Worth its salt

FOOD: Don't stint on the dried roe for a true taste of Sardinia; Good bottarga, as with genuine salt cod, has a whiff of old socks about it. But the flavour is quite magnificent once this pungency is appreciated Photograph by Jean Cazals
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This is the first of three outings in the Italian mode. Apologies to those food-stressed folk who never wish to see another slice of foccacia, sun-dried bloody tomato or true, milky, soft-as-a-baby-buffalo's-bottom mozzarella in their life again, but I have recently begun my holiday, with Sardinia being the first port of call.

I will be in two other distinctly different regions - a four-day stop over in Rome and then a flirt with Orvieto, where the crostini of (British) modern Italian cooking, Alastair Little, teaches superior (i.e. authentic and intelligent) Italian cookery to those who don't quite know their lampone from their zampone. I have known Alastair since he was a mere crouton at the 192 restaurant and bar in Notting Hill, where he danced around a tight kitchen and sent out floppy bowls of brilliant pasta e fagioli, long before we had even blanched at the thought of cavolo nero.

This grande tourismo gastronomica commences in Sardinia. When considering the choice of diet on any Mediterranean island, one would automatically think of the fruits of the sea rather than those of the land. However, on this rocky lump in the Mediterranean, although it is abundant with fish and shellfish, the picture is a little different,

While enduring hundreds of years of constant invasion, the Sardes would take refuge in the hills and mountains, temporarily eschewing the marine riches of the abundant coastal waters for creatures of the land. But the arid and barren terrain meant that the Sardininas always had to struggle. Apart from such hardy staples as olives and vines and some durum wheat used in the making of breads (particularly the wonderful carta da musica, of which more later) and pasta, on the surface, that seems to be about it.

Some other breads are made with chickpea flour, such as faina - and if you have come across socca in the south of France, especially around Nice, then you will know this stuff already.

Wild herbs and plants grow among the rocky, scrub terrain in profusion. Their heady aroma is a magnet for busy Sardinian bees, the resultant honey being highly prized throughout Italy. Freshly made ewe or goat's cheese ricotta is gorgeous when dribbled with this honey and eaten with the aforementioned carta de musica.

Translated as "music paper" due to its parchment-like texture, this more- ish bread is indigenous to the island. Made in a seemingly constant process, carta da musica - particularly when eaten at the beginning of a meal, hot with salt, oil and rosemary - is possibly most similar in style to the Indian poppadum, but without the spices.

Farm hands and shepherds use them as plates for balancing a simple meal of salad and grilled meats, eaten in their rocky, lunchtime sunshine. I cannot resist thinking of the pleasing common denominator here, where Turks and Lebanese have their warm pitta stuffed with baked lamb, Mexico the folding floury tortilla and Brittany the crepe. Our own Yorkshire pudding and Cornish pasties, naturally, come into a class of their own.

To know Sardinia is also to know bottarga. In Marseilles, and regions nearby, it is called poutarge. I remember first tasting this salty dried mullet roe about 10 years ago at the Brasserie New York, in the old port of Marseilles about 10 years ago. It came in tiny pots as a paste, and had been covered with a clean film of very good olive oil which had been infused with a sprig or two of thyme. Not much here, I thought at the time. But the taste was so intense that the experience could only be compared to wolfing down a pot of Gentleman's Relish.

Bottarga is either sliced with a small knife into saline slivers, or grated coarsely over hot spaghetti. You should be able to find it in decent Italian delicatessens, along with carte de musica.

Good bottarga, as with genuine salt cod, has a whiff of old socks about it. But once this pungency is appreciated, the flavour is quite magnificent. However I must say that eating spaghetti with local gratings in Sardinia put everything into perspective: this was the finest I have savoured,

The recipe that follows is a mixture of one from an Italian cafe by a river and another from a cafe on an Italian island.

Spaghetti Con Bottarga, serves 4

200g/7oz good quality dried spaghetti (Di Cecco or Cipriani brands are good)

3 tbsp olive oil

12 large cloves garlic, peeled and thickly sliced

12 tsp dried chilli flakes

3 heaped tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

grated rind of one lemon

grated bottarga

1 lemon, cut into quarters

Boil the spaghetti in plenty of salted water until just cooked (trying a bit is the best test). Drain and refresh under cold water. Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a roomy, preferably non-stick, frying pan, until medium hot. Add the garlic and cook gently until a pale golden colour and soft. Lift out with a slotted spoon from a set of salad servers and put on one side.

Heat the oil until hot and throw in the pasta. Turn and toss quickly with tongs or a wooden fork. Sprinkle over the chillies, lemon and parsley and mix in thoroughly. Allow the spaghetti to fry slightly and turn crusty in the pan.

Mix in the rest of the garlic cloves at the last minute and then turn the spaghetti on to four plates or a large serving dish. Grate the bottarga coarsely and liberally over each serving. Hand round the lemon quarters separately to squeeze over the pasta.

Note: as this is not an everyday outing, try not to stint on the bottarga. Also note that the salty qualities of the bottarga amply compensate for the omission of any salt in the recipe.

If I had not read a charming piece on Sardinia earlier this year, written by Phillipa Davenport, then I would not have known anything about Saltara, a farmhouse restaurant in the north of the island near Santa Theresa di Gallura (0039 755597).

The salivatory Saltara is set in dramatic craggy scenery, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We watched the sun slip away behind a jagged line of rocky terrain as a wooden platter of home-made salami, pancetta (particularly fine) and coppa was brought to the table. Balanced upon this was a further board covered with wafer-thin slices of milky cheese (made the day before), scattered with herbs and slicked with olive oil. Silence settled with sundown as we greedily ate.

Pasta and wet bread arrived next. The ravioli was decent with a good filling of ricotta, but the tomato sauce had a touch of the "Dolmio". The wet bread however - zuppa cuata - was something so very, very good, that it almost made one quite embarrassed by its simplicity. Incidentally, zuppa cuata (cuata from Spanish derivation, apparently) simply means "hidden", or "lost" bread. The zuppa had been enriched with cheese, crusted tomatoes and herbs, then baked in a wood-fired oven until the bread had all but soaked up any liquid. Whether it was stock, vegetable water or just aqua pura, it tasted just marvellous. And if the following course of a further wooden raft of hewn chunks of lacquer-crisp infant Pinky had not been ready to sail our way, I would have wolfed the lot.

Pinky deserves a paragraph to himself. No less than eight halves of crisp piglet stood like sentries before a gentle fire, with the skin turning to a burnished sandpaper crispness as each slowly cooked. Shears were used for portion-control, with the tender chunks then being laid on to that same wooden raft, further flavoured by branches of myrtle leaves and potatoes cooked in piglet drippings. Could a place such as this ever work in the Chilterns?

Recipe for sucking pig, serves 12

An indication. Or how I saw it.

Take one sucking pig and get your butcher to gut it and split it exactly in half lengthways. Build a fire, and allow it to burn and support itself. Season the meat and rest the two halves against a metal pole or other support. Turn occasionally until the skin is crisp and the meat is tender. About two hours cooking time, I would guess. Practice makes perfect Simon Hopkinson returns on 10 August

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