I had to find some way of keeping my travelling companion awake on the long drive from the airport to our hotel, so we played a game.
"Granelli - is it a type of ice cream?" said my friend, clutching the wheel.
"Nope", I said, reading from my Footprint guide to Sardinia. "Fried ox testicles."
"What about cordula?"
"It's a herb."
Wrong again. Lamb intestines stuffed with peas, tied into a braid and spit-roasted. But my favourite, casu marzu, really disgusted her. Literally translated, it means "rotten cheese", but as it's a Sardinian speciality, it's in Sardu, not Italian, so she's puzzled again. "A roll of pecorino cheese is aged for months until flies lay eggs in it. The larvae produce enzymes that break down the cheese into a tangy goo, which gives it a tasty, spicy kick. Swallowing the wriggling larvae is all part of the experience."
I'm a lover of cheese and Italian food in general, but not knowing what I am eating is a major factor in usually playing it safe. And playing it safe when you are a tourist abroad usually means bad, boring, or both. This time, however, was going to be different - I had books, a friend who is fluent in Italian and we had, quite randomly, booked into a gastronomic hotel with bilingual waiters.
Reading the food section of the guidebook further, I'm also drawn to a statement by its resident Italophile author Eliot Stein: "Sardinia's isolation and poverty have combined to preserve the most distinct regional cuisine in Italy." Stein went on to outline - somewhat contradictorily - that "as invaders, immigrants and tourists have come and gone, Sardinia has absorbed outside culinary influences". Whatever the precise origin of Sardinia's current culinary offering, I was looking forward to being more adventurous.
August certainly wasn't the time for a beach holiday. From the small coves of the Costa Smerelda on the north-east coast to the sand dunes of Oristano and harbours of Alghero in the west, the beaches were so packed with Italians that from a distance it looked like their parasols were touching. After 10am each day, the car parks were full of Fiats and campervans; by lunchtime it felt like we could hear every child crying and every shouted BlackBerry conversation. Never before have I seen such a concentration of ageing bikini bottoms in one place as Is Arutas, close to where we were staying. Only on the wild Costa Verde, several hours' drive south of Oristano, did we find the coastal solace we craved.
Yet beaches are also not the place to find the best food in Sardegna (as the island is known locally). At Spiagga del Principe near Porto Cervo, the bay beloved of the Aga Khan and where the number of yachts visible almost matches the number of people sunning themselves, we were reduced to purchasing dry hot dogs and Coke from a mini-van. As with any bad meal, I was distraught at the wasted opportunities. Lucky, then, that we returned to Is Benas Country Lodge, a peaceful villa with just 12 rooms in a scenic rural area close to the small town of Riola Sardo in Oristano province. Every single night, on a verandah with views of the walled garden, we enjoyed a tasting menu offering a glimpse of the simple yet strong flavours this large island is famous for - fish, fresh vegetables, rustic cheeses and gamey meats. Surrounded by high fields of corn, dairy farms and country lanes scented with myrtle, our hosts assured us that all of the food we were eating was, if not from the local area, then at least from Sardinia.
Each meal consisted of five courses. The antipasto (starters) featured delights such as marinated sardines (sardine marinate; fresh, smooth and meaty, barely fishy at all); juicy fried octopus (tentacolo di polpo croccante), succulent air-dried beef with delicious fresh sage-flavoured ricotta cheese (fagottino di bresaola con cuore di ricotta fresca profumata alla salvia), smoked tuna fillet (filetto di tonno affumicato) and deliciously sour Sardinian pecorino (no maggots in sight) drizzled with asphodel honey (formaggi pecorino con miele di asfodelo). Eating in Italy is such a pleasure and a passion that it pays to brush up on your language skills - at the very least, you will avoid ordering something you don't want. As we had the luxury of our waiters being able to translate the dishes, we were able to indulge in an impromptu language course of a peculiarly culinary variety.
First courses, or primo piatto, were typically a soup, risotto or pasta, such as hearty zuppa di lenticchie (lentil soup), creamy-yet-tart risotto al radicchio (risotto with red chicory), and firm-but-silky tagliolini burro e salvia (tagliolini pasta with butter and sage). Second (main) courses (secondo piatto) were fish or meat, from grilled fillet of fresh seabass (filetto di branzino alla brace) to roasted belly of veal (pancia di vitello arrosto). Each main course came with contorno (side dishes) such as verdurine di stagione alla griglia (grilled seasonal vegetables) and the gorgeously down-to-earth cavolo cappuccino stufato (braised cabbage).
