San Pantaleo & Spaghetti alla Bottarga
(I am publishing this posthumously because I never got round to writing it up in the summer, and it may perhaps serve as a vaguely useful travel recommendation for those of you thinking of coming to Sardinia).
There was the promise of a boat, bottarga pasta and breakfast, so we made the trip North. Long journeys on a (fairly) small and very hot island in a tin-can car with no air conditioning tend to become fewer and further between, especially if your compagno di viaggio is Lorenzo who has the movement ambitions of a weary tortoise (in acute contrast he calls me Su Puighi, which means The Flea in Sardinian, which goes some way to explaining my natural disposition - wildly hopping about).
I can’t just blame him. I wasn’t too keen on the idea myself. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at a 2 hour journey when I lived in England. How we change.
I had never visited the area, and – sticky car journey or not – it seemed a good excuse to do so. It would be the last hurrah before the summer drew to a sleepy close and Sardinia slid slowly back into the rumbling routine of school and work, the beaches and bars deserted once more.
The place was Porto Pollo (or Portu Puddu in Sardo) a little bay on the North coast in the region of Gallura, popular with windsurfers and tourists passing through on their way to the island of La Maddalena. Su Puddu, as Lorenzo told me, is the Sardinian word for a chicken. I liked the word instantly, it sounded like a delicious sort of pudding. So we set off for the hot and heavy two-hour drive North to the little AirBnB we had booked for one night nearby.
The landscape changed as we left the flat, golden plains of the Campidano and moved into Gallura, a region named after its famously rocky vistas. Here it is greener and more dense with shrubs, the famous macchia of the Mediterranean; coarse bushes of wild rosemary, mastic and corbezzolo, the clumps of waxy green interrupted by grey granite rocks in extraordinary sculptural formations. The sea and sand – inevitably – as turquoise and white as a Caribbean cruise postcard, but the beaches different to ours at home in Oristano, with their striking rocky outcrops, twisted and transformed by the same fierce Maestrale winds that lure the windsurfers.
We arrived late, having got lost, dumped our luggage, showered and left. Lorenzo was in black mood because we failed to pack any travel snacks, and he is not someone who can survive for long periods without something to chew in his very slow, silent and ruminating way; like some sort of beautiful black-eyed sheep. ‘I tempi biblici di Lorenzo’ his friend Giovanni quips; the Biblical Times of Lorenzo. He eats like a tortoise too (slowly, steadily, and in great quantity with the stoical determination of one who knows he will have to hibernate all winter).
We parked at the beach at Porto Pollo and awaited our escort to the boat, which was provided by the charming Edoardo, the ship’s captain, responsible for sailing this yacht back from Sardinia to Athens. Arriving at the boat, David from Cambridge greeted us, looking like Jesus in the desert, faded linen shorts and sun-bleached hair half way down his back, bearded and barefoot with beers in hand, next to a blue-eyed, softly-spoken New Yorker who played jazz, a Spanish architect, a Northern Italian called Ettore and a Greek/English author called Anastasia who was the reason we were there; a fellow cookbook writer and recently married to Edoardo.
Ettore disappeared into the kitchen, after gratefully acknowledging our gifts of salami and pecorino (now thoroughly sweaty after several hours in a car with no air-conditioning) and busied himself making spaghetti alla bottarga. We could hear muffled curses drifting up from below-deck.
For some reason, Ettore had convinced himself that the gifts had been supplied by Lorenzo rather than me - how could it possibly be that the only Sardinian present had not brought with them a hunk of sheep’s cheese and a salsiccia – and so made great pains throughout the evening to frequently and enthusiastically thank him, and to comment on the exceptional quality of both. Lorenzo thus spent the evening feeling faintly confused and with the vague impression that somewhere something had been misunderstood, but not really wanting to go about correcting anyone as it would have dampened the mood. Instead he lost himself in the abundant hospitality and drank a bottle of Provencal white wine on an empty stomach, thus becoming slowly ever-more silent, and then finally at around midnight he slid over to me and announced in a conspiratorial and wet whisper that he was really very drunk, and would need to be sailed to shore soon or he may well vomit on the yacht’s white upholstery. So Edoardo ferried us back in the dark in his dinghy, Lorenzo wan-faced and woeful and wrapped in a borrowed sailing jacket, and we got in the car and I drove us back to the AirBnB. Once back he collapsed, but only after I had forced him to clean his teeth because I knew how upset he would be when he woke up if he hadn’t (he is a stickler for dental hygiene).
But I forgot to mention the food, for it was good. We ate spaghetti alla bottarga as I say, except that it wasn’t spaghetti it was linguine, and Ettore was furious with himself for slightly overcooking it. Perhaps 30 seconds more cooked than it could have been, but with a lovely crema that Ettore laboured over, stirring frantically pasta, bottarga, olive oil and cooking water to create a creamy whole, which he ladled onto our plates with exquisite care and abundant ‘cazzo!’s.
The next morning we had breakfast outside in the morning sun, laid out on fig leaves; cold milk and warm figs and grapes and cake, cookies and coffee. Then we set off for San Pantaleo to explore for a few hours before heading home.
