What Is Su Filindeu?
Su filindeu pasta is the stuff of legends. For over 300 years, only a handful of women from the remote Sardinian town of Nuoro have known the secret to making this unfathomably intricate pasta. That makes it the rarest and one of the most expensive pasta shapes on earth.
Su filindeu (which translates as the "threads of God" in the local dialect) is traditionally eaten just twice a year, on May 1st and October 4th. To celebrate the Feast of San Francesco, pilgrims trek 20-miles on foot and horseback under the cover of darkness to the isolated village of Lula. On arrival, they are welcomed with a piping hot bowl of su filindeu served in a deeply savoury mutton broth and garnished with slightly acidic, fresh pecorino cheese.
In the autumn of 2023, we managed to track down a chef who was willing to teach us the secrets to making su filindeu. A trip to Sardinia to eat this iconic dish had been at the top of our food bucket list for years although in the meantime we had developed our own su filindeu in mutton broth recipe with considerable success. (We've also experimented with serving it in a chicken consommé and were rather pleased with the results.)
How to make su filindeu
Despite being the world's rarest pasta, the ingredients and production methods are no great secret. The modest women who still make su filindeu insist that the only secret is in their hands and fingers. The magic is knowing exactly when the gluten in the dough has reached the perfect amount of elasticity for it to be pulled and stretched repeatedly without breaking.
The dough is made from nothing more than semolina flour, water, and a pinch of salt. There are always two bowls within easy reach... one of plain water and the other of salted water. The pasta maker will occasionally dip her fingers in one of the bowls and touch the dough to tweak its consistency. Which bowl to use, how much water to take and when to do it is not something that can be taught; it must be sensed. It is, quite simply, intuitive cooking in its purest form.
Once the dough has been kneaded to the perfect elasticity it is rolled into a rope. It is then stretched, looped, and reconnected to create two strands. Those strands are then stretched using the same technique, then looped and reconnected to create four strands. This is repeated another six times until there are 256 insanely thin, but perfectly even strands.
The strands are layered in three different directions on a circular tray called a fundu which is traditionally woven from the leaves of the local asphodel plant. Once dried in the Sardinian sun, the pasta is transformed into a translucent, lattice-type structure which resembles threads of silk more than it does pasta. It is so thin and fragile that it shatters easily and takes only seconds to cook.
The future of su filindeu
In 2005, the world's biggest pasta company, Barilla, sent a team of engineers to Sardinia to learn the secrets so that they could bring out a machine-made, mass-produced version. They failed.
Jamie Oliver, the classically trained celebrity chef who once owned over forty Italian restaurants and learnt Italian cooking from none other than Antonio Carluccio, had to admit defeat when he visited Paola Abraini, one of only a few women who have perfected the craft.
The younger generation of girls and women in the town have little interest in learning a laborious technique which can take years to perfect. As a result of its rarity, su filindeu is included in the Ark of Taste, a list collated by Slow Food International to try and counteract the disappearance of local foods and culture.
Thankfully the process has been documented many times, most famously by the Italian food and drink publisher, Gambero Rosso. They wanted to record the process due to the very real risk that this style of pasta could be in danger of becoming extinct.
The Great Big Story podcast filmed this rather beautiful vignette showing Paola Abraini making the production of su filindeu look remarkably easy.