Threads of God – World’s Rarest Pasta From Nuoro, Sardinia
By Marla Horn Lazarus
People are coming from all over Europe just to taste it. For the past 300 years, Santuario di San Francesco attracts hundreds of devout pilgrims each spring. The sacred dish of Su Filindeu, known as the rarest pasta on earth, is only served to the loyal trekkers who complete a 20-mile pilgrimage. This nighttime adventure takes you through Sardinia, on foot or horseback, from the city of Nuoro to the village of Lula for the biannual Feast of San Francesco. Su Filindeu, made specifically for the festival, is so specialized and mind-boggling intricate that only a few make it and only those who reach Lula will ever try it.
FAMILY TRADITION OR SECRET?
Su Filindeu, also known as “threads of God,” is pasta made of hundreds of tiny strands in a hillside town in Sardinia. It was nearly half a century ago that a 62-year-old woman, Paola Abraini, learned the technique from her mother-in-law, who had learned it from previous generations of mothers. As it’s so difficult and time-consuming to prepare, that for centuries, no one can remember how or why these women started preparing Su Filindeu. The recipe has remained in Nuoro, located on the slopes of the Monte Ortobene, where only the women of a single Sardinian family know this special technique, having only been passed down through the women in Paola’s family, each of who has guarded it tightly. Her niece and sister-in-law are the only two other women on the planet who still know how to make it. “Many people say that I have a secret I don’t want to reveal,” Paola said. “But the secret is right in front of you. It’s in my hands and plenty of elbow grease.”
This time of year, Paola wakes up at 7 a.m. to begin five-hour workdays for a month to make 110 pounds of pasta, and for the larger nine-day feast in May, she’ll prepare four times as much.
DELICATE AND IMPOSSIBLE TO REPLICATE
Beginning with ordinary dough of semolina wheat, water and salt, Paola kneads and moistens it until it reaches a consistency reminiscent of modeling clay and working it into a rolled-cylindrical shape.
Then comes the hardest part, a process she calls, “understanding the dough with your hands.” When she feels it needs to be more elastic, she dips her fingers into a bowl of salt water. If it needs more moisture, she dips them into a separate bowl of regular water. “It can take years to understand,” Paola said.
A similar instinct guides her hands as they pull the dough into increasingly thin strands without ever breaking them. When the semolina reaches just the right consistency, she picks up the cylindrical strand to stretch and fold the dough, doubling it as she pressed the heads of the Su Filindeu into her palms. This sequence is repeated in a fluid motion eight times. With each sweeping pull, the dough becomes thinner and thinner. When complete, she’s left with 256 even strands, about half as wide as angel-hair pasta. Carefully laying the strands on a circular base, one on top of another, to form a cross, she trims any excess from the ends before repeating the process. After three thin layers are formed, alternating layers like latticework, it’s dried in the Sardinian sun for several hours, until the layers are hardened into delicate sheets of tiny threads resembling stitched lace.
Traditionally, the pasta is the heart of the biannual festival, served at the San Francesco feast, enjoyed in an amazing thick soup of boiling sheep’s broth with grated sheep’s milk pecorino, similar to a creamy feta.
THE LEGACY CONTINUES
After hundreds of years in the same matrilineal family tree, these threads of God may need a miracle to survive for future generations. Only one of Paola’s two daughters knows the basic technique, and lacks the passion and patience of her mother while her other two relatives who still carry on the tradition have yet to find willing successors among their own children.
It’s obvious that this culinary art form is one of the most at-risk foods of becoming extinct. Paola recognizes this and has done something previously unheard of with her family’s tightly guarded dish: She attempted to teach local girls how to make it. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well as she approached the local government to see if she could open up a small school, but they told her there was no funding. Then, she agreed to invite students into her home. She states, “The problem was that once they saw how I actually do it, they’d say, ‘It’s just too much work’, and wouldn’t come back.”
Refusing to let the tradition fade away, Paola made it her mission to share Su Filindeu with the world. In the last few years, Italy’s premier food and wine magazine/guide, Gambero Rosso, invited her to Rome to film her preparing the dish. Recently, for the first time, she’s begun making Su Filindeu for three local restaurants, offering non-pilgrims a chance to taste the labor of love from these three women.
At the end of the pilgrimage, the weary are rewarded with two things: a footbath and a bowl of steaming noodles. The footbath is just a footbath, but the noodles are extraordinary and worth every luscious morsel. Paola said, “It’s a blessing just to be able to make Su Filindeu. I’ve been in love with it since the first time I ever saw it, and I love it more each day. I hope to continue to make if for many years ahead…but if one day I have to stop, at least I’ll have a video.”