San Benedetto is not Cagliari’s only seafood market, but it is easily the most famous. Perhaps its renown is due to its size, which is vast: two warehouse floors with tall ceilings stretching almost a whole city block. The ground floor is devoted entirely to the island’s celebrated seafood, fished in the salty Tyrrhenian Sea, while the second houses fruits, vegetables, countless sheep and goat cheeses, and meats – from chickens with heads and feet attached to scarlet-colored horse meat.
Or perhaps the draw is that, unlike other markets and other cities – where tourists are widely viewed as a nuisance, where businesspeople are trying to do business and locals are trying to run errands – vendors at San Benedetto perform as much as they sell. As we walk among wide aisles of the market, ogling the seafood stalls, one sizeable Italian man in a dirty white undershirt picks up an octopus that is still alive and plays with it like a puppet. Another pescatore yanks a giant tuna head by his whiskers and reveals the empty, tooth-lined hole that used to be its mouth. Upstairs, a chicken vendor offers us a demo of how he breaks down his birds in less than 30 seconds.
Everyone insists that we sample. As soon as we arrive, Jon – an American expat living in Sardinia and our one single contact on the island – encourages to try a raw mussel from one of his buddies. (It’s clear within minutes that Jon is a regular here, a would-be mayor of San Benedetto: people yell to greet him in animated Italian from across the stalls.) The mussel tips are tinged with green and blue, as all good mussels seem to be, and I muster courage before tipping one back into my mouth, pushing aside worries about bodily discomforts that may follow (read: traveler’s diarrhea). To my relief and subsequent delight, the mussel tastes crisp and mineral-y, almost like an oyster. We nod appreciatively in thanks and praise: molto buono.
The vendor, whose name I learn but don’t remember because I am never able to pronounce it, opens another mussel for me. This one is creamier and more complex, and takes a bit more daring to swallow. Still: buono! He opens a third and squeezes a few drops of lemon juice on this one before thrusting it my way. I'm beginning to max out, those physical worries creeping back, but I take it down anyway.
Then: would we like some wine? It's 10 a.m., and naturally we agree. He apologizes that the white hasn’t had time to chill, asks no payment for our tasting, and seems in no way annoyed that we haven’t bought a thing. We don’t have a kitchen to cook in here, or we would. Nevertheless, the mussel man's face is proud and happy to have shared Sardinia with us – as we leave him, I realize, he is thanking us.
Next we stop to admire a pile of shrimp, which are giving off a fluorescent purple glow. A woman talking to Jon plans to buy some to cook that night, and as we linger on the edge of their conversation the vendor – large and tall with thinning hair, whom I assume is also the fisherman – offers a sample. He cracks the thin shell, extends his arm, and invites us to taste it right then and there: Mangia. Although I have only eaten raw shrimp at sushi counters, I accept. It is sweet and delicate and not at all mealy, and I do not regret it.
After a while, all of the stands begin to look alike. There are huge tuna steaks and slim sardines, and dark, hard filets of cured bottarga for shaving over pasta. The people on the other side of the stalls smile and talk loudly and gesture to us as we pass. The prices are absurd. Three euros for a kilo of those mussels; branzino for a pittance. I'm beginning to feel powerless, like I'm in the world's best couture sample sale without a body to hang clothes on. I am mourning that I cannot take home every prawn and mussel and swordfish steak and invite all of my friends over for an epic seafood stew. But I have neither a place to cook nor friends to dine with here, so, restraint.
We walk upstairs, and here, too, the scale is dizzying: so much meat. Happily, no one invites me to try their raw horse steak, though one man insists we taste his sausage and pushes extra samples on us as we walk away. (I'm too full; I tuck them into a napkin.) Another butcher is excited to learn we are Americans and insists on giving me his pen as a souvenir. Charmed, I clap my hands together and place it in my purse.
There are stacks of radicchio heads and peaches and more figs than I could have ever dreamed of: a Mediterranean diet fantasy. We stop to talk to a cheesemonger, an expert on all things goat milk, Jon tells us. Do we want a tasting? We hesitate, and he understands. I imagine that my eyes look pleading. Next time, he tells the man in the apron, who bows graciously.
When we stumble out it’s lunch time, and although we haven’t sat down to a meal today John and I are both too full to eat any more. We think. Jon is going to meet his wife, who is shopping nearby for mirto, a classic Sardinian digestif made from the myrtle tree, which is everywhere here. This stuff, though, is artisanal, the best on the island, he promises. Do we want to come taste it?
Humbled, gratified, awed, filled to the brim with food but still hungry to learn more from these big-hearted people, this singular place – we follow.
-Olivia (photos by JT)