Sardinia From the Inside

By Clifford A. Wright

Published on September 18, 2008

When D. H. Lawrence visited Sardinia in 1921, he remarked, "There is nothing to see.…" On my own first visit to the island, in 1995, driving along its beautiful, largely empty coastline, I understood what he meant—but on that trip and again when I went back to Sardinia last year, I found plenty to see and a world of food to discover.

What anyone traveling around Sardinia sees most of all are the thousands of prehistoric, towerlike stone structures called nuraghi that dot the island. Little is known about their origin except that they well predate the Phoenicians, who arrived in the ninth century b.c. The warlike Carthaginians came three centuries later, and the Sards did not take kindly to them, or to the many invaders who followed—including the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Genoese, the Pisans (who left behind some gorgeous Romanesque churches of black and white dressed stone), and the Aragonese-Catalans. These invasions, combined with the depredations of pirates and outbreaks of malaria along the waterfront, pushed the Sards inland—even today there are very few coastal cities on the island—and, somewhat understandably, Sards developed a reputation for being wary of outsiders, a sentiment expressed by their bitter proverb "Furat chi de su mare venit" ("Whoever comes by the sea comes to rob us").

The islanders' introversion, coupled with their geographic isolation, nourished a unique culture expressed to this day in the Sard language, which is closer to Latin than to Italian, and in the folklore, which the Nobel Prize-winning Sardinian author Grazia Deledda captured in her 1913 novel Reeds in the Wind, describing the ammattadore, an elf who hides his treasure in seven caps, "jumping about under the almond woods, followed by vampires with steel tails". Likewise, the island's distinctive cooking has remained largely unchanged for centuries, but it has incorporated some foods of the invaders. Seafood dishes in particular evolved largely from specialties brought from other lands—for instance, cassola de pesce, a mixed seafood stew similar to the zarzuela one might eat in Barcelona; and bottarga, dried salted roe of tuna or gray mullet, which is Egyptian in origin. The island's Arab legacy also shows up in casca, a kind of Sardinian couscous made with vegetables; in Arab-style flatbreads, most notably the oversize crackerlike pani carasau (or casarau), known in Italian as carta da musica (music-paper bread); and in fregula, little balls of semolina and saffron that resemble large-grain couscous. In the north, faine, a kind of baked crepe made with chickpea flour, is identical to the Ligurian farinata (and the Niçois socca) and was most likely brought in by the Genoese.

On my first visit to Sardinia, I was introduced to some of the other foundations of the local cuisine. Meat, particularly lamb, is used amply; the Sards, after turning their backs on the sea, developed a strong shepherding tradition (more than one-third of all of Italy's sheep are in Sardinia). Sheep's-milk cheese, or pecorino, is ubiquitous (the island produces about half of all the pecorino in Italy), and there is even a secret, illegal version known as casu marzu (see Sardinia's Liveliest Pecorino). Organ meats are a specialty, and I remember devouring cordula, sheep's pluck (heart, liver, and lungs) wrapped in braided intestine, seasoned with sage, thyme, and juniper berries, and stewed in tomato sauce with peas. Pork is raised inland, too, and Sardinia is famous for its porceddu, suckling pig pit-roasted on myrtle branches. The best-known pastas are malloreddus, shaped like cowrie shells and made with semolina, water, and olive oil (saffron is sometimes added); and culurgionis, semolina or potato gnocchi (or ravioli) stuffed with mashed potato and cheese and cooked in tomato sauce. The Sards are also great bakers, producing a plethora of breads—many based on semolina—ranging from scivagiu, the large round crisp-crusted bread of the northern reaches of the Campidano plain, to flatbreads like the soft spianata sarde and the aforementioned pani carasau to the baroque wedding bread called pani nuzias—a work of art meant to be preserved, not eaten.

Shortly after I returned from my initial trip to Sardinia, I met a young Sardinian cook in the States named Pietro Chessa, now the chef at Amari restaurant in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Pietro and his wife, Mairy, were delighted when I told them that I was enamored of Pietro's homeland and its food and was looking forward to a return visit. If I wanted to learn more about the island's cooking, Mairy told me, I should spend some time with Pietro's family when I went back. They'd cook a meal for me (and with me) that I'd never forget, she promised. And when she added that Pietro's parents—like most Sards who don't live in apartment buildings—grew much of their own food, I was sold.

The Chessas live just outside the city of Sassari, which is to the island's capital, Cagliari, as Boston is to New York; it's smaller, but, as the site of Sardinia's first university, it perceives itself as more intellectually sophisticated. Pietro and Mairy hadn't been able to travel with me, because they'd just become new parents. Nonetheless, the Chessas greeted me warmly. As I drove down the long gravel driveway to their three-story house early one morning, they all came out to meet me—Pietro's mother and father, Giovanna and Francesco (a retired welder), and three of their seven grown children, including the exuberant, caramel-skinned, dark-eyed Antonella, who lives nearby, and two other daughters, GraziaMaria and Lucia, who live in the top two stories of the house with their families.

A lush two-acre plot surrounded the house, its trees and vegetables and fruits interspersed with irrigation pipes, pieces of fence, shovels, strainers filled with seashells, old propane cans, fallen apples, and apples piled in baskets. Terra-cotta planters of flowers and herbs sat everywhere. A weathered swing lay on the ground next to several old chairs, some broken, some not; a demitasse that someone had left the night before; and a collection of sleeping cats and kittens. Two mean-looking dogs, fortunately chained to the wall, barked hysterically.

