- Beth Ellis & Forrest Maddox
Dinner in Sardegna
Peperoni Fritti con Acciughe e Capperi (Fried Peppers with Anchovies and Capers)
A Sardinian meal starts with an array of antipasti - small dishes that might include vegetables and olives, cheeses, cured meats, or anchovies. In this dish, fresh, sweet red bell peppers are confit in extra virgin olive oil until tender, then tossed with capers, anchovies, and vinegar. This is a perfect example of Sardinian cooking - fresh and simple ingredients that add up to a delicious dish. Sardinian anchovies are among the best in Italy; they’re fished at night and while much of the catch is preserved in salt or oil, many Sardinian recipes use fresh anchovies as well. These tiny fish are full of flavor and are often the umami in Italian cuisine. (Contains fish; no gluten, no dairy.)
Zucchine con Menta e Mandorle (Zucchini with Mint and Almonds)
Zucchini is a favorite vegetable in all Italian cooking; its mild flavor makes it a perfect vehicle for any number of herbs. Mint and almonds are a classic Sardinian combination - almond trees grow all over the island and are used in dishes ranging from savory antipasti to dessert. Here, zucchini is cooked with olive oil and lots of garlic, and topped with toasted almonds and fresh mint. (Contains almonds; vegan, no gluten.)
Ceci con Finocchio e Pancetta (Chickpeas with Fennel and Pancetta)
Wild fennel grows all over Sardinia, and it is used in great quantities in all types of dishes. The fronds, flowers, and seeds are all used to impart a distinct anise flavor. The light sweetness is a lovely complement to the saltiness of the pancetta and the hearty creaminess of the chickpeas. Chickpeas and other pulses are an important part of Sardinian cooking, as they form an inexpensive protein base for many recipes, and are readily flavored with small amounts of meat, cheese, and whatever vegetables might be in season. It takes very little pancetta to add a deep flavor to a dish, and rural families in Sardinia traditionally fatten a hog every year for an annual supply of prosciutto, pancetta, and sausage. (No gluten, no dairy.)
Pane Carasau (Sardinian Flatbread)
Pane carasau is an unleavened crunchy flatbread (also sometimes called carta di musica, or music sheets, because it is so thin that you can read a sheet of music through it) that originated in Barbagia - the inner region of Sardinia, and has spread across the island; it is an ancient recipe, and was originally made for shepherds to carry with them when they were gone from home for months at a time. Remains of this bread have been found in nuraghe ruins on the island, dating back over 3000 years. The ingredient list is short (flour, yeast, salt, water), but the process is time-consuming. The bread is delicious alone, or topped with any of the antipasti, or dipped in any sauces. You’ll be toasting the bread before serving, and if you choose to do a light drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, your pane carasau (toasted bread) will become pane guttiau (dripped oil bread)! (Contains gluten; vegan.)
Risotto al Vino Rosso, Saba e Radicchio (Risotto with Red Wine, Saba, and Radicchio)
Risotto is a quintessentially Italian dish, but there are regional variations all over Italy, and this is a typically Sardinian version. Arborio rice is slow cooked with red wine and chicken stock before the mantecatura - the vigorous incorporation of butter and cheese to create a luscious and creamy risotto. Radicchio is wilted with saba & aged balsamic vinegar to make a bittersweet relish that adds a slight crunch to the dish. Saba is a syrupy reduction of unfiltered grape juice and, similar to a balsamic reduction, it adds a perfect note of sweetness to a dish. It has been used since ancient Roman times to sweeten dishes before the widespread use of crystallized sugar. In this dish the sweet saba & tart balsamic are the perfect foils for the bitter radicchio & rich risotto. (Contains dairy; no gluten.)
Maiale Tonnato (Pork with Lemon, Caper, and Tuna Sauce)
Vitello (veal) tonnato is a classic Piemontese (northern Italian) dish that originated in the 1900s, when the tuna trade was booming in nearby Liguria. Sardinia has a long history of tuna fishing as well - dating back to the 18th century - and pork is ubiquitous in Sardinian cooking, thus pork is far more common than veal in the Sardinian rendering of the dish. Tonnato sauce is a traditional Italian combination of lemon, capers, anchovy, tuna, and mayonnaise - it is an umami powerhouse and aside from its traditional use on roasted meat, it is now used to dress pasta, bread, and vegetables. While lemons are believed to have originated in India, they have been cultivated in Italy since at least 200 CE, and are a crucial ingredient in all Italian cuisine. (Contains fish, eggs; no gluten, no dairy.)
