CHIAVARI, Italy – I once knew an American woman in Genova who fell in love with a Sardinian sailor she met on a Mediterranean cruise. When the cruise ship docked in Genova, the sailor got off; it was time for him to return home to wife and kiddies. When the woman realized he was not on the ship, she got off too.
She stayed in Genova with the hope that he would return, but she never saw him again. The story doesn’t end well so I’ll leave it there, but it is because of her, and the fact that she talked so much about Sardinia, that I became interested in Sardinia too.
The island of Sardinia is unique. It’s close enough to Italy to be tempting, but far enough away to make you feel like you have journeyed to another world. With almost 1,000 miles of coastline, I’m sure it’s no surprise that the cuisine along the coast takes advantage of Mediterranean fish and shellfish, including lobster, whereas in the wild, mountainous center of the island they eat meat. Some of the inland specialties are suckling pig, that are no bigger than an American football, lamb, and the wild boar that roam freely in the mountain woods and in the towns as well.
|Sardinia has a Rich and Colorful History|
But the food of Sardinia is more than just Italian, it’s a hybrid of many cultures, some so old they no longer exist. The island has been invaded and occupied by nearly every Mediterranean power during the past 2,500 years. The list starts with the Phoenicians, followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Moors and Spanish, and even the Maritime Republic of Genoa. They all left 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.
You can taste the influence each these cultures had on the Sardinian cuisine in dishes as simple as pasta. Fregula, for example, looks like big grain couscous which give away its Moorish origins. Another typical Sardinian pasta is malloreddus, small and chewy little gnocchi that are made with a saffron infused dough, saffron being an Arabic contribution.
The ridges pressed into the malloreddus to hold the sauce used to be made by rolling each one against a wicker basket. Now days they use a specially made grooved piece of glass (ciuliri). As you can imagine they take a while to make so most people just buy them ready made.
|Freshly Made Malloreddus|
Longevity experts at National Geographic have 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.
1 medium onion (120g), finely chopped
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
200g Italian sausage, skin removed
1 small pinch of saffron strands
200ml tomato paste
5 basil leaves, torn
This sauce can be made in advance, and even frozen if you make a large batch.
Fry the onion gently in the oil with a pinch of salt until translucent. Add the sausage meat and continue to fry over a medium-low heat, breaking up with a spoon until the mixture sizzles and starts to color, about 15 minutes.
Add the saffron and tomato and cook at a gentle simmer until thick, the oil has risen to the surface (about 30 minutes more).
Boil the malloreddus until they are al dente. Heat the sauce with a splash of pasta water, then add the drained pasta. Cook together for about 30 seconds. Stir in the basil leaves and serve with plenty of grated pecorino. Also good with this sauce are fusilli or gramigne (skinny Italian elbow macaroni).