Loaves cooling at Kentos bakery, Orroli

A 300-year-old loaf… the story of Sardinian bread

Kentos loaf

The organic loaves baked in Orroli use a   300-year-old yeast starter

Viviana Sirigu is listening to her loaves – like a doctor establishing a patient’s vital signs after a particularly tricky operation.

She gently pulls back the heavy, hand-made blanket and lifts one hot, round moddizzosu to her ear. She raps its delicious wood-fire-brown bottom with her knuckles, concentrating to catch the sound. Carefully, she places it back on the fresh-baked mounds of bread, all softly exhaling the satisfying smell of warm yeast and semolina. She smoothes down the blanket. Now the loaves must rest.

VIVIENA SIRIGU JPG

Viviana Sirigu has been making bread for as long as she can remember

Viviana’s bakery in Orroli, south central Sardinia, isn’t a lifetime’s work, but it is the result of a lifetime’s longing to reproduce on a commercial scale the bread she’d helped her mother make from as young as she can remember.

This is the same bread – not just the same recipe or the same technique, but the very same bread, made from su frammentu, the ‘mother yeast’, that’s been kept warm, fed with spring water and flour and passed down through her family for more than 300 years. It’s an extraordinary story of culinary continuity.

Each afternoon when the dough for tomorrow’s loaves has been kneaded in the Kentos bakery, a handful will be kept back to provide the starter culture for the next day’s batch, just as it was by generations of women in Viviana’s family. In fact, this bread is family.

“We treat the yeast like a person,” she says. “If it is too hot in the summer, you need to find it a cool place. If it is too cold, you need to keep it warm. You treat it like a member of the family.”

The affection she has for the bread is demonstrated in every lovingly executed stage in the long baking process that starts with a very special wheat, organically grown on the family’s own farm and a co-operative of 38 others.

The wheatlands of Orroli

The rolling wheatlands of Orroli

Called Senatore Cappelli, it’s a cultivar developed in the early 1900s from ancient North African grains whose naturally deep, drought-averse roots outcompete the weeds in search of water and nutrients, doing away with the need for artificial fertilizers and herbicides.

Cappelli is a handsome giant among wheats, with long, black-tipped ears and a stem that draws itself up to a full six feet in height. But its unusually tall stature makes it unstable and prone to lodging in wind and rain and therefore difficult to harvest, which was why, despite having been the bedrock of a breeding programme that gave rise to many modern durum wheats, it fell from favour in the late 20th Century.

In a good year, it yields just 2 tonnes of grain per acre – roughly half that of today’s varieties. What it lacks in weight, though, it makes up for in nutrition, packing a bigger punch of fibre, protein, magnesium, potassium and zinc than almost any other variety and it’s more easily digested, too, even by those with a gluten intolerance.

Cappelli wheat

The distinctive Senatore Cappelli wheat is extraordinarily tall at 6ft and yields are low, but it is rich in nutrients

To preserve as many of those natural characteristics as possible, Viviana insists the whole grain is ground very slowly between millstones of volcanic rock, which keep the biologically powerful wheatgerm cool. It’s no doubt the same technique used by Sardinia’s lost nuragic civilization – responsible for the mysterious and magnificent Nuraghe Arrubiu just outside Orroli – who left a trail of 3,000-year-old stale breadcrumbs, which led archaeologists to some of the oldest surviving bakeries on earth.

Fast-forward three millennia and some of the 12 staff employed at Kentos are emptying the clay oven, which is fired with two types of aromatic wild wood that enriches the flavour of the moddizzosu. Sandwiched in the floor of the oven on which the loaves sit is a layer of salt to maintain just the right humidity as they cook. Elsewhere in this small, purpose-built, church-like space, well-suited to the devotional duty of making bread, others are turning out swollen, ricotta-cloth-wrapped dough balls from bowls. At four o’clock in the afternoon, just when most bakers are finishing their day, Kentos is coming to life.

