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D - 53: Sardinia - twice as many sheep as tourists

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Most people describe Sardinia with two statements: “Ah, the big Italian Island” or “Ah, Costa Smeralda”. Whilst both are correct, they are a bit too short to capture the full beauty and diversity of the place. The same applies to Sardinian Food with its roots in history.

Costa Smeralda in the north east of Sardinia

As Corsica, Sardinia was settled during the last ice-age via the land-bridge linking the two islands to Italy. Over time, Sardinia’s indigenous people developed their own unique culture – the Nuragic Civilization. It developed parallel to the Minoans on Crete and the Mycenaeans on mainland Greece and traded with them. The Nuragic were agro-pastoralist who settled around strong tower-fortresses called Nuraghes. Around 7’000 are still standing today. They were also skilled miners and exploited copper and lead mines - perfect trading goods.

In the 9th century BC, the Phoenicians arrived. Over time the island became a colony of Carthage. By 214 BC, the Romans took over and stayed for seven hundred years. When their Empire collapsed, local Roman elites, the Judicates, governed the island until the Spanish invaded in 1324. By 1469 the island was under full Spanish control. Sardinia was eventually transferred to the House of Savoy in 1718 in a big European re-arrangement after the War of Spanish Succession. When Italy united in 1861, it became part of the Kingdom of Italy.

Sardinian food echoes its pastoralist, Nuragic past, the Punic-Roman period, the Spanish culture and the Italian influence since 1718. It also reflects its topography and climate.

Sardinia is far less mountainous than Corsica

Sardinia’s mountains are on average 1’000 meters lower than the ones in Corsica. The north-eastern half is made from 500 million years old, eroded granite from the African Plate whilst the south-western part consists of limestone and sandy sediments from the Tethys Ocean floor. This geology allows for more biodiversity than on its northern sister. Plants imported from the Levant do well. Oats, barley and wheat which struggle on Corsica grow abundantly. The island benefits from a dry, Sahara like summer and wet winters, springs and falls. Olives and the native artichoke also do well – as do tomato introduced during Spanish times.

Sheep in the eastern mountains of Sardinia

The low-level mountains are ideal for breeding sheep and goats. It is a little know secret that Sardinia has more sheep per sqm than New Zealand and twice as many sheep as summer tourists. Breeding sheep is a tradition thousands of years old and maintained to this day.

Last but not least, one could think that seafood plays a big role in the island’s cuisine. But due to the almost constant threats from Muslim corsairs from 800 AD – 1’700 AD, the island’s population withdrew from the coast. Seafood is appreciated in Sardinia, but it has its limits. It is best represented on the island’s west coast where strongly fortified towns like Alghero (we are going to visit) allowed people to stay. Cassola dei Peix, a rich fish soups, has without doubts Catalan roots so does the Polpo alla Catalana. Spanish influence is also visible in the Paella Algherese, made with lamb, Bottarga (fish eggs) and Fregula (instead of rice).

Many of the islands’ dishes are actually build around durum, the hard wheat pasta. Fregula, Culurgiones or Macarrones are only some of them. They are cooked with vegetables, meat or seafood or put into soups. Sardinians are mountain people – their food is easily storable for the long seasons when nothing grows.

Fregula with vongole

Culurgiones on tomato sauce with basil

Sardinia’s main courses are primarily meat based – goat or lamb of course. There are many dishes to choose from. Suckling lamb or goat are the local favorites but there are plenty of others. As a principle, nothing is wasted in the Sardinian cuisine. This could not be better illustrated than by the following three dishes: Cordula - prepared with intestines from braided goat kid or lamb, Tattaliu - made from lamb or goat breast or Zurette - cooked with sheep’s blood.

Barbeche – boiled sheep with onions and potatoes

Could not find a photo of a roasted baby goat – this is a suckling pig from a well-known restaurant in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia

We have not talked about artichokes from Sardinia yet, one of the most sought-after vegetables in Italy. They are grown on large plantations. Artichokes bottoms seared in olive oil and served with Fregula are a particular delicacy – specifically when saffron is added (old Spanish colonial tradition).

One of the many large artichoke plantations in Sardinia

Last but not least, plenty of wine and olive oil is produced on the island. The sandy soil of the south-western part is ideal for grapes. The neighboring lime-stone hills perfect for olive trees There is also an ample supply of fresh fruits from small orchards such as figs, apples, peaches and pears.

Olive orchard on the west coast of Sardinia

Sardinia is a melting pot of the Punic-Roman-Spanish-Italian cuisines. The single week we sail along the coast of Sardinia will not be enough to taste them all. But it will give us a good idea what there is to discover when we return

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