Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, characterized by a jagged and rocky coastline, interspersed with stunning beaches of very fine sand. The past fifty years have seen Sardinia become a hotspot for tourism, with La Costa Smeralda in the northern area becoming a favorite retreat of Italian celebrities. The Sardinian coast may be dedicated to tourism, but the interior belongs to native Sardinians who still hold onto their customs, food and unique language (a form of classical Latin that is considered an official language).
Sardinia is one of the most ancient lands in Europe, visited by man in the Palaeolithic period but inhabited permanently much later in the Neolithic age, around 6000 B.C. Around 1000 B.C. the Phoenicians began to land on the shores of Sardinia with increasing frequency. Sailing from Lebanon while on trade routes to as far away as Britain, they needed safe anchorage for the night or a retreat from storms. These safe ports of call later became important markets and, after a time, they developed into real towns inhabited by Phoenician families and Nuragic families. As time passed, the Sardinians became united in language and customs yet remained divided politically into various smaller tribal states. Sometimes they banded together, while at other times, they were at war with one another. Tribes lived in villages made up of round thatched stone huts.
In 509 B.C.the Phoenician expansion inland becoming ever more menacing and penetrating, so native Sardinians attacked the coastal cities held by the enemy who, in order to defend themselves, called upon Carthage for help. The Carthaginians, after a number of military campaigns, overcame the Sardinians and conquered the region. For 271 years, the Carthaginian civilization flourished alongside the local Nuragic culture. In 238 B.C. the Carthaginians, defeated by the Romans in the first Punic War, surrendered Sardinia and it became a province of Rome. The Roman domination in Sardinia lasted 694 long years and was often opposed by the Sardinians. The departure of the Romans and the ensuing chaos left Sardinia at the mercy of Vandal raiders, Byzantine occupiers and Arab corsairs. Four giudicati (kingdoms) emerged in the Middle Ages but, by the 13th century, the Pisans and Genoese were battling for control of Sardinia.
They were eventually taken over in 1323 by the Catalano-Aragonese from northern Spain who stayed for some 50 years. Eleonora d’Arborea (1340–1404) battled against them heroically and remains revered as Sardinia’s very own “Joan of Arc”. Sardinia became a Spanish territory after the unification of the Spanish kingdoms in 1479 and, still today, there is an Hispanic feel to several towns in the region. In the ensuing centuries, Sardinia suffered as Spain’s power crumbled and, in 1720, the Italian Savoy kingdom took possession of the island. After Italian unity in 1861, Sardinia found itself again under the rule of Rome.
Places to Visit in Sardinia
Cagliari is the main harbor and one of the gateways to Sardinia. Cagliari is situated among salt marshes and fish-rich ponds at the center of the broad southern gulf that extends from Cape Spartivento to Cape Carbonara. The French author Auguste Bouillier, who visited it in 1864, wrote movingly of the view, with “cupolas glittering in the setting sun”, the “castle with its belt of grey walls” and the “spectral towers”. Dotted with Pisan towers and a Spanish castle, Cagliari has other Spanish touches, such as, its flower-lined patios decorated with ceramics not unlike Portugal’s famed azulejos. Travelers interested in Sardinia’s mysterious past should visit the Museo Nazionale Archeologico, which houses an unequalled collection of ancient Sardinian, Phoenician, Minoan and Roman artifacts.
La Costa Smeralda or “the Emerald Coast” is a new feature of Sardinia, created nearly forty years ago to transform a formerly wild and isolated coast into a world-class tourist destination. La Costa Smeralda occupies the northeast corner of Sardinia from Olbia to Santa Teresa Gallura and follows the dramatic coastline of inlets and gulfs. Besides the fashionable resorts with its trendy beaches and yachts, La Costa Smeralda also has unbelievable natural beauty, with some of the clearest waters in the entire Mediterranean. Away from the coast the road travels into the ancient lands of the Nuraghi, with ruins of their distinctive structures as well as even older prehistoric dolmens known as the Tomb of the Giants.
