■ 17 October 2014 by James Martin
So we’re on the road to Gavoi in Sardinia for the Autunno in Barbagia festivities when the car screeches to a halt. I look over to Martha, thankfully in control of said car, who points up a hill to our right and says, “Do you want to see the church?”
I did. The church was of very dark Basalt. It stood at the crest of the hill ominously. A long staircase provided access.
We happened to be in the town of Ottana. The church of San Nicola we were now standing in front of was dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra and consecrated in 1160. Archaeologists sent in during the restoration of the church discovered an earlier church from the high medieval, possibly monastic, tangled in the foundations.
You’ll notice something interesting on the facade if you click the picture above to see it bigger. It’s got some ceramic plates stuck in it at the top. This practice is typical in Sardinia, as well as in northern Italy and Tuscany. You see, the church is built in the Pisan style. Pisa has 669 bacini on 26 buildings, a bacino being a basin or hollow circular vessel—the ceramics in a church facade which came from far and wide; some in Pisa had Egyptian origins.
Unfortunately the bacini embedded in San Nicola are replicas. But interesting none the less.
But the real treasure (for me) was still to be discovered. Inside the church was this:
It’s something I’ve seen before. Hand carved. Hand painted. The pedals give it away. It is of course an organ. You have to open up the doors to see the pipes and keyboard, of course.
Which, of course, would be forbidden to heathens, pagans, and journalists.
And, yes, I spotted a note on the door clasp. I read it. It nearly threw me for a loop. Instead of forbidding my sausage fingers from prising the door open, the note merely asked me to please respect the object.
How absolutely civilized!
So I took great care at opening up the handmade organ. And here it is:
If you like these sorts of things, we discovered another fine example in Portugal, in the incredibly amazing town of Tentugal, a place which I must advise you to go. See: The Treasures of Tentugal
Ottana, it turns out, has one of the top carnival celebrations in Sardinia.
Have fun on your vacations, and please, you planners-the-the-nth-degree, leave time for discovery.
For more about sardinia, see Wandering Sardinia
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■ 10 March 2014 by James Martin
You have to be bold to label your work The Sardinia Cookbook. Bold like a Sardinian, Viktorija Todorosvska takes on the difficult work of making sense out of the cuisine of the enigmatic island—and does a very good job of it.
I’ve spent five seasons doing archaeological work on the island, and I’ve read a lot of utter nonsense about the food. Combing the introduction finely as a man looking for lice in the hair of a wild man hugging a ticking time bomb, I have to say the woman has done her homework.
But that’s probably not enough, so we went ahead and tested a recipe. Chicken with capers. Delicious, even with the industrial crap American chicken we had to put up with. There are a lot of capers sticking out of those stone walls and towers that dot the Sardinian lanscape—and they add zap to lots of things. So we’re talking local food here.
Oh, and the cooking times were spot on.
So, yeah, it’s a short review because I really can’t find anything to bitch about. The only thing wrong (with any authentic cookbook, really) is that you can’t get some of the things you want to eat most, like the suckling pig so you can have myrtle-flavored porcheddu. Or the Sardinian lamb, or the bue rosso, the red bull. But you can go to Sardinia and have them. And if you go with our Sardinia Inside Out app (iOS | Android) , you can eat them in the best places.
To buy the cookbook from Amazon:
The Sardinian Cookbook: The Cooking and Culture of a Mediterranean Island
■ 11 December 2013 by James Martin
One of the advantages of volunteering on vacation is the wealth of knowledge you’ll acquire of the local population and their clever use of raw materials on hand to make food and useful objects out of.
In the early 1980s we joined a project devoted to excavating Nuraghe Santa Barbara just outside of the little town of Bauladu. The excavation lasted several summers, and we made friends we still visit in Bauladu to this day—which, of course, means we are always making new friends like the Mayor of Bauladu, Davide Corriga Sanna, who today posted an interesting picture on his facebook page, a poster which seeks to promote the development and production of sapa di fico d’india, the concentrate of prickly pear pulp which the local women have been boiling down and selling for years. Witness the picture on the upper left. It’s from 1989. We happened to be prowling the streets when we spotted the wheelbarrow full of prickly pears in front of a magazzino and popped in for a chat with the women, whose iron fingers were expertly ripping the skin off the prickly pears like they weren’t prickly at all.
What’s nice about all this is that you see the circles of wastelessness in country life that you don’t see in America. The shepherd plants the cactus tightly together as a fence to keep his sheep from straying on their way to pasture. The fruit of the cactus provides sustenance to humans. Nothing is wasted; you eat the fence.
Sapa di fico d’india was sometimes a substitute for sapa di mosto d’uva, that is, concentrated grape must, also used in cooking by the poor. Sugar wasn’t always dirt cheap, you know.
Prickly pear juice can be used as a dye as it contains the Betalain pigment as does a beet root. And the juice of the prickly pear is quite healthy, as a matter of fact. It contains a lot of Vitamin C and minerals. There’s also:
Some preliminary evidence shows that prickly pear cactus can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that prickly pear cactus extract may lessen the unpleasant effects of a hangover. ~ Mayo Clinic
So good luck to the good women of Balaudu. You’ve got a winner there.
