A culinary guide to Sardinia

From decorated bread to ‘rotten cheese’, traditional Sardinian specialities are still being made today, using skills passed down through the generations.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Maddalena Mura is an artist. Not that she’d admit it. “I’m just the daughter of a baker,” she says, shyly. “I like doing this, but I’m no artist.” We look down at the bread she started at 8 o’clock this morning, and finished just before midday. Not a batch, but a single loaf: about five inches high, shaped like a heart, wreathed with a plait and decorated with tiny birds, sheaves of wheat, flowers, bunches of grapes and apples all made from dough.

She takes off her glasses, puts down the tiny knife she’s used to outline every individual grape. “We were losing the tradition,” she says. “But now it’s coming back.”

Bread isn’t just bread in Sardinia and it’s no exaggeration to say it’s a way of life. The Bronze Age Nuragic culture baked bread in ground-level ovens and the Romans designated the island one of the granaries of the empire. Today, it’s an assertion of identity — every town has its own traditional bread, and every Sardinian will tell you theirs is the best. There are books devoted to the island’s breads; families varnish their most beautiful pieces and keep them for posterity. There are everyday breads, breads for holidays, breads for religious festivals and breads for ceremonies. There are breads shaped like women in traditional dress, breads shaped like the sun, huge flower-shaped breads, even chicken-shaped Easter breads that hold a boiled egg in a pouch, like a kangaroo.

Maddalena’s family — first her late father, now she and her siblings — make bread in Villamassargia, in the southwest of the island. But as part of their bakery, Panificio Mura Carmine, Maddalena wanted to resurrect the tradition of ‘pani pintau’, or ceremonial bread, made to order for special occasions. Today, it’s mostly seen at weddings.

Everything on the bread has a symbolic meaning. The birds represent peace. The flowers and fruit are for abundance and fertility. Even the making of it is a ritual. “I make the sign of the cross over it when I start,” she says. “For us, bread is almost sacred. It goes hand in hand with religion.”

Bread also goes hand in hand with wine, something else Sardinia does particularly well. The island has no fewer than 19 appellations with a denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) — Italy’s official quality-assurance label. Twenty miles south of Villamassargia is Cantina Santadi, one of the island’s best-known wineries. It’s a cooperative of 200 local growers who pool their grapes to make the kind of wine that’s prized far beyond Sardinia’s shores. It’s known for its prize-winning Terre Brune, or ‘Brown Lands’ — a nod to the dark hills, run through with minerals, which produces the grapes used in Carignano del Sulcis wine.

Antonello Pilloni, Santadi’s president of 42 years, shows me the headquarters where they produce 1.7 million bottles a year. It’s harvest time, and I watch squashed grapes being shot through chutes and inhale the tannins as red liquid sloshes through giant hoses.

There are barrels containing ‘micro-experiments’, as Antonello describes them. There are terracotta amphorae to see how Carignano might mature in them, rather than in traditional oak. There’s an old-school resin barrel, to test how long it takes to corrupt. And despite all this experimentation, there is, according to Antonello, no competition between the growers; they all pull together to make the best blends.

With that in mind, Carignano isn’t the only Sardinian wine worth seeking out.

In Alghero I try the local Vermentino — drier and less sour than I expected, with a sparkling version which rockets past Prosecco on my list of favourites. The feisty, throaty Cannonau red, meanwhile, is spectacular. And even the entry-level wines are delicious — at Sardineri restaurant near Bosa, owner Chiara tells me not to pick a fancy bottle as their house blend from the surrounding hills is all I need. She’s correct.

Of course, you can’t have wine without cheese — and the more pungent the better. Casu marzu, or ‘rotten cheese’, is a Sardinian speciality — pecorino that’s been fermented by maggots, which are still munching away as you eat it. Try as I might, I can’t track any down (something about pesky health and safety laws), but at Michele Cuscusa’s farm in Gonnostramatza, there are plenty of other cheeses to taste.

He brings out plate after plate: pecorino, goat mozzarella, chilli-laced ‘cheese custard’, sheep’s yoghurt and ice cream. Most spectacular of all is the callu de crabittu (cheese in kid stomach skin), which only a few shepherds produce. It sounds grotesque — a kid’s stomach, emptied, washed, refilled with the mother goat’s milk and left to ferment. But the taste is unforgettable: heady, ‘strawy’, so overpoweringly sharp that it turns a corner into an odd kind of sweetness. Unmistakeably ‘goaty’, too. “Get the bit at the bottom,” urges Michele as I scrape the thick yellow paste out of the stomach and onto some bread. It’s oozing, almost clear, and for a second I baulk — but the taste is sublime, almost stripping the roof of my mouth. It’s cheese to the power of 100.