Insalata di Patate (Potatoes with Herb Vinaigrette)
This is a simple dish of golden potatoes, cooked with the pork above, and then dressed with a light vinaigrette. We’ve waxed on about potatoes more than a few times, but this beloved starchy tuber knows no boundaries. Originating in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes, the humble spud made its way back to Europe with Spanish and Portugese explorers, and spread rapidly across the continent (and its nearby islands such as Sardinia). Potatoes are a common ingredient in Sardinian cooking, as they are easy to grow in home gardens, and hardy and inexpensive. The vinaigrette here elevates the plain potato to a delicious height, with parsley and fennel fronds making this dish summery and light. (No gluten, no dairy.)
Torta di Arancia, Ricotta e Polenta (Orange, Ricotta, and Polenta Cake)
How can a cake be rich and light at the same time? A magical combination of ingredients makes this cake just that - olive oil, ricotta, polenta, and a hefty dose of orange and lemon juice leave you with a cake that is sweet, but not overly so; it is the perfect summery finale to a big meal (or save it for your morning coffee!). This cake is common across Italy - many families have their own recipes, and cafés often have it on the menu. Ricotta is a fresh cheese made from the whey (and tiny bit of curds) left behind when milk is strained to make other, drier cheeses. As a result, ricotta is high in moisture and almost fluffy (as much as a cheese can be fluffy), and it is what makes this cake… fluffy! (Contains dairy, gluten, eggs; vegetarian).
Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2018
Available at Arbor Farms Market - $15
Cannonau (known as Grenache in France or Garnacha in Spain) is the most prominent grape grown in Sardinia. The grape ripens late in the season so is particularly well suited to the hot and dry climate of the island. Full bodied but still easy drinking, this 2018 Riserva from Sella & Mosca is fruit forward with notes of red berries and a bit of spice. It even takes a chill well, which is how we prefer it for a leisurely dinner on a hot summer evening.
The island of Sardinia lies 120 miles off the coast of mainland Italy, but it might as well be a different country. Bumper stickers and murals proclaim, “This is not Italy!” Of course Italian is spoken on the island, but Sardo is also widespread, and it is not a dialect of Italian - it is linguistically closer to Latin, and even to Spanish, than to Italian. The culture and traditions of the island have been shaped by forces different than those that shaped the culture of the Italian mainland, and while the cuisine can certainly be described as Mediterranean, it is more elemental than that of Italy. Traditional Sardinian cuisine is described as “cucina povera” - literally “poverty cooking”, but more aptly “peasant cooking.” Meat and cheese are used for maximal flavor, wild game and foraged greens are frequent additions, and nothing goes to waste. There is undoubtedly irony in the notion that a much-beloved and sought-after cuisine evolved from the cooking traditions of peasants - who had very little choice in the matter of ingredients - but at its heart, cucina povera is the straightforward preparation of fresh and homegrown ingredients, and it’s hard to argue about that. This food is so good on a hot summer night, enjoyed in a leisurely fashion, with a little music and a small glass of wine or sparkling water.
On the Sardinian table, there is always a combination of fresh produce, olives, cheese (almost always pecorino, as sheep outnumber humans 3 to 1 on the island), locally cured sausage or ham, and - most importantly - bread. The traditional food is more “home food” than “restaurant food”, though that is changing with increasing flow of tourists and spreading modernization amongst the island’s inhabitants. Sardinia gained some measure of notoriety when, in 2005, National Geographic first published an article by Dan Buettner identifying three “Blue Zones”, where an inordinate number of residents live inordinately long lives. The Sardinian diet was identified as part of the reason for this longevity, and Buettner (and others) have since written cookbooks parsing out the health aspects of the diet. There are no big surprises here - lots of vegetables and whole grains, zero processed foods, fresh fish and meat, olive oil, alcohol in moderation, etc.