Alghero was once a bastion of the Spanish Viceroy and even today is nicknamed “Barcelonetta” (little Barcelona) because of a dialect of Catalan that is still spoken. At the bottom of Via Umberto stands the sixteenth-century Cattedrale, where Spanish viceroys stopped to take a preliminary oath before taking office in Cagliari. A walk around the old town should take in the series of seven defensive towers which dominate Alghero’s center and its surrounding walls. Outside the old quarter, most of the tourist activity takes place around the port, its wide quay nudged by rows of colorful fishing boats and bordered by bars. Short trips outside Alghero lead to the impressive ruins of the Palmavera Nurag, as well, the excellent beaches at Porto Conte.
The Foods of Sardinia
Typical Sardinian cooking makes use of all kinds of beans: fava, white beans, lupine, chickpeas and lentils. Parsley, leeks, and especially cabbage were grown and used in soups and minestrone. Onions, chicory, spinach and beets were also commonplace on the Sardinian table. The most common fruit was citron. A pasta favorite is called fregula and was probably inspired by the Arab couscous.
Originally, Sardinian bread was made of hard wheat and barley. Today there are a variety of traditional breads, some made with white flour, others with semolina (hard wheat), breads with bran or sprouts or bread as flat as a sheet of music called Carta di Musica in Italian or Pani Carasau in Sardinian. In Sardinian cities, public ovens were used to bake traditional breads and dishes such as panade, a rustic torta, made of bread dough stuffed with small pieces of stewed lamb or eel seasoned with vegetables. Today, panade is still a popular dish.
Sardinia is a major exporter of cheese and the main exports are cavallo cheese (a type of caciocavallo) and salso cheese (a salted sheep’s cheese like pecorino cheese). Locally, fresh white cheeses are made for seasoning soups and casu e’ filixu, another fresh cheese, is layered with fern leaves in the center and often served on Carta di Musica. Cheese is used abundantly in Sardinian cuisine: in soups, stews, small ravioli and in famous desserts, such as, sebádas, a semolina, egg and cheese fritter flavored with sugar, lemon and honey or the pardule, baked buns of semolina stuffed with saffron and orange zest flavored fresh ricotta cheese.
The traditional cuisine of Sardinia was in some ways a contradiction: an island civilization that did not utilize seafood in its diet. Since Sardinia’s coast has always been victim to invasion, the Sardinian people found refuge in the mountains. Therefore, the traditional foods of Sardinia were always more influenced by the land than the sea. Today, much has changed and now seafood has been embraced by Sardinians, no longer having to fear invaders or pirates. Spicy fish soups called Burrida and Cassola, along with lobsters, crabs, anchovies, squid, clams and fresh sardines with Sardinians.
Favorite Sardinian pasta dishes include: Spaghetti con Bottarga made with dried gray mullet roe shaved on top, Malloreddus is a gnocchi style pasta flavored with saffron and served with a tomato sauce. Culingiones are round ravioli stuffed with spinach and cheese. The Sardinian interior produces some of the best lamb in all of Italy and it is known for being very lean. Sardinians enjoy their meats roasted and suckling pig or kidis a favorite roasted outdoors over aromatic woods.
Abbamele is a honey-based product made in Sardinia. It is also sometimes called “abbattu”, “abazu” or “honey sapa”. Selected honeycombs are pressed to extract all honey and pollen which is then reduced in copper pots. The honey can be flavored with lemon or orange rinds. Abbamele is dark like molasses with a complex flavor that has hints of coffee and caramel. Abbamele is also similar to molasses in appearance but tastes like honey and is usually eaten with cheese and fresh fruit or even drizzled over pasta or vegetables.
Sardinian wines have been influenced by the successive waves of invaders, with the Spanish leaving the most indelible mark. The full-bodied red Cannonau is the wine of choice when serving Sardinian lamb. Monica di Cagliari (DOC) can be found in dry well-aged varieties, as well as, a sweet dessert wine, known as, Liquoroso Dolce. Two well-known Sardinian white wines are Vernaccia di Oristano (DOC), a golden dry wine that is drunk with local fish and lobster and Vermentino di Gallura (DOCG), also good with seafood. Spirits include the aperitivo, Liquoroso Secco (made from the Monica grape) and the Myrtle flavored, Mirto. There are also various types of Grappa and Fil’e Ferru, a Sardinian Aquavitae, and other aperitifs with infusions of citrus fruits such as Limoncino and Arangiu.
