She rises every morning at 3.30 a.m. to prepare the wood oven and then shape her loaves. With logs from her woods in Agnone, Molise, and grain from her fields, Mercedes uses methods traditional to her family – alternating crops, using only animal manure, and keeping part of the 15 hectares fallow.
She produces high quality wheat, with only a small amount of gluten, and started by baking bread to supply her extended family, then neighbours came calling. Now she has a widening group of clients, and also sells in artisan food markets.
30 kilos of bread are made every day in this little oven, with a small quantity of potato in the dough, to keep it softer for longer – a very old recipe from a time when bread needed to last weeks. And Mercedes’ does, in fact, it’s better after a few days. Later she puts in trays of pizza, and a traditional breakfast loaf ‘pagnottini’, sweetened with local honey.
There’s no sign that her children will take up the mantle. It’s a hard day. After a long morning, Mercedes cleans and shuts the bakery, and tends first to the vegetable garden, then the grain fields.
Later the house needs cleaning, and all the other chores are waiting. When the family’s 25 goats are giving milk, she makes cheese. Once a year the family slaughter a pig to make sausages, salamis, hams and pork.
Her son would like to continue this work and expand the small holding to make his livelihood too, but despite being very capable and entrepreneurial, he has been forced to find a factory job. This kind of rural livelihood is dying out because E.U. laws and heavy Italian taxes make it a pretty impossible choice for the younger generation.
Traditionally the women did the baking and the men tended the land. But today with so much working against small farmers, the women are forced to keep the land while the men go out and get jobs in factories, or run alternative enterprises. Mercedes juggles work on the land and her artisan baking, which is thankfully highly appreciated in the community.
A most engaging and amusing woman, she’s really not what I expected to find behind the door of this simple rural forno. Mercedes is full of insights and observations, and it’s an incredible pleasure to spend time in the bakery as she works, tasting the crusty pizza with tomatoes and herbs from her garden.
I hear stories of her family life and history, as I try to keep up with the quick fire Italian, which she speaks well, no dialect – at least not in front of me!
We put together a plan to get my guests out next summer to see the bread going into the oven before we go up to the fields to drink morning coffee with a slice of breakfast pizza warm from the oven. I can’t wait!
Author’s Bio: Live and Learn Italian offers language and culture holidays in a small, traditional community far from tourism. Learn with qualified teachers, and practise with the locals.