Sardinia Scenes: A few very special meals enjoyed on Italy’s wild Island
By Max Hartshorne
Today we got a chance to see the breadth of this huge island, the sweeping interior that is barely covered with civilization even though man has walked these hills and valleys for more than 6,000 years. Actually, it was probably longer, since that only takes into account as far back as the Phoenicians, and somebody was likely to already be living here when they arrived.
The drive from the east coast to the tip of the far Northwest was across a giant-sized valley. The sweep of the green fields, cut up broadly by stone fences, and punctuated by a surprising number of small extinct volcanoes, was breathtaking in how far you could see.
Many of the little farm buildings we saw were abandoned, and some of the hills had small conical buildings that were once dwellings before even the Romans lived here.
A Shepard on a Hill
Today’s highlight was meeting a shepherd who lives way up on top of a hill in the Supramonte mountain range. We boarded four jeeps and drove up a rugged trail to the top, where this man has lived for decades, with no wife, just 70 sheep.
A long wooden table was prepared for our large group, and strong local wine was served in pitchers, in front of our wooden plates. Sheep’s milk ricotta with rosemary honey was the first treat, made that morning, and served on the wafer-thin bread found all over Sardinia. Then the salamis and the prosciutto, and then fresh sliced tomatoes…but inside a little conical hut, the shepherd was busy.
He was turning a little spit and roasting two suckling pigs just for us. Deliciously creamy with crispy fat and tender lean meat, the pork treat came out right after the sliced fennel, and more of that tempting ricotta from a large deep pan.
The setting was under bamboo reeds, and the views of the valley and the dramatic rocks above us were spectacular. A gorgeous sunny day, the buzz from that strong wine, and time to relax with a digestif…ahh, this was the pleasure that we knew we would eventually find on this big wild island of Sardinia.
Tomorrow we leave so early that we will be in Trastevere, Rome’s famous neighborhood, by nine am. This hotel is gorgeous with a front-row view of the inlet from the Mediterranean. We got here at about 9:30 pm and will leave before the sun comes up…but no worries, as we are still thinking about that great mountain lunch with the lonely shepherd.
Eating a 50-foot diet in Orroli
Imagine eating an entire dinner that all came from within 50 feet of your house. In the US, we pat ourselves on the back for the 100-mile diet, and it’s hard to do even that.
But tonight we met a family that runs a museum, a farm, and a restaurant in central Sardinia where everything they serve comes from their own land and their own hands.
Agostina Vargiu and his 79-year-old mom plus various staff and other family welcomed us with a glass of fruity white wine served from ceramic pitchers as we walked up the cobblestoned driveway in the town of Orroli, near the middle of this large island. It’s called OmuAxiu, and it is a truly memorable place to spend the night or just a few hours over a long dinner.
Touring the Nuraghi
We had toured the ancient ruins of the Nuraghi, bronze age towers built by the Phoenicians and decapitated by the Romans, who feared that the strategic turrets would serve someone else’s defense needs.
These are located on windswept plains with miles of views of distant mountains. Carefully constructed without mortar, we shared this dramatic site with a hoard of about 100 teenagers, who were interested in talking to us about their favorite musicians (Genesis).
The town of Orroli has just 2700 residents and boasts an amazing 35 citizens over the age of 100. So when we met the matriarch of the Vargiu family, who was celebrating her 79th birthday, we knew she was just getting warmed up. After touring their museum with ancient farm implements, including a Bubba brand tractor from 1918, we parked ourselves in their cellar for the meal.
A 50-foot Meal
Like so many great foods, it was the simplicity that made it so delicious–roasted eggplant and fennel, redolent of sweet apple, crusty bread and a thinner bread spread with bruschetta, and thin homemade pasta and prosciutto and salamis with their own red wine.
We stopped by a little store and bought a uniquely Sardinian pasta called Fregula, little balls that look like giant couscous but cook up like pasta. These were also in the farm’s pasta course.
Then came the carne, veal chunks, and pieces of roasted wild boar. We toasted our host and hostesses when they came out to say hello and sang happy birthday to the smiling matriarch in Italian.
During dinner a woman who’s originally from Guyana told us the harrowing details she learned about the only thing people think about when they hear this country’s name–the Jonestown massacre of 1979.
There is nothing that I enjoy better than fascinating conversations over delicious food, and the company of people with knowledge to share and curiosity about the world they travel in. A fine night indeed!
Nora by the Sea
We packed a lot into yesterday, but the highlight was Nora. She is an old gal who lives by the sea, a Phoenician-Roman ruins site that was once a well-defended coastal town.
Now these ruins show the levels of ancient civilizations, layer over layer, and as you walk by the former forum or the home of the patrician, you can imagine life inside these tiny rooms that are just shells now.
The pounding sea made a calming background noise as we toured around the former town at the tip of land sticking out just east of the city of Caligari. After cocktails and dinner with lots of excellent Sardinian wines, we were regaled by a band that included a giant mandolin and a curious reed instrument with three reeds played at once.
The backdrop was a 10-foot screen showing scenes in nature of the wild interior of Sardinia….it was quite a site combined with these five musicians to see the beauty and rough-hewn cliffs that border this large island.
Kidnapping on Sardinia
On our final day of this trip to Sardinia, we took advantage of a long layover to take a train into Rome, where we had pizzas at the Campo dei Fiori. It was lovely sitting under umbrellas eating margherita pizzas and not having any wine since last week had been so full of fine wine–and how many days in a row can you gulp down wine at lunch and dinner? I had reached my limit and was happy to have a Coke with my anchovy pie.
Before I left for this trip, my wise old friend Ed told me over lunch that I should be careful…I was entering a wild land where kidnapping is common. He added that many of the criminals send pieces of victims’ ears to reinforce their demands for ransoms. “I’m not kidding,” he said, “It’s real.”
A woman we met from the Tourism board in Calgiari scoffed when I brought this up at dinner the first night. “That’s like me being afraid to drive by a school in the US because someone might shoot at me,” she said there was nothing to fear.
Then as we drove in the bus toward a national park on the eastern side of the island called Supramonte, our guide pointed to a little town. “This is a wild place, the capital of kidnapping. There have been two kidnappings this year, but it’s not as bad as they say.”
So I had to give my old pal Ed credit, he was right, there are still kidnappings on this wild island. But I don’t think they are targeting journalists or tour operators, so we’ve escaped unharmed and lived to tell the tale.
When you think that the Phoenicians preceded the Greeks, it’s hard to imagine how old the sites are. Sardinia is wild, old, and a place you’ll never feel crowded.