When Food is More Than a Feast

There was something afoot. We didn’t know more than that we were summonsed to The BB’s family’s accommodation in Sardinia for the evening of his birthday.

We were met at the gate by his family; the owners of the holiday accommodation, Maria and Pietro and tumblers of the latter’s homemade red wine. After one mouthful of the potent brew I suggested we return the car to our hotel and walk home at the end of the evening. But things were getting underway so we decided I would skipper. It proved a tricky commitment to uphold as our hosts could not bear the sight of a half-full glass or plate.

We were ushered downstairs to the host’s living area. There was something we had to see. (Look away now if you are vegetarian for reasons pertaining to animal welfare.)

A pig roasting in the living room – it’s not something you encounter every day. I was put in mind of castles and caves.

This photo is less accurate physically but more accurate emotionally. It’s hellfire.

In the next room, the kitchen proper, a blue plastic crate held masses of fresh fennel, the feathery tops crowning crispy white bulbs. Our hostess, my sister-in-law and I soon metamorphosed them into a slivered salad.

Homemade olive oil was added. There was plenty of that on hand in a room off the kitchen and it was not spared. (See later). Also in there was a freezer packed with home produce.

An alcove off the dining room. Note the branch for holding glasses on the left.

The Sardinian bread. We later discovered that it is everywhere (well, everywhere we ate). It is called pane carasau, or carta da musica in reference to sheet music or parchment which it resembles.

The locally-produced flour.

The cutter.

The oven and bread slides.

The cloth.

It’s a two person business, this breadmaking. Maria and Pietro work together. One operates the slide, pulling the puffed-up bread out of the very hot oven. The other stands at the table, slicing the bread horizontally around its circumference to form two discs. These are returned to the oven to bake until crisp. Once finished, they are folded in the cloth then later stored.

But the journey of the bread is not over yet. Once the pig is removed from the fireplace (more on that in a moment), the bread is doused in olive oil and placed on a rack near the embers.

It is sprinkled with rosemary before serving. In former times the bread went on a literal journey – it was designed for shepherds who were away for months at a time. It will keep for a year. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it going off at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 3000 year old bread remains, which were found during excavations of stone constructions (nuraghi), were still edible.

So to the piglet…

This doesn’t really bear thinking about…but as meat-eaters we must.

This is what we eat when we eat flesh.

A lot has been said about our disconnection with what we consume. A packet of firm, red stuff encased in various plastics at the supermarket is a bit different from this little fellow. This was a creature who heard, saw, smelt, ate and communicated. We owe it to our prey to see them in life and in death.

A momentary breather for you. Nice things. Innocuous things.

And the final run…

It was quick work in sweaty, practiced moves.

The table groaned with traditional fare.

Yet, more was to come…

These were as delicious as they look – crispy pastry filled with cheese, fried in oil and drenched in fine fresh honey. They were immediately mine in an intimate and unexpected way. I could feel them bypassing my arteries and fat cells and alighting straight at my bliss-centre.

It was an ‘honest’ meal – traditional recipes, sourced from local ingredients, prepared from scratch by our hosts – eaten with much laughter and lots of “salut”ing and “prost”ing as the supply of red wine and homemade grappe remained undiminished. The four languages – English, German, Italian and Sardinian – flowing around the table lifted the meal to another dimension.

I was seated next to Alfonso, a mainland Italian. For a while he was engrossed in the business of eating pork (apparently it was deliciously tasty and tender) but we talked quite a lot as his appetite was sated. I understood the odd word, he gesticulated grandly and there was the translation route if necessary: he spoke Italian, the Sardinians translated to German, a German speaker translated to English. One of the native German speakers said he could understand 30 – 50 % of what Alfonso said but very little of Maria’s and Pietro’s utterances because the Sardinian language has French and Spanish origins.

When you don’t understand most of what is said, when you are not focussing on speech, part of you is freed. I gathered the sensual abundance of the table to myself – the sheen of oil, the slippery sponginess of the eggplant, the shatter of bread, the crusty raggedness of hard cheese, the fall of light through red wine, the waving of arms and the precise placement of fingers as the mood changed from hilarity to earnestness and back again.

Possibly the loveliest thing about the meal was Alfonso breaking into song every now and then. Pietro would join in and I would sit and marvel at this wonderful culture where men sing at the meal table quite unselfconsciously. What a treat.

Loud (or quiet) fun and great food – most of us have experienced that with friends and family. But there is a union that perhaps arises only from dining with strangers from another culture. As laughter and languages mingle, so too does the human spirit.

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6 responses to “When Food is More Than a Feast

  1. Great post. I love meals like this -puts me in mind of similar experiences in Croatia and Armenia. I really enjoyed your other post about Sardinia, by the way. Looks like we’re going to have to put that one on the list.

  2. Cheers to food and fellowship for bringing visitors and cultures together!

  3. Great writing- as per usual! Loved this, you’re so lucky. Thanks for sharing the experience.

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