Sardinia. I’ve never been. And I know very little about it either. “It’s in Italy right?” Well no, not quite, it’s a separate island, the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (after Sicily and before Cyprus) and an autonomous region of Italy. (Thanks Wikipedia). You probably knew this but I never listened in Geography lessons.
Our trip here is for a few days, courtesy of South West London deli and Sardinian specialists Vallebona. Owner, Stefano Vallebona, takes a small group over to meet some of his suppliers and showcase what this beautiful, and often overlooked, region has to offer. And he invites me.
If you don’t eat Bottarga while in Sardinia then something’s gone wrong. It’s like caviar to them. This smoked fish roe is pungent to say the least – we tour a small, family-owned smokery and it’s a seafood aroma that will stay with me, and my clothes, for the rest of my life. It’s really quite special stuff though.
We have dinner at hotel Sa Pedrera where chef prepares a menu dedicated to bottarga. Shaved and grated it can be a little overwhelming but mixed into a giant plate of pasta carbonara it brings a rich creaminess that is positively moreish.
Pasta is ‘the thing’ out here. And seafood. We stop at restaurants on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, next to cliffs with views out onto the sea, and eat fresh fried calamari and clams and seafood linguine. The restaurants we visit are family owned and run which is always nice to see.
We take to the hills to meet a shepherd in his rickety hut – this is proper off-road stuff. He speaks no English but is the height of hospitality. We eat ‘maggot cheese’ which luckily contains no maggots but is nicknamed this because of its closeness to being rotten. It’s actually quite pleasant (strong of course) washed down with a plastic cupful of Vermouth or three.
He shows us how to make fresh ricotta. He’s a master at this and uses no flashy tech or gismos. Just fresh sheep’s milk, a gas burner and a couple of old pans. This guy doesn’t even have running water. The result is a light, creamy and utterly delicious cheese.
Next, it’s the olive groves to watch the olive tree shaker machines work their magic. A small tractor with a pincer grabs the tree, rigorously shakes it ’til all the olives fall onto the sheets below then a sea of workers fold said sheets and place them in a truck.
It’s a choreographed dance where no-one puts a foot wrong. It’s called Fois and it’s the most peppery and wonderful olive oil I’ve tasted.
A highlight meal is at Azienda Sa Mandra where we eat more endless plates of perfect pasta. The restaurant is huge and consists of multiple dining rooms. We’re seated in a circular thatched hut which is most unusual and lots of fun.
They specialise in suckling pig which are butterflied then skewered and placed upright in an open fire. The result is insanely crisp crackling and soft, sweet meat. This cooking method means the fat is constantly basting the meat and it’s quite a spectacle to watch them cooking.
Our trip finishes with lunch at the home of Stefano’s parents. His mother cooks us tagliatelle with a veal Bolognese and, unsurprisingly, it’s the best food we have all trip. There really isn’t anything better than a home cooked meal from an Italian mother. You’ll struggle to find a warmer welcome too.
I’ve never been to Sardinia before but it’s the sort of place I’ll long to return to. It’s constant blue skies and plates of pasta and quick pit stops for Campari Sprits. If that isn’t the perfect holiday then I don’t know what is.