A week or so ago I went to visit a small island off the south of Sardinia (Isola di San Pietro) and wandered around its main (and only) town, Carloforte.
It's a beautiful spot, narrow cobbled streets and pastel-hued buildings exhibiting just the right amount of decay: romantic rather than ramshackle. On a sunny Sunday afternoon the piazza was full of small boys playing football (and gesticulating wildly), smaller dogs barking, and old men in flat caps perched on benches.
Carloforte is famous for a handful of reasons. Firstly for its history of tuna fishing, secondly for coral which was once abundant and collected and made into jewellery. Lastly for its cuisine.
In 1541 a handful of coral-fishing families left Liguria in search of coral and settled in Tabarka, off the coast of Tunisia. After exhausting the coral resources here they began to hunt elsewhere, and discovered that there was abundant coral in the Southern Sardinian sea. In 1739 they asked the then-king of Sardinia-Piedmonte, Charles Emmanuel III, to settle and build a commune on the island of San Pietro, and named their town in his honour: Charles the Strong (Carlo forte).
A variety of the Ligurian language is still spoken here, which is different to both Italian and Sardinian. The fishing families also brought with them their cuisine, most famously, their celebrated Pesto.
The eponymous Pasta alla Carlofortina is a dish which celebrates and combines history and geography. For the sauce, Genoese Pesto is mixed with sweet local tomatoes and the infamous tuna which is fished from the water surrounding San Pietro. The pasta is usually homemade, often trofie, which is a Ligurian speciality. It's a really special dish, the marriage of tuna and cheese (pesto contains both pecorino and parmesan) may sound strange to some, but anyone who's ever enjoyed a Tuna Melt will know that this is a heavenly match. Tuna is such a meaty fish it stands up brilliantly to the punchy flavours of basil, garlic and cheese. The tomatoes add a welcome sweetness, acidity and freshness.
When I decided to tackle this dish at home, it felt only right to make the pasta myself. It's a very easy dough to make, but the shaping requires practise. After two hours of trying, I still hadn't quite got it, but the shape doesn't affect the flavour so don't be discouraged. Even ugly trofie taste good. You can always buy ready-made trofie if you prefer. In terms of the technique for shaping them perfectly, I can only recommend watching a few Youtube videos before you start, and as is ever thus, practise makes perfect.
Feeds 4 modest people, 2 or 3 greedy ones.
300g of Semola di gran duro
145g warm water
For the Sauce
2 large handfuls fresh basil leaves
100g pine nuts
1 clove garlic
Good pinch salt
30g grated pecorino
30g grated parmesan
70 ml Extra Virgin olive oil
A handful of small, sweet tomatoes, roughly chopped
150g of best tinned tuna
First make your pasta. Mix the semola and water in a bowl until it comes together to form a rough dough. Take it out of the bowl and knead it on the side for 10 minutes or so until you have an even, smooth dough. Wrap it in cling film and set it aside for half an hour while you make your pesto.
Make the pesto in a blender.
Blitz the nuts, garlic and cheese until they form a rough breadcrumb consistency. Add the basil and blitz for a second or two more. Then add the oil and salt and continue to mix until everything is incorporated. Do not blitz for too long as you do not want a completely smooth paste, a little texture is a good thing.
Slice your tomatoes and set them aside.
Now shape your trofie. Break off small pieces of the dough, about the size of a hazelnut, and roll them into little twisted shapes (see Youtube for this method).
Set them aside on a clean, semola-dusted tray.
In a saute pan, soften your sliced tomatoes in a little olive oil and a pinch of salt. Stir through the pesto and the tuna, taste for seasoning, and set aside ready for your pasta.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Drop in your trofie and cook for a minute or two until they bob to the surface. Fish them out using a slotted spoon and place them straight into the pan with the sauce. Place this pan over the heat, add a small ladle of the pasta-cooking water and toss your pasta and sauce, by holding the pan and flicking your wrist, until it is well combined and beautifully saucy.