In Search Of Su Filindeu

Dried su filindeu pasta

Like all 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, as 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 trip was going to be spent under a 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 somber break. Our holidays are typically quite lazy. We generally just love 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.

Typical Sardinian landscape

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 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 sadness. Ignoring it would be unjust, and acknowledging my natural but unhealthy gravitation towards rumination meant I had 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.

This time we weren't going to get robbed on the train from Naples to Palermo, but instead, look at some 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.

Nick outside the Vatican with a tiny nun

I was ultimately here to learn how to make su filindeu, 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 that is now a dish I reserve for those I love the most.

When I heard that one of the pilgrimages takes place on October 4th, I momentarily thought about extending the break so I could experience it for myself. Better judgement 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 northwest Sardinia, where we had accidentally bought the biggest pizza known to Man.

Karen with her average size pizza

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 become a real pain in the neck when you just want to get to your destination and watch the sun set with a cold beer.

Windy roads

Our rental 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.

Saving a tortoise

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. It was built on unstable ground and started crumbling before a huge flood finished it off. The villagers fled, never to return.

Gairo Vecchio ghost town in Sardinia

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.

The next stop was Lula. I decided if I was to dive into the pasta that has such local origins, then I must take a potter around this quaint and unassuming village that is home to some of the only women on earth who know how to make it.

Church in the centre of Lula

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.

Lula in the Nuoro region of Sardinia

We eventually tracked down the owner and head chef of a restaurant in the south of the island. At first, Marina Ravarotto 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 an 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 cut her teeth in her hometown of Nuoro, where su filindeu hails from, and learned pasta-making from the true originals.

Making su filindeu with Marina Ravarotto

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.

Making su filindeu

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 four strands. Repeat that a further five times, and you end up with 256 insanely thin strands that 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 beginner's 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.

Stretching the su filindeu strands

We dined in Marina’s restaurant that night and raised a glass to Nick while enjoying her unforgettable su filindeu, which was served in a mutton broth along with small pieces of fresh, slightly acidic pecorino cheese.

Su filindeu in mutton broth

As we were leaving, Marina came bounding out of the kitchen to say her goodbyes. Two kisses in Europe are de rigueur, 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, watched it flicker for a few minutes, and allowed ourselves a few moments 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 daughter Grace, whose lives we intend to be a part of as long as they want to be part of ours.

Church candle

Nick would have enjoyed the trip, for sure. I had one of the best nights' 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 obituary

Nick Muzzlewhite (Muzz): 1978-2023