Lorighittas, a Sardinian pasta in the shape of an earring, has been passed down by women from generation to generation. However, the dish has remained unknown to the outside world.

The road from Santa Teresa Gallura to Porto Cervo on Sardinia’s northern coast twists and turns with the painstaking precision I’d imagined goes into the handwoven needlepoint pillows I saw in the airport gift shop earlier that week. With every unforgiving turn, I was silently cursing the bottle of vermentino and swills of mirto – a berry-based liqueur made from the myrtle plant that flourishes in this region – from the night before. Handmade textiles, much like homemade food (and mirto), are a journey into the soul of a place, and I had no set itinerary except to taste the bounty of locally made pasta, pecorino and anything typically Sardo in between.

This pasta is special

By the time I sat down for lunch at Il Pomodoro Restaurant, a casual outpost in Costa Smeralda known for serving up traditional Sardo fare, I was famished. I ordered the special, a handmade pasta called lorighittas in a seafood broth.

A few minutes later appeared a bowl of twisted golden ringlets so perfectly braided I’d swear even Rapunzel would be impressed.

“This pasta is special,” Agostino Demontis, maître of Pomodoro Restaurant at Cervo Hotel said.

You may also be interested in:
• The secret behind Italy’s rarest pasta
• The pasta dish Sardinians refuse to share
• The last surviving sea silk seamstress

The story behind lorighittas’ name, derived from the Sardinian word ‘lorigas’, which loosely translates into ‘iron ring’ according to Demontis, varies depending on who you ask. Demontis, who’s from Segariu, a town not far from Morgongiori where lorighittas hail from, said the name comes from the iron rings that were once fixed to the walls of local houses to tether horses and oxen when men returned from the fields. However, there’s another meaning. Lorighittas also loosely translates to the Sardinian word for ‘ears’.

“Sometimes lorighittas were prepared by unmarried young women and teenagers who would hang the pasta on their ears after drying them under the sun. [They’d] pretend that these were real jewels since not everyone had access to gold back in these days,” Demontis said.

No matter where you go in Sardinia, the landscape proves to be an easy distraction. You can’t help but feel bewitched by the occasional ancient ruins poking out of unkempt brush, or the sight of grazing sheep, more than 3.5 million I’m told, meandering along the road. It’s idyllic and wild, and changes from glittering coastal inlets to a more rugged inland landscape. The island’s history of isolation and subsequently being conquered by pretty much every neighbouring Mediterranean stronghold over the centuries, has played an integral role in the culinary traditions and customs that have prevailed over the years.

Specialties like fregola, a doughy pellet-sized pasta; malloreddus alla Campidanese, with almost insect-looking shells that are made by hand-rolling dough on round reed baskets; and su filindeu, one of the rarest pasta-making traditions in the world today, have put Sardinian pasta dishes on the map. However, lorighittas have remained relatively unknown to the outside world.

“Nobody knows about lorighittas – it’s one of Sardinia’s well-kept secrets,” said Efisio Farris, author and Sardinian chef based in Texas. “Nobody knows and nobody talks about it.” Born in Orosei on Sardinia’s eastern coast, Farris moved to the US in 1986.

Nobody knows about lorighittas – it’s one of Sardinia’s well-kept secrets

“When I started my restaurant in 1988 in Dallas, I wanted to introduce people to this food that I grew up with,” Farris said. “It’s also a tribute to my family, and it’s important to preserve these recipes and stories.

After visiting Morgongiori with his aunt a couple years ago, Farris met two women who were making lorighittas by hand, and knew he’d stumbled on something that he had to bring back to the US.

“I was kind of worried, because of how labour-intensive lorighittas are to make – and each one is made by hand – that I needed to charge higher for the dish…,” he said. “But people recognised the quality and flavour of the dish, and it became an instant favourite in our restaurant.”

Nestled in the foothills of Monte Arci in western Sardinia, the village of Morgongiori dates back thousands of years to the Nuragic era between 900 and 500BC. The first settlers arrived in the 6th Century BC in search of obsidian, a precious black stone derived from volcanic activity prominent in the region. Today, this town of around 800 inhabitants is perhaps best known for its handicraft rugs and tapestries, which are traditionally woven on ancient horizontal looms and are preserved in the village’s Museo Vivente dell’Arte Tessile. The second most recognised craft, however, is lorighittas, listed as endangered by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste

“Lorighittas are considered to be very valuable because we were at risk of losing dishes like this completely,” said Raimondo Mandis, president of Cagliari’s Slow Food chapter in a telephone conversation. “There were no more than 10 women who were hand-making lorighittas, and that was on a seasonal basis.”

The first recorded history of lorighittas dates to the 16th Century, in a testimony regarding the production of a peculiar pasta braided in the shape of a ring in Sardinia. The report was made to the King of Spain, who had control over most of southern Italy including Sardinia, Naples and Sicily at the time, and who had inquired about the economic activities happening on the island.

Traditionally, Mandis explained, lorighittas were prepared exclusively in Morgongiori for the feast that takes place on All Saints Day every year on 1 November. “Like many regions throughout Italy and especially Sardinia, food customs and traditions are tied to villages for anything from religious reasons or family gatherings to Sunday lunch,” he said.

