Francesco Cetti once said, “There is not in Italy what there is in Sardinia, nor in Sardinia what there is in Italy.”
The 18th century zoologist was probably talking about the wildlife. Probably. But he could equally have been talking about Sardinian food.
I’m fast loosing count of the number of times I’ve been to Italy, but my sojourn to Sardinia was the first time I’d visited one of the country’s islands. And, for the first time in a long time, it felt like I was experiencing Italy anew.
Located west of the bulk of the boot of Italy, Sardinia is the country’s largest island and in my mind I pictured a land of beaches, boats and summer sun. But, as my flight cruised over the mass of Sardinia, it was the cloud-high mountainous interior that peaked my interests – and also my appetite. Seafood was going to be on the Sardinian food menu, for sure, but the pastures of the interior promised something more.
Travelling from Cagliari in the south to Olbia in the north, my trip to Sardinia took me from coast to coast and through the myriad hilltop towns in between. The sights were as splendid as you might expect – after all, I was in Italy, (you can read more about those sights here) but I spent a lot of my time idling over four course meals, learning that Cetti had nailed it years ago: there is not in Italy what there is in Sardinia, and you have to taste your way through the traditional Sardinia foods to know how true that is.
The Sardinian Diet
The Sardinian diet has long been heralded as one of the healthiest diets you can eat. Sardinia is in one of the Blue Zones and we’ve long been repeatedly that the Mediterranean diet is a fast route to a long life.
I’m no nutritionist – just a lowly old food and travel blogger. But I did spend nearly a week in Sardinia, shown around by the locals. I was taken to restaurants my Sardinian tour guides chose, invited to houses of people they knew and served up the foods that represented the best of the Sardinian diet. What I ate surprised me. Especially since a lot of food blogs and so-called experts have co-opted the Blue Zone and cuisines like the Sardinian diet to push their vegan agenda.
I was therefore surprised that there was a lot more meat and dairy than I expected.
What didn’t surprise me was the abundance of high quality, locally prepared and freshly cooked whole foods. The heavily processed, highly preserved, chemical infused foods we find on the supermarket shelves (and in some restaurants) were, blissfully, absent in the Sardinian diet. Cooking was a pleasure and food was to be savoured, sat around tables in groups with friends and families (not scarfed down at a desk like I’ve just done with my packaged cereal breakfast).
I’ve always been taught (by my nan) that a little of what you fancy won’t do you any harm. Stick to good, fresh food made from whole, local ingredients. It is hard to do (reference: my breakfast) However, this attitude to food seemed fundamental to the Sardinian diet I was served on my trip.
This, I believe, is the magic of the Sardinian diet.
Traditional Sardinian Food
What follows is a quick guide to Sardinian food with plenty of pictures to whet your appetite. I’ve broken this up according to the various courses you work your way through in Italy starting with antipasto all the way through to dessert.
There wasn’t a lunch or dinner in Sardinia that didn’t start with a basket of pane carasau (translation: music paper bread). Unlike any other bread I’ve tasted in Italy, this specifically Sardinian food is closer to a poppadom or crispy taco than bread – which isn’t a bad thing – especially when you’re staring down the end of your fork at four hearty courses.
You can also find Pane Guttiau, which is more heavily salted and includes oregano. My indulged pallet preferred this saltier version.
Between you and I, I nicknamed this the ‘angry bread’. Why? It’s spiky, hard, dry and prone to hurt your mouth. Plus, the shape was reminiscent of a dragon’s spine. Still, it’s a Sardinian food, so give it a try. Just make sure you have dental cover on your travel insurance.
If you’re a cheese lover, you’ll probably have tasted pecorino cheese before, but did you know that most of it is produced in Sardinia? It’s also one of Italy’s oldest cheeses. Expect this cheese to show up time and time again in Sardina: in its pure form, in ravioli, over pasta and even in dessert. Yep, you heard me right.
Distinctly Sardinian, fiore sardo is another type of pecorino cheese that isn’t so commonly found off the island. Personally, I wasn’t as keen on this version. It was so strong that it left a small tingle on my tongue. Nice enough to try but I certainly wasn’t craving for more.
Sardinian cured meats
I’d be checking my pulse if cured meat didn’t show up on the table during an Italian meal and Sardinia didn’t let me down. Thanks to the extensive cattle and livestock that grazes the interior of the island, most of the hams and salamis that were served were locally produced and tasted all the better for it.
All parts of the animal
Sorry I couldn’t invent a more delicate title and advance apologies to any vegan and veggie readers – it’s just going to be that kind of article with worse to come below. You can find a vegan-friendly guacamole recipe here if you want to tune out.
If you’re still with me, I visited one restaurant, which tries to serve as much of each animal as it can. This is pretty common throughout Italy, cow stomach (tripe), being particularly popular. I don’t know if this is fundamental to the secret of the Sardinian diet (after all, our ancestors used to eat the whole animal). Either way, it’s not for the faint of heart.
In Sardinia, I was served cow and lamb brain, cow tongue and entrails. There was also tripe. I tried the lot, with the exception of tripe, which I’ve been dared into eating twice, before finally vowing never to try it again.
Tongue I’ve tasted before (the pale brown bit in the background of the above picture), which isn’t too dissimilar to a piece of roast beef. The brains were made edible thanks to the battering and deep frying, which tends to make most things more tasty. I could easily have been tricked into thinking the brain was chicken, which was interesting because the last time I ate brain (that’s right, this wasn’t my first brain rodeo), it was chicken brain, which happened to taste of egg. The mind boggles. Especially when you’re eating it.