“We work during the day rather than the night because the natural yeast means we have to work in the heat. I’m very, very passionate about it, but it’s really hard work,” says Viviana, who spent 25 years as a civil servant before redundancy prompted a complete career change.

Loaves cooling at Kentos bakery, Orroli

The loaves sleep, cooling slowly, tucked under their special hand-woven blanket

As we talk, the dough for tomorrow’s loaves is being kneaded in a large electric mixer. It will be stretched and left to prove naturally for 15 hours overnight, allowing the 300-year-old yeast to multiply in its own good time. No accelerators are allowed here, but in a concession to modern consumerism, a proving room, which keeps the dough at a constant 26 degrees centigrade, has been installed together with a conventional baker’s oven, both of which help to increase the bakery’s throughput.

Demand for Kentos bread since the bakery opened eight years ago has grown – along with its reputation. It was chosen in 2015 as the product to represent Sardinia at the opening of the Milan Expo food show and every week loaves are sent across the island and as far as Rome where customers know they are sharing in the same bread that shepherds have eaten for centuries in the hills around Orroli. Setting off for a week-long tour of his flocks, a shepherd would often find a loaf packed at the bottom of his bertula (haversack) by his wife or mother, who knew it would keep perfectly from one Sunday to the next. One of the bread’s many surprising characteristics now, as then, is its ability to stay fresh for up to two weeks without preservatives and atmospheric packaging.

“The bread is really good tasted now,” says Viviana, tearing a still-warm moddizzosu that’s passed the ‘knocking test’ for perfection, “but it’s even better if you wait two days for the flavours to come out.”

Bread is as necessary to Sardinians as air itself and in the parched uplands of Orroli, a town with more than its fair share of centenarians, the purity of both are credited with adding years to your life. Maybe it’s the ingredients, the unhurried, respectful way they’re handled, or the bread’s symbolic presence in the life of the townsfolk, who will request the most delicately hand-sculptured coccoi pintau, a bread almost too decorative to eat, to mark significant events.

The skillfully sculpted bread shapes, coccoi pintau, are traditionally made for christenings and weddings

The skilfully sculpted bread shapes, coccoi pintau, are traditionally made for christenings and weddings

“For the fifth birthday of a child, people ask me to make different shapes to represent different professions – depending on what they choose is what they’ll grow up to be,” says Viviana. It’s a  she likes, but it would be good if more children chose the shape of a loaf because bakers are badly needed in Sardinia.

Viviana’s staff enjoy a four-and-a-half-day week, good pay and a pleasant environment and yet still she struggles to recruit, which is partly why she’s investing in a classroom bakery for children right next door to ensure a 3,000-year-old skill doesn’t end here. She has faith.

“Bread is going to live forever,” she says. “It’s not a craze.”

And as the su frammentu is carefully set aside again for the next day’s batch, there’s a good chance that – in Sardinia at least – she’s right.


 

You can visit the Kentos Bakery in Orroli, Sardinia. To find out more, click here

Moddizzosu has earned a place in the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste, which sets out to prevent artisan food products from becoming extinct through lack of demand or loss of craft skills or ingredients. To find out more about the history of moddizzosu and other products in the Ark of Taste, visit the Slow Food Foundation here

 

 

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A saint who’s not a saint, a race that has no winner… this is L’Ardia

L'Ardia arch of Constantino

The arch of ‘Saint’ Constantino at Sedilo through which more than 100 riders gallop their horses into the sanctuary

The sun has barely risen over the distant Gennargentu Mountains before the first rifle shots ring out.

It’s the coolest part of the day, but the horses are already beaded with sweat

Their teenage riders sit tense in their tiny Sardinian saddles, anxious not to disgrace themselves in front of the town’s elders; swarthy men in crisp white shirts and black velvet leggings, who’ve upheld this ancient ritual since they were barely men themselves. Among the circling posse at the top of the hill, a single woman among 100 horsemen stands out.

