north to south can boast about its own “home-made” variety. In general, rolls are typical of the north, while large loaves are typical of the south, with those from Altamura in Puglia, and Matera in Basilicata, being particularly popular.
Well-known for their rock-hewn churches and cave dwellings, today called “Sassi” or “Rocks” and dating to a pre-historic cave settlement, Matera is one of the oldest communities in Italy. There’s evidence to prove that people lived in these cave dwellings from 7,000 BC to the 1950s. At that time the Italian post-War government forced the “Sassi” inhabitants to leave where they, illiterate, poverty-stricken and often sick, had lived for centuries in the same room with their farm animals. They were moved some ten miles away to Martella, a purpose-built modern town, but unfortunately, without facilities for farming equipment. To understand the Sassi’s inhuman lifestyle your first stop should be at Casa Noha at Matera’s highest point in the Recinto Cavone. Casa Noha is a fifteenth-century palazzo that has been donated to FAI. It’s not far from the thirteenth-century Cathedral, which is also worth a visit. On continuous view at Casa Noha (open from 9 AM to 7 PM from April through October with shorter hours in winter, entrance fee 7 Euros) is a 25-minute documentary titled “I Sassi invisibili: viaggio straordinario nella storia di Matera” (The Invisible Sassi: an extraordinary trip covering Matera’s history). Afterwards you should visit the reconstruction of a typical “Sassi” home at Storica Casa Grotta, Piazza S. Pietro Caveoso, vicinato di Vico Solitario 11 (open every day non-stop from 9:30 AM to sundown, entrance fee 3 Euros). Then, go to the Museo Laboratorio della Civiltà Contadina to see its collection of over 10,000 farming utensils and “Sassi” home furnishings accumulated over the last 20 years by native-son poet Donato Cascione (open everyday from 9 AM-1 PM and 4 -7 PM, entrance fee 2 Euros).
Until forced to move to Martella, the inhabitants of the “Sassi” baked their bread in community ovens. In order to recognize the family’s loaf, everyone including Massimo’s grandparents, had a stamp to mark the dough. “What makes Matera’s bread different from that of other places,” Massimo told us during a visit to his bakery, organized by Matera’s APT, “is the yeast made with spring water and macerated fruit. Others are that our loaves stay fresh for 9 to 10 days and that the three-prong shape of our one-kilo loaves is similar to the mountains around Matera. It’s not for nothing that, before being chosen as capital of European Culture for 2019, Matera has been a UNESCO world Heritage Site since 1993.”
Taking a walk in the “Sassi”, nicknamed Bethlehem 2, is like a stroll in a living crèche. So it’s not surprising that they are a film director’s favorite shooting location for historical movies: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” (1964), Francesco Rosi’s “ Christ Stopped at Eboli” (1979), and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” (2004), to mention only a few. Nor is it surprising that The New York Times included the Basilicata as no. 3 on its list of “52 Places to Go in 2018,” defining it as “Italy’s Best-Kept Secret”.
We have discussed these issues with Massimo Cifarelli, a third-generation baker in Matera.
Why are Altamura and Matera so famous for bread?
“Their bread is famous for different reasons. The bread in Matera is famous for its history and local traditions connected to bread as well as the “community” ovens where the loaves used to be brought for baking and the need for the loaf to have a certain shape which allowed for saving space in the oven so as to bake more loaves. The bread from Altamura is famous because you can find it in many cities throughout Italy and because it’s good quality bread made with durum wheat flour”.
The differences between these two types of bread?
“They are similar and have four of the same ingredients: durum wheat flour, sourdough, water and salt, but their production is different and this determines the differences in the final product”.
What are your first memories of bread?
“When I was ten or twelve years old I remember that our bakery made much more bread than it does now. They used to bake three ovens full every day (now we bake two) and the last ovenful was ready at 4 PM every afternoon, so my father would go to the bakery at 3:30 to open the oven door to let the steam out so that the bread would dry well for another 30 minutes. We used to eat at 2:30 so I’d see my father rush off as soon as he’d finished eating. His helpers arrived at the bakery around 4 PM”.
Who was the first Cifarelli to make bread?
“My grandfather Antonio. He was the apprentice to a baker in the ‘Sassi’ who didn’t have any children so he left his business to my grandfather. My great-grandfather had been the cook for a noble family of those times. It’s important to point out that my grandfather did not make bread; he only baked the dough that the housewives made at home! In 1981 my father made the change from ‘oven’to ‘bakery’ and started to make bread”.
Can you please tell me the story of the Cifarelli bakery?
“My grandfather moved his oven three times. From 1926 to 1936 it was located in the Sasso Caveoso inside the deconsecrated church of San Leonardo. Then from 1936-1947, he moved to a hypogeum or underground chamber, in the Sasso Barisano facing the church of Sant’Agostino, and then he moved here to what was then the very new neighborhood of Piccianello. As I said before, in 1981 he switched from baking other people’s dough to making his own bread and in 2005 we opened a second store in a still newer area of the city. Most recently, in 2015, we opened a third store in the center of Matera in Piazza San Francesco near the Cathedral”.
You say the first Cifarelli bakery was in “The Sassi”?
“Yes, in a deconsecrated church with votive icons on the walls. It still exists and we’re hoping to reacquire it if we can”.
So the female Cifarelli never worked in a bakery?
