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Where the Salt has not Lost its Savour

Photo by Charlotte Bland

Eating and Drinking in D. H. Lawrence’s

Sea and Sardinia

‘the spirit of the place is a strange thing. Our mechanical age tries to override it. But it does not succeed’

‘When one travels one eats’, wrote D. H. Lawrence in 1921, as he journeyed restlessly around Sardinia one bleak, Post-war winter. Exiled from England and sick of ‘sticky’ Sicily, where he and his wife Frieda had been living, the Lawrences decided to travel to Sardinia by sea. In November, 1919, two years earlier, Lawrence had left England behind him forever. After the war years of hardship, poor health and persecution, the return to Italy was, he wrote, an opportunity to ‘live and breathe again’.

On leaving England the couple initially found lodgings in Sicily, but in the winter of 1921 the author was restless again. After toying with various locations Sardinia was decided upon. Lawrence would write something about the experience, under the proposed title, ‘Diary of a Trip to Sardinia’.

The couple’s journey across the island (beginning in the Southern city of Cagliari and travelling across the interior to Mandas, Sorgono, Tonara and Nuoro) was brief and lasted only six days. It was the cold February of 1921 and Lawrence, although he intended to write a book about the experience, confessed to taking no notes (‘I am not Baedeker’, he famously grumbled). On return, it took him just six weeks to produce the book hailed by many scholars as one of his finest, and definitely one of his most haunting. Anthony Burgess describes it as ‘a small miracle of a book’. When one considers such timelines, it does truly seem miraculous, for in this slight, often-overlooked volume, Lawrence provides one of the most enduring and resonant pictures of Sardinia written in the English language, ‘extracting the island’s very essence’ and truly rendering what he called the ‘spirit of the place’.

A large part of the ‘spirit’ of Sardinia is captured through the three simple, everyday things which form the essential pillars of any culture: food, landscape and people. All three of these themes are covered in penetrating detail by Lawrence, in order to render a rich, honest and living image of the place, starkly devoid of cliché and commonplace. There is none of the romantic and nostalgic longing for the seemingly pleasant peasant life that is so often to be found in similar literature. Lawrence admires and gravitates towards the simplistic tenacity, naturalism, honesty and ritualistic traditions of Sardinia’s provincial population, but this is no rose-tinted rendering of ‘noble peasants’ and their honey-coated lives. Sardinia and its people are portrayed as hard, remote, sardonic, thorny and impenetrable, but above all honest, and this is what draws the writer to both. Sardinia’s stubborn refusal to be moulded by a modern world, to belong to anywhere, to conform or modernize or imitate is admirable to a naturally rebellious Lawrence. Robert Cohen writes that Sardinia seems the ‘remnant of some older, less user-friendly world….Sardinia has retained its thorny, intransigent particularity…it’s that very betweenness, at once central and marginal to history, that drew him’.

Lawrence was by no means a traditional travel writer. He does not set out to give handy hints and addresses to readers, or even to provide contextual history. Instead, by documenting the customs of the people, their landscape and their food he creates something much deeper, more haunting and almost mystical. In this essay I will concern myself specifically with the food Lawrence encounters and his descriptions of meals he ate whilst travelling through this ‘wild and primitive’ land.

In the opening sentence the author states the obvious; one eats when travelling because one must, it is a physical necessity to eat and moving around makes one especially hungry, but Lawrence’s words probe at a more profound level of meaning, because through eating (as through travelling) one learns.

Just as the landscape and the people depicted in Sea and Sardinia provide a profound insight into both the political climate of 1920’s Europe and Lawrence’s own feelings of exile from his homeland and rebellion against cultural homogeny, so the food consumed by the Lawrences on their journey proves rich with metaphor, most specifically concerning Lawrence’s own ideas of humanity and the deep exploration of self that forms the crux of his work. Each instance of eating and description of food or drink provides a poignant insight into Lawrence’s own philosophy concerning selfhood and his constant striving for some form of pure, primitive individuality.