Suddenly, the first of three riders carrying sacred flags breaks free of the group, galloping at full pelt towards a dangerously narrow stone arch. He’s taken the ‘enemy’ by surprise, but they’re soon in hot pursuit, charging for the same target with wreckless speed. As the riders disappear in a cloud of dust, polenta from hundreds of blank cartridges fired above their heads shower the roaring crowd.

This is L’Ardia, one of the most extraordinary religious festivals you’re ever likely to witness, held each July for the past 300 years in the centre of an island where saints are as numerous as sheep. Except the ‘saint’ for whom this race is run – Constantino, better known to us as the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great – does not officially exist in the Roman Catholic church.

L'Ardia 2015 shooter

Men in traditional costume, armed with rifles, their belts full of cartridges filled with semolina wander among the crowds

No one is entirely certain why a tiny town of barely 3,000 people, 500km from where a 4th Century military victory put the first Christian in charge of the empire, should insist on
re-enacting such a pivotal moment in European history. Nor why they took it upon themselves to elevate Constantine to the status of a saint.

But 1200 years later they built him a church inside a walled sanctuary where thousands of pilgrims now come every year to watch this uniquely Sardinian event and take part in the religious services and feasting that accompany it.

For the townsfolk, L’Ardia is more than a spectacle, it’s a way of life; a timeless test of skill, faith and courage that binds one generation to another. It’s a race with no winner, save tradition.

“I rode my first L’Ardia at 15, like my father before me, and I promised that every horse I ever owned I would bring here,” one veteran explains. More than 20 years later, his own sons, aged 17 and 19, are riding with him. No doubt their sons – or daughters – will do the same.

Marco, a young man, now taking part in his third L’Ardia on a four-year-old Anglo/Arab/Sardinian mare, enjoys the thrill of the race and the ritual but has taken the precaution of swapping the traditional Sardinian saddle for an English one. “It’s safer. It gives my knees better contact with the horse and stops me sliding forward,” he says as he lets her drink from a bottle of water beneath the trees behind the church. His caution is justified; in the not-so-distant past L’Ardia has claimed casualties among both riders and spectators.

Young riders like Marco can wait decades to earn the title of

Young riders like Marco can wait decades to earn the honour of becoming sa prima pandela

At 9am the sun is already scorching the parched hill looking out over the sparkling Lago Omodeo. The air is pungeant with the smell of warm leather and horse sweat. Below the trees the annual party has begun as crowds of onlookers crunch across a carpet of spent cartridges towards food stalls of torrone, hot sausage and drink. The priest is bringing an outdoor service of thanksgiving to a close and the TV cameramen are speeding away towards their next assignment.

But among the riders, thoughts are already turning to who will have the honour of carrying the sacred flag the following year – a decision that is entrusted to the priest to announce next spring and based not just on skill or guts, but also on faith and regular devotion. The anointed can wait years, even decades to prove themselves worthy of  becoming sa prima pandela.

Their reward is not so much in the deafening approval of the crowd but in knowing they are now bound to a moment in history; to this place and for all time.


Horses have played a significant role in Sardinian culture, ever since they arrived on the island, probably with the Phoenicians around the 4th Century. The closest living relatives of these early Asian horses are the Giara, named after the high stony plateau in south central Sardinia where 700 of them still roam wild. Small, hardy and spirited they have been crossed with Anglos and Arabs to produce a taller breed more suited to equestrian sports. You can see more on the Giara here 

Not only are horses still widely used on farms, but sumptuously decorated with bells and flowers, they feature in virtually every Sardinian festival. One of the biggest is the Cavalcata Sarda in Sassari at the end of May, but during the winter months, daredevil teams perform spectacular acrobatics at speed through many small Sardinian towns. The L’Ardila at Sedilo takes place every year on the evening of July 6 and is repeated early on the morning of July 7.

A version of this story was first published in the Take One newspaper in July 2015.

A version of this story was first published in the Take One newspaper in July 2015.

