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.
Lovely pictures of Sardinia, I really enjoyed your description of it as an Italian region, and yet so different at the same time. The dessert is so simple, and yet so delicious. Why would anyone ever want to make anything complicated when a few quality ingredients put together in the right way are enough to make one swoon?
Thank you, Darya. Sardinia really is a magical place. With each trip to rural Europe a simple dictum becomes more and more obvious: the quality of ingredients makes all the difference. Simple food, well-executed, with great ingredients, tastes sublime. Ken
When we were in Montreal at the end of August we went to a bakery called Olive and Gourmando. The place actually reminded us a lot of flour — eerily so. There was a couple from Boston who said the same thing. I took photos as proof? evidence? Anyways, I had a bowlful of homemade ricotta topped with marmalade with a sprinkling of Maldon salt on top. It was really terrific and this recipe is reminding me of that breakfast. I guess nothing is original – we’ll call it “inspired by.”
Olive et Gourmando! We’ve been recommending them for a decade, ever since our first visit over ten years ago. Really really great bread (and custom lampshades). I think they may actually predate Flour. Should you find yourself up that way again, stop by le Fromentière, another bakery, located in a downstairs space shared with a traiteur. You can’t eat there, but the bread… oh, the bread… Last time I stopped right on our way out of town so I could load the trunk and distribute it to friends. And you can buy salumi and cheese and the traiteur’s in the same space, so you’ve got lunch. Montreal is a GREAT food city. Thus far I’ve only explored the side connected to my people (French Canandians); next trip with do the whole Jewish deli thing. Oh, and don’t skip Au Pied de Cochon–watch the FC grandmères scoffing down he-man portions of fois gras and apples. Ken
Psst: http://cheapbeets.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/youll-thank-me/ Au Pied de Cochon now has a food truck and Rich got himself foie gras poutine from it for lunch one day.
Foie gras poutine – now there’s a paved road to hell, if there ever was one. :-) Ken
Sounds wonderful! Do you have a recommendation for ricotta? Brand or where to purchase?
Thanks, Kristin. I’m looking into ricotta (we used some from Rialto). I’ll post as soon as I get a name. Ken
Your description of Sardinia…much like how I how I feel about Sicilia….they are unto their own…culture, language, food and something that I can’t ever describe to anyone..just a feeling of peaceful beauty….and I love Ricotta…so will be making this simple recipe tonight…
Until our visit to Puglia a couple of years ago I didn’t realize how different the South was from the North in Italy. Manufacturing vs. agriculture, the mafia, etc.–I’d read about all that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the “barely Italian” effect, people who see themselves, what they eat, how they speak, how they relate, as much more of the region where they live than of any larger state, not to mention the general sense of having been abandoned and looked down on by the North. I think you’ll enjoy the dessert. Be sure to accompany it with a glass of malvasia. :-) Ken
You are equally a skilled photographer as you are a writer. I think I spent about 30 minutes enjoying this post. And now I must add Sardinia to my already long list of travel destinations.
Thank you, Mimi. Sardinia is remarkable. We saw little of the hallucinatorily spectacular coastal areas that figure so prominently in the island’s visuals (next time), mainly because they’re so inundated with tourists. The interior can be impassably rugged in spots, so we travelled mostly between the two. You seen a lot of Germans and other northern Europeans on motorcycles taking the tour, but no Americans. The nice thing about doing it with Ciclismo Classico is the access you gain by having a local as your guide, and you really do want a guide. Plus, on a bike, you see the world slowly. I’d definitely go back. Ken
…in the photo of Jody smiling over her shoulder at the woman in traditional dress, for example, we were in the town of Cabras. Without a local I would never have been able to engage her – initially she didn’t want her photo taken. What I assumed was special traditional dress was indeed that, but not because of a feast day, but because that’s how she dressed when she needed to look respectful. Nor would I have known why she was dressed — I happened to catch her as she was delivering communion to village shut-ins. Nor would we have had a chance to hear the remarkable Sardinian tenores (our guide, Simone, was a friend of Antonio, the man with the beard). I’m trying to dig up a link so people can experience this remarkable music for themselves. Ken
oh that would be great!
What a wonderful post and gorgeous, fun photos! The Ricotta, Cinnamon, Honey and Oranges looks devine. I’m absolutely going to try this!
Thanks. You won’t be disappointed if you buy a good ricotta. Ken
Wow, fantastic photos and terrific description of the cuisine, which must of course, reflect everything about the area. Locals here can find very good ricotta at Russo’s in Watertown–they usually have it towards the end of the week, and you will find it in a little white enameled bucket. Now I have yet another way to finish off whatever doesn’t get used right away in a recipe. This is a good justification for having a crack at homemade ricotta. Great post guys!
Thanks, Sally. It was a memorable trip for us. People seemed very patient, generous with their time, and appreciative that we were interested in their lives. My one regret is the absence of photos of the Nuraghi, the towers from the Bronze Age Nuraghic civilization that dot countryside. My last charged battery died just as we arrived at the site. Great tip about Russo’s in Watertown–thanks. We’ve talked about doing a post on homemade ricotta, but there’s always the issue of carving out the time. Ken
Like Mimi I spent quite a bit of time on this post. It’s beautiful. I love the simplicity of the ricotta dessert and I can not wait to try it. Your photographs made me feel as though I was present. What a fabulous trip Ken.
