A letter from Alghero …
What if the Spanish Armada had succeeded? No British Empire. No English-speaking America, Canada or Oz. A very different India. We’d still probably rebel at some stage – the Spanish King wasn’t much more craic than Elizabeth. Phillip the Prudent is as at odds with Irish notions as the Virgin Queen.
We would have even more Catholic church. Way more. The Irish winning gold every time in the Inquisition Olympics. Boreen bullfights might be a thing, as might eating our tea at 10pm and other nightmares. In the plus column, flamenco-trad crossovers would rock. A nation of wine drinkers, at least we would eat more of our own fish, and have better ham on small plates in all our shebeens.
This wittery and what-iffery is brought to you from Alghero, on an island where no one wonders What did the Spanish ever do for us? Spain and Catalonia’s influence is everywhere. Catalan is the first language for a quarter of Sardinians. Alghero is the Sardinian Barceloneta without the bag-snatching and constant cobble-trundle of holiday renters.
Sa Mandra Restaurant
Getting to the fortress town of Alghero from the airport can be hard. It’s no distance, but you have to overcome the pull of Sa Mandra on the airport’s doorstep. A cross between Ballymaloe and Bunratty folk park, Sa Mandra is as mad as it is magical. A holiday camp for carnivores, this farm with restaurant and rooms is owned and run by a dangerously generous family. In the Grand Hall, festooned with ancient saddlebags, or in an open-air museum under the stars, for two people a hundred yo-yos and Maria Grazia will feed you steadily and relentlessly on what Sa Mandra grows and raises, and throw in some super-local wine to a point where I was wondering if I was to be on the spit the following day. The stars of the show are three little suckling piggies slow-roasted on asadors over a cottage fireplace – like we’d have in Ireland if Elizabeth the First had been Elizabeth the last.
Alghero is the Sardinian Barceloneta, without the bag-snatching and constant cobble-trundle of holiday renters.
I’d been to Sardinia a few times but not to Alghero for donkey’s years. Despite being very much on the beaten track, most tourists are from the mainland and even the old town still has dignity and locals living within it, with any number of independent shops and some good food peppered around the place if you know where to look. Start with Cipassi Di Piredda Cinzia, buy local edible bits and bobs while deli boss lady Cinzia sets you straight on where and what to eat. Around the corner is Trattoria Cavour, a cute but no messing showroom for Northern Sardinian food. Or the easily overlooked La Bajada. More Italian than Sardinian, everything on Mario’s menu is homemade in this mom and pop shop that seems to have the ghost of Marcella Hazan in the tiny kitchen behind the bar.
Beyond the walls is a thrumming city of 45,000 but, being a man of the people, I was based behind the walled fortress town in the walled fortress hotel of Villa Las Tronas, a 19th-century villa on a bossy bluff with first class seats to sunsets and the sound of the Sea of Sardinia right below. Owned by the same family since the 1960s and gloriously unchanged, you are surrounded by what Taylor and Burton and our own Sam Beckett saw. I was introduced to Las Tronas long ago by my OG tastemakers, Bríd and Gerry, who were regulars at the hotel. Me and my friends would peer in through the gate, hungover, waiting for them to join me for some long lunch or other. The cut of us – we had no business being there, nor the means. Hopefully Las Tronas continues unchanged with a view that would make Capri blush and sweet staff with sedate service (in a good way), and its understated superstar, Giuseppe. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a Giuseppe on your holidays – a sound quiet pro who will mind and guide you without rehearsed lines. In hospitality now, gems like Cinzia and Giuseppe are more precious than ever.
My next trip will be to another of those hospitality heroes, Marco, who has been guiding me around Canarian wine for years now while feeding me Roman and Neapolitan classics off menu in his Tenerife trattoria. I feel like a proud relative of Marco’s now, watching him build his restaurant mini-empire in Palm Mar, the desert corner beside the airport. Roman Marco and his Neapolitan chef partner Ivan started with Osteria Italia, which could be any holibop Italian until you look under the hood. An army could march (not in a very straight line) on their pasta and perfect martini pairing.
Villa Las Tronas
The original hospitality hero of my youth was Mr Pok, a bamboo beach restaurant owner in Hua Hin in Thailand. There in our 20s, we would dine and drink at Mr Pok’s from dawn to dusk. Breakfast was a brace of fresh banana milkshakes with rum, and very good scrambled eggs. Post-sunburn supper was some class of seafood curry, a crate of beer, then memory loss. The good ole days.
I thought Mr Pok was old but, as always these days, he was probably much younger than I am now. The more time you spent listening to this Buddhist restaurateur, the more we were in awe. Mr Pok would never talk about his goals or ambitions for the restaurant but I think he was the happiest person in hospitality I’ve known.
Before we left, Mr Pok reverentially presented us with some precious photographs. A storm and sea surge had wrecked the place a couple of years before. The photos documented himself and the crew trying to rescue the restaurant while it disintegrated, with the last shot showing him up to his waist in sea water, beaming, with nothing left at all. He couldn’t have looked happier. “Be more Mr Pok” seems like timely advice now, and something I’ll have a go at carrying into this winter.