Hard men and hard drink… the story of Sardinian grappa

Filu e Ferru in glasses

Crystal-clear shots of Sardinian Filu è Ferru, otherwise known as “fire water”

A 20th Century Sardinian banditto, courtesy of La Nuova Sardegna

A 20th Century Sardinian banditto (photo courtesy of La Nuova Sardegna)


I had my first taste of grappa in a ‘Wild West’ bar in what felt like a Wild West town in southern Sardinia, perched on top of a mountain range called the Seven Brothers.

Burcei isn’t the prettiest of places to visit, but at 700m above sea level it is one of the highest and the views over the cherry orchards for which it is famous are worth the gear-crunching struggle up the pass.

Maybe it was the altitude or the relief at having survived the switchbacks, but the memory of that first shot and the thick black coffee that accompanied it in the Il Nostro Saloon with its mini ‘aqua vitae’ still behind the bar and an incongruous cartoon cowboy over the door stuck with me.

The Burcei settlers were mostly shepherds, who came from the notorious Barbagia region to the north – the breeding ground of the lawless banditti, some of whom operated on the fringes of political activism, many of whom were villains and thieves and all of whom now seem to have been reinvented as cultural heroes, best described as ‘shepherds with attitude’. One of the most famous was rearrested as recently as 2013 having allegedly turned over a new leaf to begin work as a tour guide taking visitors around his nefarious haunts.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/10113587/Sardinian-bandit-hero-returns-to-his-criminal-ways.html

The cult of banditry was real and dangerous. Their activities ranged from sheep and cattle rustling to killings, kidnap and even bombings. Yet local people, at least those not directly caught up in the bloodletting, still often talk about these characters with tolerance and even a nationalistic pride. Latterly, they’ve become tourist attractions in their own right; they even have their own T-shirts.

Meet a bandit, get the T-shirt!

There’s little doubt these hard-living men would have been involved in the illegal distilling from which the Sardinian grappa takes its name of Filu è Ferru or ‘iron wire’. It’s a throwback to the days when villagers hid evidence of their illicit, untaxed grappa-making in the ground, using thin wires wrapped around the bottlenecks to poke up through the soil in order to locate them more easily.

In Barbagia they had their own name for it – Abbardente, which means water that burns, and for years grappa was seen as a rough, peasant drink, popular only with farmers and revolutionaries who could stomach it. A holidaymaker’s trip to Italy wasn’t complete without a slug of throat-paralysing grappa, but it was rarely seen in bars outside of its home country until a remarkably determined woman, Giannola Nonino of the Nonino distillery in Percoto Italy, decided to popularize it in the 70s.

She began making grappa from a single grape variety and branding it in much the same way as single malt whisky is marketed in Scotland. Previously, grappa had been made from the spent grape skins and seeds left over from the wine making process with several varieties mixed up together and often with the grape stems thrown in for good measure.

Nonino’s altogether more refined product, which she pressed on journalists, celebrities and politicians, elevated grappa to national hero status – much like the banditti – and since 1989 its production has been protected under EU law. It’s unique in that it’s distilled from solid material – the grape pomace – and not fermented juice, as with grape brandy. No similar distillate produced outside of Italy can go by the same name.

Once enjoyed almost exclusively by elderly Italians as a caffè coretto, added to cups of espresso, grappa has now entered a new era, adopted by the ‘it’ crowd as a cocktail mixer, although purists would argue it is still best drunk straight from the bottle or ice-cold from the freezer in specially shaped, long-stemmed grappa glasses. Either way, at up to 86 per cent proof (alcohol by volume), it delivers as big a kick as it ever did.

Grappa cocktail recipes

During the plague years, Italian physicians routinely prescribed up to a quarter of a litre of grappa to be drunk on an empty stomach. Although anyone who survived that would almost certainly have had the strength to survive the plague, the doctors nevertheless took credit for the cure.

