One of the most interesting and fun things that I find about traveling is learning about and tasting the foods of different places and different cultures. This is also one of the most terrifying aspects of travel. What people in one country find repulsive and discard, those in another worship as a delicacy.
I have encountered this second situation many times as I have wandered the globe. You can read about another such situation in my earlier post ‘The (first) Time I Ate Brain’.
Sardinia is the setting for this story as well and it took place only a few months after I had been spoon-fed brains at a local bar. This time I was with the whole team and we were celebrating. We had finished our season, and while our place in the standings wasn’t ever much to celebrate in Nuoro, we didn’t finish last, which means that we would be able to remain in the highest league and compete again the following year. It may not be my idea of a successful season, but if the team’s brass is going to spring for a team dinner and party at a farm in the hills of Sardinia, I’m in.
An Italian agriturismo is a working farm that rents out rooms and usually also serves food. If you travel to Italy, I highly recommend checking out agriturismi for lodging as well as eating. The food is always amazing, even by Italian standards, rooms are usually well-priced, and they are almost always set on beautiful grounds overlooking beautiful landscapes.
This Sardinian agriturismo was no exception. It was about a 30 minute drive outside of Nuoro, Sardinia’s capital city. The driveway was dirt and stone and provided a significant challenge for the Volkswagen Vento and assorted other ‘at-one-time-respectable-as-automobiles’ that the team graciously provided the foreigners during our stay. Although there was some doubt at first, we did eventually make it up the driveway and were greeted by a low, sprawling house overlooking the Sardinian countryside.
We took in our surroundings as the rest of the team, our coaches, and team officials navigated the driveway in their own way. As was usual in these type of situations everyone was starving and no one had any idea when we would actually eat. Before long, though, one of our team officials emerged from the house with a large platter featuring the typical Sardinian bread. Pane carasau is a very flat, crispy bread that is native to Sardinia and served with practically every meal. It is very common to eat plain, simply by breaking it into small pieces, but can also be served with various spreads or simply drizzled with olive oil and a little salt. I love it and find it incredibly addicting, to the point that after a few months of living on the island, I simply could no longer have it in the house.
So you can imagine my excitement upon seeing this platter and won’t be surprised to learn that I bee-lined toward it. As I approached my target I realized that there was more to this platter than pane carasau. In the middle of it was a dip of some sort. It was very dark, almost black in color and fairly chunky and it glistened, just a bit. I was immediately skeptical. Given my recent adventures in food on the island, I was ready to throw manners and travel experience out the window and simply pass on the appetizer and wait for the pasta. However, Michele (pronounced Mee-kay-lay), had other plans. Michele is one of our team officials; an important guy for Nuoro softball. His homemade eggplant parmigian is the reason that eggplant is to this day my favorite food and almost always present in my kitchen, and he is the man who introduced me to the porcini mushroom. His taste in food is to be trusted, but every rule has its exceptions.
No one except the Sardinians wanted any part of this appetizer, especially since no one would give us an honest answer about what it was. Everyone bolted. I don’t know whether it was because we had had a food connection throughout the season or because I was simply the slowest of my teammates, but Michele caught me in his sights and chased me down like a lion after the weakest zebra of the pack. He literally ran after me while holding a bite of bread piled with mystery dip. I tried ‘no, thank you’, ‘no, grazie’, ‘NO!’. He would not be deterred. It was as if life on Sardinia as we knew it was dependent upon my trying this dish. I was defeated. I held out my hand and Michele triumphantly placed the bread in it. The thought of tossing it into the bushes flashed through my mind, but my next thought–‘really, what’s the worst that could happen’–won the day. Down the hatch it went. Michele stood proud, expectant. I was, once again, horrified and disgusted. The texture was slimy, the taste was indescribably bad. Since I had come this far, I went ahead and took the next step. I swallowed it.
At this, Michele seemed satisfied and he turned and we walked back toward the house. While we walked, he explained. I had just eaten sheep’s blood. Collected from the neck after it is sliced, then flavored with spices and cheese and boiled in the sheep’s stomach. It’s Sardinian name is su zurette and it is an ancient and traditional dish there. Once it coagulates it takes on the dark color and can be served in a pile as we saw it, and doesn’t actually resemble blood. As you serve yourself some, however, this unique edible reveals itself. Once you separate a small serving from the larger mass, the color becomes lighter and obviously red. When you scoop some up on a piece of bread, a blood red streak is left behind on the plate.
Su zurette is not the best Sardinan dish I ate in my time there–by a long shot–but I am still glad to be able to say that I’ve eaten it. Although I ran away too, just as weak and scared as my teammates , I am now able to tell this story in the first person. I had the experience and they didn’t; and I have Michele to thank for that.