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Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
Italian baker gives new life to old Tochigi warehouse
By MAMI MARUKO
Paolo Aggio, 48, born and raised in Venice, Italy, bakes traditional Italian country-style bread in a stone warehouse in the middle of the serene and quiet town of Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture, a town famous for its pottery.
Aggio and his Japanese wife set up their company, Panem, to bake bread at the warehouse, which was built in 1958 using the distinctive Oya stone quarried from nearby Utsunomiya. He commutes to this workplace from his home in the neighboring town of Motegi.
Aggio says he is intrigued by old, traditional cultures like the ones that remain in Europe. He views Italian bread — a replica of the bread baked before the Industrial Revolution — his stone warehouse and the old machines used to prepare dough as part of traditional European culture.
Aggio has always been fond of stone warehouses.
"Bread has always been baked in stone buildings in Italy. I chose this place to bake the bread because the enzymes that are developed through the process of baking the bread are taken into the walls and the ceiling of the stone warehouse and in the end, a special kind of taste and scent is developed in the bread," he says.
Aggio and his wife spent a long time looking for a stone warehouse similar to the ones in Europe before coming across the building in Mashiko by chance three years ago. His wife, while surfing the Internet, read on someone's blog site that a potter who had been renting the warehouse had just ended her contract and was about to move out. "It was such good timing," Aggio recalls.
He uses machines imported from Europe to mix and cut the dough. The divider to cut the dough was made in the 1980s and imported from Germany, while the mixer by a Swiss maker Artofex — a machine that has been widely used in Italy since the 1880s — was made in the 1920s. It is, according to Aggio, the only one being used in Japan today.
"In Europe, we use good machines for a long, long time. This kind of system does not exist in Japan, where there is always change, change, change," he says. "My mother uses a washing machine that she bought 30 years ago," he said. "It was very expensive when she bought it, but she took good care of it, and she can still use it."
Aggio says that Japan should not forget its good traditions. "When I first arrived in Japan 22 years ago, it was much more peaceful and more like good old Japan. There's more news about killing on TV lately. Now, especially young people are Americanized and that's a shame," he says with a sigh.
Aggio bakes the bread in a brick oven built by a Mashiko-based craftsman with bricks brought from Italy. It is based on a Greco-Roman style oven designed by Aggio himself. In it, he bakes 60 kg of bread twice a day.
His work day begins at around 6 or 7 in the morning and ends at about 7 in the evening. He mixes and cuts the dough, bakes it, and prepares dough for the next day while waiting for the bread to bake. When his work is finished for the day, Aggio says he forgets about baking and enjoys drinking, playing around with the computer and spending time with his 3-year-old daughter.
He chooses ingredients that are free of additives to make the dough, and a special type of flour that he says adds a special taste and scent to the bread when it's baked. Next year, he plans to start using special flour from an island in Greece (the name is a company secret).
"It is completely different from any other type of flour. Its color is yellow, it's heavy, and holds lots of water. This changes the taste and scent of the bread," he says, adding that the crust becomes crunchy while the inside becomes soft and chewy. He also uses fresh water full of minerals taken from a well outside the warehouse, and sea salt imported from Italy.
"This kind of bread should not be eaten when it's still hot. It's most delicious after a day or two, when the fermentation of the yeast inside the bread is completed," he says.
Aggio has been baking Italian bread and pizza for nearly three decades. After graduating from a vocational school in agriculture, he worked for a short time on a farm but didn't like it, and went into the flour-milling industry in Italy. He then went on to work for four years at a pizzeria in Greece before arriving in Japan in 1988.
He came to Japan to improve his skills in aikido, which he had practiced since he was 15, but ended up becoming an instructor for baking bread and pizzas in Osaka and Kobe. He moved to Tokyo after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and worked for a flour-milling company — and another pizzeria — before stumbling onto the Mashiko warehouse in 2007.
He bakes four different kinds of bread: plain, one with olives, one with figs, and the other with Greek honey. Each loaf weighs either 1 or 2 kg and is sold wholesale in units to Italian restaurants and hotels in Tokyo. A smaller, 500-gram loaf is sold to individual customers through the Internet or by phone, and also at a nearby specialty food store.
Panem has only three staff members — Aggio himself, his wife and an old acquaintance of his who quit his job in Tokyo to come and work with the couple.
Kenji Komatsu says he was intrigued by Aggio's unique character and the bread he bakes.
"Each step that Paolo takes in baking is very simple, and people might be able to learn the steps easily," he says, "but it's no easy task to excel in the art of baking like Paolo."
Aggio says the warehouse is not big enough to house all his machines, but he is happy with it and intends to stay in Mashiko for the rest of his life. Asked whether he wants a successor or not — for example, his daughter — Aggio says "no" without hesitation. "I want her to choose a smarter job," he says.
He adds he has no intention of baking bread for the rest of his life. "As a job, I do it with all my heart, but if I have the money, I won't do it," he says. "My dream is to win the lottery. If I win, I'll quit this job immediately," Aggio says with a big smile.