Failing to Eat a Local Delicacy – Michael O’Mahony

Author drawing

Lorighittas are a type of pasta made in one small village, Morgongiori, on a side of a mountain on the east of Sardinia. Only the women of this village, and only some of them, know how to make lorighittas. A lorighitta is effectively a woven pasta made from a dough of semolina and water. Each one looks a bit like an ear.

The origin story of this unusual pasta is much contested. Some say that the beautiful lorighittas were a stand-in for jewels among the unwealthy local girls. Another says the shape is based on and named after the iron rings used to hitch horses and oxen—a particularly enjoyable story if you imagine the men hitching the animals and then going inside to eat a pasta inspired by that hitching.

Traditionally, they’re eaten with cockerel meat and white wine. Or with a tomato and saffron sauce. Lorighittas are not easy to come by, but they are delicious.

Apparently, anyway. I have not eaten a lorighitta.

I mean, I tried. I heard about the pasta while staying in Sardinia and was taken by the idea of eating a little-known food in a little mountain village. And perhaps writing and publishing a piece about this unique little experience of mine.

So I drive the 120 kilometres from Bosa, where I’m staying, to Morgongiori, with my mom, to whom I had sold the idea of a spectacular lunch in a beautiful setting which I would of course be treating her to. The journey was more like 150 kilometres in the end, due to a grave wrong turn that took us down an unpaved road, where the stones sparked gleefully into the paintwork of not-our-car.

Eventually, though, we point the car into the mountains towards Morgongiori. Food writing, here we come.

The mountains there are gorgeously green and brushy. Under a huge slice of sky, we’re all slow-driving and big-eye-devouring the scenery. Excitement. Novelty. Pasta.

I see the sign for our agriturismo, a farm that doubles as a restaurant and hotel, and follow it down a lane, and then another lane, and further down other increasingly narrow lanes until I arrive at a closed gate. A resoundingly locked gate. I get out my phone and call the agriturismo. There’s no answer. I say sorry to my mom. I call again and there’s no answer. I search opening hours online: it should be open. But it is not. I stand outside the car for a few minutes, hoping for an arrival, some kind of intervention that will resolve the situation. None comes. I call again and there’s still nobody at the other end of the line. I lean my head in the car window and say sorry to my mom, who waits patiently. I search other restaurants in Morgongiori and call the first one and the number is disconnected. The second on the list has no number.

What had I done? I had made no reservation. What had I done?

We drive into the village and crawl around it looking for somewhere to eat.

It’s 13:30. I know that a person should never, ever show up anywhere in Italy after lunchtime. I know this. But, still, come on. For one thing, it’s still lunchtime. For another, this is really taking it too far. Empty? Beyond empty. Shutters pulled down at every business, curtains drawn in every window, not a breath of life, not even a dog to bark. Just us and parked cars.

I would have sworn the town had been recently abandoned were it not for posters advertising the upcoming Sagra delle Lorighittas. An entire festival wholly dedicated to lorighittas. Which began the following day. The kind of event where you could probably learn first-hand from the people most informed on the matter the pasta’s history, its present, its significance to Morgongiori and its potentially uncertain future. Not to mention the kind of event where you could probably eat lorighittas and take a few bags of it home with you.

But I was not able to come back tomorrow, I could only be here today, and I hadn’t booked a table at the agriturismo.

So we leave. And as we do we find a roadside hut at the edge of town where a couple of men stand around drinking beer. I park the car and order a coffee. The woman behind the counter doesn’t look at me or acknowledge any coffee order, but after a minute does approach the machine and starts the familiar bangs, clicks and gurgles of espresso-making and a short black drink lands in front of me. I tell her I came to try lorighittas, explained my woes, and has she any idea where I might find some? Still without looking at me, she walks away into another room. There is a tremendous atmosphere at this hut of Italy’s summer afternoon melancholy, and this melancholy is made only more acute by the sound of cupboards thudding shut in the back room. She returns and shakes her head, points to a poster for the Sagra delle Lorighittas. I too shake my head sadly and she nods in understanding. I go back to the car and we drive away. Away from Morgongiori.

We drive to Cabras, a fishing town about 40 minutes away. It is now about 14:30, but Cabras is bigger, so we head to a (quite good, apparently) trattoria. People are still sitting around tables, though most are in the digestivo stage of the meal. I confidently ask if there’s room for two. A few customers having coffee at the bar glance amusedly at the waiter while he makes a show of thinking about it. No, he says. We’re closed. Okay, I say, do you know where I might find a sandwich or pizza nearby? The waiter shoots a disbelieving look at the men at the bar, who start to nudge each other, and smilingly tells me I that if I want a sandwich I can go to the petrol station. I detect sniggering as I leave.

