Matera is a city and a province in the region of Basilicata, in southern Italy. Historically, the region is one of Italy’s poorest and also one of its least populated. The town lies in a small canyon, that has been eroded over the years by a small stream. Matera was built above a deep ravine called Gravina of Matera and the ravine divides the territory into two areas. Matera was built in a way that made it difficult to provide a water supply to its inhabitants. Early dwellers invested tremendous energy in building cisterns and systems of water channels to compensate.
In later years, during some restoration work in the main square of the town, workers came across what was believed to be the main footings of a castle tower. However, on further excavation, these footings turned out to be large Roman cisterns. Whole house structures were also discovered and one can see how the people of that era lived. Found under the main square of the modern city was a large underground reservoir, complete with columns and a vaulted ceiling.
The city was allegedly founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and, In AD 664, Matera was conquered by the Lombards. In the 7th and 8th centuries the nearby grottos were colonized by both Benedictine and Basilian monastic institutions. The 9th and 10th centuries were characterized by the struggle between the Byzantines and the German emperors. In the 15th century the city became an Aragonese possession and was given in fief to the barons of the Tramontano family. In 1514, however, the population rebelled against the oppression and killed Count Tramontano. In the 17th century Matera became part of the Terra d’Otranto di Puglia. Later, it was the capital of Basilicata and, in 1927, it became capital of the province of Matera. In 1943, the Materani rose against the German occupation, the first Italian city to fight against the Wehrmacht.
Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the “Sassi di Matera” (meaning “stones of Matera”). The Sassi originated from a prehistoric settlement and are believed to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi houses were dug into the calcareous rock, which is characteristic of Basilicata and Apulia. Many of these “houses” are really only caverns and the streets in some parts of the Sassi are located on the rooftops of houses.
Known as “la Città Sotterranea” (the Subterranean City), Matera is well-known for its historical center called “Sassi” and has been considered a World Heritage site by UNESCO since 1993, along with the Park of the Rupestrian Churches. Matera preserves a large and diverse collection of buildings related to the Christian faith, including a large number of rupestrian churches carved from the soft volcanic rock of the region. These churches were listed in the 1998 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund. There are many other churches and monasteries dating back throughout the history of the Christian church. Some are simple caves with a single altar and maybe a fresco, often located on the opposite side of the ravine. Some are complex cave networks with large underground chambers, thought to have been used for meditation by the monks.
In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to other areas of the developing modern city. Until the late 1980s this was considered an area of poverty, since these houses were mostly uninhabitable. Current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented and has promoted the regeneration of the Sassi homes with the aid of the Italian government, UNESCO and Hollywood. Because of the ancient and primitive scenery in and around the Sassi, it has been used by filmmakers as the setting for ancient Jerusalem in their films. Today, there are many thriving businesses, pubs and hotels.
The Cuisine of Matera
The cuisine of Matera has much in common with the surrounding regions of Apulia, Campania, Calabria and Abruzzo and often make use of ingredients that are difficult to find elsewhere . For example, a special flour called farina di grano arso (literally, burnt wheat flour) is popular in the region. This flour was traditionally obtained by milling durum wheat grains gathered from the fields after the stubble had been burnt. A back-breaking job collecting burnt berries. However, in a situation of need, they were better than nothing. The grano arso was then milled and mixed with regular durum flour to make pasta, bread and focaccia. Today, this flour is obtained through toasting the seeds, a safer process, since burning produces unhealthy compounds. The resulting gray flour smells slightly smoky and is appreciated for its unusual color and pleasant nutty flavor.
Other pastas dishes include orecchiette (ear-shaped handmade pasta) prepared with fresh tomato or with turnip tops, broccoli, cauliflower or with breadcrumb and sultana grapes.
In this Province, peperoncino (hot pepper) is widely used and goes by at least three different names: diavolicchio, francisella and cerasella. Local favorites include legume soups made from cicerchie (a hybrid between a fava bean and chick pea); fresh wild chicory served on pureed fava beans or Peperoni di Senise – red peppers that are dried, then fried and salted and used as seasoning for several dishes. A wheat and chickpea soup is made with stale bread, eggs, olives, tomatoes and other vegetables.
Another typical dish is cotto di fichi (cooked figs), a type of cream made with boiled and dried figs. The local Cardoncello mushroom is cooked in different ways or eaten raw with ricotta cheese, lemons and olive oil. Special Easter dishes include cardoons with caciocavallo cheese and eggs, pirc buzz (pasta with a mulled wine dressing) and fusilli with fried breadcrumbs and baked figs. Majatica Olives from Ferrandina (in the province of Matera) are eaten without curing, but fried and salted instead.