For dessert (oddly, there was always space) we were treated to mattonella di soffice tiramisu (home-made tiramisu), semifreddo al croccante (crunchy semifreddo; literally, a "half-cold" dessert), pardula ghiacciata scomposta (smashed pardula cake), mele al forno (baked apples) and a dreamy flan di riso al limone (lemon rice flan). With names such as those for the dishes, who were we to refuse?
For almost a week, we ate only in our hotel, returning ravenous from trips to Alghero, Tharros, Cuglieri and the Costa Verde. Yet after days of eating and trying to run off some of the calories in the surrounding rural lanes scented with wild sage, I had itchy feet again. I had found excellent coffee and more great food at a somewhat out-of-place Illy cafe in Riola Sardo, but it was time to cast the net wider. The owner of our hotel, from Cagliari, recommended I pay a visit to the capital to sample "the best seafood in Italy", so I jumped on a train from Oristano (€12 [Dh60] return) and was there in an hour and 10 minutes: just in time for lunch.
As soon as the train pulled in, I was excited. A grand old city in a wide bay with a large docks and spread over several hills, Cagliari looked like a cross between Naples and Tunis: geograpically, it's almost that. I had read about several lovely-sounding seafood restaurants in my guidebooks, but one especially stood out and, unusually, it was the first one listed in my Lonely Planet Sardinia guide. L'Osteria in Stampace, an old neighbourhood 10 minutes' walk from the station, had all the ingredients location-wise: russet-coloured houses with washing hanging out of the windows, an ancient city gate and cobbled roads. Inside, it was like stepping into the 1950s - old vaulted ceilings, black-and-white family photographs and prints of Cagliari on the bare brick walls, cabinets filled with glasses and elaborate teapots, old-fashioned patterned linen tablecloths, formally laid tables, an old bar and an old lady, dressed in black and white, sitting in a back room shelling peas. "Buon giorno," I call out, wondering if the place is open. The old lady removes her glasses and comes striding out, gesturing to me to sit. "Vuoi mangiare o bere?" She enunciates slowly, clearly sensing that Italian isn't my strong suit, and grinning toothily. "Pesce o carne?" I order fileti di spiegola al fettucine (€12; Dh60), and she disappears.
I think I've ordered swordfish; actually it's sea bass, yet it hardly matters because before I can even raise the query, the first of a flurry of antipasti arrives. There's some lovely warm bread with those meaty, mild-tasting sardines in olive oil and a heavenly salad of prawns, celery and tomato in a light vinegar dressing; this is followed by polpote pesce - fish balls in balsamic vinegar - and then by tentacolo di polpo - baby squid in a rich, salty sauce. "Va bene?" the woman asks. "Si", I answer. This is probably the best seafood lunch I've ever had, and I forget all about the time, the sights and everything else. I'm finishing everything, but having to eat fast to keep up. "She's finishing everything!" I hear her tell her husband in the kitchen; when she comes back, I say something to the effect that I won't have room for my main course, but the dishes keep on coming. This time it's the husband who is brandishing the food - he comes with a mixed seafood salad and stuffed squid (calamari) and then cozze gratinate - gratinated mussels. I decide I must stop him before the mussels reach the table. "Basta!" I say. "Finito!"
The couple, Franco and Maria Antoinetta de Franca, are clearly a fine double act. I'm given a short break before my pasta arrives, during which time they turn their full attention to a party of four which has just arrived - two local couples who get exactly the same antipasti bombardment as me. "Madame, ca va?" Franco asks one of the group. "Perfecto" she says, an her guests agree. "Bonissima," they add.
A round, shallow bowl of perfectly al dente fettucine with small pieces of fresh fish with garlic and tomato, dressed simply with parsley, appears in front of me and I tuck in. "Va bene?" Franco asks. "Va bene," I say. The total bill is 40 euros (Dh200) with a tip. When I leave the restaurant to tackle the town's Roman ruins and glorious old town, I'm giddy with satisfaction. So, too, it seems, is Franco - as Maria goes to the back room to work on the accounts, Franco lights a cigar. I hope they're still there in decades to come.
If You Go
The hotel In Cagliari, Kastrum (www.kastrum.eu; 00 39 070 662 304) in the Castello district offers double rooms from €70 (Dh350) per night. The Is Benas Country Lodge near San Vero Milis (www.isbenaslodge.com; 00 39 0783 528 022) costs from €170 (Dh850) per night, half board.
The info Cagliari is a year-round destination; autumn and late spring are the best times to visit for a beach holiday. For more information, visit the Italian ministry of tourism's website, www.italia.it