For many summers, until I turned ten, in August I would take a train with my grandfather and my grandmother from Florence to visit my grandpa’s sisters who still lived in Melfi, Basilicata. It was something between a journey of hope and a fantastic adventure. From Florence we had to change train in Bologna, running from one platform to another, and then we traveled down the Adriatic sea to Bari. During that trip, I would look in awe at the sea from the train window and we would have our special packed ‘lunch’: soft rolls with cheese and mortadella, and a banana.
Once in Bari there would be uncle Mario or one of grandpa’s nephews waiting for us in the car to take us finally to Melfi. We would start our journey in the morning just before breakfast at home in Tuscany and we would reach our destination, Aunt Patrizia and aunt Cesarina’s house, just in time for dinner. There, in Melfi I would immediately recognise the red wooden front door, not far from the Villa Comunale, the park where I would play in the afternoon. Safe inside that massive door, I would have rested in the cool bedroom, spend hours in the garden to see who was passing by, hear my aunts speaking in a dialect that sounded way different and sometimes even difficult to understand but most importantly, I would eat so much, and so well.
I have been away from Melfi since then. Every year I plan to take a week off and visit my family there, with the main purpose to enjoy a gourmet holiday, diving into the local cheeses, bread, into the dishes I ate there as a little girl. Sure enough, every year, something happens and I have to postpone my visit.
Luckily my grandma has learned many recipes spending time with my grandfather’s sisters, so I still have the good luck to taste memories of my childhood. Then there is Aunt Teresa, who lives here, who still makes us relive, when we meet, those intense and simple flavours, heated by the good oregano from Melfi.
I took the chance, when I received a few packs of semolina flour and a big bread loaf from Matera, a famous and beautiful city in Basilicata, to cook again something belonging to my southern roots.
As soon as I saw the bread I found myself again in a perfectly clean and skilfully arranged kithchen in the South of Italy, sitting in a tiny chair at the table, near a high window. My aunt Patrizia would cook for me a simple and clever dinner, perfect for a child: she would melt the scamorza in a pan over low flame, then she would add a beaten egg and stir quickly to have soft scrambled eggs. The scrambled eggs would then be move into my dish and she would hand me a slice of bread. That bread was so different from my crusty Tuscan bread, white and made without salt. It was dense and yellow, salty with a dark and thin crust, that was the bread I would use to lick my plate clean.
Eat eat, while it’s still hot. And so began my summer vacation with my grandparents in Melfi would begin.
Egg, scamorza, bread. There was everything I needed to make the first recipe!
Then there was another recipe that I was dying to try, la focaccia con le cipolle, a kind of bread enriched with sweet stewed onions. Whenever Aunt Teresa makes it for birthdays, christenings and lunches with the family, we fight to conquer the last slice. Everyone, without exception, even those who usually avoids onions.
Here the onions are cooked slowly for over an hour, and they become sweet and delicate. Add a sourdough bread made with a special semolina flour, yellow and flavourful, and the sweetest friend, Vaniglia, who has helped me yet once again with sourdough. The recipe for the bread dough is hers.
For the bread dough:
- 500 g of durum wheat semolina flour
- 200 g of sourdough starter
- 250 g + 20 g of warm water
- 1 tablespoon of honey
For the onion filling
- 1 kg of golden onion
- 5 fillets of anchovies in olive oil
- 1 cup of tomato purée
- Dried oregano
- The day before. Dissolve the sourdough starter with 250 g of warm water, add the semolina flour and knead for 5 minutes, the add a generous pinch of salt and the honey and keep kneading until you have an elastic and soft dough. Add more water, no more than 20 g, if you need it to knead the dough.
- Transfer the dough in a bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in volume in a warm place (you'll need about 8 hours with the sourdough starter). I left my dough overnight into the oven.
- Cook the onion. Slice them finely and stew them on low flame with olive oil, anchovies and salt for about half an hour. Stir often to prevent them from sticking. After half an hour add the tomato purée and a generous pinch of dried oregano and cook for 30 more minutes. They will eventually get soft, sweet and juicy. Let them cool down completely.
- The day after. Flatten the dough with floured hands and cover with the stewed onions. Wrap it on itself, move it carefully into a baking tray lined with parchment paper and close to forfeit a ring shape. Let it raise for an hour.
- Heat oven to 250°C and bake the bread for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 220°C and bake for the last 10 minutes until golden brown.
- Enjoy the onion bread hot or warm. If you have leftovers heat them again before serving.