Thank you. We’re very fortunate to be able to do these trips. Gorgeous people, countryside… and sheep. I think you’ll enjoy the ricotta. I was already going on for so long in the intro that I didn’t dare insert the ways you could take this up a notch (if you wanted) by adding a few orange suprêmes in the bottom of the bowl, for example. Ken
Here are a few of the YouTube videos of Sardinian throat singers I found after our return:
Thanks! Great, moving stuff. Ken
This blog entry is spectacular in every way…..I was one of the lucky participants and like Ken, I found Sardinia remarkable and I want to go back! The pictures are absolutely spectacular and I have felling over each and every one of them. That ricotta recipe is the best…can’t wait to find some good ricotta and make it and feel like I am back there…definitely a magical time. Thank you Ken for your wonderful photos (can’t wait to see the rest of them) and story telling and Jody, for the wonderful cooking classes and recipes!
Hi, BA–Fun to have you along. Are you going through bottarga withdrawal too? I should be able to get a link up for photos some time next week. Ken
Yes…I didn’t even know I liked it so much…my favorite though were those tiny clams with the fregola!
Arselle! While wandering on my own in Pula I stopped in a place and had spaghetti with bottarga and arselle, at the waiter’s suggestion, when I couldn’t decided between one or the other.
Oh, fine, rub it in, Ken. This is the first time in 15 years we haven’t been somewhere in Europe or just returning from there right now… I’ve got a bad case of travel itch right now. Sardinia looks wonderful, and the dessert as well. (And thanks for reminding people that there is ricotta that isn’t that godawful industrial stuff.)
Do you know the line from THE TAMING OF THE SHREW? “I have money in my purse and property at home, so I’m off to see the world.”
The purse is rather gaunt from college tuitions, and the property has never been much, but I’m all in favor of the sentiment. And yes, there IS good ricotta, if you trouble to look for it.
Thanks – glad you enjoyed the photos. See my comments to Mimi, above, about getting a guide in Sardinia. Ken
Simplicity- I think this is the main secret of Italian cuisine in general. Lovely recipe, my kind of dessert for sure :-)
Simple recipes really are lovely, IF you can get the right ingredients. I think one of the reasons you see so many people in markets in France and Italy–on both sides of the counter–paying such close attention to quality is because so much is at stake. Ken
At Rialto, we use Calabro Ricotta http://www.calabrocheese.com/ It’s made in East Haven Connecticut. They provide an email address for inquiring about where to purchase the cheese near you. firstname.lastname@example.org Jody
How absolutely lovely. The most perfect dessert. Sardinia sounds like my kind of heaven. Thank you for all the wonderful photos. It must be quite hard to adjust to being home.
Ah, well. I have to tell you, the thought did cross my mind: How much would it cost to live here?
As you can see by this post, we haven’t completely left Sardinia behind. Jody has one or two more Sardinian culinary tricks up her sleeve, and I’m actually having dinner with one of our Sardinian guides in Boston tonight. Ken
This is so beautiful. I love this recipe. I’ve had a similar version of this for breakfast. So fresh and delicious. Your pictures tugged at my heartstrings a bit. I really must go there. You really captured the spirit of the place and the people through your food pics. I hope you had a wonderful time. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Thank you, Amanda. I found the route challenging, although for Jody I think it was a walk in the park. Gorgeous in any event. And interesting because we rode inland quite a bit, just to keep the ride within everyone’s abilities, which also exposed us to people and a part of the culture we’d have been less likely to see on the coast. Nevertheless, I’d like to go back after some serious training and do a coastal route next. If you get the opportunity, don’t pass it up. Ken
You have convinced me. Sardinia is now on my list of to-go-to places. I didn’t even have to look at the lovely pictures. The thing about the language being the closest to Latin. Wow.
We bask in the same wavelengths, Ayako. Isn’t it interesting how little known that is? Sardinia is definitely worth a trip, just don’t allowed yourself to get too seduced by the coastline – there’s so much more to see. Ken
Which kind of honey did you use?
Purely by happenstance–Killer Bee, from Central America. I think it would be really good with chestnut honey. Ken
This is an absolutely superb post Ken and Jody – prose, photos and recipe. What a wonderful holiday it really makes me want to visit Sardinia. The recipe also really appeals. As you probably know by now I am not that into puddings but simple ones that can be put together easily win me over. I can almost taste this pudding from reading your description….now for the hunt for the perfect ricotta and I think I will go with your advice of finding a chestnut honey to go with it. On another note am off to Rome soon and whilst I have been a few times I would love to know if you can recommend any restaurants that I should visit? Let me know if you have any great hidden gems that I should visit.
Hi, Torie–When do you leave? Contact me at email@example.com. Ken
looks like a wonderful trip via the stunning photos you’ve posted here. I love ricotta. I had it for breakfast almost every day in rome. Drizzled with honey and topped with nuts.
Our recipe is just a starting point. One of our favorite alternatives is to sprinkle dukkah over it as well. Then again, ANY breakfast in Rome has got to be the best. :-) Ken
I’ll take that as a good thing. :-) Ken
Absolutely beautiful post! I loved Italy when I was there 2 years ago, it was a gastronomical delight and I had the most wonderful time exploring the culture and history. Also: This ricotta, cinnamon, honey, orange looks tantalizing. :)
Hi, Lana–Italy is wonderful. Every region has its pleasures. My favorites are Puglia and Sardenia, because they seem the least travelled, especially inland. And the food is often quite simple, but with spectacular ingredients like bottarga, local pecorino and sea urchins, how can you eat poorly. Ken
Right! And you really can’t eat poorly haha. I most of my time was spent in Arce (a small village outside of Rome) – so I know the what you mean by visiting the least traveled gems :) I even had the chance to watch a Donkey races early in the morning with the locals, true story.
Donkey races! Okay, you win. :-) Ken
Reblogged this on Pinch of Yumm and commented:
Hey, this is very good! nice and good quality photos, it makes me stay here for a long time :)
I’m glad you like it. Enjoy. Ken
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