I notice as I walk through the door that there is no hustle or hassle about this place. The ratio of workers to work is, it seems to me, fairly high. Nobody's actually standing about but there's a lot of pausing. The place is spacious, with two large rooms, plus a good-sized pastry department and then the shop at the front. The business takes up most of the ground floor of an apartment block on Cagliari's Via della Pineta. If I lived above it, I would be woken up by the delicious wafts of fresh bread, vanilla and lemon zest. I wish I could bottle this fragrance!
Emilio, the proprietor, starts at 3am by which time there's already dough to be shaped for Pane dei Riti or Coccoi, very elaborate little shapes for special occasions. These command a high price already, so Emilio makes them even more special by using Sardo wheat, Gran Capelli. “Our grain is the best in the world, but I don't use it all the time, no-one can, because it's too expensive. It used to be cheap, or at least the same price as the foreign imports, but the trouble started when Italy joined the European Common Market. We don't have the same intensive farming methods, we don't have the climate or the local varieties that support two harvests of wheat every year. Still, it makes the best bread.”
There are two main doughs, made with cheaper flour from the Italian mainland, one very soft for making facaccine, 80% hydration (this is a Bakers' Percentage: the flour weight is taken as 100%, so it's 800ml of water to a kilo of flour) and the other rather tighter for roselle and tartarughe, machine-stamped 'rosettes' and criss-cross cut 'turtles'. Three separate mixes of each are made throughout production, allowing the customers to always be sure of finding piping hot new breads from the time that the shop opens, around 6.30am, to it's closure at 1.30pm.
During Emilio's life as a baker, what's changed? He says that customers have become much more exacting. Though they eat less bread in total, they want far more choice. Before the two World Wars, they made three types of bread -e basta! Now there are 20. They feel forced to produce this huge variety because bread consumption is dropping so rapidly, they have to offer an enticing choice. There are very few children around, and those that there are don't eat much bread. Now he has to go out of his way to produce a choice, also, of breads of different 'cookedness' because people specify the exact colour that they want their rolls to be. In the past, people just paid their money and took a mixed bag of bread.
The only thing that hasn't changed is the demanding early start and length of the working day. Emilio knows that bread can be made more quickly, but he won't compromise the quality of flavour that a slower rise gives. What time has been saved by the mechanisation of the bakery is again lost in the laborious work of making the thousands of small rolls which have succeeded the old, large family loaves.
Indeed, I am amazed by the sheer quantity of panini being produced. The very wet dough is divided into 6' sausages which are lain in pairs in wooden trays. The trays are filled with semolina grains so deeply as to look like sandpits. This takes the wet dough well, sealing it and allowing the bakers to chop down each length of dough into slices, without it sticking too much. When it does stick, it's like melted chewing gum – difficult to disentangle yourself from. The fragile slices of dough are spaced out on tele, mechanical fabric racks in which the risen breads can be put straight into the oven and deposited neatly in order on the oven base. There's a machine chugging out the roselle and tartarughe straight onto tele, too. I've noticed how well-equipped this place is: three sets of ovens and an abundance of machines, mixers, racks and trolleys.
There is a lack of working surfaces, however. Wearing little, boat-shaped bakers hats (which look classic, but have very modern built-in vents) three burly bakers stand elbow to elbow at one small table shaping larger rounds for Pane Sardo. Meanwhile Emilio and his right-hand man use a tiny table in a nook for their never-ending series of Pane dei Riti. This harder-dough breads rise very little, preserving their delicate forms. They're very popular, but take time as they're created by first slashing, then scissoring the dough. A good part of the production time is filled simply with the sound of snipping scissor blades. Emilio works at a gentle pace, eyes a little dreamy, moustache twitching in amusement at his own thoughts. Occasionally he beckons me over to ask obscure questions – Does Mcdonalds come from Scotland?; Do you use beer instead of water to make bread in England?; Have I seen that Tweed is coming back into fashion? Perhaps he is practising the ignoble Italian art of pulling my leg, but I think he's just following his thoughts.