Back then, grappa (which was first distilled in Bassano del Grappa in Italy’s northern Veneto region around the 14th century) was a cottage industry. Today, 40 million bottles are produced commercially in Italy every year for both the domestic and export trade. Sardinia’s Filu è Ferru is regarded as being among the best and certainly the one with the most colourful cultural history, which is why the Sardinian government has been lobbying Europe for years to receive the same protected name status for Filu è Ferru and Abbardente as some other regional producers have for theirs, including Grappa di Barolo and Grappa del Friuli.

Abberdente from the Distillerie Lussurgesi in Oristano

Abberdente from the Distillerie Lussurgesi in Oristano

Most wineries in Sardinia have their own brand of Filu è Ferru or Abbardente, from the young or giovane grappa, bottled crystal clear, straight from steel vats and allowed to rest for six months, to riserva, which is matured for up to 18 months in previously wine-soaked wooden casks during a stage known as the lungo sonno (the long sleep). This ‘sleeping’ imparts a cognac-style yellow or brown hue.

There are also untold amounts of Sardinian grappa still made in people’s homes. They no longer bother hiding the evidence – the authorities tend to turn a blind eye to grappa made for family and friends these days – but the name has stuck.

And I rather like it.


The story of grappa making is told at the excellent Museo della Grappa run by the Poli Distillerie in Bassano del Grappa and nearby Schiavon in Northern Italy. http://www.poligrappa.com/

Most wineries in Sardinia make grappa, but perhaps one of the best to visit for an authentic taste of ‘fire water’ is Giuseppe and Grazia Sedilesu’s family-run vineyard at Mamoiada in the heart of ‘banditto country’ in the Barbagia region. They make Abbardente from the island’s famous cannonau grape. http://www.giuseppesedilesu.com/en/wines/abbardente-mamuthone/ 

History of a nation in a pasta… the malloreddus story

The Sardinians have a pretty colourful history – and it’s reflected in their language and their cuisine, both of which mark them out at times as being distinctly un-Italian.
If you attend a family gathering in rural Sardinia, you’ll get a true taste of both. The conversation is loud and passionate but nothing like you’d hear spoken just 300 miles across the Mediterranean. The food and wine, too, differ markedly from other regions.
The reasons are many and complex but in the Sardinians’ national dish of malloreddus you can read some of the clues; it’s the entire history of a nation in one tiny pasta.

Pasta and language

They’re pronounced mahl – or – red – doo – zu, which many people believe comes from malloru, or ‘bull’ in one Sardinian dialect, because they resemble ‘fat little calves’. The other theory is that the name is lifted direct from the Latin mallolus, meaning ‘morsel’. Whatever the true explanation, it’s our first clue to how different Sardinia is from the motherland or, probably more accurately, the stepmotherland of Italy.

Of all the European languages derived in full or in part from Latin, Sardinian is the closest by a long chalk, being barely different from Ceasar Augusta’s mother tongue. If you want to know what the 1st Century BC Roman politician Cicero sounded like when he described the Sardinians as ‘those thieves in wool coats’, ask a modern-day Sardinian to translate it.

Pasta and conquest

Malloreddus is a pasta that’s native to Sardinia – I use the word native advisedly, because food here takes on a personality all its own – and it was traditionally flavoured with saffron (clue number two), which imparts a deep golden colour.

The saffron is likely to have found its way to Sardinia on Phoenician boats from what is now Lebanon in the Middle East where we find the earliest records of the spice being used in cooking. Pretty soon the Sardinians had not only acquired a taste for this and other exotic flavours but were busily cultivating their own (more on the Sardinian saffron growers’ fields of ‘Red Gold’ in a future post).

The island by this point had already been occupied for some 2,000 years by a culture whose sophistication we are only just beginning to fully appreciate – the Nuraghic people – and the Phoenicians were the first of their many visitors… the Carthaginians, Romans, the North African Vandals, the Goths, the Byzantines and the bloody Saracens or Moors were all to follow them. It was little wonder that the natives headed for the hills and refused to come down for several centuries.

