A while back, I found myself contemplating Sardinia. Anchored in the middle of the Mediterranean just off the coast of Rome, it’s like a portal to another Europe. Yet, it seems to rarely draw the attention of Italian food and wine junkies, which is exactly why I set my sights on it. Conjuring images of the boot tends to produce the usual suspects — Tuscany, the Veneto, Sicily. Yet, Sardinia must surely brandish the same charms as the rest of Italy. I’ve never been to Sardinia, and since offers of free trips aren’t exactly cluttering up my inbox, I figured I’d have to go about this exploration in a somewhat more creative fashion — three nights, Sardinian-style, in my own kitchen.
First stop: my local purveyor of wine. What better way to learn about a place than to consume its fruit? For a relatively small island, Sardinia grows an impressive variety of grapes. Cannonau, the local name for Spanish Garnacha or French Grenache, is probably the one that literally covers the most ground. Vermentino comes in a close second. However, getting your hands on Sardinian wine can be tricky. The region only exports so much. I scoured practically every wine store in Ontario and found a measly three. So, when you happen upon one, grab it.
Terroir is that elusive concept that allows the drinker a glimpse into what the locals experience every day. Sardinia has a perfect climate — 300 sun-drenched days, temperatures that hover between 17° and 30°C during the long growing season, and expansive sandy beaches that are perfect for sipping a chilled glass of Vermentino under the shade of an umbrella. There’s a treasure trove of good wine to be had. Demand that your local wine store find some for you to try.
For an island that’s been held under various forms of foreign occupation for most of its history, it remains a culinary conundrum. What are the flavours and aromas that characterize this place? Those influences must make Sardinia beautifully exotic. Not quite like the wilds of the jungle, but more Eden-like. It seems to me to be like some mythical land that time forgot. How else to explain the fact that Sardinia boasts one of the top three largest populations of centenarians in the world? This is a place that even claims its own distinct language – not a dialect of Italian like you’ll find in the rest of Italy, but a bona fide Romance language.
Here’s something else that’s a mystery to me: why are there are so few Sardinians working in the restaurant industry in Canada? Clearly, having someone else serve me authentic fare isn’t going to be happening any time soon. Fine. A few choice supplies and I’m on my way to that sunny, warm island — figuratively, of course. When life gives you lemons, drink Limoncello (also made spectacularly well in Sardinia).
Someone once told me that mine is a bread-eating family. Exactly what that means is unclear to me. Oh, true enough, I’ve gone and placed the quintessential breadbasket on the table for my Sardinian dinner. It’s loaded with my rendition of “music paper” bread. Crispy and oven-baked, music paper bread is so called because the dough is stretched thin until you can almost see through it. It was a traditional snack eaten by shepherds. Make extra, because it can be kept for up to a year before it begins to go stale. Given that I only thought of adding this bread to the menu in the hour or so before dinner, I decided to go via the path of least resistance (ok, the lazy way) and bought fresh pizza dough. Roll it out, super thin, for a similar effect.
A typical Sardinian main course is relatively easy to replicate. The island’s claim to fame is roast suckling pig on a spit. Lacking a spit, I opted instead for roast boar (also an island resident). On night #2 of my improvised Sardinian escape, I prepared semolina gnocchi in beef sauce. The final meal of my three-night tour was a tasty pair of grilled pork chops simmered in red wine vinegar.
On a final note, I have to say something about one of Sardinia’s more infamous culinary contributions. Casu Marzu (maggot cheese) is made by introducing small cheese flies to a wheel of sheep’s milk cheese. No, this isn’t some crazy attempt at sardonic humour, and no, you can’t buy it here. The flies lay their eggs and the larvae feast. The point of allowing maggots to infest the cheese is to speed up the aging process. In a relatively short time, that hard wheel of cheese turns into a well-aged, creamy, dripping delicacy with … well … live maggots writhing through it. Aficionados spread it on music paper bread maggots and all. Extra protein, anyone?
Not your thing, eh? Try these Sardinian classics instead.
sardinian couscous (fregola stufada)
Courtesy of the Italian Trade Commission. Sardinian Couscous is toasted, so it ends up giving a warm, nutty flavour to the entire dish. If you can’t find the Sardinian version, any type of couscous will work.
- 1 lb Sardinian semolina couscous
- 4 cups meat broth
- 85 g pork fat
- 2 medium-sized chopped onions
- Olive oil
- 1 sprig of fresh parsley, chopped
- 1/3 cup grated Pecorino cheese
- Salt to taste
- Cook the couscous in the meat broth for 10-15 minutes, and drain if necessary, setting the broth aside.
- In a pan simmer the pork fat with the chopped onion in some olive oil, then add the chopped parsley.
- In a baking dish spread a layer of the couscous, then a layer of the cooked onion and a sprinkle of Pecorino cheese. Repeat until all ingredients are used.
- Cook in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. The couscous is ready when it is dry enough to be eaten with a fork.
Courtesy of the Italian Trade Commission. In this land of milk and honey, almonds are a key ingredient in traditional pastries and cookies. Bitter almonds can be pretty difficult to find here. Use almond extract instead. It has the same depth of flavour without the cyanide!
- 1 kg ground almonds
- 900 g icing sugar
- Grated rind of 4 lemons
- 2 packets vanilla sugar
- 18 egg whites (beaten until stiff)
- 150 g bitter almonds
- Combine the powdered almonds and the sugar in a bowl. Add the lemon rinds, vanilla sugar and, lastly, delicately add the stiff egg whites.
- Wet hands with water or fruit brandy, and form into balls.
- Place balls on greaseproof paper and place in the oven. For a finishing touch, place a whole almond in the middle of each macaroon.
- Cook in a 325°F oven for about 20 minutes. Watch them to make sure they don’t burn.