The plane drops through the clouds above Olbia on the northeast coast of Sardinia, and tilts on its wing. Below, to the left, is the Mediterranean, a gigantic tablecloth of intense blue. Dotted across it, boats are fishing where men have fished for centuries, bringing their catch into the small harbours and ports that pepper the coastline, scalloped into a succession of bays and coves.
Immediately below, the sharp lines of the Supramonte mountains run like sharks’ fins as far as the eye can see through central-eastern Sardinia. Somewhere among them pastori – shepherds – keep an eye on their herds of sheep or goats, maintaining the solitary and demanding lives of their forebears.
The history of Sardinia, Italy’s second largest island, has been one of conquest and occupation. The mysterious Nuraghic people came around 1800 BC, followed by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Romans, Germanic Vandals, Byzantines, Pisans, Genoese and Spanish, before the island was incorporated into a unified Italy in 1861. While its size and strategic position in the Mediterranean may have attracted hosts of conquerors, the nature of its interior and the independent spirit of its inhabitants ensured that Sardinia was never a placid, compliant colony. Both its food and its dialect are evidence of a strong sense of individuality that lives on to this day.
The work and produce of the fishermen and shepherds still give Sardinia an extraordinary culinary culture, one strictly divided into food from the sea and food from the land. On the coast you eat fish; inland you eat meat. There is very little crossover. Fish stews beside the sea, roasted meats in the mountains – the qualities of the dishes are rooted in region, terrain and tradition, and the Sardinians are proud of those distinctions. To explore Sardinia’s physical landscape is to explore its culinary landscape at one and the same time. And who could resist such a temptation? Certainly not me.
Tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh. 5am. The engine of the Sparviero, a purposeful tub of a fishing boat, shudders into life. The port of Villasimius is cloaked in darkness. Some 20 miles east of the capital Cagliari, at the southern end of the island, Villasimius was once another of those small fishing villages that speckle the coast of Sardinia, but its position and sheltered anchorage lured the yachts of the rich and the cars of the holidaymakers, and now it’s a flourishing centre of tourism. Lights from some of the moored boats send silver ribbons flickering over the gleaming black water. Even above the sound of the engine I can hear the insistent high-pitched zither of crickets.
Silverio Sandolo backs the Sparviero out into clear water and sends the boat nosing past the sleeping mega-cruisers, trim yachts and other fishing boats not making the dawn run. As it moves beyond the protective arm of the harbour wall, the cool breeze of very early morning picks up. Silverio turns east along the coast, which looms, a barely discernible shadow, pricked here and there by individual points of light.
Silverio is one of 10 or so fishermen still working out of Villasimius, selling their catch either in the fish market at Cagliari, or to restaurants in the town and others along the coast. Between them they keep alive a tradition that goes back centuries, a tradition celebrated on the plate in the form of stuffed mussels, marinated anchovies, octopus salad, deep-fried sea anemones, prawns with cannellini beans, and linguine with spiny lobster. Dishes that shine with the life and light of the brilliance of the raw materials.
The first faint glimmers of dawn appear at about 6am – a luminous strip along the line where the sea meets the sky. The Sparviero makes steady progress, heading for the Isola Serpentara, a favourite fishing ground of Silverio’s. The lights of another fishing boat flicker in the darkness away to the right. Silverio keeps up a constant bantering chatter with Antonio Loi, the mate.
The colour of the sea changes as the light advances up the sky. The sharpness of stars dims. The sky turns pink, peach and apricot, shading into pale Prussian grey. Silverio heaves to in the lee of the Isola Serpentara, a small, rocky outcrop rising abruptly from the sea, as the sun breaks over the horizon – half a blood orange rising silently up the sky. Silverio left a necklace of 150 pots for octopus here yesterday. He pulls up a pot, opens the door and brusquely yanks one out, throwing it into a tub sloshing with water.