The exterior of San Benedetto market in Cagliari is unprepossessing to say the least. The first time I went looking for it a few years ago, I walked straight past it, thinking it was a multi-story car park.
The second time I went looking for it I walked around and around, sticking doggedly to Google maps’ advice and finally found myself in the basement, surrounded by diffident fishmongers. It was nearly the end of the day and they were closing down; their displays deserted, just a persistent marine whiff, a wisp or two of weed and some black swirls of squid ink indicating that there had ever been any fish here at all. There was a slippery tiled floor, wet with fish-water and overhead strip lighting like a hospital. I’d had in mind a lovely, slightly crumbling, picturesque piazza dotted with trees, pink-cheeked stall-holders selling their perfect wares in dappled sunshine.
This is not San Benedetto market, and praise dio for that. I am ashamed to say that after that day I gave up on San Benedetto altogether, and decided to abandon the chase, sticking to my local market instead which had its own quirky charm and was, at least, outdoors.
But then, in the spring of 2022 I was asked to do a tour of the market for a TV show they were hosting in Cagliari, and so back I went for a reccie with the producers. I had warned them to have ‘low expectations’. And oh how wrong I was.
I like to think of San Benedetto as a sort of metaphor for Sardinia. And – forgive me for coming over all metaphysical – as a sort of metaphor for life. Three essential mottos to keep in mind when marketing (or dealing with the other important business we call Living):
1. He who searches shall find
2. Things Take Time; don’t give up easily
3. Nothing is ever as you expect, so save yourself the trouble and banish all expectations.
All of these things apply to San Benedetto, to Sardinia, and more generally to life.
This second time, in a more searching, open and patient mindset, I found my way to the upper floor (there is a whole upper floor that I had never discovered). Whilst the basement level is devoted entirely to fish the upper level contains stalls selling bread, sweet things, pies, prepared food, meat, poultry, cheese, vegetables and fruit. The selection is vast, on both floors, the stall holders numbering over 200, and the square meters in total a whopping 8000. It is the largest indoor market in Italy, and amongst the largest in Europe. Inaugurated in 1957 the market is a Cagliari institution, I read on their website, but it is also – that very special and rare thing – a true market where people simply go to do their weekly shop.
That day in April I saw the market with new eyes, expectations cast to the winds, partly because I realised there was an entire second level I’d missed, and partly because the previously sad fish stalls were now teaming with life.
But it wasn’t until I went back a fourth time that I really fell in love.
The fourth time I went to the market it was a Saturday in January and we arrived in good time (I live by the philosophy – eternally applicable to market shopping – that the early bird catches the worm). The market opens at 7am, and closes at 2. We were up and out early, scrubbed and fresh as daisies, arriving in Cagliari after a 50 minute drive on empty roads we parked and headed straight to the market.
Fish first, and oh Dear, Sweet Lord the fish. I have never seen anything like it. The variety and abundance was at once terrifying and exhilarating. Pile upon pile, crate upon crate; the place was awash with flapping, gulping and squirming fish, most of them very much alive (Lorenzo – a lifelong vegetarian in his heart if not in practise, had tears trapped in his perfect lashes) and literally still shining with sea water as if they had been plucked from their salty home just moments before. It was as if a great Biblical flood had descended upon this square of concrete and dumped the contents of its entire arching ocean onto this brightly-lit, white-tiled space. Crates of tiny crawling green crabs, sidling their way up the sides of polystyrene boxes; lines of livid black-and-gold speckled lobsters with claws raised like soldiers in battle, their stalk-eyes swivelling wildly; squid and octopus in flabby mounds of translucent collapse, tentacles and suckers and the occasional shining black eye visible under piles of endless limbs; mountains of tiny gleaming prawns, all grey and whiskery, glittering silver bream and bass and stout-nosed mullet with their strange squashed muzzles and oversized scales.
The vendors swig coffee from plastic cups, shout to each other and swap damp cash; one shucks oysters with a bone-handled knife, gulping back the occasional one for himself, others sit scowling at their phones, scrolling with squid-black fingers. When they see us approach they break into song.
Freschi, Freschi !
I remember a song from the play about the Victorians we did when I was at Primary school,
Crying cockles and mussels alive-alive oh!
Every single vendor, even those that initially seem the surliest, stops and salutes us, inviting us to admire his selection. They are here to sell, of course, but there is an authentic cheer and good humour which is less material and more genuinely hospitable than you might expect. I stop and buy 3 totani from a young vendor with immaculate eyebrows. He delicately removes some strips of weed that have got caught in their long tendrils.
Let me just get rid of the erbe, he says, smiling broadly.
Back upstairs we wander amongst endless fruit and veg vendors. They hang their stalls with bunches of perfect pointed carrots, great lush bunches of fresh basil and marjoram, immaculate salads and endless citrus. There is an abundance which seems at odds with the fact that it is January, a bleak month, and yet here, with the prolific sunshine (even in winter – Sardinia is blessed with an average of 300 days of sunshine a year) there are winter tomatoes; the tight skinned Camone which have a wonderful sharp, green, briny flavour to match their sweetness; fresh fennel with long, horsetail fronds, succulent dandelions, cime di rapa and endless varieties of cabbage and bitter greens.
