We start on a late spring afternoon in Rome, where we pop into the Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena just around the corner from the Pantheon. This is the church that inspired me in the early 1990s to name my elder daughter Madeleine. Then we get into our cars and drive to the port of Civitavecchia, arriving in time to board the overnight ferry to Cagliari, capital of the island of Sardinia. On the crossing we watch the dolphins leaping playfully in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
From Cagliari, where we roll off the ferry in the bright morning sunshine, it is an hour’s drive along the sparkling south-eastern coast to the commune of Villasimius. Just before we enter the town, we spot a beach restaurant called Il Miraggio. Destination reached.
Our host is Martino da Como, the 15th-century Italian cook who was arguably the world’s first celebrity chef. He quenches our thirst with a few glasses of Bellavista Alma Franciacorta Gran Cuvée Brut, one of Italy’s most refreshing proseccos. Then he seats us around a shaded table in the open air, just a few steps from the glorious blue sea.
The first thing to say about my guest list is that it emphatically excludes DH Lawrence, author of Sea and Sardinia, a travel book. In this informal Mediterranean setting, there is no place for one of Britain’s greatest 20th-century bores and most overrated writers.
Instead, to my right is Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who displayed extraordinary courage in suffering under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. I’ve chosen Anna because I’ve spent so much of my adult life working in Russia, learning from its literature and writing about the place.
Anna conceived her masterpiece, Requiem, while standing outside the central prison in St Petersburg, then Leningrad, waiting to hear news of her son Lev, who had been arrested by the secret police. Anna’s poetry is heartbreakingly beautiful, the Russian conscience at its most searingly authentic.
I’m confident Anna will get on well with the guest to her right. It’s another writer, Lafcadio Hearn, but he is harder to place in terms of national origin. Born on a Greek island in 1850, he was brought up in Ireland and England. Then he worked as a journalist in Cincinnati and New Orleans, before living for a while in the French West Indies and finally settling in Japan.
There Lafcadio made his name by collecting and translating Japanese ghost stories, many of them centuries-old. He enjoys great respect in Japan as one of the first writers to offer western readers a mature understanding of Japanese culture. He’s on my guest list because both my family and my wife’s have strong connections with Japan.
Time to think about the food. No Sardinian dinner gets going without some carta da musica — the thin, crispy sheets of bread that go with just about anything. We’re on the beach, so a seafood starter seems a good idea. Let’s order octopus salad and red mullet with purple asparagus and lemon. For wine, we’re kicking off with Villa Solais Vermentino di Sardegna, a light, dry, aromatic local white. We’ll need some sparkling water, too — better tell Martino to bring some Acqua Smeraldina, the island’s best.
To the right of Lafcadio is Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and political activist who won the Nobel Peace prize in 2004. I’ve invited her because of my father’s deep affection for post-colonial Africa and Kenya in particular. She would sympathise with Anna’s troubles and also with Lafcadio’s restless spirit, while they would appreciate her unquenchable desire to improve living conditions for Africa’s poor and reverse the degradation of the planet.
By contrast, my fourth guest may shake things up a bit. I’ve gone for Jean Meslier, a French priest of the 18th century who, in the will opened after his death, revealed himself to be a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and political revolutionary. This choice reflects my conviction that no good dinner party is complete without a French polemicist challenging every idea under the sun. That was something I first encountered as a schoolboy living with a family in Marseille and the lesson has stayed with me ever since.
The next course is pasta, but nothing heavy. I recommend either spaghetti ai ricci or linguine alle vongole con bottarga. The first is sea urchins with garlic, oil and perhaps a dash of chilli pepper and the second is clams with grated fish roe.
For the main course, I ask Martino to prepare some seppie — cuttlefish in their own ink. But what’s this? Jean is insisting on spiny lobster from Alghero, the Catalan enclave on Sardinia’s west coast. Oh, well, if it makes the renegade priest happy.
Now the rules are being bent, I propose we order a red wine not from Sardinia but from the Italian mainland, on the slopes of Vesuvius overlooking the Bay of Naples. A Villa Dora Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio will do it. We’ll have pineapple slices to finish.
And so to my fifth and final guest. It’s Rosalind from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. She is witty and good-humoured enough to tame even a fiery character like Jean. And if she’s anything like the actress who played Rosalind opposite my Orlando in 1976, she will definitely want a grappa at the end of the meal.
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