Sardinia, land and sea
It’s 8am now, and the sun is full, gilding the sea. The air is warm, rich with the smells of iodine, diesel, seaweed and salt. We move back to where Silverio has left a line with hooks baited with sardines. The line stretches through the clear, aquamarine water. Far down something flutters whitely, like a handkerchief. It’s a skate, unhooked with matter-of-fact speed and tossed into another tub. It’s joined by a small conger eel, and another moray. And then, drawn up from the depths, is a dentex – a magnificent, glittering, chain-mailed monster, closely related to sea bream, with a tail like a propeller, and the face of a disappointed alderman. Silverio and Antonio grin with pleasure.
They seem faintly surprised by their good luck. And even more surprised when its twin is hauled aboard shortly afterwards.
Later, I’ll find samples of the day’s catch, including dentex, at the market in Cagliari. The marble slabs fronting each stall shimmer with glittery, glimmery, spangled fish – sardines, sea bass, cod, grey mullet, red mullet, scarlet and gold as a brocaded waistcoat. There’s a tray full of languorously squirming eels, as thin as bootlaces, and mounds of cardinal-red prawns. An octopus gloopily clambers over the bodies of some of its kind. These are the materials used to form dishes such as the warm salad of prawn tails, fish stew or pasta with sea urchin roe served in the restaurants of Villasimius.
For now though, Silverio secures his boat at the marina and prepares to take in his haul. His movements are quick and purposeful, born of many years’ experience – and he could go on for many years to come. There are five marine reserves around Sardinia that act as hatcheries and nurseries for breeding fish, which then move out of the protected areas into those parts where the fishermen are licensed to work. This network of reserves means that the fisheries around Sardinia remain sustainable, feeding locals and providing a livelihood for the fishermen.
‘My father was a fisherman,’ Silverio says, ‘and his father, too. We’re a family of fishermen. Whether my son will be one as well – who knows? It’s better to study.’ He shrugs and looks out to the flat blue line of the horizon for a moment. ‘But the sea, the sea. It’s always in your blood.’
If the sea is one defining aspect of Sardinia, mountains are the other. Travel from Villasimius in the south to Dorgali in the northeast and you’ll pass through a forbidding landscape of razor-backed mountains clad with pines, holm oak and cork trees, between which grow the macchie, the fragrant scrub and shrubs so distinctive of the Mediterranean. The area of mountains known as the Supramonte rises between Dorgali and Mamoiada to the west, with Orgosolo at its heart. These peaks were once the kingdom of shepherds, charcoal burners, kidnappers and bandits. Now only the shepherds remain.
Antonio Fronteddu is a 70-year-old retired shepherd and he has spent decades roving among these peaks. He still moves with an effortless steadiness over the testing terrain, not a bead of sweat on his bald pate or smooth brow, both tanned a rich chestnut. Goats file through the scrub, an irregular column, with goatee beards, horns like the handles of mountain bikes and mad, golden, dreamy eyes, led by a ram with scimitar horns. The herd ambles round the edge of the slope at a deliberate pace and fades into the myrtle, cistus, holm oak and pine. Gradually the musical tinkle of their bells disappears into the great silence of the mountains.
Until quite recently, there were 30 or 40 pastori and their herds on these particular peaks. Today, there are just three or four – and although there are more to be found practising the old ways on the surrounding mountains that run to the horizon, theirs is a way of life that is slowly disappearing.