Sardinia From the Inside
The effervescent Francesco immediately sat me down on the terrazzo and plied me with some homemade Vov, a creamy, alcoholic zabaglione-like drink, which soothed my scratchy throat. Next he poured me a small liquor glass full of auburn-hued mirto, the most famous of the Sardinian liqueurs, made from myrtle berries. Sards make mirto nearly as casually as Americans squeeze orange juice, and every family's version will be slightly different. Francesco's tasted vaguely like raspberries and prunes.
We sat on the terrazzo and started talking about the dinner to come. Halfway through our conversation, Antonella decided that it was time for a snack. I followed her into the kitchen. Taking a couple of sheets of pani carasÓu, she dipped them in water until they were as pliable as wet chamois cloth and arranged them on a baking tray. Then she brushed them with olive oil, sprinkled them with rosemary, salted them, rolled them up, and baked them until they were almost crisp. I scarfed mine down in a second and wanted more. Like so many traditional Sardinian preparations, this pani guttiÓu was ingeniously simple and very flavorful.
Once the dinner menu had been discussed and our snack gobbled, Giovanna took me out to the garden. Mature apple, pear, quince, fig, walnut, pine, pomegranate, and almond trees were planted there. So were sivigliano olive trees (the Spanish sevillano), which produces large, sweet fruit that the Chessas harvest and take to the town press to be turned into their own green, fruity oil. We hopped over a maze of pipes and ditches in the vegetable garden, a series of haphazard-looking patches filled with nascent cabbages, tomatoes, zucchini and their delicate yellow flowers, fennel, carrots, and a host of other vegetables and fruits, including green melons and grapevines of cannonau (Spain's garnacha, France's grenache), from which Francesco makes about 100 bottles of wine every year, and moscato, which can be eaten at the table as well as turned into a sweet wine. Snails clung to the foliage everywhere; often, as happened that night, they end up on the table. The land had not always been this fertile, said Giovanna. She and her husband cleared their rock-strewn plot over the years, with the help of all seven children, and then worked hard to make it yield. As she gathered rosemary from a phenomenally large bush, Giovanna pointed out the coop where the ducks and chickens were kept and explained that because they eat all the fallen apples, pears, and figs, their flesh has a distinctive fruity taste. The Chessas raise their own pig every year, too, but it had already been slaughtered by the time I arrived and reincarnated in the form of salamis and other sausages, including sanguinaccio, made of fresh pig's blood, raisins, milk, pepper, fennel seed, walnuts, and grated chocolate.
In the tiny kitchen, Giovanna and Antonella began making dinner, which would consist largely of dishes from Giovanna's homeland, the Campidano, the fertile inland plain of southwestern Sardinia. As Giovanna began to prepare the richly flavored favata, a stew of dried fava beans with pig's feet and pork belly (from their own pig) and cabbage and fennel (from the garden), I saw that her style of cooking was calm and methodical. She arranged her ingredients neatly in bowls and added each item to the pot when it was time. When she began to make the roast lamb with fennel, she handled the young wild fennel fronds with all the care of a florist. No restaurant acrobatics here; just the slow, purposeful movements of preparing food with affection and attention.
Outdoors, at the side of the house, Francesco fired up a charcoal grill for cooking eel, our antipasto. Francesco is rascally and fun loving, and it was easy to see where Antonella got her joie de vivre. A plastic tub filled with the slithering eels sat on a table next to the grill, and Francesco skewered them, live, with admirable skill and an obviously extreme belief in freshness. We ate the anguidda a su schid˛ni right off the skewers with only a sprinkle of sea salt, and they were delicate and sweet and crisp skinned. Meanwhile, the grill blazed on, and I proudly helped cook a basketful of mushrooms—primarily a local variety called antunna, similar to but meatier than oyster mushrooms—which we grilled with a splash of olive oil and then basted with more olive oil, some chopped garlic, and parsley.
Like a silent dinner bell, the appetizing smells wafting from the kitchen summoned us to eat, and we all drifted, laughing and joking, to the table set up on the terrazzo, where Lucia's five-year-old son, Francesco, was already eagerly waiting. First out of the kitchen were sizz igorrus cun patatas, snails with potatoes. Papa Francesco had collected the snails a few days earlier, and now he expertly split their shells in half, along the seams, and sucked out their contents.
Next was mall˛reddus, the cowrie-shell-shaped pasta. Giovanna finished it in the kitchen, carefully layering the pasta with sa campidanesa, a dense tomato sauce rich with homemade salami and ground pork, then sprinkling each layer with grated pecorino. It was a day of extravagant eating, in part because I was eager to try so much. We moved on to the succulent pani frattÓu, the layers of pani carasÓu softened with lamb broth, interspersed with more of the tomato sauce and grated pecorino stagionato (fresh pecorino of the season), then topped with poached eggs. Next came the thick, meaty favata, and finally the lamb with wild fennel, which had been roasting in the oven for hours. A single taste of the meltingly tender, fennel-fragrant meat evoked, for me, all the flavor and mystery and history of the Sardinian interior.
GraziaMaria's mother-in-law, Teresa Doro, an expert at making Sardinian cookies, arrived to show us how to make pabassinas, frosted raisin and nut cookies with sugar sprinkles called diavoletti, "little devils", on top; and amarettus frescu, soft almond cookies—so good, Pietro had warned me, that he and Mairy had eaten an entire two-pound box of them on the plane home after their last visit here. They were indeed wonderful, and the pretty pabassinas, with the texture of soft biscotti, were delicious, too. Sitting around enjoying the breeze of late afternoon, talking about food, we somehow managed to keep eating, nibbling on Giovanna's sebßdas, pastries stuffed with mild cheeses and drizzled with honey.
As I drove away from Sassari the next day, still savoring the food I'd had, I saw a man and a boy, most likely father and son, near one of the rock walls that bordered the road, gathering snails together. I left Sardinia wishing I'd grown up that way.