There’s got to be somewhere, I think. But there is nothing. Many trattorias and bars, all closed or closing… Until! A man sitting quite comfortably outside a bar who doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere. A sign above the door with a fish on it—perfect, a fisherman’s spot. We stride in and are greeted by the proprietress and I’m immediately thrown by her singular look—pairs of jeans about two inches long for earrings, nestled in a bleached-white perm and lipstick that is drastically, madly smudged. This, combined with a banging noise of unbelievable ferocity from the back of the room, makes me suddenly hesitant. But I press on, asking her if the bar is open? Puzzled, she looks around and says yes. Okay, and have they any food? Yes, she says, pizza. Okay then, we’ll have two please. We sit down and notice that there’s no more mention of fish from the place. It’s a big room. There’s a long, skinny man sitting at the counter. At the back of the bar is a squadron of gambling machines, which is where the relentless banging comes from. The man at the counter gets up, approaches our table and asks me if I have a lighter. Sadly not, sorry, I say. That’s life, he says with a smile and goes back to his seat, takes a box of matches out of his pocket and lights a cigarette. I’m aware that this lunch is shaping up to be something quite different to what I promised, and I turn to apologise again to my totally unruffled mom. Just then the banging noises stop. A shirtless man, glistening with sweat, emerges from the machines at the back of the room and walks to the counter. He gets a beer and takes a long drink from it. Then he takes it back over to the machines, where he disappears from view. The ferocious banging starts up again.

The pizza arrives. It is so, so, so bad. Like microwaved flatbread with a sweet tomato paste on it – the worst food I’ve ever eaten in Italy by a long margin. We do our best, but it’s awful, so we start the drive back to Bosa.

I wanted a Unique Food Experience and I got a Unique Food Experience.

It probably serves me right. For chasing food writing like a cat chasing string. It reminds me of how I used to eat food: eating a different cuisine every day, and usually not a very good version of it. More like eating flavours than eating cuisines, as I could obliviously be eating a traditional Persian new year’s dish on a blazing hot summer’s day. I had no idea what was in season. None. Everything was available anyway. I had no idea what the significance of any dish was, I was just googling recipes.

I started to think more about what I was eating after meeting my Italian girlfriend Serena and spending time in Italy. At first I was bemused by the general lack of interest in eating non-Italian food. But I soon realised that it wasn’t a lack of curiosity, it was that people were already neck-deep in a fantastically rich food culture and they just didn’t have all that extra room for other cuisines.

People ate seasonally, they ate thoughtfully but not pedantically, and there was a general, ambient connoisseurship.

People ate food like it made sense.

I started to move a bit more slowly, a bit more attentively through my appetites. I thought about what are the meals I really remember, what are the things I really enjoy cooking. And for the most part it wasn’t the most hyped restaurant, it was the fry-up at my parents’ house after a party where I was charged with making my scrambled eggs. It was my mom’s homemade pizza, which was always a dinner event. It was the first meals I ate in Italy where people were excited to show me this and that beautiful thing. It was the excellent pint of Guinness and bag of scampi fries, alone with a book.

This slower eating, it allows a crust of meaning to develop. I’m still eating with a manic appetite, but I’m enjoying it more.

And, true to form, it was not by hunting for a piece of food writing that I had a truly special experience. It was by sitting around doing nothing.

Towards the end of our stay in Bosa, I got talking, reluctantly, to a guy in our local bar. Reluctantly, because he asked questions like they were set-ups for jokes and I just couldn’t relax. I sat less easily in my chair from the moment he started talking to me. Still, we talked, and he was shocked to learn I hadn’t been up the coast on a boat. He asked me if I wanted to come on his boat, in one hour?

I hummed and hawed, felt uneasy about it, but eventually said yes. We drove to the marina listening to Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, climbed into his little motorboat and bounced across the waves to this tiny and quite ugly little beach. There was nobody else there. He got out of the boat, pulled out a knife and started prowling in the shallows. I got out of the boat and stood with difficulty as my flip flops underwater kept destabilising me. He told me to be careful, as a sea urchin stook in the foot can require surgery. I used all the strength in my toes to hold the flip flop firmly to my foot, but it was no good and I splashed madly into the water repeatedly while he talked about girls.

I didn’t see the point of all this until he walked back over to me, cut a sea urchin open and showed me the inside. It was orange. Like a little ball of orange electricity. He folds it onto his knife and gives it to me to taste. It’s sweet and briny, custard and the sea. Do you like it, he asks. Yes, I say, it’s weird. Now I’m not thinking about eating, I’m not thinking about writing about eating, I’m just eating.

Still, if I ever get my hands on a few lorighittas they’re going straight to my mom.

*

Michael O’Mahony is a writer and artist. He is working on a book about 17th-century mystic Saint Joseph of Cupertino. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s