The smell of wilderness
This is not a recipe, with ingredients and measurements and kitchen scales. This is not even a food, or at least - not a proper food. This is the story of how a single spice, the tiniest and poorest of all, has given pure soul to an Island.
Originally, I am from Sardinia, the Island at the very center of the Mediterranean sea - though our neighbours in Corsica might be against this definition. But I have travelled across Europe and beyond, because I find islands to be both a place of security and a prison. The first - because it is difficult to come in, and the ones that have tried have mostly failed. The second - because if strangers cannot come in, you simply cannot get out. The see that surrounds us is both a blessing and a curse. We want to get out, but we are terribly afraid to leave the Island behind. We call it "mal di Sardegna" - probably, the closest translation would be the portuguese "saudade". We miss the places, the food, the language, the ancestral feeling of such an ancient Island. You can be a million km away, but Sardinia never leaves you.
What I miss the most, are the smells.
The one of the freshly baked flat bread, which is not the smell of the bread itself, as my granny used to tell me, but the one of the fumes and smoke coming out of the chimneys. A mixture of wood, earth, bitter and salty and fresh. It means home, it is the first smell you reconize when you are little and the one that wakes you up in a hot, sticky summer morning.
The smell of tomato sauce, the one that that same granny used to make and my dad loved so much. But my mom has never been able to replicate it. She used the same ingredients, the same quantities - hell, the same pot! - but nothing she cooked has ever tasted like the sauce my granny made. We have a word for it, for everything that you make but that others cannot perfectly replicate, for how hard they try. Manuxa, we call it. If we want to translate it - well, we couldn't. It is experience, expertise, eyes and hands together. Tradition, orally transmitted like a modern culinary Odyssey tale.
But the most important of all the smells of my childhood is the one that I miss the most, and that I could recognize anywhere.
Thyme. Or better still - wild thyme.
It grows everywhere in the mountains of Sardinia. Even when it does not rain, the terrain is dry and there is no water in sight. The thyme is there to stay. It is small, and thin and with strong roots, just like Sardinian people. The little branches are so strong that you can hardly cut them with bare hands. Yet the leaves are so delicate and so small you can easily loose them.
Have you ever smell majorana? Take thyme as an upgraded version of it. It is pungent, it goes directly to your throat. Yet, it is fresh, almost minty. It smells like earth, and dust. An entire forest in a tiny format. Now, imagine a place, bare and vast, with only this tiny little plant on it. And smell it in your brain.
This is the smell of Sardinia.
When I was a little girl, not knowing what thyme was, I used to call this smell all around me "the smell of the mountain", su fragu 'e su monte. To this day, this is what Sardinia smells like to me. Wild and strong. The nothingness of bare, rough terrain that has no end. The burned brown color of the mountains and the bright blue of the sky, in a hot day in August, with a single eagle flying above the earth looking for prey.
Thyme is me, my land, my tradition, my story.