Sardinia, land and sea
Antonio’s son Lino carries on the family tradition, with about three hundred goats and thirty or so pigs. The pigs are smallish, curious mottled animals, which range freely over the mountain, feeding on the acorns from the cork and holm oaks that flourish in the parched soil. Lino comes up each morning between 6am and 6.30am, checks on his goats, feeding and milking them, before returning home at about 8pm or 9pm. Shepherds must do this every day because, as Antonio says with a wry grin, ‘the goats don’t take holidays’. But if the pattern for managing the goats hasn’t changed, other parts of the shepherds’ life have. ‘These days,’ Antonio says, ‘the pastori come up in their four-wheel drives.’
The ground becomes increasingly treacherous as we climb – loose shale banked around crests of rock worn to flesh-slashing sharpness by wind and rain, but presently we come down into a shaded enclosure. Places for lunch are laid at a long trestle table in the cool shade of a large holm oak. We’ve been walking for nearly five hours. ‘Five hours!’ says Lino. ‘You should have done it in one.’
Lino is as thin as a whippet, all sinew and lean muscle, and dark with the sun. Dry humour lurks behind his taciturn manner and austere features. He busies himself at the barbecue pit. The embers of a fire glow in the middle. Lunch is porceddu (suckling pig), the offspring of one of the families we’ve seen during the day, split down the middle and cooked in a metal frame leant against the stones and turned from time to time.
But before that comes moddizzosu – potato bread not unlike pitta bread, but lighter and fluffier, suggesting a small, warm bread duvet. It sits very happily with slices of dark, purple, dense salami; cured belly – pink reefs of meat in wide seas of white fat; and guanciale, cured pig’s cheek. They’ve been thick cut, and the fat has a dense, silky delicacy. There are homegrown tomatoes of penetrating freshness and good wine from a jug, the kind of everyday food and drink enjoyed by Sardinians of the mountains. ‘Cooking is the culture of the people,’ says Antonio.
Now it’s time for the porceddu. Lino unclips the metal frame that’s been holding it, and flips it into a huge wooden trough lined with paper. He takes a massive cleaver and hacks the tiny carcass into small chunks with casual force, and tosses them into a wooden bowl. The skin of the suckling pig is as thin, as crisp as the layer of caramel on top of a crème brûlée. The meat is sweet and delicate, and the abundant fat carries hints of the herbs and roots foraged on the hillsides around. I suck the meat from the bones, wipe the grease from my chin and go back for another mouthful.
We eat neat, narrow triangles of four-month-old clarissa cheese, made by hand by Lino. It is firm, close-textured, with a lovely fresh, lactic tang to it. And casu marzu, the pungent cheese famous for visibly containing tiny maggots. It’s squidgy and spreadable. There don’t seem to be any maggots today, but the cheese is deliciously meaty and potent.
The life of a shepherd is hard and solitary, and the financial rewards are slim. ‘No holidays, little money,’ as Lino sums up his life choice. But he wouldn’t change it. ‘I have freedom,’ he says simply. ‘I’m very independent, like the goats.’ As with Silverio and his fishing boat, I wonder whether his children will want to share the same life. It would be sad to think that one day the pastori might fade like the carillon of their goats’ bells upon the bright air of the Supramonte mountains. But some traditions will not die out. Not up here on the high pastures. Not yet.