In the hills of Alto Molise, Mercedes rises at 3.30 to prepare her loaves for the wood-fired oven, using logs from her woods, and grain from her fields. Traditional bread baking for Mercedes, is all about the grain. The ‘pane casaerecio’ of her childhood was nothing like modern bread, even from the best local bakers. Using methods that had been traditional in her family, alternating crops, using only animal ‘stecco’ (manure, no chemicals) and keeping part of their 15 hectares fallow, she was able to produce a high-quality wheat, with only a small amount of gluten. Before long Mercedes was supplying her extended family, then neighbours. She soon found herself with a small group of clients and began to sell in artisan food markets and fairs.
30 kilos of bread are made daily in this little oven and once that is done, Mercedes makes delicious trays of pizza and a traditional breakfast cake, ‘pagnottini’, sweetened with a little local honey. She uses a small quantity of potato in the dough, which keep the bread softer for longer – a very old recipe from a time when bread needed to last weeks. And hers does, in fact, it’s better after a few days.
There’s no sign right now 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 to the vegetable garden and the grain fields – although all the family help with this. Then the house needs cleaning, and there are all the other chores. When the family’s 25 goats are giving milk, Mercedes also makes cheese. Once a year they slaughter a pig to provide the family meat.
Her son would like to continue this work and expand the small holding to make his livelihood and despite being very capable and entrepreneurial – he has been forced to find a job in a factory. This kind of rural livelihood is dying out because laws and heavy taxes make the work pretty much impossible for the younger generation.
Baking was traditionally a womans job – the men tended the land. But today with taxes and laws really working against small farmers, the women are keeping the land all by themselves while the men go out and get jobs in factories, or run their own enterprises. Like our driver, Fernando, who’s really a cattle farmer but has a 9-seater vehicle and a thriving taxi service, while his wife is left to look after and milk their 50 cows. Fernando manages to keep his land going, but needs to supplement their livelihood by driving.
Mercedes is the most engaging and amusing woman, full of insights and observations. It is an incredible pleasure to spend time in the bakery as she works, tasting the crusty pizza with tomatoes and herbs from her garden, and hearing stories of her family and her life. She is cautious about the future, but resourceful.