Maria was everything you could ask for, the perfect endorsement for the entire Mediterranean basin — slim, beautiful and sun-kissed enough to make pale Brits abroad appear all the more pale and conscious of it. Welcome to Sardinia.
We’d already been on Sardinian soil for over two hours. Initially struck by the heat and stench of cigarette smoke as we stepped out of the airport terminus and then stuck in the traffic of small dented cars, accessorised with duct tape and drivers lazily smoking. It’s late summer and the heat has yet to die down. Cattle graze underneath the shade of a single pine tree, the backdrop is more mountainous than I imagined. A giant granite ridge arching out of the Mediterranean sea. The island is ruled by the land rather than the sea and was long invaded by Carthaginians, Moors and Romans for it to ever be safe to settle on the coast. In the mountains during traditional festivals, the locals wear wooden masks carved into the faces of sheep and cattle, painted black, and shaggy woollen vests. Sardinia has nothing to do with sardines.
We eventually meet Maria late afternoon who, in her denim shorts that made you forget everything about home, guided us around our villa at Porto Raffael. Other villas are carved into the hillside: ancient granite torn by thousands of years of coastal winds — blasted and distorted into rising curves of stone that seabirds nest in. Across the water lies La Madellena where Admiral Horatio Nelson based his fleet during the Napoleonic Wars; the battleships now long gone and replaced by sailing boats, ferries and expensive yachts. We will look out at this view for many hours, eating fat marinated olives and drinking the local beer called Ichnusa. There’s something about foreign beer that makes it taste better than anything you have at home when drunk in the sun and without a care to occupy your head.
Before every meal your given pane carasau: thin crisps of twice baked bread with a history as ancient as the island itself and originally baked for the isle’s shepherds to survive on when living in the mountains for months at a time. We dine early by Italian standards, early enough for us to practically have the restaurants to ourselves. I order a dish of gnocchetti; a curved pasta with deep grooves traditional to Sardinia that roughly translates to “fat little calves.” The pasta is served in a simple tomato sauce with sausage meat and flavoured with rosemary, which grows wildly on the steep and dry hills. It is rich and satisfying, like a meal your mother may cook you and brings back feelings of belonging and care.
Another night in a seedy restaurant with small tables cramped too tightly together and another pasta dish, this time linguine with clams and bottarga. Bottarga is the salted roe of a flathead mullet and is grated into the sauce like you would parmesan for seasoning. It gives great depth to simple ingredients and mediocre cooking. The clams are everything and everywhere and I find myself ordering them wherever we go. Hideously expensive in Britain and refreshingly abundant here, they are sweet and delicious and cooked with almost everything; with bottarga, with olives and olive oil, with courgettes, with another Sardinian pasta called fregola, and served with whole deep-fried dogfish with lemon halves. If I picked up anything from Sardinia it is a love of clams and a great disappointment that I do not eat them at home.
The meal starts with bread and it ends with a drink. Ichnusa makes its way throughout the meal, beer being more heavily drunk here than wine and is available at every bar, restaurant and café. There is a bad tendency to finish the meal with a shot of Mirto, a liqueur made from the myrtle plant that grows freely across the island. It is a sickly, black colour that scrapes across your tastebuds and strips them of any good taste previously there, inevitably spoiling the good grace of the chef and the excellence of their produce. Once you learn your lesson and decline the offer of Mirto, the meal can have a fitting ending. A negroni is the optimum: bitter gin, Campari, vermouth and orange. Bitterness is undervalued as a flavour but Italy understands its worth; oranges and lemons, Campari and delicate leaves of radicchio and endive lightly dressed in olive oil — it’s a bitterness that sharpens the senses. The deep colour of the negroni echoes the colour of the setting sun, the heat becomes muted and my mind focuses on the beauty of simple ingredients put together well, which is surely the very backbone of all good cooking. Back at home, I spend too much of my time dreaming of eating Sardinia.