We weave in and out of the shoppers, each trailing a little wheelie shopping trolley as are we. The fruit and veg sellers are as friendly as the fishmongers, though perhaps slightly less vocal. I look around and notice that there is no one here who is not quietly going about their weekly shop; no phones in hand, no cameras, not a single tourist. This is a real, working market, and the prices, bustle and abundance reflect that too. For some reason I find this incredibly refreshing. Another thing I note is that most of the shoppers are men. This is not the case with my local Oristano market, but I can imagine that as here there is such a convivial and chatty atmosphere the men perhaps volunteer to do the shopping, enjoying the opportunity to have a good natter.
Across the street from the market is Pirani, one of my favourite stops in Cagliari. I don’t know why I love it so much; considering it is very much a standard Italian bar (or what we in England would call a café) but perhaps that is exactly why I love it. The barista/waitors wear black waistcoats and white shirts and white aprons around their waists, and they shout at you as soon as you come in with friendly forcefulness. You eat your icing-sugar-dusted pastry, drink your perfect cappuccino and then pay after at a little till where sits a bored lady upon a bar stool dressed in a tight white shirt, and this lady with her old brass till fills me with happiness. I couldn't exactly say why.
After the late Pirani breakfast it is time to head home with our faithful steed – the stuffed-full wheelie trolley and make something that celebrates the best of Sardinian abundance, even in the bleak mid-winter.
I can do no better than to quote Natoora, the chief importer of these tomatoes to the UK to describe them to you. There is something rather poetical about it, I think:
Camone are a variety of tomato that only reach their full potential in winter, when the stress of the cold makes the plants work harder. Grown on the coast of Sardinia, the plants are put under even greater duress by the salinity of their environment. Using a finely-tuned balance of rainfall and seawater, the growers irrigate the plants just enough to keep them alive. Ripening slowly from the inside out, their skins remain firm and streaked with green. However, their flavour is fully developed, balancing the bright acidity of their seeds with the distinct umami sweetness of their crunchy flesh. In season only from the end of December to early May, the flavour of winter tomatoes cannot be replicated at any other time of year.
This idea about ‘stress’ being good for plants is one I have heard before. When Mauro talks about the vines and fruit trees he mirrors the attitude entirely. He never waters his vines, or his olives, as he says it would not only dilute and change their fruit, but also make the plants weak and dependent on external help. The vines are hardy enough to survive and crop year after year (though – of course – there are some years better than others) and the olives have a ‘one year on, one year off’ system, which means we only harvest every 2 years, to allow the plants to recuperate. It also means we only have the new oil every 2 years, which makes it extra special.
But back to the deliciously stressed Camone. These wonderful tomatoes are a flavour all unto themselves, and they deserve some recipes to celebrate them. You can – of course – use any good tomato you can get your hands on
Camone Bruschetta with Rocket and Bottarga
Bottarga and tomatoes are happy companions. This is especially true in the case of the Camone, their briny, sweet, umami flavour being balanced and complemented by the matching qualities in the bottarga. The rocket adds a welcome punch and pepperiness.
Failing putting together a bruschetta, a plate of sliced camone drizzled with good oil and topped with lots of freshly grated bottarga is a very good option, too.
Remember to be generous with the olive oil.
2 large pieces of focaccia, ciabatta or your preferred bruschetta bread
1 garlic clove, cut in half
Extra virgin olive oil
A handful of camone tomatoes, roughly chopped or sliced
A handful of fresh rocket
A small piece of fresh bottarga (about an inch for 2)
Toast the bread on the grill (for best flavour) or however you usually toast your bread. Rub it over with the cut side of the garlic clove.
Toss the tomatoes with a pinch of salt and some oil and then tumble them on top of the bread.
Arrange over a handful of rocket, drizzle with plenty more oil and then grate over the fresh bottarga. Enjoy, messily, in the cold winter sun with a cold beer.
Camone, Red wine vinegar & Honey Dressing, Parsley, Olive Oil & Pecorino
The parsley keeps this salad nice and wintery, and a good Sardinian honey highlights the Camone’s sweetness and contrasts beautifully against the pecorino. I love the strength of red wine vinegar with tomatoes, they’re natural partners. Choose a good, aged, sweet-salty pecorino and your best olive oil. A salad that feels both wintery and sunny and the same time.
Serve with lots of bread for mopping up juices. Anchovies would be a welcome addition.
About 6 camone tomatoes
1 tsp honey
2 tbsp red wine vingar
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Scant tsp of salt
A handful of chopped parsley
Make the dressing, whisking everything together and checking for seasoning, adding more salt, honey or vinegar according to preference.
Dress the tomatoes, then lay on your favourite salad dish and crumble/flake over the pecorino, then sprinkle over the chopped parsley.
Serve with bread.