While Sardinia has over a thousand miles of coastline - with craggy cliffs, white sand beaches, and turquoise waters - its people originally inhabited the mountainous interior of the island - a region called Barbagia - rather than the shores. The spectacular beaches and crystalline waters were developed (not without controversy) in the 1950s and 60s as an ultra-expensive tourist destination. The Sardinian population historically lived inland because of a relentless history of invasions - by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, and Spanish - before becoming an autonomous region of Italy in 1861. The food culture of Sardinia reflects many of these influences, in addition to its own native traditions and ingredients - saffron and other spices from the Middle East via the Phoenicians (though Sardinia now produces over 60% of Italy’s saffron), lentils and winemaking from the Romans, fregola (a small broken pasta much like couscous) from North Africa, salt cod and paella from Spain.
Sardinia is historically an island of shepherds, with more than one hundred thousand shepherds, and almost 3 million sheep, still on the island. (Check out this short video of canto a tenore - the remarkable traditional polyphonic singing of the shepherds. The singers create a perfect harmony that includes a lonely human voice amidst the bleating of sheep.) There are tight-knit communities, with an ingrained hospitality not necessarily apparent to outsiders; Sardinians are often described as stoic and reserved. People sit and eat together (grabbing food on the run is not a thing in Sardinia), and the mid-day meal is typically when family gathers for a lengthy meal, followed by a nap before returning to work in the late afternoon. Meat, cheese, and pasta are the dietary staples today, and vegetables are often grown in home gardens or on small nearby farms. Seafood is a relatively recent entry to the Sardinian diet, though “recent” in Sardinia means the last few centuries, as Sardinia has been continuously occupied by humans since prehistoric times (human remains dated to 18000 BCE were found in Corbeddu Cave on the eastern coast of the island). Of course, some recipes have changed dramatically over this history, but many retain echoes of ancient traditions.
Sardinians make their own wine, their own bread, their own olive oil and cheese, their own cured ham and sausage. They might buy beef or fish from a neighbor. They share the fruits of their hard labor with their family. This simple and hearty food is rooted in community, and that community is as important as any ingredient in the longevity of Sardinian people. We appreciate you being part of our community, and hope you enjoy this food in good company! Buon appetito!
Featured Recipe: Torta di Arancia, Polenta e Ricotta
Adapted from Letitia Clark’s cookbook Bitter Honey: Recipes and Stories from Sardinia
Serves 6-8 people
For the base
1 large navel orange
100 g demerara or turbinado sugar
Butter for greasing the pan
1 9 in cake tin
For the batter
200 ml olive oil
200 g powdered sugar
2 g sea salt
250 g ricotta
85 g lemon juice
1.5 g lemon zest
100 g polenta/medium grind cornmeal
150 g all purpose flour
8 g baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
Grease a 9 in cake tin with butter
Prepare the base of the cake.
Wash the oranges and slice them into 2 mm discs with a very sharp knife
In a small saucepan over medium heat melt the demerara / turbinado sugar with 2 tablespoons of water until it has dissolved
Simmer for a few minutes until the syrup begins to caramelize
It should smell faintly of caramel and see the color change to a light amber
Pour your syrup over the bottom of the cake tin
Arrange the slices of orange in a single layer on top of the syrup
To make the batter:
In an electric mixer (or by hand in a large bowl) whisk together the olive oil, sugar, salt, ricotta, citrus juice and zest
Add the eggs one at a time and beat until smooth
Add in the polenta, flour and baking powder and beat until smooth
Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 40 to 50 minutes until golden and just set
Allow the cake to cool for 5 minutes then run a knife around the edge of the tin and invert onto a cutting board or serving plate and allow to cool completely before slicing
Enjoy! The cake keeps moist for several days if covered
Recipes Inspired By:
Bitter Honey: Recipes and Stories from Sardinia, a wonderful cookbook from Letitia Clark.
Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey: The Mediterranean Flavors of Sardinia by Elfisio Farris.
La Cucina Italiana, an excellent online resource for Italian recipes, travel recommendations and more
More information on the Blue Zones, and Sardinia in particular.
Beautiful imagery of the mountainous inland Barbagia region and its traditional food culture.
Photos of the Costa Smeralda, and an article on the controversy surrounding its development.
More on the canto a tenore, which has been listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.