Sardinia, land and sea

The coastline and mountains offer two unique food cultures in Italy’s island region of Sardinia. Follow a fisherman and a shepherd on a culinary journey to trace their roots.

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.

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.

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.

The article 'Sardinia, land and sea' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.