San Pantaleo is a small town in the Gallura region famed for its Thursday morning market which has bled into a host of little antiques shops now open throughout the week. Though a mere stone’s throw from some of the busiest beaches of the Costa Smeralda, San Pantaleo is a sort of bohemian oasis with entirely its own character.
It is small, charming and set in the hillside, with a backdrop of craggy granite peaks and a pretty piazza lined with Oleanders, which looks like the perfect setting for the opening scene of a Bond film (in fact I think a Bond may have been filmed here). At the head of the piazza is a sand-coloured church all around which is held the market. We didn’t see the market, as it was Saturday, but wandered through the piazza and peeked in the shops.
We had a simple lunch of seafood pasta, then a gelato sitting on the bench outside the gelateria overlooking the village. I don’t remember what flavours I had or how many, but it was a good gelato, after a plate of good pasta, and for a few minutes the world seemed all good and warm and golden.
It felt like a good way to wave goodbye to the summer and welcome in September, whatever that may mean weather-wise, because autumn isn’t really ever what I expect. The mornings are cooler it’s true, and the sunsets earlier but the ground is still as dry as bone. The figs are still fruiting, the sea is warm, the wind has returned. It may rain due gocce as they say here (two drops) but not enough to quench the parched ground and render things green again. Then finally comes November bringing with it the rain and the official commencement of Lorenzo’s hibernation period.
Spaghetti alla Bottarga
I should also probably write a recipe here for spaghetti alla bottarga, as it seems madness I haven’t already done so, and though I wrote about it in Bitter Honey I think it needs to be here too.
Bottarga is one of Sardinia’s most prized and famed products, a salty, minerally, slightly bitter-sweet fishy flavor that is totally addictive and will appeal to lovers of anchovies and all things fish. Known by chefs as ‘the bacon of the sea’ it has a consistency (when whole) a little like a caramel, comes either ready grated as a rust-coloured dust or as a sleek amber lobe, almost translucent. It is made by salting and air-curing the egg (roe) sacks of the grey mullet which breed here, specifically in the area around Oristano (and more specifically still, in the Stagno in Cabras) so it is a dish close to my heart and my adopted home, and something I misunderstood when I first tried it.
When I worked in my first restaurant, The Dock Kitchen, my head chef Stevie went on holiday to Sardinia and came back with a lobe of bottarga. We put spaghetti alla bottarga on the menu and it was my job to make it. I had no idea what I was doing or what this odd orange substance was, and I found the finished plate bitter, gritty and odd, almost unpleasant.
It was only when I had the dish made for me here, by someone who knew how (Luca) that I learnt to love it.
The most common ways to eat bottarga in Sardinia are either sliced, in ‘scaglie’ (flakes) and eaten on crisp pieces of carta di musica, or pane carasau (the local, crisp flat bread made with semola and baked in wood-fired ovens) or on top of a salad of finely sliced artichokes or celery. Otherwise it can grated on top of fish-based pasta dishes or blitzed with butter into a delicious pate.
Spaghetti alla Bottarga is a dish which, like so many others, exists in many variations. It can be made with tomatoes (I included this in Bitter Honey) and sometimes parsley, or with chilli, butter of pepper. The classic and most common recipe that I have come across is also the simplest, involving just 3 ingredients to make the sauce to coat the spaghetti; bottarga, olive oil and garlic.
The garlic is warmed gently in a generous amount of good extra virgin olive oil (fully flavoured Sardinian oil is best) until it releases its aroma and then removed, and then the bottarga is added off the heat. The hot spaghetti and some of its cooking water is then tossed and stirred vigorously with the oil and bottarga over a very low heat, until a delicious, beige, creamy Crema is formed.
The key to getting it right is balance. Like so many of the simplest dishes it can be the hardest to perfect, 3 ingredients do not allow much margin for error. The aim is for the pasta cooking water, the olive oil and the bottarga to melt into a creamy emulsion, which coats each spaghetti strand perfectly. It takes a little practice to get it right, and the proportions will vary slightly, so this is a rough guide. The most important thing is not to cook or fry the bottarga, as then it will discolour and become gritty or hard in texture; it needs to just melt.
Serves 2 as a main (I never eat this as a primo, for some reason)
40g of bottarga (whole lobe not ready grated)
1 clove of garlic
4 tbsp good extra virgin olive oil
Bring a pan of lightly salted water (bottarga is salty so best to err on the side of caution) to the boil and drop in the spaghetti. Cook until al dente (it's important that it is really al dente here as it's such a simple sauce).
Meanwhile bash the clove of garlic and slice it in half, then warm it in a deep frying pan with the olive oil until it starts to sizzle and smell good. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
Finely grate your piece of bottarga into the pan of oil.
Once the spaghetti is done, drain, reserving a cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the garlic and bottarga and toss/stir the pan well. Add some cooking water and keep tossing and stirring vigorously. You should notice a creamy sauce starting to form. Place the pan over a low heat and add a little more of the water, keeping stirring until you have enough of the creamy saucy that things don't look dry.
Serve, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil if you like.