What is fregula?
At first glance, fregula looks a lot like couscous – but it’s actually a rather dainty pasta shape. Fregula hails from the island of Sardinia, which, whilst part of Italy, definitely dances to its own beat. With its distinctive pebble-like appearance, fregula (sometimes mistakenly Italianized as fregola) is emblematic of Sardinia’s unique food culture.
First documented in the 14th century, fregula’s true origins may stretch even further back to the 10th century. Some food historians think that fregula was inspired by couscous, claiming that it was brought to Sardinia as a result of North African incursions. Sardinians are fiercely passionate about their culinary identity, so naturally they dispute this, maintaining that there’s nothing to suggest that fregula wasn’t a Sardinian invention.
How is fregula made?
Fregula is made from durum wheat flour (semola) and water. The (rather lengthy) process is very similar to the one used to make couscous: salted water is sprinkled over the flour in a special dish called a scivedda, then rubbed in a circular motion until tiny balls of dough form. The raw fregula is then toasted, which imparts a subtle nuttiness and gives the pasta its sandy final colour. Because it’s made from pasta bianca dough, fregula is vegan.
The process is no mean feat, and it takes a lot of practice to nail the technique for this tiny shape. Historically, it was seen as the most important skill for a Sardinian woman to know – without it they were much less likely to find a husband. Fregula is still made by hand in Sardinia, but nowadays it’s also made on an industrial scale using time-saving machinery.
What’s fregula used for?
As a member of the pastina family (a group of small pasta shapes that includes orzo and stelline), fregula works well when cooked in broth. In sheep-centric Sardinia, this is often a lamb or mutton broth, but another famous combination sees it paired with small clams, chilli and parsley for a sea-scented minestra that Sardinians call fregula con le arselle (arselle are a type of clam commonly found in Sardinia’s mediterranean waters).
Fregula’s talents go beyond just broths and soups; it can be boiled as you would any other dried pasta and paired with sauce, or treated the same as risotto and cooked slowly so the pasta absorbs one ladle of liquid at a time. Once summer rolls around, fregula’s toasted flavour also works wonderfully in a pasta salad – and cooked fregula will even stand up to a night in the fridge (as long as it’s dressed in olive oil).
Fregula ‘risotto’ with sausage, saffron and chilli
A suitably Sardinian spin on risotto. Treating the fregula like risotto rice creates a toothsome texture that’s brilliant for soaking up some typically Sardinian flavours: saffron, sausage and chilli.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Calories per serving: 733 kcal
- 350g fregula
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- Handful of fresh thyme, removed from the stem
- 1 chilli, finely chopped
- 6 sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
- Small pinch of saffron
- 200g good-quality sausage, skins removed
- 1 litre stock (either meat or vegetable is fine)
- 100ml olive oil
- 50g pecorino, grated
- Place the saffron threads in a cup of warm (not boiling) water and soak for 30 minutes.
- Heat half of the olive oil in a deep frying pan over a medium-low heat, then add the onion and saute until well softened (around 10 minutes).
- Next, crumble your sausage meat into the pan and add the sun-dried tomatoes, chilli and thyme. Turn the heat up to medium-high and fry, stirring frequently, for 4 minutes.
- Whilst everything is frying, put your stock into a small saucepan and heat until simmering.
- Add the fregula to the sausage pan and stir for 1 minute, then pour in the saffron water.
- Once the pasta has absorbed the saffron water, start adding your simmering stock to the fregula pan, one ladle at a time.
- Cook as you would a risotto, stirring constantly and allowing each ladle to absorb completely before adding the next. This should take about 12 minutes.
- To serve, add the pecorino and remaining olive oil to the pan, then give everything a good stir.
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