Make Some Sardinian Inspired Recipes At Home
Pane Carasau or Carta da Musica is a Sardinian bread, shaped into thin disks and stacked up in piles. Dry and crisp, the name Carta da Musica (music paper) is attributed to the noise produced when they are chewed. It is said to have been first made by the shepherds in Sardinia, who took it with them into the pastures as it keeps well.
Pane Carasau is sometimes bathed in sauce before it is eaten, and is an excellent accompaniment to cheese or meats. A typical dish made with pane carasau is pane frattau which is prepared by layering pane carasau with sauce, tomato, cheese and topped with poached eggs.
Pane Carasau (Sardinian Flatbread)
- 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups semolina flour
- 1 envelope active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- Fresh chopped rosemary
- Olive oil
Combine the two flours with 1 teaspoon of salt. In a small cup, dissolve the yeast with 1/4 cup of the warm water. Let sit until bubbly. Add the yeast mixture to the flour with the rest of the water. Mix until you have a smooth dough. Cover and let sit 1 hour. Knead for 5 minutes and cover for another hour.
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Spray two flat baking sheets with oil spray. Knead the dough once more and divide into 8 equal balls. Roll each ball out as thinly as you can to fit the baking sheets, and bake each for 5 minutes in the preheated oven. The breads should blister but not brown. Remove from the oven and pile one on top of the other. Place a board or flat tray on top and let sit until cool.
To prepare for serving, return each bread to the oven for 10 minutes or until golden and crispy. Remove, brush lightly with olive oil, sprinkle with fresh chopped rosemary and salt and return to the oven for a few minutes. Serve warm.
Tomato-Poached Eggs with Sardinian Music Bread
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/3 cup sliced green onions
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
- 2 (14.5-ounce) cans whole plum tomatoes, undrained and coarsely chopped
- 4 large eggs
- 4 sheets pane carasau (Sardinian music bread), each broken into 4 wedges
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) finely grated aged Pecorino Sardo cheese
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and garlic to pan; cook 3 minutes or until fragrant, stirring often. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Reduce heat to low. Working with one egg at a time, crack eggs over tomato mixture, about 1 inch apart in pan. Sprinkle eggs with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cover and cook 5 minutes or until desired degree of doneness. Remove from heat.
Arrange 4 wedges of pane carasau on each of 4 plates; spoon 3/4 cup sauce over each serving. Top each serving with 1 egg and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons grated cheese and 1 1/2 teaspoons of chopped fresh basil.
Risotto-Style Fregula with Mushrooms, Abbamele and Goat Cheese
Fregula is a small, toasted semolina pasta. Israeli couscous is a more readily available stand-in; you can also substitute a dark-colored honey for abbamele.
- 2 1/4 cups fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 8 ounces wild mushrooms
- 1/3 cup chopped shallots
- 1 1/4 cups uncooked fregula
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh chives
- 1/4 cup (2 ounces) goat cheese or feta cheese
- 1 tablespoon abbamele or honey, divided
- 3 tablespoons chopped walnuts, toasted
Combine broth and 1 cup water in a saucepan over medium heat; bring to a simmer. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms; cook 5 minutes or until moisture evaporates. Add shallots; cook 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add fregula and salt; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir in wine; cook 30 seconds or until liquid is nearly absorbed, stirring constantly.
Set aside 1/4 cup broth mixture; cover and keep warm. Add remaining broth mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly until each portion of broth is absorbed before adding the next (about 15 minutes total). Remove from heat.
Stir in reserved 1/4 cup broth mixture, chives, goat cheese and 1 1/2 teaspoons abbamele. Sprinkle with walnuts. Drizzle each serving with 1/4 teaspoon abbamele. Serve immediately.