Emilio is peaceable and content, Tibetan-monkish. He moves very slowly and I realise that he's very short of breath, most likely because of the flour. I haven't seen anyone yet wearing a dust-mask, in any bakery. I confess that I couldn't stand wearing one when I worked in a bakery, because it's so uncomfortable, but this is a lesson to me: -the poor man can't complete a sentence without running out of breath and his skin is grey, not just because we're all dusted with flour by this point.
He was 9 when he started – it was normal for children to work when he was young, and all of his family worked in their father's bakery, he's one of 9. He went to school until he was 11, until he'd learned how to read and write, then he only worked. “I went to work for other bakeries because there they would pay me. At home, they'd never pay you because there was no money.” He learned a lot working for other people- “What you're doing [my visits to bakeries] is a bellissima experience. Travelling and seeing other ways of doing things is very important. You don't grow if you stay still.” He tells me that he went into a bakery in Tunisia and asked, just like me, if he could stay there the whole day and observe: He invited the padrone to visit Sardinia, but the man never did because he was so scared of leaving his bakery in the hands of his juniors.
I ask if Emilio had any choice about becoming a baker: No, not because he was forced by anyone, but because the stuff got a hold of him. He says, slowly: “Bread is love. What happens is, the baker falls in love with bread and then there is no choice.” He adds that producing bread is very hard work and you don't earn much: “don't believe that wages are generous. But you'll never lack work, you'll never lack anything, because bread is everything.”
What about the future of the bakery? Young people are a big concern for Emilio: He sees his workforce ageing, and doesn't hold out much hope that he'll find younger people who want to come and learn this craft. He expects that on the mainland this gap will be filled by migrant workers, but not in Sardinia! Here, they'll find somebody local in the end. He just can't see anyone young wanting to do this job. It's because of the working hours, young people want to be out at discos. (I find this unlikely, there is a real lack of jobs here, as well a real lack of nightlife. Perhaps being told that they'd be too lazy for the job might put young people off?) His own son hasn't become a baker, but works as shopkeeper of Emilio's other shop in Cagliari.
I ask about the traditional large Sardo loaf, Civraxiu: “We only make 'il vero' Civraxiu on the weekend. It takes too long, and people have come to expect it only at the weekends. The dough-making starts very early because it takes 7 hours of 'repose'. It's the kind of dough that needs little work: 20kg of dough done in a matter of minutes, divided by eye, shaped, then left to prove at a gentle pace. There are other types of bread that take so much more of the bakers' time, but the downside is that these Kilo-each loaves of Civraxiu take up space in the ovens for an hour or more. The temperature is lowered to cook the dough through without burning the outside.” In Civraxiu, pasta madre is the sole leavening agent because of its slow fermentation and distinctive flavour, though they put bit of pasta madre or biga in all the doughs to improve the flavour, texture and the length of time they'll last.
Emilio tells me that, in his opinion, this type of bread is on the way to extinction because it doesn't suit young peoples' life-styles. He frowns, then shrugs:- Young people apparently want soft, soft rolls that they can walk and eat at the same time... I suggest that the rise of interest in Quality over Quantity gives hope of saving traditional large loaves like this, and use the example of the popularity (and relatively high price) of large, rustic loaves sold in farmers markets in London. They've been made to seem desirable because of a change of marketing and attitudes, not particularly because of a change in the products themselves. How bad does food need to get before we reach a fully conscious appreciation of quality? For Emilio, it seems to him unlikely that this will happen soon enough in Sardinia: the dwindling demand for Civraxiu is going to end in its extinction. He can see the quality of bread overall slowly worsening.
I am thinking about Emilio's comment: “You can't charge above normal prices for normal bread.” and wondering when this 'normal' bread will be recognised as a luxury. For me, though I hate the idea of it, 'normal' bread is white sliced stuff that comes in packets. The good thing (!) about industrially-produced bread becoming my 'normal' is that I have recognised better bread as being better, which means I'm willing to pay more for it and I'm happy to do so because I'm treating myself to a 'luxury'. I'd like to be able, as a baker, to charge a price that properly rewards the costs of work and materials. There is a balance to be struck.