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Undiscovered Italy

A writer goes in search of bitter honey and other specialties of Sardinia, an island so isolated it calls the rest of Italy "The Continent."

Last summer, I went off to sardinia to look for bitter honey, miele amaro in Italian. Ordinarily I'm not a fan of honey, which seems more interesting to contemplate (the bees, the flowers, the ancient food of gods and goddesses) than actually to eat. But this honey, with its bitter aftertaste, was something else. A Sardinian friend introduced me to miele amaro when he offered a small jar as a house present. "Bitter?" I asked. "It's made from corbezzolo," he said, as if that explained everything.

It wasn't easy to find bitter honey in Sardinia, which lies in the deep green sea off Italy's west coast, but I ultimately succeeded. And while crisscrossing Sardinia on my quest (finding along the way other foods the island is famous for, such as the crisp flatbread called pane carasau and fregola, a cross between couscous and pasta), I also discovered that bitterness is a quality appreciated by the local palate.

Giuliano Pau, marketing director of Sardinia's renowned Argiolas winery, who picked me up at the airport in Cagliari, the capital, confirmed this. "We Sardinians are a people of excess," he proclaimed, with visible pride. "Excessive bitterness, excessive sweetness." A thread of bitterness runs through Sardinian food and wine, he said, and it adds an unexpected edge to the simplest flavors. Take, for example, the dessert wine called Angialas, which I sampled at Argiolas, just north of Cagliari. Made of Malvasia and Nasco grapes, Angialas is indeed sweet, but with a distinctive bitter-orange perfume that cuts the floral bouquet.

"Più pastori che pescatori," Sardinians say, "more shepherds here than fishermen," though the island is surrounded by pristine water and the cuisine includes some of the finest, freshest seafood I've ever tasted. Case in point: the Ristorante dal Corsaro in the center of bustling Cagliari on the southern coast. In this tranquil retreat, Pina Deidda, the padrona di casa (the owner), served up dish after dish of exquisitely prepared seafood, including small rings of sweet calamari, poached and mixed with young green beans and fresh basil; homemade malloreddus, ridged Sardinian pasta, with a delicate fish and tomato sauce; and oven-roasted sea bass, guaranteed wild because only the wild ones meet the padrona's exacting standards.

Over lunch, Pau asked me what I wanted from Sardinia. I didn't hesitate to query him about the ewe's milk Pecorino cheeses, pastas like malloreddus and fregola, and succulent porceddu, baby pigs roasted with myrtle leaves for island festivities. And then I mentioned bitter honey.

"Miele di corbezzolo," Pau said. "Very difficult to find." It was the first of many molto difficiles and impossibiles that would follow me to the end of my stay. But what, I asked, is corbezzolo? Pau explained: A humble bush, corbezzolo has its only moment of glory in early winter, when the branches are covered with small dark red fruits that look so much like strawberries the bush is often called the strawberry tree in English.

"Ernesto will help you find your honey," Pau said, as he sent me off to the tiny fishing village of Portoscuso, a pretty cluster of sun-baked houses on the southwestern tip of the island. There I was taken in hand by Ernesto Vacca, co-owner of La Ghinghetta, an elegant seven-room hotel and restaurant overlooking a handkerchief of beach and a broad channel, beyond which lies the island of San Pietro. Vacca promised his help, but first, he said, I must taste La Ghinghetta's sumptuous version of cassola, a fishermen's seafood with at least seven varieties of fish and shellfish, including Mediterranean spiny lobster, crabs, mussels and calamari. Then he sent me to the source of the soup, with the local fisherman Fabrizio Cherchi, robust and amiable in his yellow foul-weather gear, who took me out on the channel in his open boat while he checked his nets early the next morning.

Cherchi knew nothing of bitter honey, but Vacca had promised to help: "Secondo will know," he said, as later that day he waved me onto the ferry to Carloforte, a town of pastel-colored houses on San Pietro, a half-hour ride across the channel. Black-bearded Secondo Borghero, the chef and owner of Al Tonno di Corsa, was waiting for me at the dock on the other side. "I'm making tuna for lunch because it's fresh from the tonnara," he said, pointing to a line of white buoys marking distant nets stretched across a blue cove. There, fishermen from San Pietro still follow a ritual that goes back hundreds of years, driving migrating tuna into a series of nets for their capture.

