Sardinia may be part of Italy, but it very much does its own thing. For one, it’s actually much closer geographically to the French island of Corsica than it is to mainland Italy. And although it shares some similarities with the neighbouring island of Sicily (notably a history of foreign occupation, colonisation and cultural exchange), much of Sardinia’s culture – and cooking – has remained untouched.
All of this means that Sardinia has a genuinely independent culinary identity, something its inhabitants are fiercely proud of. Sardinia is a land where lunch is never rushed, meals are never skipped and where food is much more than fuel. From rustic shepherds dishes to under-the-radar pasta shapes and infamous dairy delicacies, scroll down for a leisurely stroll through the food and drink of Sardinia.
Sardinians are some of the longest-living people in the world, and many of them claim that diet plays an important role in their longevity. Central to this belief is the lack of food miles on the island; eating locally, seasonally and deliberately is not a fad in Sardinia, it’s the norm. And with such impeccable produce on offer, it’s no surprise.
Sardinia’s fertile soils produce some of the best artichokes in the world, including a spiky variety called Carciofi Spinoso Sardo, which have Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) status. Sardinians love them every which way: preserved for antipasti, stuffed with cheese as a centrepiece or cooked slowly and served with pasta. Fennel and asparagus also grow wild, and they both find their way into a host of Sardinian dishes.
We can’t forget saffron either. Sardinia’s ‘red gold’ is cultivated in pockets across the island and its DOP status means it’s still harvested by hand. Sardinian saffron makes up around 60% of all Italian production, and while you’ll find it in plenty of island specialties (like pardulas; pastries filled with ricotta, saffron and citrus peel), the bright red strands often star in dishes from mainland Italy too, like risotto milanese.
Passion for pasta
Sardinia may sometimes feel like a world away from Italy, but Sardinians still eat pasta every day. In fact, the island has its own unique set of pasta shapes, recipes and traditions. Take fregula: it might look a little like couscous, but look closer and you’ll see it's actually tiny pebbles of pasta. Fregula is popular across the island and is typically served with a broth-like sauce of small clams, chilli and parsley.
In a different vein, culurgiones are Sardinia’s answer to mainland Italy’s filled pasta. Originally from the Ogliastra area, these pasta parcels are typically stuffed with a combination of potato, mint and cheese, then served with a simple tomato sauce. Their elegant braided shape is emblematic of strands of wheat, which might be why they were traditionally only made and eaten at the end of the harvest season.
Another intricately braided shape is lorighittas. They’re typically only made in the village of Morgongiori, but we’ve shared the secret to making lorighittas in our guide. Sardinia’s most famous pasta shape is definitely malloreddus. Also called gnocchetti sardi (small Sardinian gnocchi), this pasta’s ridged shape makes it a perfect match for a ‘Campidanese’ sauce (a saffron-heavy Sardinian sausage ragú).
Sardinians love their cheese. And considering that sheep outnumber people by more than two to one, it’s little surprise that sheep’s milk cheeses dominate. Sardinia is best known for pecorino cheese, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk that comes in three main varieties. The most well-known outside of Sardinia is pecorino Romano, a sharp, salty cheese that was first made and popularised in Rome. However, its Roman origins (and name) hide the fact that 90% of Italy’s pecorino Romano is produced in Sardinia – where there’s more space for grazing.
Despite producing so much of it, Sardinians rarely eat pecorino Romano – they prefer their own, less salty cheese called pecorino Sardo. Across the island, it’s eaten as an antipasto, as part of an after-meal cheeseboard and in a host of other dishes, including Sardinia’s favourite dessert: seadas. Here, fresh pecorino is used to stuff a ravioli-like pastry that’s then fried and drowned in a local bitter honey called miele di corbezzolo.
Sardinia also produces some of the world’s most unusual cheeses. Pecorino fiore Sardo is one such example. With roots as far back as the Bronze Age, this cheese is traditionally smoked over local herbs, giving it a dark rind and a fruity, smoke-bitten taste. Most infamous of all though is casu marzu, which means ‘rotten cheese’ in the Sardinian dialect. This ‘delicacy’ is made by encouraging cheese flies to lay eggs inside a wheel of pecorino. These eggs hatch into maggots, which then eat through the wheel, semi-digesting it to create a soft, acidic cheese that’s prized by locals. Casu marzu is illegal, but many Sardinians still eat it – most commonly smearing it onto thin pieces of the island’s favourite bread, pane carasau.
Meat and fish
Although it’s the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, Sardinian cuisine has historically been more meat-centric than fish-focused. One potential reason is that it was the coastal areas where countless invaders first landed throughout history, pushing Sardinians into the interior, where a strong pastoral tradition lives on even to this day.
With so many sheep, lamb and mutton are widely eaten, often in the form of rustic shepherd-inspired recipes. Pecora in cappotto – which translates to ‘sheep in a coat’ – is a stew of mutton, vegetables, wild herbs and potatoes that is typical of the mountainous Barbagia region in central Sardinia. Lamb is also frequently eaten with pasta, either slow-cooked in the form of lamb ragú, or as a gently simmered mutton broth – the perfect foil for malloreddus pasta.
Pork is popular too. Porcetto arrosto (roast suckling pig) is arguably Sardinia’s most iconic dish; the pork is spit-roasted over an open fire, before it’s served with a garnish of myrtle leaves, which grow wild across Sardinia and provide a peppery perfume that’s similar to a bay leaf. A popular bite alongside the island’s abundance of roasted meats is peperonata, a dish consisting of slowly stewed peppers; this recipe finds itself as the inspiration in both our red pepper pesto and red pepper sauce with mafalde.
While seafood doesn’t dominate the whole island, it’s still hugely popular along Sardinia’s coast. Sardinia has a small but growing fishing tradition, with fishermen benefiting from plentiful access to the bounties of the Mediterranean Sea. Grey mullet is a particularly popular prize, the fish grilled simply then eaten, and their roe made into bottarga – cured, dried roe that’s pressed into an amber block of umami-rich deliciousness. Known as ‘the bacon of the sea’, bottarga is a true Sardinian delicacy – whether eaten just as it is, or grated over spaghetti for a salty hit of the sea.
Sardinian wines don't get much credit outside of Sardinia, but they’re definitely worth exploring. Vermentino was introduced to the island a few centuries back and now thrives, with local wineries producing a number of refreshing whites that are a wonderful match for seafood. When it comes to red wine, Cannonau is king. Known outside of Sardinia as Grenache, this grape produces ruby red wines that stand up well to meat and cheese dishes. In fact, scientists have suggested that Sardinian’s copious consumption of this wine may help to explain their world-beating longevity; Cannonau has up to three times the amount of antioxidant-rich flavonoids as other wines, which are said to help ‘clean’ the arteries and promote heart health.
It’s not all just red and white wine, however. Although commonly grown in Tuscany, Vernaccia is an indingeous grape variety that’s also used in Sardinia to make a fortified wine similar to sherry. Sardinians drink it as an aperitif or use it in cooking. When it comes to spirits, mirto is the undisputed sip of choice. Made from the berries of the island’s myrtle bushes, Sardinians love to make this concoction at home, before gifting it to friends – to be drunk neat or mixed with soda and sparkling wine for a Sardinian spritz.
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