Pasta and culture

Malloreddus has a distinctive shape and pattern, traditionally made by women rolling the little shells of pasta against wicker and reed baskets that adorned every home. The baskets were used to transport, store and mix food and each region developed its own technique and distinctive design – a skill that sadly is likely to have completely vanished within the next two generations. So the pattern of the malloreddus differed slightly, depending on where you sat down to eat, as it still does today.

In the recipe below we show you how to make rough-backed malloreddus using a hand-held zester, but in some Sardinian kitchens you’ll find a special tool called a ciurili and we’ve even seen the distinctive spiral grooves you find on most pre-packed malloreddus fashioned using the back of a fork. Whatever the pattern, the purpose is to make sure the delicious ragu in which the malloreddus are served, clings to the pasta and doesn’t slide off.

Pasta and love

Malloreddus hold a very special place in every Sardinian’s heart, not least because on her wedding night a Sardinian bride will even now parade through her village, wearing silver jewellery and carrying a basket of the pasta she has made herself to her new husband’s home. He will then scare off the curious entourage that’s followed her by firing rifle shots above their heads before sitting down to eat the malloreddus from the same plate as his betrothed – and you thought spaghetti was romantic!

The following recipe is sufficient to make several meals of malloreddus, which in Sardinia would normally be served in small portions between the anti pasti and the main dish. Follow the instructions for drying the malloreddus then freeze them down in batches.

We’ll give you the recipe for Malloreddus alla Campidanese, a rich fresh tomato ragu made with Sardinian sausage and fennel, from the famous Campidano region in the South East of the island – the spiritual home of malloreddus and the area thought to have given the pasta its name – in our next post.

Until then, buon appetito…

RECIPE FOR MALLOREDDUS

Malloreddus cooked cropped

Ingredients

  • 750g semolina
  • 150g plain flour
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2tbsp olive oil
  • Good pinch of salt
  • Strand of saffron soak in teaspoon of hot water (optional, the semolina and eggs will give the pasta a golden glow)
  • A jug of boiled water that’s been allowed to cool to luke warm

Method

Malloreddus eggs in bowl

Malloreddus adding water

No need for spoons – just use your hands!

In a large bowl, mix together the semolina and flour, then add the eggs, oil, salt and saffron (if using).

Bring the dough together in the bowl, adding a little water if necessary – do not add too much. It’s better the dough is too dry rather than too wet at this stage.

Malloreddus kneading

Malloreddus in bagTurn the dough out onto a large, flat, clean surface and knead for 10-15 mins, using the base of your hand to push the dough away from you and then fold it back in again. It’s quite exhausting – you may need a glass or two of Sardinian cannonau to keep your strength up. Sprinkle the dough occasionally with water to keep it workable. Knead until it’s smooth, elastic and begins to spring back when you push it with your finger. You should start to see it ‘sigh’ when you roll it back into a ball. Put it in a polythene bag and allow to rest for 20 minutes in a cool place.

Cut a portion off the dough and roll into a long, thin sausage about a half an inch wide. Cut into quarter inch slices.

http://terrasardatours.tumblr.com/post/119229109723/rolling-and-cutting-sardinian-malloreddus

Using your thumb, gently roll the slices of dough away from you down the inside of the zester. You may need to practise a few times to get the right pressure and technique – but it will come!

http://terrasardatours.tumblr.com/post/119226225745/making-sardinian-malloreddus

Spread the malloreddus well apart on a floured surface – make sure they’re not touching, so they dry evenly – dust very lightly with flour and leave them for an hour to dry.

Malloreddus shapesMalloreddus cookingTip them into a pan of plenty of boiling salted water. The cooking time will depend on how big your malloreddus are, but typically they’ll take 20 mins to cook. They shouldn’t be limp, but they shouldn’t be chewy, either.

Drain and serve in Campidanese or other ragu sauce.

Buon Appetito!