Part of his success in extracting Sardinia’s essence comes from his vivid descriptions of the food and drink, which paint an extraordinarily detailed picture of the island’s foodscape, and thus of its people and culture. Lawrence did not concern himself with detailing history or context; instead he describes each simple, everyday occurrence (a bus journey, an evening dinner, the roasting of a goat) during the couple’s limited travel days with an intensity and attention to detail which verges on maniacal. Sardinia, its people, its food and its culture become a mirror which reflect Lawrence’s own journey of self-discovery, and his restless ‘yearning for something I have known, and which I want back again.’

The food described itself is simple, rustic and humble, but it is the way it is cooked, eaten and spoken of that approaches ritual. Edibles are touched on with reliable frequency, and serve to provide a rich portrait of a rural peasant culture, depleted after the war, heavily reliant on boiled or roasted meat, broth, bread, olives and red wine. The food that Lawrence encountered is still the food of Sardinia today; the same ‘bitter olives,’ the same prevalence of bread, broth and boiled meat. Many things have changed, progressed, and become more varied as agriculture has grown and diversified, and it must be noted that there seems to be a worrying lack of any sort of vegetable in Lawrence’s Sardinia. It would, however, please Lawrence to know that many things haven’t changed, and these staples still form the pillars of Sardinian cuisine. Milk (in Lawrence’s Sardinia) is hard to come by, a fact that frequently sends the author into a rage, reliant on their tea as the travelling English couple are, endlessly packing with great care their little ‘kitchenino’ and eeking out coveted supplies of tea, butter and milk.

Bread, however, is easily found and prolific. Sardinia was once a great granary, we are told, and bread is still eaten at every meal. At Mandas the couple eat a mixed meal of soup, fried pork and boiled eggs, punctuated by darkness as the lamps go out, and in the company of a group of Sardinian men. One particular man in a black cap eats white bread from his home. He asks the Lawrences about the bread in Sicily, and is disappointed that in general it is whiter than their own (white bread being desirable). Lawrence highlights the significance of pane:

‘Bread means a great deal to an Italian: it is verily the staff of his life. He practically lives on bread’

Another instance involving bread serves to show the famed Sardinian hospitality, as a bus conductor on the road to Nuoro insists on sharing his modest meal of ‘half a roast lamb, good home-made bread and a large paper of olives’. Lawrence seems surprised as he describes the ‘extraordinary generosity’ of these people, how ‘well-bred’ they are, as opposed to the superficial ‘breeding’ of the stiff English he had left behind.

The Sardinian temperament is often used in stark contrast to others (whether it be English or Sicilian) and the qualities Lawrence seems to value particularly, and certainly to find the most fascinating, are the honesty, naturalness and lack of self-consciousness. Both the wild, stony landscape and the simple food reflect these characteristics. Lawrence admired them especially as they provided such a stark relief from what he describes as the ‘sentimentality and homogeny’ of the majority of Europe.

One of the most captivating and memorable of these eating/drinking tableaux is the roasting of a capretto (small goat) over the fire in an Inn in Sorgono. On arrival Lawrence is furious at the sordid state of Sorgono and of the Inn, particularly at the squalid, wine-stained shirt-front of the Inn-keeper, and the local custom of relieving oneself on the roadside. He retracts his romantic musings of the noble, stocking-capped peasants that preceded this chapter. One of the reasons he is so indignant is that there is seemingly nothing to eat, and certainly no milk to put in tea, and no one seems sure if there will be any at all any time in the near future. Lawrence is raging, but the couple are ushered into a dark and ‘dungeon-like’ stanza where an old man is roasting a small goat on a spit over the fire. What follows is an extraordinarily rich passage which showcases Lawrence at his literary best. The passage demonstrates effortlessly his uncanny ability to flood profound significance into a seemingly insignificant event.