One of Morgongiori’s most popular fables, told to local children, is the story of Maria Pungi Pungi. Armed with a pitchfork, this witch-like character would fly over the houses on the night of All Saints Day and pierce the bellies of children who had eaten too many lorighittas, so that the pasta would fall out.

Over the centuries, Sardinia’s pastoral culture dictated that it was a woman’s duty to take care of food preparations while the men were busy on the fields, so it’s not unusual that dishes like this would be made primarily by women, Mandis told me.

Their shape [is] an embroidery of pasta that’s traditionally passed down from mother to daughter

“The name lorighittas reckons the idea of little ears,” Mandis said. “But their shape is connected to wedding rings, preciously made by women's hands, an embroidery of pasta that’s traditionally passed down through the women of the family from mother to daughter.”

While there remains some debate over whether lorighittas were made exclusively by unmarried women in the village in the hopes of securing a husband, given Sardinia’s history of superstitions relating to food and matrimony, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine.

“There are many traditions in Sardinia relating to food and marriage,” Mandis said. “For lorighittas, it has to do with the idea that for young, single women in a large family, it was a tradition or a wish for them to get married – so while they were waiting on a wedding ring, they would work on this ring-like pasta in the kitchen with their mothers and grandmothers.”

Inspired by the stories I’d heard, I returned from Sardinia determined to make lorighittas from scratch. The recipe, which only calls for three ingredients – a semolina-based durum flour (a typical wheat grown in the fields of Sardinia) lukewarm water and salt – should be easy enough, I thought. It’s the actual hand rolling and twisting of the dough that takes years to master.

“In my opinion, the hard part isn’t learning how to prepare lorighittas, but in the level of dexterity it takes to shape them,” Francesca Turnu, councillor of the Municipality of Morgongiori said. “And it is a culinary tradition that is alive [in this town] because the women of Morgongiori continue to make it this way by hand to this day.”

Dexterity be damned, I thought as I began furiously massaging the durum mix into a pliant-enough lump of dough that would eventually transform into the twisty little ringlets that’d make the women of Morgongiori proud. After an hour of kneading and hand-rolling the dough into bucatini-thin noodles, it was time for the real challenge. I took my first long strip of dough and rounded it twice between my forefinger and thumb, and started, ever so gently to twist.

The hard part isn’t learning how to prepare lorighittas, but in the level of dexterity it takes to shape them

Today, as they’ve done for hundreds of years, women in Morgongiori knead the dough for a minimum of 30 minutes, often much longer, dabbing it occasionally with salty water until it’s nice and pliable. Once the dough is ready and the pieces of lorighittas are plaited, they’re left on a reed basket to dry, which is a good time to get started on the sauce. In Morgongiori, a typical ragu will include either chicken or pigeon with onion, garlic, parsley, white wine and tomato passata. Once the lorighittas are cooked (for less than three minutes), they’re coated with fresh pecorino cheese and layered with the ragu.

Sounds easy enough, except that four hours and fewer than 10 semi-passable pieces of lorighittas later, I had to throw in the towel. Maybe they didn’t turn out as planned because I’m married and live in a one-bedroom loft apartment in Jersey City – or maybe I just need to get a few more centuries of practice under my belt.

Every village in Sardinia has its own foods that are steeped largely in tradition using local produce. “The climate changes quite a bit from the central, more mountainous part of the island where pastoralism is really dominant,” said Carole Counihan, professor emerita of anthropology at Millersville University in the US state of Pennsylvania and visiting professor at Cagliari University in Sardinia. “Everybody has vegetable gardens, and sheep herding is dominant in central mountain regions, but then there are places where fishing is important, especially in the coastal regions, so there’s a lot of variation in the diet.”

Counihan, who has studied Sardinian food and food activism traditions in her fieldwork, said the downturn in maintaining cultural food customs really started to take a turn in the 1980s with the introduction of supermarkets in Sardinia.

“Sardinia has more square metres of supermarkets than any other region in Italy, so a lot of people I interviewed through my fieldwork said ‘[when] I was little I ate mostly from local farmers and shepherds’,” Counihan said. “Part of that shift is due to the decline of local agriculture and pastoralism, which people are now trying to bring back. There’s been a resurgence of young farmers going back to the land with new ways and new models of supporting the local food movement that’s starting to take shape.”

The effort to maintain lorighittas started in 1994, when the Morgongiori town council got together and decided to host a festival dedicated to this special pasta. Renzo Ibba, mayor of Morgongiori, said the town also invited some of Sardinia’s most acclaimed chefs at the time – including Roberto Petza, owner and chef of Michelin-starred S'apposentu di Casa Puddu in Siddi, a village in central Sardinia not far from Morgongiori – to come and present different recipes.

“The [town] council also involved local, small producers (all women) to give tradition a new life, thanks to an EU-funded programme that helped them emerge from a family production to a professional undertaking,” Ibba said.

It’s good to see something revitalised that was all but lost

Today, the town of Morgongiori continues to dedicate the first Sunday of August to lorighittas in a town-wide festival called Sagra Delle Lorighittas to showcase its culinary legacy.

“Now, thanks to a few good chefs, we are seeing lorighittas on menus and in restaurants around the country; they are much more common,” Mandis said. Mostly, you will see them made in very good restaurants and it’s good to see something revitalised that was all but lost.”

Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Travel, Capital, Culture, Earth and Future, delivered to your inbox every Friday.