This is the first of three stories detailing the incomparable food and wine experiences we enjoyed in Sardinia in August.
We had a couple of hours to kill in Cagliari before we could check into our next Airbnb. Having just said goodbye to friends after a week of shameless summering in the east and north of Sardinia (think boating, swimming, eating prosciutto-draped melon on the beach), we were once again on our own.
We were also very, very tired. We’d woken up at 4:30 a.m. to drive down south in time for our friends to make their flight, so this new city – Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital – appeared impossibly bright and busy through our sleepless cloud.
As we drove towards downtown, I picked up my iPhone and scrolled through the recommendations sent through by Jon, my one contact in Sardinia who was helping me with a writing assignment. Among the list of markets, traditional seafood restaurants, and pizzerias, I read: Go to La Cambusa for a degustazione with Roberto. Jon warned that La Cambusa was “a real hole in the wall” but that Roberto, the proprietor, knew Sardinian food intimately – including almost all of the people who make it.
The first time we drove by, we passed it. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d miss the orange sign hanging above the door, less of an advertisement than a reluctant signpost.
La Cambusa is a small, narrow shop lined with shelves of artisanal pantry products on one wall – think pasta, wine, canned goods – and a refrigerator case full of cured meats and cheeses on the other.
I knew Roberto immediately. He moved quickly and confidently, helping a guest in front of us, and had the ultra-manly air that made me think of Hemingway, at least the way Hemingway is inevitably portrayed in popular culture. He had a short, snow-white beard, along with a serious expression that didn’t change after we approached him.
The second thing I noticed, after Roberto, was that no one else was eating. There wasn’t a single table in the store, just a lone wine barrel in the back of the surrounded by a few wooden stools.
John explained in his intermediate Italian that we were friends of Jon, and that he had told us to come by for a tasting. I looked around again in vain for other diners, feeling suddenly like an imposition, and very American. Roberto led us to the wine barrel and stools.
Meat and cheese? he asked.
Wine? John and I looked at each other through bloodshot eyes.
Roberto crouched down in front of a stainless-steel tank next to our barrel-table and dispensed red wine directly from the spout. It was Cannonau, he explained as he set it down, a grape native to Sardinia. Later, we would learn that Canonnau boasts twice the antioxidants of other grapes, and is considered by some the secret to the Sardinians’ health and longevity. Cin cin.
The first time Roberto appeared, he brought a basket of sliced whole-grain bread and a board with two kinds of pecorino cheese and typical Sardinian salumi, including thin slices of goat prosciutto. The cheeses were mild, crumbly, with a hint of pepper; the meats tasted sweet and slightly nutty, lardo meltingly delicate on our tongues.
The next time, he brought three small bowls: One was filled with sweet almond-shaped cherry tomatoes – the sweetest I have ever tasted – and another held cold white grapes. The last contained tiny, dark caper berries, preserved in vinegar but not at all vinegary. We thanked Roberto again and again and showered him with praise: this food! this wine!
The third time he approached, Roberto re-filled our glasses with Cannonau. Fatigue spun into delirium.
A little while later, Roberto came over again. Do you want to try a different kind of animal? he asked in Italian. His serious face had taken on a mischievous grin that convinced me we were officially friends.
Of course, we said.
Moments later he returned with two slices of bread covered by a layer of soft, spreadable cheese. Casu Marzu, he explained, a Sardinian specialty, and we dove in. The cheese could only be described as funky – not in the way soft French cheeses can be funky, or that blue cheeses may be characterized as funky. It exhibited no sweetness or saltiness, only cream and funk, and a chunky texture I couldn’t quite characterize.
Roberto went on in his rich Italian baritone that I couldn’t follow, though I could see John had begun to catch on, as he examined the plate more closely.
“Are these the animals you’re talking about?” John asked, pointing.
Roberto smiled and nodded proudly. We thanked him yet again, and he retreated behind his counter.
“What did he say?” I asked John. He was still looking down at the cheese.
“Maggots,” he said, his face otherwise motionless. “They eat through the cheese and help ferment it. If the cheese is served with the maggots still alive, that means it’s fresh.”
Below me, I saw tiny clear worms jump out of the cheese onto the surface of the plate, squirming and writhing. They moved as though they were desperate to get out, and I wondered if living in a tub of cheese was exhausting work. We watched them for many long minutes, the way you watch a fire burning in the fireplace and it somehow does not get old. We preferred to watch them than to eat them, we decided, though we took a few more small bites to show Roberto proper appreciation. He rewarded us by dunking a handful of peach slices in our Cannonau.
Then John and I laughed and laughed and finished our wine and peaches and went home to take a nap.