It is impossible to think about any Italian region without wondering ‘What if?’ Sardinia lacks the glamour, grandeur and menace of Sicily, but it is still a fascinating exemplar of Mediterranean culture: the different historical strata stretching back to pre-history. So: what if the mediaeval rulers of Aragon had been more enduring? What if the Catholic kings had never married? There is no reason why Barcelona should have been ruled from Madrid: still less for the Sardinians to be governed by Turin. A sea-girt Aragonese kingdom, including the Languedoc, Sardinia and Sicily — that would have been a glorious flowering of civilisation and romance: Venus emerging from a scallop shell.
The Angevins, driven from the Mediterranean, could have contented themselves with bringing good government to their French domains, subordinated to London. Meanwhile, a Burgundian middle kingdom — a revived Lotharingia under the Hapsburgs — would have been a rival centre of the graces and the arts. All a fantasy, but anyone contemplating the damage which modern Europeans have inflicted on their continent might well seek refuge in fantasy.
Or in a more substantial alternative: a good dinner. Every now and again, David and Samantha Cameron escape from No. 10 for dinner, and they often enjoy Sardinian food and wine at either of Mauro Sanna’s restaurants, Olivomare and Olivocarne, in Elizabeth Street, near enough to dart home if there is a crisis in the shop.
I had a Sardinian feast with Mauro the other night, and it was one of the finest Italian meals I have eaten, and drunk. We started with a fortified Sardinian wine, Vernaccia di Oristano 1990, which had a long, slow, pungent, almost musty, even truffled, quality, unlike anything I had encountered. It is something of an acquired taste, which the PM has failed to acquire. I liked it, and it laid a sound foundation.
As regards food, we began with roast marrowbone, enlived by a little spice. Then came gnocchi with black truffles. I can still taste them. To follow, steak tartare chopped up with bottarga (grey mullet roe, a Sardinian speciality). That managed to outshine the truffles. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten.
The principal course was to be suckling pig. I was sceptical. The Cecils of Dorset have replaced Lord Emsworth as the great aristocratic patrons of swine-husbandry. About pigs, all there is to know, they know it, and what they don’t know isn’t knowledge. I have eaten suckling pig with them, and we all confessed to disappointment. Suckling pig sounds as if it should be delicious, but I have always felt that the porker would be better after a few months rootling and fattening among the acorns and beech-mast, enriching the flesh and ensuring succulent crackling. Perhaps a suckling pig ought to be left to suckle a bit longer.
Not Mauro’s one. Though it may have been a brief life, none of it was wasted. That little piggy packed a palatory punch. Periit ante diem — but for Lucullus. Puddings followed, especially a gelato made out of frozen yoghurt with bitter Sardinian honey.
What did we drink? Plentifully. Over the past few years, Sardinian wine has greatly improved. Cannonau used to be a simple red infuriator, good for reviving frozen winter fuel gatherers if you had run out of brandy. It now produces serious stuff, as does Vermentino. We tasted a number of bottles, including Mauro’s excellent house selections.
The restaurant is run on Il padrone mangia qui lines. Mauro is a proselytiser. He and his team delight in bringing Sardinia to the uninitiated. The restaurants would work well for a banquet: the kitchen and the cellar enjoy being put through their paces. But they would work equally well if, like the Camerons, you just wanted to unwind for a couple of hours with excellent food and a decent bottle.