Varvara. A name that is increasingly found written on the menus of the most important restaurants. It is not a cattle breed, a place or a farming method, but the surname of a family of butchers that gives Altamura has conquered Italy. From 1852 the Varvara, originally from Gravina, began their historic adventure in the world of butchery, making friends with the farmers of the surrounding farms and selling their prized meats with a cart in the markets of the area. Today with a van, the "meat brothers" sons of Antonio (Michele, Vincenzo and Alessandro) Varvara reach the most renowned restaurants in Italy: from the three Michelin stars Piazza Duomo in Alba to Enrico Bartolini at Mudec, up to trattorias such as Trippa they use their meat.
Since 1950 in Altamura
It was the year 1950: the great-grandfather decided to move to Altamura, for the love of Nicoletta and with her he will open the first shop. Michele's words make us relive bygone times when in that butcher's shop his father Antonio, still a boy, stood up on a stool to reach the counter and learn the trade. The shop has always been their home, he grew up there, he was suckled by his mother behind the butcher's counter, together with his brothers, on the same stool as his father. For five generations the Varvara have handed down the knowledge, they still continue to make every step of the production starting from the selection of the garments, to get to the section of the various cuts and the respective sale. «We do everything, Michele says, «the countryside is the locomotive, it is our land that will make the difference. For them, both the philosophy of animal husbandry and care and the importance and specificity of their land, Altamura, Puglia and nearby Basilicata, where their livestock is raised, remain fundamental.
The old cow doesn't just make good broth
He tells us about the old cow, that once the period in which it can give milk is over, it is reared and left to graze for another 2 years, grazing happily, completing its life cycle and giving particularly valuable meats, because "the breed is not important, it is important is the care and life we give to these cows, whether they are podolic, friesian, spotted or alpine brown… . The Lucanian dolomitic lamb from the Basilicata farms where they are served live grazing, moving and feeding on local herbs. All these details give the meat unrepeatable flavors.
The mad cow and the change of pace
Unfortunately, things do not always go as they should go and in the 90s the mad cow, the opening of supermarkets and the first shopping centers complicate things, putting their butcher's shop in crisis. Michele graduated in engineering, moved to Trentino, but thought of the effort and sacrifices that his people make in the shop. Thus began to take shape the idea of bringing their products to tables all over Italy, collaborating with great chefs. He returns home and his parents take him for mad, but it is thanks to his madness and his entrepreneurial ideas that the Varvara will begin their escalation.
Chefs discover Varvara
The turning point takes place thanks to Possible lunch 2016 event organized in Borgo Egnazia in which many famous chefs participated. Among these Domingo Schingaro, of the starred restaurant Due Camini, landlord who had already had the opportunity to try their meat. There is also Enrico Crippa who recognizes the value of their products and begins serving them in Piazza Duomo in Alba, three Michelin stars. "At the beginning it was not easy, chef Crippa was very fussy, but it is also thanks to him that we have learned and improved, and made our products perfect for haute cuisine". Becoming a supplier of renowned restaurants has sparked a real word of mouth effect: "The phone started ringing and orders increased." Today the best chefs in Italy want their meat. The secret? The first is the sacrifice, the difficulty and the constant commitment to always be at the height, maintaining their centuries-old tradition (Michele has not been on vacation for 5 years). The second is the importance of those with bent backs who continue to work by raising livestock in an ethical and sustainable manner.
Today what can be found in the shop
In the Altamura shop hanging on the walls there are orders and destinations: Loreto, Milan, Rome, Alba, Luxembourg… a departure every day. But the counter is empty. The meat is in the cell, no product is kept on display. Here it is not bought with the eyes, the meat is not kept "beautiful to look at", but selected to be good to eat. On request, it is freshly prepared, even if 10% of the total is sold in the shop. Beef, lamb, sausage, but also wonderful chickens, strictly sold whole at € 12 per kg; but of first quality. In the window, on the other hand, the very small production of cured meats and sausages that can only be found in the shop.
Altamura: bread, lentils and dinosaurs
For those wishing to take a tour of their town, they can also enjoy two other typical products of Altamura: PDO bread and PGI lentils. Furthermore, once you have done your shopping, you can visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. For archeology lovers there is a museum dedicated to homo neanderthalensis, found in the area, and you can go and see the footprints of dinosaurs in the Cava Pontrelli. Moving a little, there is Matera.
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By Marco K. Bovio and Margo Schachter