“I’m the black sheep leaking the secret,” Selis, 60, from Nuoro, Sardinia, said in Italian.
The recipe calls for only three ingredients: durum wheat flour, water and salt. However, the long and intricate work that makes the dough elastic eludes most who try. When the dough reaches the right consistency, it is rolled out thinly, then folded in half and pulled, then folded again and stretched a total of eight times, until between the spread arms there are 256 threads of dough too thin as cotton cords. . Then they are laid out on a wooden disc and cut to size; there, in three superimposed layers, the ropes will lie until they are dry. The result is a web of pasta that is traditionally broken into shredded pieces and added to a mutton broth sprinkled with fresh pecorino cheese.
Giovanna Satta, a 71-year-old retired teacher, was one of the women on the farm. She had wanted to learn how to do su filindeu for years but hadn’t found anyone to teach her.
“The videos you find on the internet and YouTube always show pre-made dough. You never know what the right consistency is to shoot,” she lamented.
When Satta learned that Selis would be giving her first public lesson last December, she made sure to reserve her place and wired the money to attend the three-hour class.
Selis learned to make su filindeu from her mother, Gavina, who had learned from her mother, Rosaria. This culinary know-how has only been transmitted within the family in Nuoro. As a result, pasta is so rare that it has been included in the Ark of Taste, a catalog of endangered foods funded by the European Union and maintained by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity.
As Selis worked the dough, the sounds of her kneading filled the room. The participants carefully filmed each step of the process. A religious atmosphere, a mix between an Easter mass and a funeral, filled the space. No one dared to speak, as if a whisper could break the spell and hide the secret forever.
“I never taught the recipe out of respect for my aunt,” Selis said. “My mother advised me against it to avoid bad blood in the family.”
With her aunt aging and only two daughters left to teach, Selis felt the pressure — and perhaps the economic opportunity — to share her secret.
“If we get too selfish, the tradition will die. I do this to pass it on,” Selis said.
Sardinia is located in the Mediterranean Sea, between Italy and Algeria. Its geographical conditions and position have made the island an important wheat producer since Roman times. But while the regions of Sicily and Campania were historically known as the main producers of dry pasta, Sardinia only recently made it onto the list.
Laura Galoppini, a professor of medieval history at the University of Pisa who studied the island, came across 19 customs records from the city of Cagliari dated between 1351 and 1397. The documents, kept in the archives of the Crown of Aragon in Barcelona, included detailed details quantities of pasta exported: fideus (similar to penne), macarons (maccheroni) and pasta obra (other kinds of pasta). Galoppini calculated that Sardinian producers exported around 8.5 tons of pasta during this period.
“Pasta was a food item demanded by merchants, elites and rulers alike,” Galoppini said. The large amount of flour needed and the storage problems made dry pasta a luxury item. Today, “a packet of pasta is inexpensive. But at the beginning of 1400, a kilo of pasta was worth twice a kilo of meat.
According to Paolo Solinas, a gastronomy expert in Sardinian food culture, su filindeu was mentioned in several documents in medieval times. However, he believes that the roots of hair-thin pasta can be found at least 1,000 years ago in Arab culture.
Solinas explained that the meaning of the name is unclear. One current of thought cites the translation of su filindeu by the Italian writer Grazia Deledda, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, into “son of God”. However, Solinas thinks the term likely evolved from the Arabic word fidaws, which means “hair” or “thin as hair”.
“When we talk about food history, we often don’t take into account migrations and ethnic mixing due to exchanges and invasions,” Solinas said in Italian. “Every food culture, everywhere, has an ethnic and mixed-race nature.”
Su filindeu seems to have lasted so long because of one specific event: every year on April 30, the people of Nuoro and nearby towns make a pilgrimage of about 20 miles on foot to the shrine of St. Francis of Lula. After the celebrations, the volunteers serve everyone su filindeu in mutton broth — a sort of reward for the leap of faith.
The Selis women and their descendants have been responsible for making the dish for a century. It took them months to prepare the pasta to feed those going to Lula. Until a few years ago, participating in the pilgrimage was one of the only ways to eat such pasta.
“It wasn’t much appreciated,” Selis said. Yet once people started to understand the effort it takes to make su filindeu, they started asking for it. So the Selis family started selling the pasta at about $33 a kilogram (just over two pounds), enough to feed about 20 people. Today, some restaurants in Nuoro include su filindeu in their menus.
In 2019, Selis participated in a private event organized by La Cucina delle Matriarche, a non-profit cultural organization. She taught her carefully guarded secret to six chefs. Satta, one of the participants in the December course, tried to get a place but says she was rejected because she was not a restaurateur.
Last year, after years of dating, Gisella Dessì, a Sardinian journalist, persuaded Selis to set up a course where ordinary people could learn how to make the dish. Selis chose to keep the class small, so that each participant could learn how to work the dough well.
“We have to shoot, right?” asked one of the attendees. Then she immediately added: “As if we pull the neck of our husbands?” Laughter erupted as other contestants struggled to get to their third draw round without breaking the dough.
“You always end up saying that, huh! answered the despised husband who stood behind her.
For hours the women tried, some reaching the coveted eighth sweater, while others struggled to reach the fourth. Selis went from table to table, touching the dough, adding water, sprinkling flour, showing them how to hold the dough, pull it, and get the hair-thin strings.
“It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible,” she said. She thinks that knowing the recipe is not enough to make su filindeu; daily practice, over years, is the key. She has been making su filindeu for 45 years and believes that after a while the texture and width of the pasta reflects the personality of the maker. “When my sister and I make it together, her dough is softer, while mine is drier. It’s in my nature to do that.
That weekend, Selis introduced 42 women to making su filindeu. With Dessì, she is planning new courses for the coming months, the next one in April. Selis already has 80 people on the waiting list, while Dessì receives requests from Brazil, England and the United States.
“For me, Raffaella Marongiu Selis, together with his cousins who pass on the art of su filindeu, are living and human treasures,” said Dessì. She pushes the Sardinian administration to create a register of immaterial heritages, a kind of catalog listing and describing traditions in the process of disappearing like the su filindeu.
“Filindeu is something you have to find in your being and your hands,” Selis said. ” There is no secret. All you need is passion, consistency and lots of patience.
This class with Raffaella Marongiu Selis includes a certificate of attendance, the su filindeu recipe, 0.5 pounds of pasta and a traditional wooden disc to dry it. About $330 per person. For reservations, send an e-mail [email protected].
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