Anyone who delves into the Sardinian food culture will soon realise: cheese can serve as a staple ingredient for every imaginable dish, be it a first course, a dessert – even ice cream! Sardinia’s culinary showpiece is, indeed, Pecorino cheese. But there’s much more besides. And, these days, many Sardinian specialities are also available in Switzerland.
Even the bread stems from Pecorino, somehow. The fact that Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese is an omnipresent staple on every breakfast buffet and menu points to the following: the Sardinians, for the most part, were once shepherds. Even today, roughly three times as many sheep and goats than people are said to inhabit Sardinia. When the shepherds spent time in the outback, they needed durable food supplies – and “regular” bread tends to get mouldy or hard and inedible fairly quickly. That is how the “Pane Carasau” came to be: crispy, thin flatbread that can be kept for weeks. The flatbread is served in every restaurant on the island, before or with the food, often drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. The locals also refer to it as “Carta di Musica” – sheets of music.
A plethora of antipasti and Sardinian “raclette”
And the where: “Gli Sitagli”, a farm in the hilly hinterland of the city of Olbia in northern Sardinia. The when: “L’anniversario della Liberazione”, the anniversary of the liberation from German occupation – an important holiday in Sardinia and a huge feast. “Gli Sitagli” is an agriturismo, meaning a farm with a restaurant and some guest rooms. The food served is exclusively produced on the farm, with the exception of the wine which is supplied from the region. The feast starts with antipasti, the traditional Italian first courses. There are thirteen (!) of them – not counting the “Pane Carasau” in the bread basket: a variety of “Salumi” (cold sausage, bacon and ham). Pecorino ricotta with honey. Pecorino with nuts. Mozzarella filled with rocket salad and ham. Puff pastry parcels filled with pork, beef and cheese. Roast lamb. Pumpkin puree with sausage. Liver with olives. Roasted wild boar. Saffron sauce with roast lamb. Beans with bacon. And finally: semolina pudding.
Being quite typically Swiss, at least in culinary terms, I am not a great fan of sheep’s milk cheese, nor of lamb and wild boar. But of course I try everything nonetheless. The lamb is excellent, as is the wild boar. And the Pecorino ricotta? Delectably divine! I have never eaten anything that could compare. No wonder the locals enjoy this culinary treat any time, any place. The next course: “Zuppa gallurese” (Gallura is the name of a region in the hinterland of Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda). A white bread specially baked for this dish is soaked in a broth and scalloped with Pecorino cheese – a Sardinian-style Welsh rarebit, so to speak. I take just a few bites, rightly suspecting that there is still plenty more to come. Pasta, for instance: cheese-filled ravioli and “Gnocchetti sardi” served with a tomato sauce. These Sardinian gnocchi –also referred to as “Malloreddus” (small bulls)– are made from wheat flour, not potatoes. Their hallmark is a ribbed surface that, in the past, resulted from pressing the dough into a wicker basket. These days, a special rolling pin is used to make the gnocchi. Despite the fabulous tomato sauce I restrain myself, knowing the highlight is yet to come. Besides Pecorino, suckling pig is THE speciality of the island. Served with potatoes and deep-fried artichokes, it tastes absolutely delicious. Then it’s back to cheese again. The head chef has lit a fire in the backyard. Holding a block of cheese over the flames in one hand, she uses her other hand to scrape cheese with a scraper into small cone-shaped bags which she then distributes among the waiting guests. Sardinian “raclette” in a bag – very original and very good. I am obliged to forego dessert as I simply cannot eat another bite. With so much cheese and meat in my belly, adding sugar to the mix is infeasible at this point. I treat myself to a coffee instead, and watch the locals around me devour their “Seadas” (Pecorino-filled sweet puff pastry parcels with sugar and honey). No doubt they are inwardly shaking their heads at my ineptness.
Olives, fruit and a lot of meat
I am not surprised to see “Pizza sarda” topped with Pecorino and local salami on the lunch menu next day. Nor am I in the least surprised at how great it tastes. The waiter addresses me in Swiss-German, which doesn’t surprise me either as it is not the first time. “Many people working in the food business here once worked in Switzerland. It is seen as something to have done in this profession,” Giuseppe explains. And the Sardinians and the Swiss share more in common than their love for cheese – as Mario Usai, President of the Sardinian Association Zurich, knows all too well: “Although the majority of the Sardinians live by the sea, we are mountain people, especially in culinary terms.” Traditional Sardinian cuisine encompasses practically no fish or seafood. Although found on restaurant menus today, food of the sea was only introduced in the 1950s, when tourism began. These days, the locals also enjoy eating tuna fish or mullet and, above all, “Bottarga”, a caviar of a sort made from mullet roes and served as a pasta topping.
