by Marcello Fois
When I was a child, on feast days I would wake up to the bittersweet smell of lamb being prepared outside in a clearing among the olive trees and young oaks. It was always the men who took care of the roasts in my family. It’s a long job, consisting of waiting, and checking, and stories to pass the time. In the house, the women prepared the ricotta ravioli and the malloreddos. We children had the task of placing the fresh pasta on a coarse linen sheet for it to dry out. The feast-day lunch was a collective ritual, a way of testing family unity. The elders were shared out equally: the grandmothers in the house giving advice, the grandfathers in the courtyard pouring the wine. There were various schools of thought on how to cook the lamb: the traditionalists who backed burying it in a pit; and the modernists who backed the skewer. The two schools differed both in method and philosophy. The pit was a method for very patient people, for people who knew what they were doing; the skewer was for brisk people, who wanted to have everything under control.
The pit method required complex preparation, starting with digging a hole deep enough to contain the lamb. Then the embers were prepared with oak wood, juniper berries and myrtle branches, and the skinned beast was placed on this smouldering bed and left to tenderize for three nights. At this point, it was covered with more myrtle, juniper, thyme and rosemary, and then the whole thing was covered with soil. A hole was left at the top of the mound. And then the wait began. But it wasn’t a passive wait, the ones who had buried the lamb never moved away from the “oven”, it was as if they had x-ray vision, because they knew, they understood from the colour of the smoke and from the smell coming out of the hole. After hours of waiting, it was decided that the time had come to delicately dig it out by removing the layer of soil and the covering of herbs. The lamb lay in the pit bottom, browned and crunchy, but not dry, its meat moist and flavoursome, a unique experience.
The skewer method required preparation that mainly consisted of correctly inserting the skewer, placing it at the right distance from the embers, which had to be two to three palm widths away, and, fundamentally, vertically positioning the meat that was to be roasted, Turkish style; the men checked the cooking minute by minute and made the skewer revolve. The result was drier meat and a more natural flavour. A difference that is also belonging, a flavour that is also identity.
The further away I get, the more I find myself back at my point of departure. After years, a smell is enough to take me back. And a distant sound, perhaps barely audible, draws me back home. A flock of sheep seen from a train window. An accent heard in a public office, at a restaurant, in the supermarket. A Sardinian participant on a TV quiz or talent show… A Sardinian author in a bookshop. A sign with a nuraghe in a big foreign city. A souvenir in the home of someone I know. A postcard stuck on a fridge door… Everything, everything takes me home just when I think that I’ve left for good.
From In Sardegna non c’è il mare by Marcello Fois. Translation Karen Whittle.