In Search Of Su Filindeu
Like so many of the best road-trips, this could get emotional.
We were in Sardinia, Karen mainly for sun, me mainly for pasta. A trip to the island had been on my bucket list for the best part of a decade. I wanted to learn how to make a style of pasta called "su filindeu" which rather romantically translates as the “Threads of God" and which only a handful of people on the planet know how to make.
The trouble was, the break was going to be spent under a dark cloud of grief for Nick, a dear friend of 38 years who died far too young and who we had only said our final goodbyes to a few days previously.
Karen and I agreed before getting on the plane that this wasn't going to be a sombre break. Our holidays are typically quite lazy. We love just pottering around narrow streets, eating free samples of mediocre, tourist-priced chocolate, soaking up the atmosphere and drinking espresso with any local who will believe us that Brexit was not in our name.
This time though, we needed an uncharacteristically busy itinerary to ensure plenty of distractions. On that front, Sardinia didn't disappoint.
We knew that we had no need to feel guilty about enjoying ourselves. We were going to eat good food, swim in clear waters and chuckle at podcasts as we ventured from town to town.
Nick loved exploring new places and would be annoyed with us if we visited a country and spent the whole time wallowing. And anyway, a friend who has had more than her fair share of loss reassured me that grief and happiness are not mutually exclusive and can both exist at the same time. I’d never really thought about it like that.
Regardless, there was no denying our emptiness. Ignoring it would be unjust and knowing my natural but unhealthy gravitation towards rumination meant I wanted to own this grief before it owned me.
I had spent three weeks with Nick travelling around Italy almost 25 years ago, so I figured a road-trip to find the rarest pasta on earth was an adventure he’d like to join us on. Karen and I were going to look out some old photos of him, share our favourite memories of him, and put Radiohead and Sigur Rós on full blast.
If we were going to do this road trip at all we were going to do it right and do it good. The full English.
Being 44 means I’m a little less crass these days than to balance a nun on a mate’s hand outside the Vatican (in a nod to the photo that everyone takes when they visit Pisa) but that didn’t mean the trip had to be without humour.
We were ultimately here to learn how to make a style of pasta that is the stuff of legends.
Biannually, pilgrims travel on foot and horseback for miles under the cover of darkness to give thanks to Saint Francesco. On arrival they are served a bowl of su filindeu in mutton broth, a recipe I have perfected over many attempts and is now a dish I reserve only for those I love the most.
When I heard that one of the pilgrimages takes place every October 4th, I momentarily thought about extending the break so I could experience it for myself. Better judgment quickly kicked in. It was the villagers' day, not mine. And anyway, I’ve only ever gate-crashed a stranger’s party once and that was with Nick. The experience was rather overrated but at least we can say we did it once.
On the day of the lesson, I bounced out of bed with gusto. Karen and I had spent the night in the stunning town of Alghero in north-west Sardinia where we had accidentally bought the biggest pizza known to Man.
Sometimes language barriers have their benefits.
Today was the day that I was going to drive cross country and finally tick off one of my bucket list wishes. It was an early start, and we hadn’t packed so we were scrambling around like idiots. It must have been 15 minutes before Nick entered my thoughts. A record so far.
Sardinian roads are treacherous. The never-ending tracks look amazing when Jeremy Clarkson is throwing a Lamborghini down them, but they are a real pain in the neck when you just want to get to your destination and watch the sun set with a cold beer.
Our hire car was a piece of junk with a dashboard full of flashing warning signs that would put a tacky Christmas tree to shame. It’s Sixt from here on in. Penny pinching is almost always a false economy.
En-route we tried and failed to find a natural hot spring, saved a tortoise from getting squished and doffed our caps to some of the 3,000,000 sheep who momentarily call Sardinia their home.
We pulled over from time to time. If there’s anything more dangerous than this death-trap of a car it’s trying to navigate Sardinian roads through glassy eyes.
We had a brief pit stop at Gairo Vecchio, the island’s most famous ghost town that was built on unstable ground and started crumbling before a huge flood finished it off. The villagers fled, never to return.
Karen found the place rather eerie, but it reminded me a little of visiting Pompeii with Nick which comforted me and gave me the strength to explore solo.