Thanks to the fertile soil, there is nothing that doesn’t grow on the island: olives, oranges, tangerines, lemons, melons, artichokes, aubergines and much more. Switzerland-based Mario Usai owns a small olive grove in his hometown of Lanusei in the province of Ogliastra, and produces “a modest amount” of olive oil. He only needs to return to the island twice or three times a year. “You just have to cut the grass, prune the trees and harvest the olives, that’s all.” Antonio Marrocu travels to Sardinia every few weeks or so. The former banker imports Sardinian specialities, including “Pane Carasau”, sausage, cheese, pasta, fruit, vegetables, sweets, wine, the local “Ichnusa” beer and “Mirto”, a liqueur made from berries (red “Mirto”) and myrtle flowers (white “Mirto”). These delicacies can be ordered via the Sardinian Association Zurich, or on Antonio’s homepage.
Potato-filled pasta and sheep’s milk cheese ice cream
One of the most authentic Sardinian restaurants on the island is situated in the mountains of the Supramonte limestone mountain range, in Oliena in the Nuoro province. A suckling pig is being roasted on a spit over a fire outside the restaurant of the “Su Gologone” hotel. Another option is to use a rotisserie. Whichever way: it is important to cook the pig over the fire for at least four hours, says Mario Usai. And: “There is no marinade. The only seasoning is salt which is added after cooking.” Before savouring the pig, there are two other Sardinian specialities waiting to be tasted: “Culurgiones”, ravioli filled with potatoes, mint and cheese, and “Pane Frattau”, made by soaking “Pane Carasau” in boiling water, adding tomato sauce, cheese and a fried egg as toppings and then rolling it like an omelette. A true symphony of flavours! All of this is served with Sardinian wine of course – white Vermention or Terre Brune and red Cannonau, which all taste superb. But one particular speciality is missing on the menu: “Casu Marzu”, a Pecorino cheese to which fly eggs are added. The maggots from the eggs discharge a liquid that renders the cheese particularly creamy and flavourful – and are eaten, too. Nowadays, the cheese may only be produced under strict, sterile conditions and is probably not all that popular among tourists. “I once brought some ‘Casu Marzu’ back to Switzerland, as a gift for my in-laws. But they were not at all keen,” Mario Usai adds with a laugh.
Though not in the slightest bit hungry, I am determined to try a “Seada” today. The sweet dough is filled with Pecorino cheese, deep-fried and then drizzled with honey and sugar. To be honest, the cheese-like consistency, paired with the very sweet taste, takes some getting used to. By contrast, the ice cream made from sweet ricotta is delicious. This sweet treat marks the end of my culinary journey through Sardinia. I am clearly more than full. But when back home and ready to think about food and drink again, I will place my order with the Sardinian Association Zurich: “Pane Carasau”, Sardinian wine, “Gnocchetti”, “Culurgiones” and Pecorino ricotta, of course.
Who would have thought a visit to Sardinia would convert a Swiss lass like me into a cheese fan – a sheep’s milk cheese fan!
Recipe - Mario Usai‘s Culurgiones:
To make the dough, you need: 200 g flour, 100 g semolina, 1 egg, 1 yoke of an egg, 1 tsp olive oil and a pinch of salt.
Knead the dough well, then let it rest for an hour. Roll out thin dough strips and cut out circles of 7-8 cm in diameter (Mario’s family uses a drinking glass for this). For the filling, slice 250 g of floury potatoes into small cubes and boil until soft. Mix with 10 fresh, minced mince leaves and 100 g of young, grated Pecorino. Spread the filling onto the dough circles and fold circles to create drop-shaped parcels. Seal the parcels at the top using moistened fingers. Cook the Culurgiones for 3-4 minutes in boiling salted water and serve with tomato sauce.
3 tips for Sardinian specialities in Switzerland
Antonio Marrocu: The second-generation Sardinian imports bread, wine, beer, sausage, cheese, pasta, fruit, vegetables and much more from Sardinia to Switzerland. The goodies can be purchased on his website: www.einfachsein-sardinien.com/sardische-produkte
L’angolo sardo: This little shop in Kilchberg near Zurich sells both Sardinian and Swiss delicacies. (Bahnhofstrasse 14, 8802 Kilchberg, www.langolosardo.ch)
Trattoria Il Nuraghe: The “Trattoria Il Nuraghe” in Muttenz near Basel serves Mediterranean cuisine and Sardinian specialities. (Hauptstrasse 21, 4132 Muttenz, www.ilnuraghebasel.ch)