• Paola is one of just 10 people who know to make this difficult type of semolina pasta (Cultura Exclusive)Source: Cultura Exclusive
Paola Abraini has been carrying on the tradition of making su Filindeu for over 40 years and is one of just ten people around the world who know how to do it.
Bianca Soldani

7 Nov 2016 - 1:53 PM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2016 - 4:13 PM

The hill-top town of Nuoro, on the Italian island of Sardinia, is the home of the most endangered pasta in the world.

Su Filindeu is a semolina pasta whose tradition stretches back three centuries, however it is so difficult and time consuming to prepare that only ten people in the world are still able to make it.

One of them is Paola Abraini who has been making the pasta for over 40 years after learning it from her mother-in-law at the age of 16.

She says, “every time I watched my mother-in-law make the pasta, I fell more and more in love. So that’s how I started, helping her out, and every time that I helped her I felt really happy.”

“It was something that I did really naturally because I really enjoyed it, despite the process being very complex.”

The process of making su Filindeu is nothing short of a work of art, and relies heavily on the maker’s ability to know what the dough needs, simply by touch. 

Just three ingredients - semolina (a grain popular for pasta making in Sardinia), water and salt - are combined to create the dough which is skilfully kneaded until it becomes elastic. Depending on whether it feels dry or unmalleable, Paola wets her fingers with either salted or unsalted water before continuing to work on the dough.

When just right, she begins rolling it into smaller cylindrical pieces that are stretched and folded between her fingers to form perfectly even strands about the width of angel hair pasta.

These are then laid out over a circular wooden board and layered three fold before being placed in the sun to dry. Broken into smaller pieces, these lattices are later cooked and served in steaming sheep’s broth with shaved pieces of fresh pecorino cheese.

The name su Filindeu translates to 'fili di dio' in Italian or 'threads of god' in English. In Paola’s family, only she, her sister-in-law and her niece carry on the tradition of making it, and after having failed to convince her daughters to properly learn, Paola has started recording videos of herself making it (in Italian at the bottom of the article) and sharing the recipe with local restaurants.

Even celebrity chef Jamie Oliver had a go at making the ancient pasta while visiting Sardinia earlier this year.

Paola also takes part in the bi-annual tradition of feeding su Filiendeu to the people who follow a pilgrimage from Nuoro to celebrate the festival of San Francesco di Lula. This year, she started kneading at seven in the morning every day for an entire month to prepare 50 kilos for the pilgrims.

Luciana Sampogna is an Italian migrant who teaches pasta making in Sydney, and believes it's important to preserve disappearing culinary traditions.

"In Italy particularly, food represents culture and you often make a certain type of pasta for a specific reasons just like su Fillendeu was made specifically for pilgrims," she tells SBS.

"For me, the process of making pasta by hand is a connection with my country. I feel that food connects people with the land, with memories and with their heritage."

While Luciana has never attempted to make su Filiendeu, she says the key to making good pasta is all about experience and getting to know the correct "feel" of the dough.

"When you do things by hand you have a connection with the dough and no recipe can give you that. You’ve got to do it so many times to know the way."

"Your hands judge whether you need more flour or more water, it’s so important to understand the feel," she explains.

Luciana explains that egg pasta that uses type 00 plain flour only needs six minutes or so of kneading, while “when you’re working with semolina, it is a type of grain that has more gluten than plain flour so you need to knead it for longer to get the same level of elasticity." Orecchiette, another type of pasta from the south of Italy, is also made of semolina and involves a similar kneading process.

Interestingly, when observing Paola's technique of pulling her su Filiendeu dough into even strands, Luciana notes that it looks very much like the way Chinese chefs hand-pull noodles. In fact, traditional Sardinian cooking has benefited from the influence of multiple cultures including Islamic culture throughout the Middle Ages which left behind a tradition of fine, flaky pastry similar in appearance to the dry su Filiendeu.

Endangered food cultures and traditions from across the globe are recorded by international group Slow Food, which aims to prevent their disappearance and "counteract the rise of fast life and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat".

They've listed su Filindeu on their endangered list and coordinator Raffaella Ponzio tells SBS "it is one of the most at-risk foods of becoming extinct".

"The Filindeu pasta is an extraordinary example of endangered product, because it’s one of the most difficult pastas to make. It is also a cultural heritage not to be lost," she says.

"Through the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity we coordinate projects that defend local food traditions, protect food communities, preserve food biodiversity and promote quality artisanal products. Cataloging endangered traditional foods is one of our strategic activities in order to support food biodiversity worldwide."

Paola explains her technique in Italian: