Where I come from, pasta is something you buy at the store. It comes in a bag, or a box with neon powdered cheese that shines like the sun. All you have to do is toss it in some boiling water, add a pinch of salt, et voilà! Mac and cheese is served.
Not so on the Italian island of Sardinia, west of the Apennine peninsula and just south of Corsica in the Mediterranean sea. Here, there's a home-made pasta tradition so secret that only three living people know how to make it. You can't buy it dried in a bag, you can't get it in a can via Chef Boyardee. In fact, until recently, you literally had to come to Sardinia and make a pilgrimage just to be able to try it.
They call it su filindeu. Translation: "The threads of God." Not only is it the rarest pasta in the world, it's perhaps the most intricate and the most difficult to make.
But before we get to that...
Describing Sardinia as "an Italian island" is a tad glib, actually. In its own ways, Sardinia is more ancient than Italy, though it is today a quasi-autonomous province of that country.
The somewhat enigmatic Nuragic civilization flourished on Sardinia between the 19th and 16th centuries B.C., long before proto-Roman societies began to coalesce on the Italian mainland. Though little is known of these early Sardinians, some of their tower forts still stand in ruins, symbolic of this island's separate history and identity.
Another indicator of Sardinian independence is the preservation of the Sard language, which is emphatically not a dialect of Italian, though it is a closely related Romance language. Some linguists actually think Sard is the language most similar to Latin that is still spoken in the modern world, though it also retains pre-Roman influence.
Today, Sardinia is still sort of doing its own thing. With a relatively modest population of 1.6 million, it's a far cry from the pandemonium of Rome. Tourists come here to boat, swim, hike, and to learn the secret of why so many people here live past 100.
Or they come here for the pasta, for a little taste of su filindeu.
All in the family
Nobody really knows who invented su filindeu. Nor why the women of the small Sardinian town of Nuoro continued producing this elaborate form of pasta requiring the patience of a saint and the hands of a sculptor. But for at least 300 years, the process has been safeguarded by the ancestors of Paola Abraini, protected from outsiders, passed as an inheritance from mother to daughter.
Paola is the undisputed Queen of su filindeu. Along with her sister-in-law and her niece, she is the only person in the world capable of making it.
For many years, an outsider's only chance of sampling a filindeu dish was to journey to Sardinia and make the biannual pilgrimage for the Feast of San Francesco -- better known to English speakers as St. Francis of Lula. Twice a year, hundreds (or thousands) of pious (or hungry) make the 20 mile trek on foot from Nuoro to Lula. But at the end of their long journey, they're treated to a feast of su filindeu.
But Paola has been more public with her arcane family delicacy than any of her forebears, partly out of fear that her signature dish may literally go extinct. None of the younger women in Paola's family has a passion for making su filindeu. She has even searched outside her family for an apprentice, but without success. The work requires such phenomenal skill and such commitment that potential new recruits tend to give up.
So how exactly do Paola and her kin do it?
How it's done
Sometimes the most complex works of art are made from the simplest materials. Strictly speaking, all you need to prouce your own su filindeu is seminola dough, salt, and water.
Paola begins by softening up the dough with the open pads of her hands until it feels like clay, then rolling pieces of it into long cylinders.
According to Paola, the real challenge is "understanding the dough with your hands" -- by which she means sensing when the consistency is precisely right. She told the BBC that it can take years just to master this subtle art. Paola will sprinkle the dough with salt water to make it stretch, or with regular water to keep it hydrated, until it is exactly as it should be.
She then pulls the cylinder of dough eight times, folding it back on itself with each tug to create 256 incredibly delicate strands of noodle, like threads of silk. She lays these across a circular platform (as pictured above), repeating the process until she has accumulated three layers, each running in a different direction across the board.
Finally, she leaves the noodles to dry in the sun. On feast day, they will boiled in sheep's broth and served as a simple soup with a dash of pecorino cheese.
It may sound simple enough, but making su filindeu properly is nearly impossible. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver famously visited Sardinia and filmed a segment with Paola Abraini. Watching her delicate hand motions, it's easy to imagine why he thought he could simply emulate her; it looks so doable. But Oliver was foiled almost immediately and was forced to give up in frustration.
Even more shockingly, a pasta company attempted to construct a machine capable of mass producing su filindeu. They found it was impossible. That's right: Paola and her family are so skilled that not even robots can mimic their precision.
How can I try it?
If you can't make it to Sardinia for the Feast of San Francesco and you don't feel like pulling a Jamie Oliver, don't sweat it! For the first time ever, su fiilindeu is available every day of the year to anyone who can afford to pay a tab. Paola's pasta is on the menu at no fewer than three local restaurants.
Agriturismo Testone is a farmhouse in the hills of Nuoro, with room for 7 guests to stay the night. It also has a dining hall where su filindeu is on the menu.
Ristorante Enoteca Ciusa offers a special black su filindeu dish, stained with squid ink. It's a lovely effect if nothing else! Be forewarned: this is a higher end option.
FInally, Il Rifugio is a more middle-of-the-road option for those looking to sample the rarest pasta in the world, conveniently located in downtown Nuoro.
We hope reading about this truly unique Sardinian culinary tradition made your mouth water. Mangia, mangia!