16 foodie discoveries for visitors to Sardinia
“The moment he had got onto dry land he became aware of the mixture of scents in the air which brought to mind visits to his grandparents in the countryside long ago, but these were even more intense and aromatic.”¹Gavino Zucca, Il Mistero di Abbacuada
From a foodie’s point of view Sardinia is an island of the marvellous and the unexpected. There is the exotic, for example, the simultaneously sweet and bitter which goes so well in dressings, or married with lemon on fragrant, soft-braised fennel. But there is also the simply downright excellent – if you are lucky you will find tiny artichokes, so soft and new they can be eaten raw. The volcanic soil leaves its earthy signature on everything here from garlic to wine.
Fortunately, many of Sardinia’s culinary treats are preserved in some way or other. The tuna remaining after Japanese plundering is conveniently tinned; the bottarga is cured (using salt harvested from the waters of the turquoise sea); the swordfish smoked over wood from the same tree which feeds the miraculous honey; the saffron is dried; and of course, the ever present local sheeps’ cheese, pecorino, only improves with age.
Culinary riches keep on appearing throughout the year: green chard and wet onions in spring, tiny pears in summer, a myriad of mushrooms in autumn, and at the turn of the year in January the island is infused with the scent of orange blossom.
Below is a list of 16 foods to try before you die in Sardinia. Don’t feel hurried. You have plenty of time. This is the tranquil homeland to many centenarians.
Sardinians love honey, and make a wide variety from different plants and trees… eucalyptus, orange blossom… all sorts. The most interesting is Miele di Corbezzolo – Sardinian bitter honey made from pollen from the wild strawberry tree. This really is bitter – like burnt caramel – and great in salad dressings. My other favourite is chestnut – a bit less in-your-face bitter, very good with yoghurt for breakfast.
They’re also pretty keen on bread. The most famous is pane carasau – a kind of crispy bread, wonderful heated up and enjoyed with a drink before dinner. For more information on that follow this link. Among the very many other types are Pistoccu di San Vito (go here for more on that) and spiandina, a type of potato bread.
The main event when it comes to cheese in Sardinia is pecorino – sheep are everywhere, and this is a type of hard sheeps’ cheese. I often use it in cooking instead of parmesan, even the more mature (staggionato) is less hard. My favourite pecorino is Fiore Sardo – the older the better.
Sardinia also produces other sorts of cheeses: very good mozzarella; an excellent goats’ cheese a bit like feta, white, soft and salty, is casu ‘e fitta, generally added to soup; and casizzolu, Red cows’ milk cheese.
There’s also a type of cheese involving live maggots. The production of this is pretty much a capital crime vis à vis the EU bureaucrats so it’s only available in the dead of night at isolated farm houses and remember to knock three times.
There is an abundance of fresh fish (although not commonly available at supermarkets). There are also two interesting preserved fish. One is smoked sword fish which is excellent served with orange on a bed of lettuce leaves (not so good with melon as some advise). The other is tuna – high quality, tinned, local tuna. The Japanese buy up most of the fresh tuna available for their sushi.
Of course there is a plethora of seafood. I think the most interesting, and good, is the lumache, the sea snail (eaten in pretty much the same way as the French land escargot – you need to gouge it out with a toothpick-like implement). They are everywhere – I once had them in a works canteen, but my favourite place to have them is Ristorante Corallo in Cagliari.
Spiny lobster (a bit like the Maine variety… no front claws…. but NOT a langouste) and eel are also in abundance.
Sardinians are very proud of their olives – all kinds: big, little, hard, juicy…. Personally I don’t find them as interesting to eat as the black, Greek olives, but when you cook with them, the heat releases a more intense flavour…add to pastas and risottos. In addition to eating them whole, Sardinians make their olives into a delicious green olive tapenade, and also into excellent finishing olive oil, often labelled fruttata.
