Signora Pina, 78 years old, on Christmas Eve morning in Sant’Antioco, Sardinia waiting for the wood fire oven to finish heating in preparation for making her famous pane al pomodoro. Signora Pina has been baking since she was a child and is one of the few in her community to still retain knowledge of the traditional ways of the craft. She has been teaching her daughter, but so far nobody has come close to Signora Pina's creations. She used to bake every single day, but age has forced her to slow down, and the ritual has now been relegated to special occasions.
The baking of the bread is a time-consuming affair. After raising the dough overnight, the fire in the oven must be lit three times in order to heat the ancient stones, and the ashes brushed away carefully each time. The hearth is perfumed with bunches of mastic leaves, and the temperature in the bakery has to remain just right while the loaves bake. The room becomes very hot, and every time someone steps out through the door for some fresh air, there is a chorus of "Chiudi la porta! Chiudi la porta!". We help chop up bushels of fresh basil, which Signora Pina carefully folds into the soft pockets of dough along with a mixture of olive oil, pungent garlic and plump cherry tomatoes.
And then we sit and wait. A gecko, who has taken to living in the warm spot just behind the wall clock, flits across the whitewashed stone to hide in a dark corner. We decide to go out and gather pine cones, and take to stripping them apart in order to get to the precious pine nuts inside. I feel like a squirrel.
After an hour the bread is done, and then we are already returning home, our laps full of warm treasures to serve at Christmas lunch. The day is still just barely begun.