Sardinian cheese is mainly made from sheep’s milk, and you’ll see sheep grazing all over the island. They’re practically wild, and shepherds (of which every flock has at least one) ferry them between plains and mountain pasture throughout the year. “Our sheep aren’t like yours — they’re free,” Michele tells me proudly. Unlike our domesticated breeds, Sardinian sheep are descended from the wild mouflon that lived alongside the Nuragic people, he says. That’s why they’re constantly roaming, why they need to be watched, and why each wears a bell.

In Tonara, high in the entroterra (Sardinia’s mountainous hinterland), I meet Marco Floris, a fourth-generation bellmaker. Inside the forge at Campanacci Floris is a plump cat, balled up asleep beneath hundreds of brass-coated bells of varying shapes and sizes: longer for goats, squatter for cows, more rounded for sheep. “In southern Italy we have lots of communal grazing areas, and one of the only ways to distinguish your animals is by the bell,” he says, playing a scale on the ones mounted on the wall. I think of Michele, who said his brother uses animal bone to make theirs sound a specific note. I ask Mario if he pre-customises them. He looks horrified. “All our clients want to choose their own note,” he says. “It might be the one their nonno used, or it might be one that’s different to their neighbour. We can do it, but they usually like to do it themselves.”

Bells, however, are not the reason I’m in Tonara. I’m here to try the town’s most famous product: torrone. The word translates as nougat, or Spanish turrón — according to legend, it was brought here by the Spanish rulers 400 years ago. There’s nothing familiar about Sardinian torrone, though: it’s sticky but soft, not too sweet, and loaded with local nuts. The Marotto family has been making it for over a century. “I’m trying to defend our traditional product,” says 79-year-old matriarch Antonietta in her little shop, stacked with bars. Unlike other producers, she refuses to do fancy flavours; Marotto torrone comes with either almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. The only ingredients: nuts, egg white and strictly Sardinian honey. Absolutely nothing else.

Her son, Angelo, takes out a machete and starts chopping torrone like a top chef, before dispatching me with a tub of it for my drive back down the mountain. There’s none of the cloying sweetness I associate with nougat; the crisp nuts flake to the bite, and the honey powers through. Angelo keeps his own bees, and in his mum’s torrone I can almost taste the mountain air. And obviously, I finish the tub before I’m even out of the entroterra.

Five foods to try in Sardinia

1. Mirto: Sardinia’s best known digestif is made with myrtle berries from the macchia mediterranea scrub. It’s a thick, purple liquor that’s strong but not too sweet.
2. Seada: perhaps the best known Sardinian dessert is crisp pastry wrapped round sweet lemon-infused ricotta and drizzled with honey.
3. Pane carasau: otherwise known as ‘carta da musica’ or music paper, this wafer-thin dry bread originated in the north of the island. Try it with olive oil and salt.
4. Corbezzolo honey: a sour, savoury honey from the arbutus, or mulberry tree. It’s an acquired taste but delicious with cheese or yoghurt. It’s said to have antibacterial properties, too.
5. Culurgiones: originating from east-coast Ogliastra, these oversized ravioli look like mini pasties, and are usually filled with boiled potato, pecorino, garlic and mint.

Three top restaurants in Sardinia

1. Alguer Mia, Alghero
Alghero’s Catalan heritage means it has a very different food tradition from the rest of the island. This is the place for paella and seafood. The fresh fish carpaccios at this restaurant are out of this world, as is the agliata all’algherese — dogfish coated in a sweet sauce of tomato, garlic and vinegar. About €25 (£22) for two courses and wine. Splurging on antipasti will push it up to €50-€60 (£44-£53) a head, but it’s worth it.

2. Agriturismo Il Paradiso, Iglesias
It’s all about the simple life at this agriturismo near Villamassargia — and in the on-site restaurant you’ll taste Sardinian food at its pared-back best. The Minaudo family — all passionate about keeping traditional farming practices going — serves set, four-course meals composed almost entirely of food grown here. Four courses with wine: €22 (£20).

3. L’Antico Borgo, Narcao
Sit back and enjoy a memorable meal created by chef-owner Giorgio Lisci. The ‘menu fisso mare’ (set seafood menu) nets you three antipasti (maybe miniscule crabs from Sant’Antioco, succulent prawns or soft octopus), a primo (choose from clams to bottarga — fish roe) and a fritto misto of juicy fish, calamari or prawns. Wash it down with wine from nearby Cantina Santadi, and finish with mirto, Sardinia’s signature digestif. Set menu €25 (£22), including wine but no dessert.

How to do it: Sardinian Places has seven nights at Hotel La Playa in Alghero, B&B, including flights and transfers, from £655 per person.

Essential Sardinia has double rooms at Villa Asfodeli on the Bosa coast near Tharros from £80, B&B.

Agriturismo Il Paradiso near Carbonia has doubles from £75, B&B.

Year-round flights to Sardinia include Air Malta to Cagliari from Gatwick and easyJet to Alghero from Luton.

Published in the Sardinia 2019 guide, out with the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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