Food and Travel (UK) - - 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

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