Fish dishes are very common, for example, scapece (fried anchovies marinated with vinegar) and dried salted cod (baccalà) is prepared with peppers. Eel is cooked with hot peppers, tomatoes, mint and laurel.
Vegetables are widely used and offer a range of dishes spiced with a hint of pepperoncino. Typical vegetable dishes include, vegetable calzone, ciammotta (fried potatoes, peppers and eggplants with tomato sauce), cialledda with broad beans, potatoes and artichokes and lampaggioni (wild onion) salad.
Fresh meat is scarce and lamb or sheep are traditional when meat is served. On occasion, a mutton stew that gets cooked in a traditional tall earthenware pot covered with a layer of bread dough can be found. The dish is left to simmer for several hours in a wood burning oven. Pork sausages can also be found, such as Salsicce Lucane that are seasoned with fennel seeds and a touch of peperoncino. Another typical dish is the gammarid, special rolls filled with sheep and kid giblets.
Cheeses of the region are: ricotta, sheep’s milk cheese and burrata (fresh mozzarella and cream cheese). Meals are served with Pane di Matera, an oven baked bread made with durum wheat flour. It has a very hard crust and is a light yellow color.
Typical desserts are: figs with honey; pasch nisch, a September dessert prepared with semolina and wine; cuccìa, a boiled wheat dessert mixed with chocolate, pomegranate, walnuts and mulled wine. Wines of the region include: Val Bradano, Sangiovese, Moscato, Malvasia and Elixir di noci.
- 3½ cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup water
- 3 lbs fresh spinach
- 5 tablespoons paprika
- 3 tablespoons minced onion
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- Pinch crushed red pepper
- 1½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Prepare the dough:
Put the flour in a bowl and make a hollow or depression in the center.
Pour in the olive oil. Then, using a spoon, mix the flour and olive oil until it forms what looks like little beads. Add the water to the mixture. Knead by hand until the dough has a soft texture.
Divide the dough in 10 equal parts. Form the equal parts into balls and set aside.
Prepare the spinach filling:
Combine the paprika, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper in a small bowl.
Wash the spinach and shake out the excess water. Place the spinach into a large bowel. Add the onion, garlic and seasonings and mix well.
Pour the olive oil over the spinach. Toss gently to coat the spinach evenly.
Make the pies:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. On a lightly floured board, roll out each ball of dough into circles about 8 inches in diameter.
Place 1 cup of the prepared spinach leaves on each dough circle.
Fold dough in half, completely enclosing the filling and crimp edges to hold together.
Bake about 35-40 minutes until pies are golden brown.
Serve immediately or cool and serve at room temperature.
Piatto d’erbe Alla Lucana
- 3 large onions
- 2 eggplant
- 2 large yellow bell peppers
- 2 large tomatoes
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Handful of basil
- Handful of parsley
- Crostini (bread slices), toasted or grilled
- 1/2 cup olive oil
Dice the eggplants and put them on a plate, sprinkle with salt and leave them for an hour, so that they lose their bitterness. Wash and dry the eggplant.
Peel the onions and cut into thin rings.
Cut the peppers into strips. Peel and chop the tomatoes, discarding the seeds. Chop the parsley and basil together with the garlic.
Pour a half a cup of olive oil into a saucepan and add the onions; when they are wilted add the eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, add salt to taste, stir and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add the basil, parsley and garlic, stir again and continue cooking over medium heat, uncovered, for about an hour. Serve the vegetables with the crostini.
Cutturiddu – Lamb Casserole
- 2 pounds lamb stew meat, cut into 1-inch chunks
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
- 8 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped mint
- 1 whole sprig rosemary
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup grated Pecorino cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Dry the lamb with paper towels. Rub the pieces with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat until it is fragrant. Brown the lamb well on all sides and place in a ovenproof casserole with a cover.
Add the potatoes to the skillet. Salt and pepper them and saute until lightly brown. Add the potatoes to the casserole along with the tomatoes and remaining ingredients except the grated cheese. Cover and bake for about 2 hours.
Uncover and sprinkle on the cheese. Serve immediately.
Orange Ricotta Stuffed Figs
- 12 medium ripe fresh figs
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 6 tablespoons honey
- 2 teaspoons grated orange peel
- 1 tablespoon orange juice
- 2 tablespoons chopped pistachio nuts
Remove stem ends from the figs. Cut each into a tulip shape by slicing in quarters from the stem almost to the blossom end. Press on the stem end to open petals.
In a blender or food processor, process the ricotta, orange zest and juice, and honey. Stuff each fig with 2 tablespoons ricotta and sprinkle the chopped nuts on top.