Makes about 1 pound
These tiny Sardinian dumplings resemble cavatelli and are often called gnocchetti sardi. Malloreddus are usually served with butter and Pecorino cheese, a simple tomato sauce or a rich lamb ragù.
- Fine sea salt
- 1 1/4 cups semolina flour
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- a gnocchi board or table fork
Dissolve 1 teaspoon salt in 3/4 cup warm water. In a large bowl whisk together semolina and all-purpose flours; mound and form a well in the center. Add water mixture and 2 teaspoons oil to the well. Using your hand or a fork, slowly incorporate flour from inside rim of well. Continue until liquid is absorbed, then knead in the bowl until dough forms a ball (dough will be slightly sticky).
Transfer dough to a well-floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes, dusting with a bit more flour as needed just to keep the dough from sticking to your hands. Wrap dough tightly in plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes. Break off about 1/8 of the pasta dough; tightly re-wrap the remaining dough. Roll dough into a 1/4-inch cylinder and cut it into 1/4-inch-thick pieces. Pressing with your thumb, roll each piece on a gnocchi board or down the back of a fork to give it the characteristic ridges and put on a floured baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough.
To cook the fresh malloreddus, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until tender, about 6 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Drain, transfer to a large serving bowl and immediately toss with sauce and serve.
Sauces for Malloreddus
- 1 lb malloreddus pasta
- 7 oz fresh tuna, cut into small cubes
- 4 oz onion, sliced thin
- 3 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 oz capers
- 3 ½ oz fresh tomatoes, chopped
- 1 oz fennel fronds
- 1/2 cup white wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3/4 oz anchovies, chopped
- 1/2 cup fish stock, see post for recipe: http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/01/10/hearty-healthy-winter-soups/
In a large pan heat oil and brown the onion and the tuna. Stirring constantly, add the capers.
Pour the white wine over all and allow to evaporate. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the fish stock onto the tuna, add the fresh tomato and half the fennel fronds.
Meanwhile, cook the “malloreddus” in salted water. Drain the “malloreddus” and put them into the pan containing the sauce and toss. Allow to cook for another minute with the remaining fennel and then sprinkle the chopped anchovies over the top.
Arrange in a serving dish, decorating with small sprigs of fennel.
Lamb Chops and Ragù with Malloreddus
Serves: 4 – 6
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 pound ground lamb
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 medium shallots, finely chopped
- 1/2 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 thyme sprigs, plus 1 teaspoon chopped thyme
- 1 rosemary sprig, plus 1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 2 cups prepared tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons chopped basil
- 8 lamb rib chops, about 1/2 inch thick
- 1 pound malloreddus pasta, gnochetti or cavatelli
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Sardo cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the ground lamb, season with salt and pepper and cook over moderately high heat, stirring to break up the meat until browned, about 4 minutes. Add the shallots, thyme and rosemary sprigs, bay leaf and the chopped onion. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the shallots and onion are softened, about 4 minutes. Add the red wine and boil over high heat until reduced by three-quarters, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken stock and tomato sauce and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in the basil and season with salt and pepper. Discard the thyme, rosemary sprigs and the bay leaf and keep the sauce hot.
In a large skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil until shimmering. Season the lamb chops with salt and pepper and pat the chopped thyme and rosemary onto the meat. Add the chops to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat until well browned outside and medium-rare within, about 3 minutes per side.
Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the malloredduspasta until al dente. Drain and return it to the pot. Add the lamb ragù and stir well. Add the pecorino cheese and stir again. Transfer the pasta to plates and top with the lamb chops.
MAKE AHEAD The lamb ragù can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Rewarm before serving.
- Weekly Photo Challenge: Unique Sardinia (laavventura.wordpress.com)
- The road to heaven: The wheel way to enjoy Sardinia (mirror.co.uk)
- My Sardinian Life’s Top 12 Posts of 2012 (laavventura.wordpress.com)
- Tour sardinia 2012 (slideshare.net)
- Coppa Italia 2012-2013 Thread (bigsoccer.com)
- A Year in Review – Top 12 Photos of 2012 | Sardinia, Italy (laavventura.wordpress.com)