Popular These Days
■ 5 May 2013 by James Martin
What is the well attired travel writer bopping around in these days? Well, if you go by the picture, donning a mastruga or mastruca might be just the thing for the start of the new millennium. It’s an ancient Sardinian skin outfit worn by shepherds past—also called best’ e peddi. The Romans got a bit snotty over the dress, calling the Sardinians they found “Sardi pelliti” or the pelted Sards. One does not make this out to be a compliment.
My research (well, ok guide Paola Loi’s research) defines the mastruga as an ancient “microfiber”, cool in summer and warm in winter. All the more reason to wear one in modern times, as we head back to the stone age after a few filthy rich people win all the wealth, leaving the rest of us a shriveled husk of a planet.
Interestingly, the roots of the word mastruga are found all over Europe. It’s pretty likely that Romanians and Germans were pretty much decked out the same when they were happy and productive barbarians. Today the Mastruga is featured at pretty much every festival in Sardinia, especially at the costume extravaganza called the Festival of Sant’Efisio in Cagliari on the first of May.
The hat is called sa berritta, the traditional “beret” knit in a tube form and set upon the head in a variety of ways, including jauntily. They were typical shepherds hats in the 1800s, when the traditional costume started to become more lavish and distinctive.
So look for a mastruga shop coming soon to a boutique mall near you. Goat or sheepskin? It’s pretty much the only decision you ‘ll have to make. One size fits all. But get the accessories. That shepherds stick really rounds out the outfit, don’t you think?
(Grazie to our model, Martha Bakerjian of Italy Travel)
■ 8 June 2012 by James Martin
Ladies and gents, I’m proud to announce the birth of a new travel app for one of my favorite places in the whole, wide world, the island of Sardinia! We’ve decided to call it Sardinia Inside Out with yours truly being a sort of outsider who labored in Sardinia’s hot summer sun to excavate a Nuragic village over several summers, and tour guide extraordinaire Paola Loi being the insider.
Sardinia Inside Out has 870 pictures and over 200 text entries, representing the best of Sardinia, from lace-making to sacred horse races. Each attraction is mapped on a Google map—and you don’t have to be connected to the internet to see the map. There’s a good deal about the traditional foods of Sardinia, recommended restaurants, bars, and where to shop for traditional goods, from rugs to lace to saffron (yes, Sardinia is a major producer of saffron!)
H4. Where do I get this bodacious guide to Sardinia?
Paola Loi is profiled in Martha’s Italy Travel page: Paola Loi – Personal Tour Guide for Sardinia. Paola’s husband Sascha contributed many of the fine photographs you’ll find in the guide, and is an expert on lodging. His guidance produced some very unique and interesting lodging recommendations you’ll find in the guide.
And me you know. Or maybe not. Here you’ll find some of the odd jobs I do and yes, that’s my bug-eyed fear of finding someone with a camera pointed at me in the courtyard of a Nuraghe. If you don’t know what a nuraghe is, you need our guide.
And perhaps you need our auxilarary web site, too: Wandering Sardinia
■ 30 March 2012 by James Martin
Giovanna Ledda is an amazing woman. She’ll be 92 in August of 2012. She makes lace. Not just any lace, but a particular type of Sardinian lace called “Bosa Filet Lace” from the town where Giovanna lives on the west coast of Sardinia between Alghero and Oristano. It is a lace born out of a fisherman’s net making, an endeavor well known in Bosa.
Today Giovanna’s hands fly through the stitches, but perhaps not as fast as they used to. She told us that in her prime (shortly after she learned how to make lace at age 12 in order to help feed the family) her hands were so fast you couldn’t see them while she worked.
We made pictures. We made a video. Her hands were still fast enough to blur in both.
Guide Paola Loi stepped in to ask, “but what of your worries? What do you do if you have them?”
“Tell them to take a walk, too!”
And to watch Giovanna looping her needle through the grid of thread, it’s apparent her strategy works, even on an island known for its longevity.
See the video and learn more about Bosa: Bosa Filet Lace.
■ 17 March 2011 by James Martin
(For those of you who think the title is one of the numerous undiscovered errors scribbled incoherently by the tottering fool who is the writer of this blog, rest assured that it was not meant to read “A Minor Bicycle in San Sperate, Sardinia.” Or maybe it was. Read on to decide.)
One this day, the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, we celebrate the rough cultural past of Sardinia, once a land of mines, malarial swamps and stone towers.
The picture above shows a bicycle, embedded in a wall of San Sperate, a village known for its murals, vegetables and fruits (especially peaches, but this time of year oranges).
We were being driven around the village by sculptor Pinuccio Sciola when he stopped the car and pointed to the bicycle above while I snapped a picture. “This bicycle belonged to a miner who used it to get to his job in the mines. He cycled 100 km every day each way. One day he got so tired he had to rest, so he put down the bike and fell asleep under a tree. When he awoke, he didn’t remember whether he was coming or going, so he went home and missed his day of work.”
Let’s raise a glass to difficult lives celebrated uniquely.
(More on San Sperate)
■ 8 March 2011 by James Martin
This medieval carnevale game is easy. You get into an intricate costume (as does your horse), you ride in a parade through town to a starting point, then, when it’s your turn, you gallop down a street mounded with sand as fast as you can and do what you see in the picture, namely skewering a hanging star, which has a hole of about one inch in the center, using your foil.
It takes quite a bit of skill. And the horse has to cooperate, too.