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Far from the jet-set life on the Costa Smeralda, far from the vaguely Catalan ambience of Alghero and the crystal-clear waters of Villasimius, there is a Sardinia for true connoisseurs. Hidden and beautiful, waiting to be discovered even if you’re spending your holidays at seaside: all you really need is a rental car and the curiosity of someone in search of exquisite flavours, and in no time at all you will be in unknown places on the Mediterranean’s second-largest island.
It almost seems like a micro-continent, where an ancient language is spoken, populated by people who are abrupt, intense and old-fashioned, like their best-known monuments: the nuraghs, those mysterious monuments dating back three or four thousand years that dot the Sardinian countryside. Their function is uncertain – perhaps sacred, perhaps defensive – whereas it is certain that crops were being grown in the vicinity of these stone towers as far back as the second millennium BC. An agricultural tradition that has endured over the centuries, always flourishing and glorious: Ancient Rome considered Sardinia one of its main granaries. Especially the area around the Marmilla, a name applied by the Romans by assonance: the conical hills dotting the countryside look like “mammelle”, or breasts. From here, looking out over fertile fields and awesome landscapes, we set off in search of the Campidano, a magical area of Sardinia that attracts visitors all year long.
The actual starting point of our itinerary is Cagliari: here in Sardinia’s sunny seaside capital, the historic and very popular San Benedetto market is worth a visit. There are two floors: fruits, vegetables and meat on the upper floor, fish below. You can see the wealth of Sardinian produce here in all its splendour. Tuna, swordfish, shellfish, scorpion fish and sardines are piled high in stone stalls. And then there are the splendid Alghero spiny lobsters, some of the best in the world, and eels from Pesaria lagoon. But all these flavoursome fruits and vegetables, the bread and the meat point to inland Sardinia, our goal.
From Cagliari, taking the motorway linking it to Sassari, we arrive at Siddi in about 50 minutes. Here what was once the glorious Puddu pasta maker has now been transformed into a cultural centre, and is a great exponent for this land: chef Roberto Petza (one Michelin star), far from all the clamour, has created a surprising wine-and-food-culture system that combines operating a restaurant with training in the rediscovery of an agricultural land now forgotten. At his restaurant, S’Apossentu, he interprets an area abounding in gourmet wonders, from vegetables to wild herbs, from barnyard animals to pasturing ones. Sardinia is a land of meat. From porceddu (suckling pig) to sheep by way of geese and chickens that the chef raises out behind the restaurant. But it’s the garden vegetables that take your breath away: the crazy sweetness of the pees, the aroma of Sardinian artichokes, the garlic, onions, potatoes…. All of them “poor” foods that in Petza’s hands turn into a novel about his Land, where every dish is a chapter in a unique story. In addition to the restaurant, located in the old family home of the Puddu pasta makers, Roberto Petza heads up an academy of haute cuisine and a foundation that promotes up-and-coming food and wine enterprises in the region.
From Siddi we take the road to Barumini. One of the biggest and most important nuraghs in Sardinia is found there: recent discoveries have shown that grapes were cultivated here even before the Phoenicians arrived, and wine is one of the great, forgotten legacies of this land. Cultivated since the time of the nuragh culture, Cannonau is Sardinia’s most famous wine. But here they also grow the vines of Vernaccia, Bovale, aromatico, passito. You can find them at the brand-new Su’Entu cellars (Il Vento) at Sanluri. These cellars came out of the dream of a local entrepreneur, Salvatore Pilloni, who wanted to give back part of his economic success to his native land. He set up a cutting-edge company to develop an ancient tradition. In this area there are even small, and very small, heroic producers of natural wines. At Nurri, Gianfranco Manca produces genuine gems of the winemaker’s art at his cellars, PaneVino. Another exponent of the small and precious is Ugo Sionis, with his Vigneto Santu Teru vineyards at Nurallao. These are hearty advocates of quality. They are the wine-making equivalent of Roberto Petza and his network of farmers and breeders.
That’s why it is worthy leaving behind Sardinia’s well-trodden tourist routes and discover this difficult, exquisite land and its human wealth – in addition to outstanding food. To get a real understanding of this, take along a local bottle of wine, a pecorino purchased at one of the small cheese dairies in the area, and treat yourself to a picnic at Giarda di Gesturi, the basalt plateau that looks over the Marmilla like a balcony. Here you’ll find the last wild ponies in Europe, cork oaks, little lakes and the ancient mystery of the most remote parts of Sardinia.