For this week’s piece I sat down with a good friend of mine, Giovanni, to discuss the food of his homeland, Sardinia. Having visited the island myself this summer, I can say that the sense of regional identity is very much apparent. Residents would often tell me when asked that they consider themselves “Sardinian first, Italian second”, and this sense of pride is reflected in the island’s history and in their culture. I will now share some interesting excerpts from our lengthy conversation.
A: How do you think regionalism comes about in culture and cuisine?
G: Anywhere in Italy, or Europe in general, regionalism is quite evident. Islands in general have the capacity to resist change, and since Sardinia is a strategic island in the Mediterranean, like Sicily, so many people have passed through it in one way or another. There are many odd surviving cultural elements all over the island, which are very tiny and might not be noticed immediately, but they are there. Carloforte (a smaller island off the Sardinian south-western coast) is influenced by the tuna which migrates around the island, and the best tuna probably in Europe will come from either Sicily or Carloforte. However, most of the tuna actually goes to Japan for sushi because they pay a lot of money.
A: What are some examples of traditional Sardinian dishes and whereabouts on the island do they come from?
G: The real Sardinian identity is an inland identity, not of coastal heritage, because a lot of the coast had problems with Malaria, which was there until the 1900s. This means the coasts were not as lived in and Sardina became an insular and land-based culture. One very famous Sardinian bread is Pani Carasau, which is a very thin, double-cooked bread. This is like a pizza, except cut in half and baked again. This is made because it can be preserved for weeks, since it is dry. You can smash it into pieces and have with dry sausage and Pecorino cheese, which comes from the East of the island. Interestingly, the originally Tuscan Pecorino cheese-making industry was taken over in the post-war period by Sardinian producers, and today most of the Pecorino from Tuscany is made by Sardinian people. It still uses the Tuscan approach but was refined and improved by the Sardinians.
A: Would you describe the food in Sardinia as simple, or are there examples of refinement?
G: Generally food in Sardinia is simple, but there are forms of refinement, such as ritual breads displayed at weddings or other events. These are dry and meant to be aesthetic; these are extremely elaborate breads which are cut very finely and display motifs which you could find on objects or buildings. These breads take a lot of hours to make. Another typical thing would be pork from a piglet, cooked over the fire for half an hour and glazed, with herbs and a glass of strong wine. Winemaking in Sardinia has improved greatly over the last decade, and some of the best Italian wines are made in Sardinia. There are many interesting grape varieties, for example Vermentino and Cannonau, which is very strong and earthy.
A: Why did wine improve so much over the last decade?
G: Tourism. But also, the wine industry in general has been growing and there is more demand globally. I was in America a couple of years ago and I wanted to bring a gift so I thought it would be nice to bring a Sardinian wine. I decided to take with me a bottle of i Fiori Pala, a nice but simple Vermentino. I thought my friends would never be able to get a bottle of this wine, but I was wrong! I went to a local wine shop when I arrived and they had the exact same bottle that I had bought, even the same year. There is a real global market for Sardinian wine now.
Image Credit: Archie Moss.