Raise a glass to Sardinia
by Linda Handiak
The church bells pealing in the distance suddenly merge with jangling, fast approaching bells. Confused by the cracking heat, I scan the horizon. Rough granite peaks burst from the ground like a passionate sculptors’ raw work. My path winds through aromatic macchia scrub and trees resounding with bird calls - and bells. I turn toward the source, an oak-shaded bend. My movement triggers an onslaught of unshepherded cows and goats.
I’m in northern Sardinia to learn about an ecological warrior – cork. Cork provides about 60% of the region’s income and is harvested by hand, not by machine. Once stripped, the tree absorbs up to five times more CO2 than before, and the bark grows back.
According to Elizabeth Vargiu, owner of Pausania Inn, near Tempio, cork grown in other countries is watered to encourage faster growth and harvesting. In Sardinia, it is left up to nature. Referred to as a “jewel of biodiversity” by the World Wildlife Fund, the cork forest also shelters several endangered species, such as the booted eagle.
I feel somewhat endangered myself as the animals corral me. After some snuffling, they leave, presumably for home. Where there’s a home, there’s a human who may direct me, so I follow.
A burly farmer in overalls looks bemused as I approach gingerly, on the heels of his animals. I say the magic word, sughero, cork. His eyes light up. I’m on the right path, but he fears I’ll pass out in this heat and offers to drive me by a short cut. If I were back in some North American city, I’d be skeptical. Here, it’s a classic gesture. Whenever I ask for directions, people leave their homes, even their shops, to accompany me.
A turn under the bridge and we find cork trees that have been slit and stripped around the base, leaving an anthropomorphic spectre of smooth torsos sprouting rough, sweater-clad arms. My footsteps produce a satisfying crunch. It’s the loose cork “crumbs”. The cork left on the branches preserves ecosystems that include spiders, geckos and a multitude of birds.
Back at the Inn, Elizabeth arranges for me to visit the vineyard with her father, Mr. Quinto Vargiu. “A good wine deserves a good stopper,” explains Mr. Vargiu. “Respect is important when harvesting cork,” he adds. The first harvest of cork isn’t smooth enough for stoppers and is used for insulation or soundproofing. By the third stripping, cork is compact enough to be considered for stoppers. Depending on the timing of a visit, Mr.Vargiu says that guests can observe a summer harvest in action on the grounds of the Inn.
He shows me vines that produce grapes for Moscato. Many Sardinian agritourismo (country inns) are graced with their own vineyards. These homemade wines are usually very low in sulfites but high in antioxidants, particularly the red Cannanou, believed to promote longevity. This is a blue zone, after all, a country with one of the highest percentages of centenarians.
Another particularity of the region’s wine can be attributed to the granitic soil and rough winds that force the vines to lie low and their roots to dig deep for moisture and minerals. Struggling vines are said to conserve energy by concentrating on fruit rather than leaf production, resulting in more flavourful wine.
An hour later I’m testing the theory on the terrace, enjoying a glass of Moscato reminiscent of tart honey and a plate of grilled vegetables that melt on my tongue. The waiter brings me a note written on the back of a menu. It’s a list of suggested wine pairings, from Mr. Vargiu.
The next morning I ask Elizabeth about the cork plates and traditional cork hats on display in the lobby. Could she suggest some shops in Tempio? Elizabeth goes one better and drops me at the main square.
A stroll behind the bell tower and complex of churches in the Piazza San Pietro takes me to Via Roma, where I find high fashion cork. The Anna Grindi shop showcases cork carpets, clutches, briefcases, shoes and evening wear studded with jewels, even delicate bridal wear interwoven with lace. Ms. Grindi experimented in her kitchen to integrate cork with other supporting materials and created Suberis, a tear-resistant, hypoallergenic product, treated only with natural substances, that retains an autumn palette of colors natural to cork.
Locals at the gelateria suggest that I visit the capital of cork, Calangianus. It’s about twenty minutes away from Tempio by bus, a route that winds past vineyards and stacks of cork planks being “seasoned” in the open air.
Embraced on three sides by mountains, red-roofed Calanginaus is a piccola grande commune (small town, big heritage). The Museo del Sughero (Cork Museum) is housed in a network of elegantly arched eighteenth century buildings that encompass the former Convent of Franciscan Friars and the frescoe-lined Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The museum’s multimedia display traces cork’s journey from extraction to finished product. The guides, wearing traditional dress, engage even the more distractible younger visitors with hands-on demonstrations on real equipment. At the end of the tour, we receive documentation and a souvenir bottle stopper. The guides encourage me to return in September for the Cork Fair.
I spend my last day in Olbia, to be near the airport. After expressing interest in a cork mosaic landscape at B&B Angolo Veneto, I’m introduced to Cecilia, the artist. She invites me to see her other pieces, and to share lunch with “la famiglia”. I come from a place where courtesy means giving other people space and minding your own business. Sardinian hospitality dissolves my barriers. Lunch becomes an animated romp through Sardinian history. I get accidentally baptised with spilled red wine. A good sign, says the family. I tell them I’m moved by the visceral response of Sardinians to their environment.
Cecilia believes, “it’s about respecting nature in your soul, not just in your laws.” So travelers too have the power to make choices that protect forests and communities.
Getting there: For flights from North America, it’s usually cheaper to fly to Venice or Nice, then take a short flight to Olbia with Volotea or Easy Jet.
Getting Around: The comfortable ARST buslines serve this region. Return trips to Olbia can be made to many of the towns mentioned above for under 10 Euros.
Staying: For a more immersive experience that is less expensive, check out course and accommodation packages at the small and friendly Olbia-based Studitalia language school. The school adapted my lessons to my need for environmentally-themed vocabulary.