Martina is a dear friend of ours, an authentic born and bred Sardinian, and author of the book A Deal with a Stranger. She has shared this lovely story of how food is so much a part of what it means to be Sardinian...
When I was little, my auntie, zia Angelina, used to make pastries for wedding receptions, to be enjoyed at the end of the big meal.
Because this meant baking large quantities of pastries, she often required some help. I always volunteered, I guess there is no need to explain why…
The first pastries we used to bake were the amaretti biscuits.
Luckily zia Angelina had already prepared the ground almonds from the night before, so all there was to do was to add the sugar, the egg whites, the lemon zest, and a touch of liqueur.
Zia Angelina would mix it all up, then grab a handful of the mixture, roll it into a ball, flatten the top slightly and lay it on the baking tray.
Other almond-balls would follow, perfectly aligned on those black, slightly bent, metal trays.
My contribution was to add a piece of candied fruit at the top of the amaretti, by pressing it gently down the middle. It was fun choosing the colour of my candied fruit – they used to be green, yellow and red.
Our amaretti looked really pretty and colourful when they went inside the old wood oven, where you could still see the flames of the fire on top of the ambers, in the back.
Sometimes zia Angelina would allow me to cut the shapes of the ciambelle, made with flour, butter, sugar, eggs and lemon, but it was a little trickier for a young girl, placing the newly made shapes on top of the baking tray, without distorting them in some way.
Occasionally, the odd-shaped ciambelle ended up eaten by me as they couldn’t possibly be presented at a wedding reception.
Zia Angelina called on my help for all types of pastries, the pardulas, which were made with ricotta cheese, saffron and orange, the bianchini, made with almonds and eggs, the pirichittus, always very fragrant with the lemon zest I had previously grated.
As I live in England now, I really miss the authenticity of flavours of Sardian food. My dad had an orchard, which I think was a glimpse of the garden of Eden.
It wasn’t that big, probably half hectare of land, but it had specimens of each fruit tree that grows in a Mediterranean climate. Oranges, mandarins, lemons, plums, prunes, peaches, apricots, apples, pears. We even had some grapevines and a few prickly pear trees, which grew naturally, of course.
The flavours were so strong that I can still remember vividly how a real mandarin is supposed to taste. Even now that I haven’t tasted a real one for over a year.
Next to our orchard, my dad used to grow fennels, tomatoes, artichokes, and various types of salads.
My dad would only pick the fruit or the vegetable when it was just ripe, never before. Because they often ripen at the same time, we would have plenty to distribute between relatives and friends.
And the beauty of it all was that they too had their own vegetable gardens, or greenhouses, and they in turn would come to visit bringing baskets of fresh produce.
Courgettes that were sweeter than any dessert, peppers which looked so beautiful you almost thought they were unreal, until you tasted them. Aubergines that made a perfect side dish, when baked in the oven with just a little olive oil.
Not to mention the tomatoes. Every summer we would get lots of tomatoes, I mean cases of them, and my mum and zia Angelina would start this industrial scale production of bottles of passata to store for the following winter.
Note that this was only for our family! You have to think ahead: you can’t possibly make a tomato sauce for pasta, in winter, that doesn’t taste like fresh ripe tomatoes.
In August, I used to help prepare the sun-dried tomatoes, by washing them, cutting them in half, sprinkling them with coarse grain sea salt, placing them over an old-metal-bed frame, to dry outside, under the scorching sunshine.
Then we would wait until the tomatoes had dried up, we would close them up again, flatten them gently, and place them into a glass jar, intertwined with basil or bay leaves.
A lovely flavour to add to any dish, later. I still have now, two jars of sun-dried tomatoes that my mum prepared last summer. Come to think of it, I am going to use some for our next Sunday lunch.
What can I say about the rest of the food in Sardinia?
Often tourists assume that because Sardinia is an island, most of its food, would be fish based. That is not correct. Whether you live on the coast, or inland, all Sardinians like to eat meat, and fish, and various pasta dishes.
On special occasions, it’s traditional to eat the porceddu, a spit-roasted suckling pig, as well as a spit-roasted suckling lamb. They are the most delicious and tender meats you could taste. Wild boar and baby goats are also a delicacy.
Each province within Sardinia has its own tradition, and even within that area, that same dish will be prepared differently. A panada for instance, which is a pie filled with lamb, potatoes, sundried tomatoes, onions, garlic, saffron, etc, will taste very differently from one village to the next. I personally think my village’s version is the best, but my friend from Assemini doesn’t agree with me.
Another memory that comes to mind is when I used to spend part of my summers, as a young girl, at my auntie’s, Zia Antonietta.
They had a house in Portopino, which is a lovely beach area on the south west of Sardinia. Zia Antonietta would go every day to the porticciolo, where the fishermen would anchor their boats and start selling whatever they had caught that morning.
I wasn’t particularly fond of the smell of fish, when zia Antonietta would wash it and prepare it, but my goodness, once it was served on my plate, I nearly fainted on several occasions. Seabass, squid, sardines, clams, mussels, all these sea creatures were just delicious, and especially my favourite: octopus salad.
Zia Antonietta’s speciality was spaghetti agli scampi. Imagine that tomato sauce, made with ripe fresh tomatoes, a little olive oil, a hint of garlic and chilli, plus a dozen gigantic scampi which have released all the flavour of the sea. And all of that sitting on top of a bowl of spaghetti cooked al dente. Really… what more can someone want from life?