There are two types of pasta which are very typically Sardinian. I especially like malloreddus which are made from pasta dough off-cuts. They come in different sizes and the small ones have the edge in my view over plain orzo pasta (or the Greek kritharaki) because they are ribbed, which holds a creamy sauce better and they are also fatter in the middle. This gives a more interesting texture – the ends get soft, but the fat middle remains al dente.
The other kind of pasta peculiar to Sardinia is fregula. This is a small, toasted, semolina pasta which came originally to Sardinia from north Africa. The toasting process gives it a slightly nutty flavour.
Then there are culurgiones, a sort of leaf-shaped ravioli stuffed with mashed potato, pecorino (or in the south, ricotta), garlic and mint….bit stodgy to my mind.
This is cured, salted fish roe, either from grey mullet (with a strong taste) or tuna (with an overwhelming taste). It’s sold in the long, fat roe sacks, or in dry powder form. It’s very salty with a strong fishy taste – a bit of an acquired taste. It’s usually sprinkled or grated over fish and seafood, risottos, pastas, and bruschetta. At London’s Stafford Hotel, Ben Tish, chef director of The Game Bird, sprinkles in on charred hispi cabbage, braised with marsala.
“The American chef Judy Rogers likes to serve a suave, slightly smoky aubergine dip with a garnish of grated bottarga….[it has] a pungent feral saltiness that is perfect with the fleshy-earthy mash'”Niki Segnit, The Flavour Thesaurus
If you are lucky, you may find fresh sea urchins. They have a delicate flavour so they are usually just spread over bruschetta, or added to very plain pastas. Follow this link for more on sea urchins.
I wouldn’t recommend the meat in Sardinia really (unless you go straight to an agriturismo where they may be roasting a whole animal), but if your local butcher provides Su Porcheddu – suckling pig roasted on a spit complete with soft, roasted potatoes – then that would be a treat not to be missed.
Sardinians make a type of liqueur with myrtle which I don’t recommend. But I use sprigs of it to flavour roasts (or when I heat up pane carasau). You can also buy the berries dried hard (they travel well). I add them to a good, thickish, vinegar (chardonnay vinegar, for example) and they make a fabulous, deep-coloured flavoured vinegar.
60% of Italian saffron is grown in Sardinia, in 40 hectares in the San Gavino Monreale region and this saffron, which is very high quality (it holds DOP status), is used a lot in Sardinian cooking. It’s bright red with an intense flavour.
A lovely, sweet, pink-tinged garlic is grown in Guasila.
A great deal of salt is harvested from the sea at the salt flats around Cagliari. It’s often mixed with other local produce such as dried myrtle or saffron.
There is a variety of pastries and cakes, the most famous of which is sebadas – ricotta in a fried pastry drizzled with honey.
Fruit and vegetables
The year begins with an abundant crop of oranges, followed by green chard, loquats, tiny pears and plums, mushrooms which look as if elves should lurk below them, and of course, tomatoes, great and small, and all colours. There is also pompia, a wrinkled, yellow citrus fruit grown in the Siniscola area in the north-east.
In the market recently I saw some enormous onions…but walking back I came upon a group of excited old men surrounding an open truck. This held onions the size of the heads of small children, the largest I’ve ever seen!
Gallery of Sardinian culinary delights
Books on food in Sardinia
- The Foods of Sicily and Sardinia and the smaller islands, Giuliano Bugialli
- Gino’s Islands in the Sun: 100 recipes from Sardinia and Sicily to enjoy at home, Gino D’Acampo
- Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey: The Mediterranean Flavours of Sardinia, Efisio Farris
If you are interested in Sardinian wine, follow this link.
For a guide to restaurants in Cagliari, follow this link.
This post is dedicated to Lizzie Fiducia.
¹“Appena a terra venne investito in pieno da una mescolanza di profumi che gli ricordò le lontane visite alla casa dei nonni, sull’Appennino, ma con dentro qualcosa di più intenso e aromatico.”