The hills near Matera, Italy stand brown and cragged against a cornflower-blue sky. For centuries their arid slopes defied nearly all attempts at cultivation; as a result, the inhabitants of Matera suffered the worst privation, such as living side-by-side with their livestock in caves. An 1878 guidebook describes Matera as “a dirty town [its] lower classes [being] the least civilized of the province of Basilicata.” But the farmers of Matera did manage to produce from the dry and rocky soil excellent wine and olive oil, and their traditional dishes reflect this meager but flavorsome yield.
Here is a recipe from the province of Basilicata for bread soup, a clever dish that turns day-old bread into a savory supper. Serve it with a green salad and red wine.
9 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
4 eggs, well beaten
1/2 pound stale crusty Italian bread, crumbled or cut into squares
ground hot pepper
1 small bunch basil, chopped
1 pint (500 ml) water
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pecorino Romano cheese, to taste
Place crumbled bread in soup bowls. In a large soup pot, saute the garlic and ground hot pepper. Add the water and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, then stir in the basil and eggs. Pour soup over crumbled bread in soup bowls. Add salt and pepper and grated Pecorino Romano, if desired.