The effervescent Francesco immediately sat me down on the terrazzo and plied me with some homemade Vov, a creamy, alcoholic zabaglione-like drink, which soothed my scratchy throat. Next he poured me a small liquor glass full of auburn-hued mirto, the most famous of the Sardinian liqueurs, made from myrtle berries. Sards make mirto nearly as casually as Americans squeeze orange juice, and every family's version will be slightly different. Francesco's tasted vaguely like raspberries and prunes.

We sat on the terrazzo and started talking about the dinner to come. Halfway through our conversation, Antonella decided that it was time for a snack. I followed her into the kitchen. Taking a couple of sheets of pani carasau, she dipped them in water until they were as pliable as wet chamois cloth and arranged them on a baking tray. Then she brushed them with olive oil, sprinkled them with rosemary, salted them, rolled them up, and baked them until they were almost crisp. I scarfed mine down in a second and wanted more. Like so many traditional Sardinian preparations, this pani guttiau was ingeniously simple and very flavorful.

Once the dinner menu had been discussed and our snack gobbled, Giovanna took me out to the garden. Mature apple, pear, quince, fig, walnut, pine, pomegranate, and almond trees were planted there. So were sivigliano olive trees (the Spanish sevillano), which produces large, sweet fruit that the Chessas harvest and take to the town press to be turned into their own green, fruity oil. We hopped over a maze of pipes and ditches in the vegetable garden, a series of haphazard-looking patches filled with nascent cabbages, tomatoes, zucchini and their delicate yellow flowers, fennel, carrots, and a host of other vegetables and fruits, including green melons and grapevines of cannonau (Spain's garnacha, France's grenache), from which Francesco makes about 100 bottles of wine every year, and moscato, which can be eaten at the table as well as turned into a sweet wine. Snails clung to the foliage everywhere; often, as happened that night, they end up on the table. The land had not always been this fertile, said Giovanna. She and her husband cleared their rock-strewn plot over the years, with the help of all seven children, and then worked hard to make it yield. As she gathered rosemary from a phenomenally large bush, Giovanna pointed out the coop where the ducks and chickens were kept and explained that because they eat all the fallen apples, pears, and figs, their flesh has a distinctive fruity taste. The Chessas raise their own pig every year, too, but it had already been slaughtered by the time I arrived and reincarnated in the form of salamis and other sausages, including sanguinaccio, made of fresh pig's blood, raisins, milk, pepper, fennel seed, walnuts, and grated chocolate.

In the tiny kitchen, Giovanna and Antonella began making dinner, which would consist largely of dishes from Giovanna's homeland, the Campidano, the fertile inland plain of southwestern Sardinia. As Giovanna began to prepare the richly flavored favata, a stew of dried fava beans with pig's feet and pork belly (from their own pig) and cabbage and fennel (from the garden), I saw that her style of cooking was calm and methodical. She arranged her ingredients neatly in bowls and added each item to the pot when it was time. When she began to make the roast lamb with fennel, she handled the young wild fennel fronds with all the care of a florist. No restaurant acrobatics here; just the slow, purposeful movements of preparing food with affection and attention.

Outdoors, at the side of the house, Francesco fired up a charcoal grill for cooking eel, our antipasto. Francesco is rascally and fun loving, and it was easy to see where Antonella got her joie de vivre. A plastic tub filled with the slithering eels sat on a table next to the grill, and Francesco skewered them, live, with admirable skill and an obviously extreme belief in freshness. We ate the anguidda a su schidoni right off the skewers with only a sprinkle of sea salt, and they were delicate and sweet and crisp skinned. Meanwhile, the grill blazed on, and I proudly helped cook a basketful of mushrooms—primarily a local variety called antunna, similar to but meatier than oyster mushrooms—which we grilled with a splash of olive oil and then basted with more olive oil, some chopped garlic, and parsley.

Like a silent dinner bell, the appetizing smells wafting from the kitchen summoned us to eat, and we all drifted, laughing and joking, to the table set up on the terrazzo, where Lucia's five-year-old son, Francesco, was already eagerly waiting. First out of the kitchen were sizz igorrus cun patatas, snails with potatoes. Papa Francesco had collected the snails a few days earlier, and now he expertly split their shells in half, along the seams, and sucked out their contents.

Next was malloreddus, the cowrie-shell-shaped pasta. Giovanna finished it in the kitchen, carefully layering the pasta with sa campidanesa, a dense tomato sauce rich with homemade salami and ground pork, then sprinkling each layer with grated pecorino. It was a day of extravagant eating, in part because I was eager to try so much. We moved on to the succulent pani frattau, the layers of pani carasau softened with lamb broth, interspersed with more of the tomato sauce and grated pecorino stagionato (fresh pecorino of the season), then topped with poached eggs. Next came the thick, meaty favata, and finally the lamb with wild fennel, which had been roasting in the oven for hours. A single taste of the meltingly tender, fennel-fragrant meat evoked, for me, all the flavor and mystery and history of the Sardinian interior.

GraziaMaria's mother-in-law, Teresa Doro, an expert at making Sardinian cookies, arrived to show us how to make pabassinas, frosted raisin and nut cookies with sugar sprinkles called diavoletti, "little devils", on top; and amarettus frescu, soft almond cookies—so good, Pietro had warned me, that he and Mairy had eaten an entire two-pound box of them on the plane home after their last visit here. They were indeed wonderful, and the pretty pabassinas, with the texture of soft biscotti, were delicious, too. Sitting around enjoying the breeze of late afternoon, talking about food, we somehow managed to keep eating, nibbling on Giovanna's sebadas, pastries stuffed with mild cheeses and drizzled with honey.

As I drove away from Sassari the next day, still savoring the food I'd had, I saw a man and a boy, most likely father and son, near one of the rock walls that bordered the road, gathering snails together. I left Sardinia wishing I'd grown up that way.

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