Although it’s not a confirmed fact, the term sardine may actually come from the island of Sardinia, around which sardines were once abundant. Despite its obvious connections with fish and water, Sardinian cuisine is mostly based on meat. Naturally, you can enjoy a pot of fresh mussels and clams or a platter of langoustines and squids in a seaside trattoria. What is more, one of the local specialities, called bottarga, is a delicacy of salted, cured fish roe, served similarly to grated parmesan to add flavour to simple pasta dishes. The most renowned Sardinian dish is, however, porceddu - roasted whole suckling piglet, grilled on a fire built with aromatic woods, seasoned with myrtle, which is one of the most remarkable aromas of the island. Due to numerous invasions that the island had suffered from (starting as early as with the Carthaginians in the 6th century BC), Sardinians were forced to move their settlements towards the centre of the island, which meant walking away from the richness of seafood.
Sardinian cuisine was strongly influence by the pastoralism, which’s story is as old as the story of Sardinia itself. Most of the island’s territories are grazings, unsuitable for any other agricultural production. This is why herding (mostly sheep, but also goats and cattle) had to become one of the most common occupation for the islanders. Shepherds needed food that was simple, nutritious and easy to transport, like maturing meats and cheeses, which get more flavourful with age and special types of bread. Thin and crispy carasau can be stored in a dry place for up to a year. Another light flatbread, pistoccu, can be eaten dry or softened with water. Then there’s civraxiu, crispy on the outside, soft and chewy inside. Owing to the preparation method and combination of ingredients, it can stay soft for a long time.
A careful culinary observer will easily spot traces of foreign cultures. The most evident ones come from Spain, as Sardinia was under Spanish control for a several centuries. One will find the very same whole roasted piglet in Castilian cookbooks, under the name cochinillo asado. Another example is favata (in Italian) or fabata (in Spanish) - a hearty stew made in the winter with dried fava beans and pork. Arabic influences are visible when it comes to spices (saffron is now grown on the island and used to season soups and stews), roasted lamb, chickpeas and eggplants.
Another example of Arabic legacy is fregola - little balls of pasta made with semolina. It’s particularly popular in the southwestern part of the island, where it was probably brought by Ligurian merchants from today’s Tunisia. Fregola is closely related to Maghreb’s couscous, it is even called Sardinian couscous. In fact it resembles pitim, the Israelian take on couscous, more. The balls are bigger that the regular couscous and toasted after drying, which gives them unique golden colour and characteristic taste.
Fregola is served with fish soups and meat broths or with sauce. It is traditionally paired up with clams and tomato sauce (fregola alle arselle) or with hard sheep’s milk cheese, pecorino sardo (fregola incasada; incasado is a Sardinian term for ‘seasoned with cheese’, Sardinian pecorino in most of the cases). The recipe below is a modified version of the classic, fregola with clams and mussels.
Recipe: Fregola sarda with mussels and clams
- 1/2 kg of mussels
- 1/2 kg of clams
- 1 1/2 cup of dry fregola sarda
- 3 garlic cloves, sliced
- one large onion, diced
- 2 cups of scalded, peeled and diced tomatoes
- 1 1/2 cup of dry white wine
- one tbsp. of brown sugar
- 3 tbsp. of olive oil
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and onion and cook until golden brown.
- Add tometoes, season with sugar, salt and pepper. Cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, until sauce begins to thicken.
- Add one cup of wine, increase the heat, bring to boil, add fregola and cook for 4 minutes.
- Add remaining wine, bring to boil. Add mussels and clams, cover the skillet and cook over high heat until they open.
- Serve with bread.