I decided if I was to dive into the pasta that has such local origins then I must take a potter around Lula, a quaint and unassuming village in the commune of Nuoro that is home to some of the only women on earth who know how to make it.
Finding someone to show me the ropes was no easy task. The women in the village used to happily open their doors to curious pasta makers but now prefer to protect their secret before their unique style of pasta becomes ubiquitous and mainstream.
I respect that, but as a kid I always wanted to find out how David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear, even though I knew that when I found out the answer it would be crushingly disappointing. At my age there is little chance of shaking that inquisitive nature now.
I eventually tracked down the owner and head chef of a restaurant in the south of the island. At first Marina Ravarotto had declined to teach me as she speaks no English and I only speak a few words of Italian. A volley of emails followed and in a last-ditch attempt to reassure her that I would be a good student I said I was fluent in pasta and I was confident that was the only language we'd need.
She seemed to like that because within the hour the deal was clinched.
We arrived at our scheduled lesson with seconds to spare and were greeted with a beaming, cheeky smile. Despite us not understanding a word the other one was saying (and with no internet connection to help with translation) we seemed to both smile and nod at the right times and the lesson got underway with the help of facial expressions, international sign language and mime.
Although now based in the Sardian capital Cagliari where there are more opportunities for ambitious chefs than in the countryside, she had cut her teeth in her hometown of Nuoro where su filindeu hails from and had learnt pasta making from the true originals.
Marina had prepared the dough beforehand to allow it time to relax for a few hours in the fridge, although the semolina-water ratios are nothing special or unusual.
First up was a mesmerising demonstration. Marina’s workstation consisted of a wooden pasta board and two bowls, one containing plain water and one with heavily salted water. To her left was a “fundu” a 64cm diameter circular board that was custom woven from the leaves of the local asphodel plant and not for sale at any price.
As Marina awakened the dough with a minute or two of heavy kneading, she would occasionally dip her fingers into each of the bowls until the dough was exactly as she wanted. She said the salt water was to aid elasticity and the plain water was to keep the dough hydrated. When to dip your fingers, which bowl to dip them into and how much water to take can’t really be taught. Fluctuations in air temperature and humidity mean you must “sense” when the dough is right and that can only happen through practice, failure, and more practice.
The technique is simple enough on paper. You make a long, thin sausage of dough, loop it and pinch the ends together to make two strands. You then pull those strands as wide as your arms can stretch and link again to create 4 strands. Repeat that a further five times and you end up with 256 insanely thin strands which are laid in three directions on the fundu.
The board is then placed in the Sardinian sun for a few hours to create an extremely brittle, circular sheet of pasta which is then broken into pieces around the size of a playing card.
By the end of the three-hour lesson, I was consistently doing four pulls well, five pulls regularly, six if I was lucky and in an insane moment of beginners luck, I managed the magic seven. That earned me the right to add my contribution to the board, essentially the pasta equivalent of learning the five-point palm exploding heart technique.
Despite my extreme concentration and rather serious demeanour in the photo below, I was bouncing inside like a puppy with pride and excitement.
We dined in Marina’s restaurant that night and raised a glass to Nick whilst enjoying her unforgettable su filindeu which was served in a mutton broth along with small pieces of fresh, slightly acidic pecorino cheese.
As we were leaving, Marina came bounding out of the kitchen to say her goodbyes. Two kisses in Europe are de rigour, but when you get three you know you've made a friend. That was flattering.
On our short walk back to the apartment we passed a tiny church and ventured inside. I’d never lit a church candle before but now seemed like an appropriate time to put that right.
We lit the candle and watched it flicker for a few minutes, comforted each-other and allowed ourselves time to understand the gravity of our loss. The candle was ultimately for Nick of course, but also for his mother Angela, father Philip, wife Sam and beautiful daughter Grace whose lives we intend to be a part of for as long as they want to be part of ours.
Nick would have enjoyed the trip for sure. I had one of the best night's sleeps for weeks, comforted by knowing that I hadn’t just found su filindeu that day, but a little chink of peace too.
Nick Muzzlewhite (Muzz): 1978 - 2023