In the past, while traveling in Italy, I never lost consciousness of the fact that regional differences notwithstanding, I was still in Italia. In Sardinia, biking with Ciclismo Classico, my only certainty was that after I climbed one hill, there would reliably be another one waiting. And then a long delicious downhill through rolling open countryside, with glorious views of the emerald Mediterranean in the distance. Where was I? Sardinia, definitely. Italy… maybe. The answer to the question, What is Sardinia? can be maddening elusive to an outsider. Rural Sardinia puts on a deceptively simple face – sleepy villages, delicious basic cuisine, agriculture based around sheep, friendly people. But once you start to look closely things don’t appear altogether Italian. The ghost of one culture appears and lingers just long enough for a sense of certainty to develop – oh, Sardinia is really Spanish – then it disappears, replaced by a different revenant – oh, no, it really is Italian… or Phoenician, or Roman or Greek.
Commercial signage often appears in multiple languages–one of the three variants of Sardu, depending on geography; either of the Corso-Sardinian languages spoken in the north; the Catalan dialect spoken in the port of Alghero; and Italian. Sardu is a distinct romance language in its own right, not a dialect of Italian, French or Spanish, and among the branches on the tree of romance languages is considered the closest living language to Latin. In Sardinia, Sardu, along with the Corso-Sardinian languages, is given equal educational and cultural weight with Italian; Sardinian is spoken with pride. An entirely different picture from, say, southern Italy, where inhabitants who predominantly speak dialects are often regarded as uneducated. Welcome signs outside of Sardinian villages typically greet visitors in French, German and English, as well as Italian and Sardu. After awhile my consciousness of Italian seemed to fade, replaced by an intriguingly indeterminate Mediterranean otherwhere, a land composed of bits and pieces of other traditional cultures that seemed to have drifted ashore, and found shelter.
Sardinian cuisine reminded me of Puglian or Sicilian cooking, as interpreted by a three-card-monte artist. Now you see it, now you don’t. It looks Italian – it’s got pasta and tomatoes, right? – but you see spaghetti with bottarga or tiny clams more often than you do with tomatoes. Bottarga, the ambrosial dried roe of mullet* is everywhere, which can be a bit disconcerting to a food lover accustomed to thinking of it as an expensive luxury ingredient. It’s as though you lived in Brooklyn and woke up one morning to find the corner bodega selling beluga caviar on the chiller shelf, along with butter and eggs, and in the same price range. Here’s another weird fact: half the sheep in Italy reside in… Sardinia. Pecorino, as you might imagine, is a big deal. One evening we were treated to a demonstration by a bonafide shepherd of how pecorino is made. In the photo he’s holding a perforated bucket to let the whey drain away from the curds. Sheep and goats seem never to be far away, if indeed not in the road in front of you. The tinkle of their bells is a dependable part of the daily soundtrack. No surprise that Sardinia is the original Blue Zone, with more natives living to be at least 100 than any place else in the world, including Okinawa.
After five days of biking through small villages strikingly unaltered in contrast with their equivalents in southern France or in much of Italy (fewer cars, fewer people, more sheep) our stay in the urban port of Cagliari felt less like a new part of the same island than a different culture altogether.
If all of this is disjointed, it’s because the impressions have yet to cohere. Or maybe that’s the point – Sardinia resists being pinned down. Sometimes all you can do is take experience in, ask questions, and hope everything gels into an intelligible continuum after you return home. On hearing a group of Sardinian tenores — powerful throat singers, for lack of a more musically articulate description – I found myself inexplicably on the verge of tears. I’m still not sure why, except that maybe it was awe.
It’s unusual for Jody and I to encounter so many new culinary treats in one place. Ingredients we thought we knew were combined in unexpected ways. Like this dessert of Ricotta, Cinnamon, Honey and Orange, a dish we enjoyed at Trattoria da Riccardo, a Magomadas restaurant owned by the cyclist/chef Riccardo Cadoni and his family. It’s so good, so simple, that unless you roll with a much more travelled cabal of culinary sophisticates than I do, it will be a delightful surprise to whomever you serve it. You can zest the orange a minute ahead of time or do everything at the table. Simple, delicious, and a bit surprising, a description that might sum up Sardinia itself. Enjoy. Ken
P.S. I’d like to say thank you to all the people who accompanied us on this trip–more pictures are coming–and to our pair of wonderful Ciclismo Classico guides, Beppe Salerno and Simone Scalas.
*Bottarga is salted, dried roe, typically of grey mullet or tuna. Sardinian bottarga is made from mullet roe.
Ricotta, Cinnamon, Honey, Orange
- 1 pound high-quality, dry, hand-packed ricotta
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 6 teaspoons honey, or to taste
- Zest of half an orange
- Put ½ cup ricotta in each of 4 bowls. Run the cinnamon stick over a fine microplane to create a generous dusting over the ricotta. Drizzle with a heaping teaspoon of honey. Top with a few strips of orange zest.
- Serve with a small glass of Malvasia.
This is my kind of dessert. Simple, quick and yummy. It’s all in the ingredients. You have to start with really good ricotta, not the sweet industrial kind. When I can get my hands on it, I like using sheep’s milk ricotta. It’s important that the cinnamon and orange zest are fresh and the honey is flavorful. Think of this as a rough-textured custard.