SARONNO, Italy – The island of Sardinia is a unique place, close enough to be tempting but far enough away from western Italy to make you feel you have journeyed to another world, It has almost 1,000 miles of shoreline and wild, rugged mountains where shepherds still tend their flocks in the summer. It is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, only Sicily is larger. “It lies,” D. H. Lawrence wrote, “outside the circuit of civilization.” But whether near the sea or in the hills, there is no denying the strong tradition of eating simple, rustic and hearty dishes.
|The Emerald Waters of Sardinia|
The coastal cuisine encompasses the best of Mediterranean fish and shellfish, including lobster, whereas the inland areas specialize in meat: myrtle-scented suckling pig no bigger than an American football, lamb, and a plethora of wild game, including wild boar, that roam freely not only in the mountain areas, but in the towns as well.
The Sardinian diet isn’t much different than the normal Mediterranean diet, except they tend to grow more of their own food and forage for others in the wild. Housewives use both foraged and cultivated ingredients on a daily basis and create dishes that are more flavor intensive than labor intensive. There is a Sardinian expression that goes, ‘sa cuchina minore no timet su fuste’ – simple cuisine makes the home great.
But the cuisine of Sardinia is more than just Italian, it’s a hybrid of many ancient cultures, some so old they no longer exist. They start with the Phoenicians, followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Moors and Spanish, and the Maritime Republic of Genoa. They all, in turn, invaded the island leaving behind bits and pieces of themselves to add to the island’s cuisine and language.
Today there are six official languages spoken in Sardinia: Italian, Sardinian, Sassarese, Corsican Gallurese, Catalan Algherese and Liguriuan Tabarchino. The island has been invaded and occupied by nearly every Mediterranean power for more than 2,500 years, and only became a part of Italy in 1861.
You can taste the influence each these cultures had on the Sardinian cuisine in dishes as simple as pasta. Fregula, for example, it looks like big grain couscous which reveals its Moorish origins. Another typical Sardinian pasta is malloreddus, small and chewy little gnocchi that are made with a saffron infused dough, saffron being contributed by the Arabs. Curlgiones are another Sardinian specialty, a type of ravioli filled with potatoes, pecorino cheese and mint. Like other raviolis, the filing tends to change depending on where you are on the island. Almost all cuisines, even today, have some type of stuffed dough dish, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how this dish came about.
But there is one other thing, an important thing, that makes the cuisine of Sardinia special. The island has been identified by the longevity experts at National Geographic as a Blue Zone. They traveled the world looking for places where people live the longest, healthiest lives, and Sardinia is one of those places. A high percentage of the population lives to be 100 or more, so when the Sardinians toast someone on their birthday with the popular Italian toast, ‘cent’anni’ – may you live a hundred years, it is more than just wishful thinking.
For a little taste of Sardinia, here’s an easy recipe to try.
Malloreddus with Meat Sauce
1 medium onion chopped
150 grams ground pork
150 grams ground veal
100 grams of peas (defrosted frozen ones are fine)
300 grams of tomato sauce (bottled is ok)
1 small bunch of parsley
80 grams grated Pecorino Sardo cheese (aged is best)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper QB (quanto basta/to taste)
Prepare the sauce: Pour 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil into a saucepan, add chopped onions and saute’. Add the ground pork and veal, salt and then cook. When cooked, sprinkle with parsley and add the fresh or defrosted peas and cook everything together for a few minutes to combine the flavors. Then add the tomato sauce.
Add more salt if needed and pepper, (I usually add a tiny bit of sugar as well), and cook over a very low flame for about an hour. The sauce should not boil, but softly bubble. Add a little hot water if the sauce starts to become too thick.
Prepare the pasta. In a large pot bring water to a boil and cook the malloreddus. When they float to the top, continue to cook them for another three minutes, then drain. Toss with the meat sauce, sprinkle with grated Pecorino cheese and serve. You may not live to be 100 but you sure will enjoy the time you spend eating this tasty dish.