Nothing can quite beat Aperitivo Hour in Italy. At 6pm on my first evening in the bustling city of Cagliari, there was a shift in the air. The shops and streets grew empty and the terrace of every café doubled in size as people took their seats, met with friends and took solace from the hot evening sun under parasols. Tray after tray of beautiful fishbowls of Aperol Spritz came out to the tables, landing with a flourish by theatrical waiters. The terrace took on a lovely orange glow, broken up by the odd red glare from Campari. This is Sardinian heaven.
Though the magical drink can differ from region to region, the sentiment is always the same: a pause after a long day with a refreshing drink and something delicious to nibble on. There is something so special about this tradition which encapsulates the social credo of Italy: to take life as it is – but always with friends and family around a table. It’s the nation’s chance to really unwind and enjoy good conversation with friends.
Comes great antipasti! At a Cagliari hilltop restaurant, Claudio Ara, I had my first taste of bottarga in a salad of rocket, celery and pecorino. This delicacy is salted, cured and dried roe of grey mullet, which is usually shaved in thin slivers like a hard cheese. The flavour is intense and concentrated and one to take your time with.
Not so with irresistible panadas. These small pouches of powder light pastry filled with a meat and vegetable filling are something you can just eat with abandon. I discovered these first in the old town of Bosa, while recovering from shock – a waitress informed me, to my horror, that Aperol Spritz was not a thing in Bosa. However, she restored my faith with a glass of Vermentino instead, a delicious local white wine served chilled as an aperitif. Delicious.
Or the first course, also known as the pasta/rice or soup course. One of the most wonderful things about Italy are long lunches and the many courses that encompass them. I was lured more often than not by a simple ricotta filled ravioli with a perfectly rich and sweet tomato sauce. The contrast of the crumbly ricotta against the silky pasta was something I simply could not resist day after day.
A more traditional pasta to Sardinia, and one no less inviting is malloreddus, a member of the gnocchi family, made with durum wheat and saffron. The perfect little ridged shells are perfect for catching the sausage ragu they are usually served with. And that my friends, is Il Primo.
Sardinia has a wild and mountainous interior with a strong shepherd tradition. It is unsurprising then that two of its most renowned cheeses are Pecorino Sardo and Ricotta. Pecorino in its mature state has sharp, umami flavours making it ideal for sprinkling over pasta or in a pesto, whereas the young cheese which is often called Pecorino Sardo Dolce, is an altogether milder and sweeter version.
Ricotta lends its crumbly creaminess to both savoury (think stuffed in ravioli) and sweet dishes. I discovered the beautiful sweet ricotta cake, pardulas, in cute tea shop, Choco and Tea in Cagliari. The perfect balance between sweet and savoury to enjoy with your mid-afternoon caffe.
Bread of course! The second of the gastronomic holy trinity (wine, naturally the third). Sardinia is proud of its pane carasau or carta da musica, literally meaning music paper. The bread is flat, crisp and has a long shelf life. It was traditionally made by shepherds to sustain them while out in the wilds. Above all else, it is simply good fun to break up and munch on over a meal.
The fish or meat course follows the pasta course. Yes you read that right. At Bosa restaurant, Locanda di Corte, I had one of the most delicious fish dishes I have ever tasted: a huge sea bass for two, baked whole in foil surrounded by plump cherry tomatoes and slivers of potatoes. This simplicity epitomizes everything about Sardinian cuisine: the freshest ingredients, cooked simply and well.
It would be remiss of me to write this and fail to mention the famed Sardinian tradition of the roast suckling pig. Sardinians roast theirs over a wooden spit, seasoned with myrtle leaves. The resulting meat is extremely tender and succulent, perfect with a glass of the native red,
which is rumoured to contribute to the long lifespan of Sardinians. Need I say more
The days start sweet and ends sweet in Sardinia. Breakfast consists of a fluffy cappuccino or caffè latte with a jam filled croissant. Yes, the national sweet tooth is alive and well. Having said that though, what I love most about Sardinian sweets is that rather than tooth-achingly sweet and sugary, the sweetness is balanced with a savoury note, be it ricotta or yoghurt. This results in lovely dense cakes like the pardulas, which have depth and substance as well as an unexpected texture.
In Bosa, for the Dolce course, I fell in love with a deep fried sweet ricotta ravioli in Ristorante Borgo Saint Ignazio. The parcels are filled with lemon infused ricotta, whipped into oblivion and momentarily fried to give a crisp outside and then finally either dusted with sugar or drizzled with local runny honey. The result is like some beautiful edible cloud, which is always irresistible, no matter how heavy the meal before.
A great Sardinian meal is best rounded off with the national digestif Mirto. This sumptuous liqueur is made from the berries of the myrtle plant, has a fruity coffee-like taste and cannot fail but to put a smile on your face!
Sarah is among many Irish people living in London, where she delights in exploring its exciting food scene. She is passionate about food markets, spending her weekends trawling around Borough market grazing, chatting and stocking up on all things edible.
She dedicates a blog to her adventures in the markets, from her local farmers market to those she happens upon on her travels. Writing for TheTaste allows her to share tales from the food front line with fellow eager eaters.