Almost any Agerolese will proudly tell you that Agerola is shaped in a ferro di cavallo (horseshoe) that is perched in the hills of the Monti Lattari overlooking the Amalfi Coast. They will also inform you that Agerola is part of the Province of Napoli and that the rest of the Amalfi Coast is part of the Province of Salerno. These simple geographic facts are more telling that one might initially realize. Agerola is the oldest community along the Amalfi Coast and has been feeding the region since the days before the storied maritime Amalfi Republic. In many ways, Agerola has been the fertile crescent of the Amalfi for well over one thousand years.
Most tourists in the region focus on the coast, visiting Positano, with its charming architecture, Praiano with its mosaic churches and Amalfi with its heroic maritime traditions. Occasionally these visitors foggily stumble upon Agerola after trekking the historic Sentiero degli Dei (Pathway to the Gods). They begin in splendid Positano and four hours later they are spit out 600 hundred meters above sea level into rustic Agerola.
Agerola exists in a world that is separate from, but intrinsically a part of the Amalfi Coast. Positano is easy to love. It charmingly conforms to our idyllic notions of costal southern Italy and often feels like an appealing Disney film. Agerola insouciantly refuses to cooperate with any such preconceived notions and with its cast of contrarian town characters often feels more like living on the set of Amarcord, a satirical Fellini film set in 1930s era small town costal Italy.
I should point out that I happen to live in Agerola. As an American born outsider, I find Agerola, in equal parts, alluring, infuriating, amusing and confounding. There are times, such as yesterday, that Agerola absolutely baffles me. I was at the neighborhood grocer buying a bit of Fiori de Latte and pasta after a brief spell away from Italy. Our local grocer knew not only that I had arrived at 23:00 three days prior, but also that I had recently failed to properly sort my spazzatura (trash), mixing my metal with my glass. He joked about my egregious trash-sorting affront and I was left plaintively shaking my head. We call this phenomenon ‘il giornale agerolese.’ While there is no official newspaper here, we play an aggressive game of telephone on steroids that often lasts several iterations. I should consider myself lucky that the story of my trash sorting mishap did not devolve into tales of a certain garbage collector finding a severed hand in our rubbish can.
There are other times I absolutely fall in love with Agerola. Shortly after my spatzzatura scandal (news of which has now likely traveled to Pimonte, Gragnano, Positano and Praiano), I returned home to find our geriatric neighbor clearing his orchard and covering his vineyard with plastic to protect the vines from forecasted rain. He hadn’t seen me in months and came toddling toward me. Grasping me in a bear hug, he pressed a bottle of homemade wine into my hands.
He, like virtually every Agerolese makes his own wine, grows his own vegetables and pickles everything, and I mean everything, that comes out of the ground. There is a connection to the earth in Agerola that is neither precious nor overwrought. Born out of necessity and wartime deprivation, it just is.
For the last three days straight, I have been working with my suocera (mother-in-law) to tidy our house, a task that can best be described as the Iranian hostage negotiation crisis mixed with an episode of Hoarders Buried Alive. We reached our latest impasse yesterday when I discovered several hidden stashes of pickles and preserves that reached a grand total of 182 jars dating from circa 1983 until present. In the midst of this pickle windfall, I found my mind wandering to an old episode of Portlandia when two of the recurring hipster characteristics farcically claim, “we can pickle it,” referring to a myriad of unlikely objects including a paper clip and a rubber duckie.
There was nothing even remotely ‘hipster,’ about my situation, in which I spent roughly eight hours begging and pleading with a proud Neapolitan woman to determine the expiry date of several hundred pickle jars. We finally opened, tasted and sorted every single one of them. My fellow taste tester/ soucera has an uncannily preternatural (if not completely scientific) ability to determine food freshness. She was able to deduce that 150 of those jars were still in fact, quite good.
As we lined up our freshly polished preserves in their new home under the sink, we spotted a lone pomodorino, wrinkled and growing a little beard of mold. My soucera retrieved it, inspected it, carved off the mold and nonchalantly announced, “still good.” We made barzanella, a humble pasta consisting of tomatoes and garlic with it. It was delicious.
And that is Agerola. Old world Naples, ever changing and always proud. A confederacy of characters, all of whom live with gusto. We live by the credo waste not, want not, and we always eat well. It is true that Agerola regularly confounds me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the coming weeks, as I haphazardly meander around Agerola, I will be writing about the town’s food artisans and craftsman. I look forward to sharing with all and if nothing else we can commiserate about the wiles and wonders of the great ‘carta sporca,’ Napule.