Agerola is often referred to as the ‘Bread Capitol’ of Campania, a dangerous prospect for me considering my tendency to loose any modicum of control in the face of carbohydrates of any sort. These typically local breads include Tarallo, a donut shaped bread with a cracker like consistency and Pane Duro, a hard bread that is rehydrated in a dunk of cold water before eating. Having formed a part of the local peasant diet for several hundred years, these breads are hearty, healthy and despite their brick-like appearance, surprisingly delicious. They also last a really, really long time. Last Saturday afternoon, I found a taralluccio from circa 1987 in the back of our cupboard. My mother-in-law swore it was still good so with a shrug of her shoulders, she ate it.
That also happened to be the last of the bread in our house so in the midst of a dreadful March downpour I trekked to the local Tarallificio Ruocco to restock our bread supply. Generally, such food acquisition excursions are left to my fiancé, Giuseppe because he is 1) a local and 2) a negotiator. I cannot be trusted to venture out on my own and come back with any local product of general repute without being fleeced as a foreigner or mistaken for a mail order bride.
But this Saturday Giuseppe was off fixing the car or playing Briscola (a Neapolitan card game) so I stomped through a grove of chestnut trees, past the stone shrine of Padre Pio and up to a little house and bread shop called Ruocco that has been selling traditional breads since 1880. There is no prominent sign marking the business entrance. One must loudly rap on the door, and if Ruocco happens to be open, the family matriarch, Gemma, greets you with a smile and asks you what kind of bread you would like.
Fortunately Ruocco was open when I arrived. As usual Gemma was at the entrance, and unaccustomed to seeing me out on my own, she quickly went about establishing who I was and to whom I was related. This local ritual never fails to remind me of Jared Diamond’s recounting of Papua New Guinean social interactions in his book Guns, Germs and Steel. In Diamond’s recounting, local tribes members immediately set out to identify strangers through employing a series of questions on familial kinship. If the tribesmen are unable to establish you are some how related, even in the third degree, they kill you. In Agerola we employ a similar line of questioning. Touchingly we don’t kill ‘non-family’ members. We just want to know who you are so that we can gossip with you, or about you or to you. We love talking, chiefly about other people’s business.
Thusly, Gemma quickly established that I was Giovannina’s daughter in-law, Salvatore’s aunt, the neighbor of the man with the mean dogs and ‘that American lady who didn’t sort her trash last week.’ With that business out of the way, Gemma, completely forgetting I was there to buy bread, regaled me with a lovely story about a picnic she went on with my mother in-law roughly 70 years ago.
Finally we got down to the business of bread. I am always curious about how such traditional Agerolese products are made so Gemma brought me back to her forno a legna (wood burning oven) and gave me a little tutorial. Notably, Ruocco is one of the few bread producers in Agerola that still uses a wood-burning oven. And their beast of an oven is both powerful and ancient. When I asked Gemma precisely how old the oven was, she told me, “it’s been here ever since I can remember and I’m pretty old….” Additionally, Ruocco exclusively uses Agerolese chestnut wood to fuel the forno, which produces a richly layered flavor in all of their breads.
And Gemma surely knows bread. “I roll all my taralli by hand,” she informed me, also pointing out that “none of the others do that anymore.” Roucco has maintained a connection to old Agerolese culinary traditions that have been largely ignored by more industrial bread producers throughout the region. Naturally, to reinforce her point, Gemma fed me copious amounts of bread throughout her bread making demonstration. My long-standing favorite is the Almond Tarallo, which is buttery, flaky and perfect for dunking in local fizzy red wine.
At 2PM every day, aided by a coterie of younger family members, Gemma also makes her pane duro. At the risk of making pane duro sound rather unpalatable, I will describe it as rather ‘hard tack’ like. The custom of preparing such bread dates back to rough peasant times when food was scarce and preservations methods paltry. Pane duro is baked to a brick like consistency, lasts for months and prior to consumption is bathed in cold water. In my opinion, Ruocco’s best pane duro is made with segale (rye) and is perfect for crumbling in a homemade Minestra or broth. Other versions of pane puro include corn and whole wheat, both rustically sublime with a hunk of Agerolese caciocavallo cheese.
I love all of the products offered at Ruocco but the true gem of the operation is Gemma. She is the empress of bread. Proud of her heritage and quick to laugh, she will feed you, chide you, share a recipe and make you smile. If find yourself in Agerola, I highly suggest paying Gemma and Ruocco a visit. And if Gemma plays the family kinship game with you, tell her you are a friend of ‘Cristina,’ the American who is the aunt to Salvatore, the daughter-in law of Giovannina, the neighbor of….….the niece of…. Just don’t tell Gemma I mentioned she might be as old as her oven.
Antico Biscottificio e Tarallificio Ruocco
Via Dei Campi 5, Bomerano Agerola