A TALE OF TWO TOWNS
Nenno – or Salvatore – is stoking the fire, the intense glow from the embers only adding to his excitement. Above, three suckling pigs, no more than four months in age and 6kg in weight, are rotating on a spit, their skin sticky and sweet, their meat tender and moreish after five hours hovering over the flames. ‘This is our culture, our history, our identity,’ he says of the local speciality served at his restaurant of 25 years, Ducato di Sisineddu, and one he first cooked with his grandparents as a boy. ‘Now, let’s have some cheese and wine while we wait,’ he adds with a wry smile, gesturing towards the prized porcine.
I’m on Sant’Antioco, a speck of an island connected to Sardinia’s south-western corner by a mile-long causeway, and one on which you’ll never go hungry. The antithesis of the celebrity playground most commonly associated with the north of Sardinia, Sant’Antioco is largely undiscovered by tourism. A tranquil backwater with two quaint ports, a smattering of ruins dating back to pre-Roman times, a sweeping Mediterranean savannah, the region’s most unspoilt beaches and little else, it’s simple and wild. However, this is a tale of two towns, Calasetta and Sant’Antioco, which are joined by a tangle of winding roads frequented by sheep and flanked by empty rolling hills covered in thickets of myrtle, wild olive trees and heather on one side, and rocky Mediterranean coast on the other. While the distance between the two is a mere 7km, it wouldn’t shock to find them in separate countries. The dialects differ, as does the architecture, but it is the cooking styles that reveal Calasetta and Sant’Antioco’s identities – the only commonality being the lagoon, which pulses through the plates served in both.
In the off-the-beaten-path town of Sant’Antioco, locals gather on the seafront promenade, a stage for animated local fishermen. Sea bream, catfish, tuna, octopus, lobster and crab are cleaned, and tossed into bags from traditional fishing boats – a skill gleaned from parents and grandparents. Warrens of pastel houses (painted in the colour of the flamingoes who act as a welcoming committee to the island) hug cobbled streets that slope upwards towards the basilica. The stone church at the top of the village dates back to the fifth century, and is where the twice-yearly Sagra of Sant’Antioco Martyr takes place. It’s one of the country’s longest standing festivals and the oldest on Sardinia. A colourful celebration of the patron and protector of Sardinia, it culminates with a procession of traditional outfits and copious is coccois pintaus, an ornate bread made by Sant’Antioco women. This is a town rich in history, having played a key role on trade routes developed by the Phoenicians.
This atmospheric town and its environs make so much of what we know today as quality Sardinian food: a vivid melting pot of handmade orecchiette brought together from no more than flour and eggs then served with wild asparagus, crisp and thin pane carasau (a crunchy flatbread known as ‘music paper’), homemade myrtle liqueur, Carignano wine, lavish platters of charcuterie and cheese, beautiful red tuna up to 300kg in size and at its best in May and June – ‘It’s the quality of the sea and what they are eating that make them taste so good,’ says local fisherman Alessandro Mocci – and outstanding bottarga.
The cured and air-dried grey mullet roe that’s nibbled like candy, thinly sliced and drizzled with olive oil, or grated over carbonara or simple pasta dishes, is one of the island’s greatest gastronomic gifts – mouth-fillingly savoury but with a hint of sweetness, a clean, almost almondy scent and a rich amber colour.
Hidden behind a heavy wooden door on a narrow residential street is Solky Affumicati e Salati – Solky Smoked and Salty – an artisan bottarga producer owned by 68-year-old Fernando Antioco Fois. The slim hallway is stacked with colourful retro tins of bottarga, sardines and anchovies drizzled with olive oil, and jars of the revered tuna, ready to send throughout Italy, Denmark, Germany and America. The climate and waters are just right for grey mullet, which are line caught in September when they’re at their fattest. The egg sacs are extracted whole, steeped in local salt and pressed. A few weeks or so of air and sunshine do the job of drying it into the prized ‘Sardinian gold’ for which the area is famed.
While tradition weaves the tapestry of the food, contemporary touches can be seen with the next generation. Although Italy is primarily known for its wine, a vibrant craft beer scene has emerged, with brewers utilising new hops and reinvigorating old styles. Fabrizio Melis, a self-proclaimed ‘mad scientist’, moved back to his home town of Sant’Antioco from Milan in 2009 to set up the now award-winning Rubiu Birrificio Artigianale – a contemporary, industrial brewery-cum-bar-restaurant with cast-iron bistro chairs and open shelves. Serving six beers on tap and three seasonal offerings (including, on my visit, orange) alongside spelt or rye dough pizzas, and cakes spiked with beer, including a gloriously rich chocolate torte that, once eaten, will not be easily forgotten.
The neighbouring fishing town and port of Calasetta, with its pristine beaches of Spiaggia Grande and Le Saline, alternating rocky areas, dunes, and local vegetation, form a rugged paradise. Noticeably smaller, with a population of just over 3,000, locals perch on granite benches still warm from the day’s sun overlooking the inlay where crab traps hang from the side of bright blue boats to lure the catch of the day for cassolla, a fragrant tomato-based soup typical to the town. Calasetta was founded by coral and tuna fishermen originally from Pegli but arriving from the Tunisian island of Tabarka in 1769. Today, the Ligurian cultural history and dialect remains intact, with houses painted all white with an occasional splash of sea blue, and the church Arabic in design. Food closely follows the seasons, and Tunisian influences line the plates of typical seafood and charcoal-grilled meats – this is the home of the spit-roasted suckling pig – served alongside couscous and chewy fregula pasta peppered generously with North African spices.
‘We’re rich in ingredients,’ says Carlo Biggio, the 30-year-old chef-owner of Mamma Fina, ladling pilau into a casserole dish. ‘Traditional, rustic dishes are so important, like casca (a couscous, pork, vegetable and chickpea dish), but I do like to give things a modern twist.’ Though the food of Calasetta is little changed, its people have become more organised. Every morning, Biggio’s father goes out to collect wild herbs such as thyme, oregano and rosemary, and this self-sufficiency extends to the two products that have permeated kitchens and dining rooms the world over: oil and wine. Locals take their homegrown olives to factories to make their own extra virgin olive oil, while a queue forms at the nearby wine co-operative, where seven Carignano wines, from dry and harmoniously intense to delicate and fruity, are poured into empty bottles and containers from what could be quite easily be mistaken by the uninitiated for petrol pumps.
In this beautiful and undiscovered part of Italy, these two very different towns have been sustaining life for centuries through their equally different foodstuffs, from bottarga and red tuna to spit-roasted suckling pig. Tradition may be rooted firmly on the island, but it’s the joy of simple pleasures that won’t fail to enchant.
‘Locals take their homegrown olives to factories to make their own extra virgin olive from dry and harmoniously intense to delicate and fruity, are poured into empty bottles
This page, from top: regional costume; townspeople honour Sant’Antioco’s patron twice a year. Opposite page, clockwise from top left: the parade; a woman holds is coccois pintaus; the ornate bread; Rubiu; a Sant’Antioco man; the party continues into the night; antipasti at Sa Ruscitta; suckling pig at Ducato di Sisineddu; dinner at Rubiu
From top: regional dress is worn by all at the festival in Sant’Antioco; the rugged beauty of the Sardinian coast