“No, no, that’s not true. My grandmother shaped the dough that the housewives brought her to bake so as to give it a “characteristic” form before putting it in the oven. More recently, my mother worked every morning at the bakery helping out. She stopped coming when I entered the business”.
Now the family owns the bakery and three stores?
“We make our bread exclusively here in Piccianello, where we still have a wood-burning oven. Our other two outlets, however, aren’t your typical bread stores, because we also sell savories, pastries, and prepared foods”.
Your typical day?
“I get to the bakery a few minutes before 7 in the morning. I try to get here before my helpers who arrive at 7 sharp. I check the bread that’s been put in the oven by my helpers on the night shift and I go over with them any problem they may have had: overcooked bread, under-cooked bread, over-leavened bread, under-leavened, weak yeast, strong yeast, bad flour. Then I go into the store to check out the shelves, and write down what’s sold-out on a blackboard in our workshop, and that becomes the bread we bake that day. From there, there’s nothing else to do but produce bread. I prepare the necessary dough with my helpers and we begin our daily production of biscuits, taralli, and flatbread. In short, everything we need to fill our orders and more until 2 PM. After my lunch break, around 5 PM, I come back to the bakery to check things out and to supervise production. Sometimes I go to our other stores, getting home between 7:30 and 8 PM”.
How many loaves can you bake at once?
“If you know how to do it you can bake 240 loaves weighing a kilo each, but in my grandfather’s time, he could get 350 kilos in the oven. That’s because his loaves weighed between 3 and 5 kilos. You have to understand that one loaf weighing 5 kilos takes up less space in the oven than 5 loaves each weighing one kilo”.
The oven’s temperature?
“Between 260-270° (500 deg. F.) when you put the loaves in the oven and, after two hours of baking, the temperature is lowered to about 190° (375 deg. F)”.
What type of wood do you use?
“We used to use Mediterranean maquis (also known as ‘shrub wood’) but now it’s forbidden to cut it so we use oak wood”.
How many wood-burning ovens like yours are there in Matera?
“There are still four including ours. It’s time-consuming and hard work to maintain a wood-burning oven so many of my colleagues have replaced theirs with a gas or electric oven”.
How many types of bread do you bake and which is your best seller?
“Two types: the typical one from around here with three peaks and the flatter one called “pugliese”. However there’s no comparison between how much we produce of each per day: 400 kilos of the first or typical one and only 50 kilos of the second type (‘pugliese’)”.
What wheat do you use and where does it come from?
“In December 2007 Matera’s bread was consecrated with the recognition of IGP, with which the EU established the Protected Geographical Indication of Matera’s bread. As a member of the Consorzio di Tutela del Pane di Matera (Consortium for the Tutelage of Matera’s Bread) we’re obligated by its Rules to use local grain, 30% of which is durum wheat ‘Senatore Cappelli’. We only use wheat from Basilicata, most of which comes from near Genzano, Acerenza, Stigliano and Irsina”.
What do you like the best about your job?
“First and foremost the enormous satisfaction I get from ‘creating’ an excellent product. Secondly, that our clientele congratulates and thanks us. This gives me the energy to carry on in spite of the many difficulties that, unfortunately, I have to face”.
“Having to deal with unpleasant subjects and decisions like price increases. It frequently happens that our clients tell us that elsewhere similar products cost less than ours. Sometimes I overhear people making nasty or offensive comments like ‘it’s robbery’ that implies we are thieves. I used to confront these accusations almost with pleasure because I was convinced that I could explain the reasons and make my clients understand them. But now, after 18 years of hard work, I’m tired and I don’t like confrontations anymore so I end the argument with a laconic ‘Unfortunately it’s an expensive product'”.
You said that you don’t sell to supermarkets, hotels, or restaurants, so who are your customers?
“98% of my clients are private citizens of Matera. The other two percent are restaurant owners who come in person to our stores to buy bread. We don’t give them discounts, only a receipt that they can deduct from their expenses”.
I’ve seen that you have a website; since when and why? Who uses it?
“We’ve had a website for several years, but only in the last year have we started to use it for sales. Our prices on it are a bit higher than if you come in person. In the future we will probably use it more and more for sales, but first we have to figure out how much extra work it gives us. For now it’s in the trial stage”.
If you and your brother had not followed in the family’s footsteps, what professions would you have chosen?
“After I obtained my degree in accounting, I went to work in an office and soon realized that desk work was not for me. My brother, on the other hand, has a university degree in computer science. After graduation, he spent a year or so looking for work in this field, but without success. So slowly but surely he became interested in the organizational, the management, the business side of our business and that’s his job”.
You and your brother have daughters, so will the Cifarelli business close down when you retire?
“In all honesty I hope that my daughters and my niece don’t follow in our footsteps because with each day our work gets more challenging and difficult, not to mention that we earn less and less for the amount of effort we put in and the responsibilities we undertake”.
Epilogue: The bread loaves’ three-pronged “cones” are supposed to represent the mountainous landscape according to Massimo in the interview above. Instead, during the splendid 90-minute documentary, “Mathera”, directed by Francesco Invernizzi, Matera’s Archbishop Antonio Giuseppe Caiazzo, a loyal customer of the Cifarellis’ store at Via San Francesco D’Assisi, 13, near the Cathedral, recounts that the “cones” represent the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”. “Mathera” was featured at the festival LA ITALIA, which took place at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater from February 17-23. In Italy it will soon be available for purchase as a DVD.