"But first," Borghero said, "you'll have cascà--you know cascà?" I had heard of it, the word used in the Carlofortian dialect for Tunisian couscous. Borghero's cascà was fresh and fluffy and served, as in Tunisia, with chickpeas and seasonal vegetables such as peas, carrots, spring cabbage, artichokes and zucchini. Next he presented the just-caught tuna with a jammy tomato and black-olive sauce, the sweetness given an unexpected complexity by vinegar and red wine reduced to their bitter essences--that Sardinian bitterness again. At the end of the meal came a plate with slices of young Pecorino cheeses, with bitter honey dribbled thickly across them. "You can't get it around here," Borghero interjected. "It's very difficult. You have to go up to the Barbagia, the mountains around Nuoro. That's where miele amaro comes from."

The Romans called the central mountains of Sardinia the Barbagia because of the "barbarians" who inhabited the region. A few decades ago, bandits still held sway, and travelers were advised to stick to main roads and not go walking outside town, especially at night. Now a network of splendid hiking trails winds through deep green forests on the lower slopes, carrying intrepid climbers up to the rocky escarpments towering overhead. Centered around the northeastern town of Nuoro, this area is the old pastoral Sardinia of shepherds and their flocks and of magnificent ewe's milk cheeses, from fresh formaggio acido (sour cheese) to ricotta and Pecorino. The mountain dwellers are more reserved than the easygoing coastal lowlanders; they hold back, waiting to see what the stranger wants. What this stranger wanted, of course, was miele amaro.

I found it in the little town of Oliena, where Borghero sent me to an enchanting resort hotel, Su Gologone, whose charms include a swimming pool, a spa and a view of the 4,000-foot red-rock heights of Monte Corrasi.

"Miele amaro?" repeated the concierge. "Of course! We serve it every evening with sebadas. You know sebadas? Fried ravioli filled with fresh cheese. Our miele amaro comes from Tonino Piga. I will send you to him. But first..."

I was beginning to learn that there are many "but firsts" in Sardinia. Every quest leads to interesting digressions that present themselves along the way, making it impossible to follow a straight path. This time the detour took me to a dark, smoke-filled room behind the Esso station in Oliena, where the three Bette sisters bake the traditional pane carasau. Made of durum-wheat semolina, pane carasau are big, flat disks of dough that puff in the oven. Once baked, the disks quickly collapse, after which the top and bottom halves are separated and returned to the oven to toast further. The result is a crisp, long-lasting bread that shepherds take up into the mountains for the summer pasture when they're far from civilization. Pane carasau used to be made in every farmhouse kitchen, and they were unleavened, truly flatbreads. Today most of them are industrially produced using yeast. Only a few women, most of them, like the Bette sisters, well on the mature side of 50, still make the bread daily in a wood-fired oven, the way their mothers and grandmothers did before them.

Carrying a stack of fresh pane carasau, I walked over to the beekeeper's house just as his rattling Fiat pulled into the courtyard. I had expected a gnarled old man, but long, lean Tonino Piga had a more-pepper-than-salt beard. En route to the hut where he keeps his hives, Piga explained why miele amaro is so hard to find: "It's only made in November and December, when the corbezzolo flowers. It's hard to make because of the weather at that time of year. In 1998, we had early snows in the mountains, so the trees didn't flower and it was too cold for the bees to go out. That's why miele amaro is so expensive. Plus the fact that it takes so many bee trips to make it."

Bee trips? "That's the number of times a bee goes out to the flower and comes back to the hive. It takes 3,000 bee trips to make a kilo of ordinary honey and 7,000 to 8,000 bee trips to make a kilo of amaro."

Piga makes many honeys, and we tasted them all: a lightly floral millefiori from high up on rock ridges, pungent rosemary and eucalyptus honeys made when the summer sun is high. But the miele amaro won my heart.

I wrapped my precious jar in several layers of newspaper and then in a plastic bag to bring it home. It's not to everyone's taste, for sure. But every time I spoon out a little miele di corbezzolo, I'm not just trying something exotic. That spoonful captures an entire culture, one finely balanced between the bitter and the sweet, and the slightly bitter aroma of the island rises in my memory.

Published May 2000
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