The island region of Sardinia offers up some of the most interesting and unique history in Italy’s already culturally diverse repertoire. From very early on, Sardinia has been a location of sustained and indeed thriving human settlement, and the plants and animals nurtured there for centuries remain staples of the contemporary Sardinian table.
Cultural Crossroads, Fabulous Food
Literally thousands of rare species of plants and animals grow and live on the island, some entirely unique to Sardinia. An excellent example of the longevity of Sardinia’s heirloom produce is the Grenache wine grape, ancient samples of which have been dated back to about 1,200 BC. Grenache grapes grown on the island today are genetically virtually indistinguishable from their ancestors grown thousands of years ago in the same areas.
The island’s geography gives some visual clues as to how influential other cultures have been in helping to shape Sardinia’s own fascinating food culture over the course of the its invasion-riddled history. Technically considered a Mediterranean island, Sardinia’s eastern coast tickles the Tyrrhenian Sea (farther to the east of which are the shores of mainland Italy). While unquestionably an Italian region, Sardinia’s closest neighbor is actually the French island of Corsica to its north. On Sardinia’s southern coast, however, the shores of Algeria and Tunisia are closer even than Sardinia’s sister island region, Sicily. Add to this nexus of unusual geography the island’s long history of passing under the rule of the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs and Spanish (just to name a few), and it is nothing less than remarkable that the Sardinians have been able to retain a quiet but fierce individuality. They are one of only two groups of Italian peoples recognized as poplo (or “distinct people”), carefully preserving even their own language – Sardinian – elements of which pre-date the Latin roots it shares with universal Italian.
Divided into the eight provinces of Carbonia-Iglesias, Cagliari, Medio Campidano, Ogliastra, Oristano, Nuoro, Sassari and Olbia Tempio, Sardinia is relatively large in comparison to most of the mainland regions. Each province is host to native cooking traditions informed by a complex confluence of deep Italian heritage and transient but powerful foreign influences. Factor in the exceptionally fertile farmlands, mountainous forests and the fine necklace of rich coastline, and Sardinia emerges as an island that might well be described as a rustic cook’s paradise.
Wild boar, lean lamb, suckling pork, eggplants, artichokes, tomatoes, lobsters, sea urchins, octopus, clams, mussels, and squid abound. Salty, “acquired-taste” signature flavors have developed, like those of bottarga (pressed and salted mullet roe), and the globally recognizable island namesake and mainstay, sardines. Carta di musica (or “sheet of music,” a favorite paper-thin crisp bread baked to a relatively dry state) graces almost every table. Traditional hearty Italian pastas like culingiones (spinach and cheese raviolis) share center stage with Arabic-inspired couscous dishes. And many first-time visitors are quite taken aback at Sardinians’ liberal use of saffron (the rare spice grows exceedingly well on the island). Saffron is a particular favorite in gnocchi dishes. A wide variety of other herbs flourish on Sardinia as well, with the surprisingly menthol twang of aromatic yet bitter myrtle (berries, flowers, leaves and wood) flavoring many local dishes. Whether savory, sweet, used for wood smoking or instilled into digestive liqueurs, myrtle is a mainstay of the Sardinian palate.
Cheeses hold special sway in Sardinia, being the island’s most exported food product. Pecorino sardo, Fiore sardo, ricotta, caprino, pecorino romano, and the famous casu marzu are all made within the region. Casu marzu, which starts its life as a delightful local Pecorino sardo cheese, is actually illegal now in Italy due to its bizarre additional culturing and aging process involving the introduction of live cheese fly larvae into the equation to bring about a potentially poisonous stage akin to decomposition. Though obviously a wildly risky gastronomic health adventure and definitely not for the timid of palate by any stretch of the imagination, casu marzu is nonetheless a very popular black market commodity and is considered a distinctive delicacy by many locals.
If your tastes tend to less dangerous foods, however, there is thankfully a bounty of tamer and more universally delicious fare available from the Sardinian table. By combining some of the best and most quintessential flavors of Italian (tomatoes, basil, olives), French (cheeses, crispy breads, heavy cream) and Arabic cultures (saffron, chickpeas, lamb), your own meals can easily become Sardinian feasts beyond your tastiest expectations.