Malloreddus alla Campidanese
Don’t worry malloreddus alla campidanese merely looks like a plate of bugs or worms – it’s actually a kind of pasta that’s native to Sardinia and tastes damn fine. Most commonly served in a tomato sauce with sausage, the secret ingredient (saffron) gives this dish an elegant lift.
Tiny pearls of pasta, some people liken fregola to cous cous, but it’s got a much softer texture and consistency – more akin to rice in my view. Often served with seafood, I tried it cooked in a basic tomato sauce with fresh pecorino. It may sound dull but if you’re familiar with the fresh quality of Italian tomatoes and local cheese, you’ll know that is was anything but.
I’ve just eaten and I’m feeling perfectly full. Still, if you put a plate of this down in front of me, I’d somehow manage to find room. I’d have to. This was one of my favourite dishes in Sardinia and one I’ll definitely be trying to make this at home. What is it?…The simple explanation is Sardinan ravioli but the real treat is found inside: a stodgy yet moreish blend of potatoes and pecorino. Again, a simple tomato sauce is all that’s needed to finish this dish.
Sardinian Fish and Seafood
Fish and seafood were my first thoughts when I knew I was travelling to Sardinia and I wasn’t disappointed. Best eaten near the coast, it was nice to have a contrast to the meat I’d eaten during my journey through Sardinia’s hilltop towns.
As you might expect, fish and seafood can turn up in any course (though thankfully not dessert). Here’s what I ate…
Mussels are popular in Sardinia and are commonly served with fregola. However, I tried them on their own. Bright orange, juicy (but not too squishy), the drizzle of olive oil added a new flavour combination I’d not tried before; and I’m pleased to say it’s one I will be trying again.
Mussels, mussels everywhere – and in this tomato based soup, it was possible to pick up the seafood flavour without losing the taste of the soup. It was served with a curled and fried piece of pane carasau: a nice touch.
Squid antipasti with artichoke was almost predictable, and a bit disappointing from my point of view. Not that it was badly done, just that I’m not a fan of antipasti in vinaigrette – whether it’s squid, peppers, or anything else. If you do like that sharp flavour, dig in.
Some people say that sardines are from Sardinia (it would make sense) but it’s an ongoing, passionate debate that I don’t intend to throw myself into. What I will say is that these were by far the freshest and most delicate tasting sardines I’ve ever tried. No tins here. Not a single one.
Whitebait – a.k.a. vile on a plate (IMO). I’ve never liked these tiny fish complete with heads, tails and innards. I tried one, I did, and still it was a no. But, if you like whitebait, you’ll find it on the antipasto menu in Sardinia.
Prawn / Shrimp
Now, prawn* wrapped in bacon and curled with pane carasau I can get behind. The fleshiness of the prawn with the smokey bacon flavour meant this piece of antipasti was gone in one inelegant bite.
* is it prawn, is it a shrimp? Is this a potato/potaaaato situation?
Ever since I got oyster poisoning a couple of years ago, I’ve not been willing or able to eat oysters but they smelt fresh, looked great and were popular with the other diners.
Mullet & Other Mediterranean Fish
The Sardinian fish was so fresh, it practically swam to the plate. The most difficult part was waiting for it to be cooked. I tried several kinds of fish in Sardinia including bottarga (mullet), rombo (brill) and orata (bream).
Plus points for stuffing this fish with bacon. Mega minus points for wrapping it in courgette (zucchini) which, frankly, is the work of the devil. Once I’d freed it from the courgette covering, I was in my happy fish-eating place.
Let’s face it, risotto is not a photogenic dish. But it doesn’t need to be – the flavours make up for it. This was seafood risotto with sprinkled with coffee – an interesting combinations that I was initially dubious about but then pleasantly surprised by.
Sardinian meat dishes
Before I arrived in Sardinia, I’d imagined the island to be all-but barren of meat but that wasn’t the case. Meat was both abundant and cooked extremely well.
Once again, apologies to my veggie readers…and even some non-veggies might need to skip this one.
Porcheddu – sucking pig that is only one month old – is perhaps the most famous of all Sardinian foods. I did have a tiny pang of guilt when this arrived at the table but the delicate scent of roasted pork eventually lured me in. Tender with a very thick rind, I preferred the meat and the crackling to the rich, fatty layer, which was a bit too flabby for me. It was interesting to try, tasty to eat, but I won’t be scouring my homeland to get my hands on anything similar.
If your conscious won’t let you stick a fork into Peppa Pig, there are plenty of pork alternatives on the menu. I tried pork ribs – not something I ever associated with Italy before but a nice alternative to the sticky glazed versions I’ve eaten in the States.
And then there was lamb, another popular secondo.
Filleted and served with polenta (above).
Or just plainly roasted and served with potatoes – because that’s all good quality lamb really needs.
Sardinian desserts and sweets
If I said pecorino cheese fritter bathed in local Abbamele honey, I’d understand if you didn’t get too excited by the sound of sebadas. However, you need to trust me – this combination absolutely works.
Sardinia is also well known for its sugary and almond flavoured sweets and there are several excellent options to try. I think it’s only fair you try them all so you can compare. Amarettus are the brown biscuits on the right of the picture above.
Meanwhile, papassini are the the iced biscuits in the picture below. But hold on to that image because there’s another dessert in the shot…
If you’re lucky enough to find it (it’s usually reserved for weddings and celebrations), try pan’e saba, pictured above. It’s a delicious fruit and nut combo that’s not too far off Christmas cake.
It’s not much of a leap to translate maringa to know that it is referring to meringues. These ones were crisp and gooey and drizzled in dark chocolate. Yum.
So, there you have it – my guide to the Sardinian diet and what they actually eat in Sardinia. Have you been to Sardinia? Any Sardinian foods I missed? Let me know in the comments below.
More of my Italy blog posts