The fire snapped and crackled as the ancient olive wood burnt in the enormous fireplace. The smoke gently flavouring the suckling pig as it turned slowly on the large metal stake like spit. This was dinner Sardinian style.
We’d set out some three hours previously from the centre of Cagliari to Dolianova, a small town ten kilometres away. This had been a last minute booking and only the four of us were on the Food tour. After looking at the eleventh century Cathedral, we headed off into the dusk and the countryside to an olive oil pressing mill. Huge mounds of untidy spiky Paw Paws loomed out of the gloom giving way to contorted ancient olive trees, making the landscape more Arthur Rackham than regional Italy.
Down a rutted dusty track with a strong fragrance of cedar and pine from the Mastic bushes. We eventually arrived at the mill. It was now quite dark but the machinery was in full force. Precariously stacked, tiny three wheeled trucks, that are made to buzz up and down the narrow romanesque streets, queued to deliver the days crop. Stocky, weathered farmers in cotton overalls unloaded their bright green olives, emptying the multicoloured plastic crates into huge containers, along with a variety of massive jerry cans and shiny milk churns ready for the freshly pressed oil.
Despite the machinery being really high tech and computer operated, much of it was outside under the glass awning and in a slightly Heath Robinson way the crushing process trailed through the ‘L’ shaped veranda and on into the mill interior. Each stage was carefully monitored until a deep green viscous, unfiltered and fragrant oil poured into the eclectic mix of containers. Each farmer taking home his own pressed olive oil after just one hour.
After a wonderful tasting of unfiltered and flavoured oils with copious amounts of crusty country bread, we piled back into the car to make our way, in the pitch black that only truly rural countryside can offer, to the Agritourismo Baccu Cardu.
I’m not sure we would have found it on our own in the light. In the dark, we seemed to be driving swiftly towards misshapen silhouettes of trees, momentarily illuminated by our headlights, before rapidly changing direction. Like a ride on an old fashioned ghost train swinging round the tracks. Finally we pulled up in front of a sizeable farmhouse.
The large beamed restaurant was empty, but the greeting from the farmer and his wife was extremely warm. The huge fireplace, I mentioned earlier, was in one corner, the remainder of the space set with gingham covered tables. Across the front of the room was a demonstration area for us to join in making a traditional Sardinian dessert – Seadas. Made from a lard dough, formed like ravioli and filled with young provolone cheese and lemon zest, before being fried in olive oil. The final touch – a drizzle of local honey.
We were constantly distracted by the theatre of the suckling pig and the wonderful smelling fire. The demo over, we sat down to a fabulous spread of truly local dishes. An anti pasti of local cheeses and parmesan, cured meats including proscuitto crudo, salami and guanciale (pig’s cheek) which, although being more fat than meat, is sliced very thinly and has a wonderful flavour. Plates of homegrown aubergines soft and sweet, charred from the grill and artichokes drizzled with olive oil.
This was followed by two pasta dishes, made using their own flour, a pappardelle with cream and artichoke hearts and enormous pillows of ravioli stuffed with ricotta and parsley in a tomato sauce. Copious amounts of wine were poured and then the suckling pis was served. Cut into bite size pieces it was presented in an oval cork bowl, very typical of the area. Crisp crackling and meat flavoured with the olive smoke, it was delicious, but we’d already eaten so much. Fennel and potatoes were served on the side and we settled into enjoying our main course.
Finally the dessert we’d helped to make, was lightly fried until it was pale golden brown and drizzled with honey which melted over the warm crust. This was like a mini pie, crispy on the outside and melting lemon cheese flavour in the centre. The provolone is so young it tastes more like a ricotta. Grappa and limoncello followed the dessert and we left merry and very full.
This was a wonderful way to spend the evening and a very different sort of food tour. We would never have discovered these dishes left to our own devices in Cagliari and a chance to see the true traditions of any country is a privilege.
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