Away from its famed cerulean seas, Sardinia’s craggy interior is a twisting maze of deep chasms and impenetrable massifs that shelter some of Europe’s most ancient traditions.
Residents here still speak Sardo, the closest living form of Latin. Grandmothers gaze warily at outsiders from under embroidered veils. And, in a modest apartment in the town of Nuoro, a slight 62-year-old named Paola Abraini wakes up every day at 7 am to begin making su filindeu – the rarest pasta in the world.
In fact, there are only two other women on the planet who still know how to make it: Abraini’s niece and her sister-in-law, both of whom live in this far-flung town clinging to the slopes of Monte Ortobene.
No one can remember how or why the women in Nuoro started preparing su filindeu (whose name means “the threads of God”), but for more than 300 years, the recipe and technique have only been passed down through the women in Abraini’s family – each of whom have guarded it tightly before teaching it to their daughters.
But after an unexpected invitation to Abraini’s home, I found myself in her kitchen, watching her work.
I wasn’t her first guest, though. Last year, a team of engineers from Barilla pasta came to see if they could reproduce her technique with a machine. They couldn’t. After hearing rumours about a secret Sardinian pasta, Carlo Petrini, the president of Slow Food International, visited this spring. And this summer, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver stopped by to ask Abraini if she could teach him how to make the dish. After failing for two hours, he threw his hands up and said, “I’ve been making pasta for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Many people say that I have a secret I don’t want to reveal,” Abraini told me, smiling. “But the secret is right in front of you. It’s in my hands.”
Su filindeu is made by pulling and folding semolina dough into 256 perfectly even strands with the tips of your fingers, and then stretching the needle-thin wires diagonally across a circular frame in an intricate three-layer pattern. It’s so difficult and time-consuming to prepare that for the past 200 years, the sacred dish has only been served to the faithful who complete a 33km pilgrimage on foot or horseback from Nuoro to the village of Lula for the biannual Feast of San Francesco.
When I arrived, the October feast was three days away and Abraini had just finished making enough su filindeu to feed the 1,500 pilgrims expected to descend on Lula from throughout Sardinia. She worked five hours every day for a month to make 50kg of the pasta, and for the larger nine-day feast in May, she’ll prepare four times as much.
“There are only three ingredients: semolina wheat, water and salt,” Abraini said, vigorously kneading the dough back and forth. “But since everything is done by hand, the most important ingredient is elbow grease.”
Abraini patiently explained how you work the pasta thoroughly until it reaches a consistency reminiscent of modelling clay, then divide the dough into smaller sections and continue working it into a rolled-cylindrical shape.
Then comes the hardest part, a process she calls, “understanding the dough with your hands.” When she feels that it needs to be more elastic, she dips her fingers into a bowl of salt water. When it needs more moisture, she dips them into a separate bowl of regular water. “It can take years to understand,” she beamed. “It’s like a game with your hands. But once you achieve it, then the magic happens.”
When the semolina reached just the right consistency, Abraini picked up the cylindrical strand to stretch and fold the dough, doubling it as she pressed the heads of the su filindeu into her palms. She repeated this sequence in a fluid motion eight times. With each sweeping pull, the dough became thinner and thinner. After eight sequences, she was left with 256 even strands about half as wide as angel-hair pasta. She then carefully laid the strands on a circular base, one on top of another, to form a cross, trimming any excess from the ends with her fingers before repeating the process over and over.