Superficially, the old man sits in the corner and roasts his goat, slowly and with great care over the flames, making sure not to burn it. There then enters a travelling merchant of some kind who begins to boss the old man around and tries to cook his own meat, clumsily and quickly. His manner is ‘breezy, boisterous, impudent’ and ‘familiar’. The old man is unimpressed and ignores the mutterings of the tradesman, continuing to roast his goat the way he believes is correct, which is stuck on the spit and splayed ‘like a banner’. S. Ronald Weiner writes of this passage:

‘One must turn to Hemingway’s best work to find comparable instances of concretely described craft verging on ritual’.

Lawrence’s ‘verbal subtlety’ renders the scene almost mystical, and there is something deeply ritualistic about it; specifically the slowness of the man turning his spit, the darkness of the ‘dungeon-like room’ lit only by flames, the way the man stares at his goat and talks into the fire without looking at anyone. Looking in further detail Weiner draws attention to the underlying metaphor of ageless wisdom and simplicity over ‘breezy modernism’. The old man comes to signify ‘time and eternity- (this phrase is echoed twice by Lawrence) with his archaic method of doing things. He turns slowly, he refuses advice, he tests his meat, sticking his knife deep into the flesh as if ‘he seemed to be feeling the meat inwardly’.

The way the two men cook their respective meat could be seen to reflect their different values, and thus Lawrence’s own craving for some sort of primitivism; the modern man’s meat drops into the fire in his hasty ignorance, and this man claims, un-phased, that there is ‘nothing lost’, which of course we realise to be wrong. The meat is blackened and ashy in places – everything is lost - and Lawrence does not describe it as good. The old man’s kid, however, is turned meticulously, cooked with an ancient wisdom and intuition; his meat must never touch the ashes or it will be ruined, and Lawrence describes it thus:

‘at last the old roaster decided the kid was done. He lifted it from the fire and scrutinized it thoroughly, holding the candle to it, as if it were some wonderful epistle from the flames. To be sure it looked marvelous, and smelled so good: brown and crisp, and hot, and savoury, not burnt in any place whatever’.

We see clearly who’s the victory is here, and which method of meat cookery Lawrence admires most. However, there is much more than just barbecuing techniques implicit; Lawrence again points at the attractive simplicity and fundamental rightness of peasant culture, and the efficacy and authentic merit of the ‘ancient ways’, highlighting what Weiner calls the author’s ‘search for primitivity and genuine beauty and the rejection of the industrialised modern world’.

Weiner uses the word ‘homiletic’ to describe such passages, and it would certainly seem that there is an almost spiritual longing to return to some kind of forgotten past which is particularly present in this work; something deeper and more visceral than golden-tinted nostalgia. Sardinia comes to represent this yearning, both the nature of the longing itself and also a place unmoved by time, unshaken by the fickle throes of history. Sardinia is cold, aloof and solitary ‘belonging to nowhere’, perhaps emblematic of a freedom Lawrence himself is searching. Many scholars have pointed out the predominant and pertinent image of the book; the solitary peasant in the landscape, a small untouchable speck of black and white like a magpie in the distance.

Lawrence wrote that ‘the spirit of a place is a strange thing’, something that ‘our mechanical age tries to override. But it does not succeed’. In capturing the spirit of Sardinia in his writing, by providing an intimate, raw and real portrayal of its food, people and landscape, Lawrence paints the picture of a spirit which has neither been tamed no overridden, something unspoilt, honest and thorny in its harsh reality, a stony stronghold against mechanical homogeny. Towards the end of the book he summarises this idea perfectly in a wonderfully food-themed metaphor:

‘there are unknown, unworked lands where the salt has not lost its savour’, and thus Sardinia perhaps gives a disillusioned Lawrence hope, that life – and the possibility of individual freedom – has not lost its flavour after all.

This piece is an edited version taken from 'Insights into D. H. Lawrence's Sardinia', edited by Nick Ceramella and Daniele Marzeddu, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2022.


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