"With bread, you will never die".
So goes the ancient Sardinian proverb.
And so we decided to spend our the first of the May bank holiday weekends hopping between the beaches, restaurants, agriturismos, food markets and wineries of Sardinia - where the bread basket is never empty.
(Local Monday morning village market)
Sardinia is known for its fresh seafood, sheep's milk cheese (pecorino and tuscanella - a salty ricotta), big flat crispy carta da musica ("music paper") breads from the North of the island (taking their name from its thin nature and creamy colour - called pane carasau (to inlanders) or pane fresa (to coastal dwellers) - delicious with rosemary and olive oil, and a staple before every meal), Mirto liquor (a sweet digestive liqueur made from purple Myrtle berries), and Pardulas - a pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese. Seafood of all types is the main event in the coastal areas, while much of the farmland, woodlands and mountains of the inland region lends itself to spit roasted meats (lamb and pig), wild mushrooms and game. Sardinia's most well known wines are Vermentino (a crisp white) and Cannonau (a strong red), although a wide range of grapes are available across the island.
So, there's plenty to keep the roaming gourmande occupied.
(Tastings at the Vigne Sarrua winery)
Agriturismo Ca' La Somara
We stayed for 3 nights at the Agriturismo Ca La Somara, about half an hours drive from Olbia airport near the Costa Smeralda - although a world away from the touristy glitz and spray on tans of the latter.
Once a stable, and still (a little scarily) drawing on the donkey theme in terms of much of the artwork, it was rustic (no TVs, no Wifi, no phones, plenty of mosquitos) and secluded among some gorgeous scenery over looking fields of donkeys, chickens and a mountainous backdrop. Hammocks and poolside banana lounges provide instant relaxation on first sight. If that's not enough, they also provide massages (I had one locked in before I'd unpacked my bag) - as well as a wool bath (a bed frame full of wool ... ??) and an energy pyramid if you're so inclined.
We decided to eat in one night for the true Sardinian farm house experience.
Despite numerous friendly enquiries, (somewhat suspiciously) our hostess would not reveal the night's menu - "it is a surprise". "Ah, ha ha", we chuckled, "Lovely - a surprise". Fabulous.
So, it was that the evil truth was only exposed after course 3. Our wily hostess was a vegetarian. Surprise!!
And to think that we held ourselves back to only 2 helpings of the fried soybean balls with cous cous on the basis that it was sure to be a vegetarian main acting as a mere prelude to the real main.
This would go down in the book of holiday deceptions right up there with the fact the beautiful outdoor pool had been drained. Not joking. If hostess had pulled off a stretchy face mark and wig and revealed herself to be Heather Mills in Italian farmer disguise, I would not, at this point, have been surprised. And so it was that I came to be lying in bed on a meat free stomach, wide awake at 3am at night next to a drained pool, with a puffed mozzie bitten eyelid, dreaming about breakfast.
In any event, the rustic vego meal was a success. Against the backdrop of mountains and donkeys munching in the fields, we ate an antipasti course - bowls of roasted, chopped eggplant, peppers and mint, bowls of cauliflower, and smoky sweet roast red peppers pasted with a thick coat of green pesto. A feature of all our meals would be a huge, perpetually replenished basket of bread, including the big flat crispy bread - carta da musica - with rosemary and olive oil.
Primi consisted of a huge iron pan of pennette pasta (short stubby tubes) with invisible but tasty local pecorino cheese, broad beans, green and black olives and eggplant.
Secondi was the aforementioned cous cous and soya bean balls (which looked like falafel) - not a Sardinian speciality. At this point, the vegetarian factor was revealed and we stopped waiting for the real food. But it was fairly tasty anyway.
For dolce - the traditional pardulas (pastry filled with semi-sweet ricotta) made their debut - lovely, although this version were a little too dry.
Over coffees, a selection of digestives were offered - grappa, limoncello and the local Mirto among them. I sampled a warming shot full of the latter - something I could definitely get used to.
Large 1 Litre flasks of wine were refilled during the course of the meal. The meal was rustic, simple, but nice - not earth shattering, but not much to complain about since all came at only 20 Euros per head.
Agriturismo Ca' La Somara, Localita Sarra Balestra, 07021 Arzachena, Sardinia, Italy
Risorante La Rocca
On our first full day in Sardina, we escaped the moody skies and torrential downpours with a leisurely lunch at Ristorante La Rocca, near Baia Sardinia. Specialising in Sardian seafood and home made fresh pastas, we watched as groups of Italians ordered up big for their 4 course Sunday lunch. The couple at the next table enjoyed a grilled seafood platter for 2, and we licked our lips as the waiter loaded grilled prawns and squid onto their plates before expertly deboning their fish. (It was all too much for me, so I later crossed beaches and mountains to return for this dish.)
We shared an insalata di mare to start - a refreshing, summery mix of octopus, mussels and squid tossed with olive oil and lemon. So simple, so good.
As the rainfall got heavier, we settled in over our large plates of spaghetti - TPG's with clams, mussels, prawns and calamari. My pasta was specified on the menu to be the local pennette but due to an ordering mix up (don't try to blame my Italian - I'm fluent when it come to ordering pasta) I ended up with spaghetti - no devastation here, since it came coated in fish eggs with a whole party of clams. Happy days.
We finished off with espressos, forgoing dolce to hunt down some gelato on the road. All up, 43.50 Euros for 2.
We returned for dinner one night, knowing we were guaranteed good, fresh seafood. We tried some more of the regional pastas - Sardinian malloreddus (small gnocchi shells) with lamb ragu and cunlingiones (pouch shaped ravioli) filled with ricotta and mint with a light tomato sauce. Absolutely delicious.
My mixed seafood grill hit all the right notes - a huge rip curl of tender squid came with a grilled sea bream filleted at the table, grilled scampi and a mouth watering prawn.
TPG had a larger sea bream cooked with potato, cherry tomatoes and white wine. So juicy and tender - just beautifully done. A winner. We shared a simple side of green beans with lemon juice and olive oil.
Too full for dessert, we shared the ricotta with honey on the pane carasau and sought some serious digestive action over a grappa (served chilled here) and the Mirto (poured over a solid block of ice frozen at the bottom of the glass) - all the local men finish off with this and somehow don't end up cross eyed.
La Rocca, Localita Pulicinu, Baja Sardinai, 07021 Arzachena, Italy
Ristorante Lu Stazzo
We trekked up hill another evening for dinner at Lu Stazzo. A massive room overlooking the hills and mountains was completely empty all night - except for us and a roast piglet being grilled over the flame. Not to worry - we started with a delicious bottles of Pedres, Cerasio Cannonau di Sardegna, and knew nothing would go wrong all evening.
This place is tipico. And there's grilled horse on the menu (which brought a tear to TPG's eye).
We shared starters of tuna carpaccio (hmm - so so), as well as pasta with "sheep" ragu (perfecto).
TPG stuck with seafood - the grilled prawns - for his main but having seen the roasting piglet on entry, I couldn't go past it. It was fairly decent too, but very fatty.
For dolce, it had to be the fabulously milky ricotta with honey (again) and a tangy lemon sorbet.
A great place for typical regional food, friendly service and great views - not one for fancy fare. Cheap and cheerful.
Ristorante Lu Stazzu, St. Prov. Le Porto Cervo, Arzachena, 07021, Sardinia
Goodbye sunshine, hello London...
While I did manage to get some impressive t-shirt marks, and spent a few solid hours in the cossie, the best time of the year to visit Sardinia (weather wise) is from June to the end of August. In May and September, the weather is hit and miss - you may have the beaches to yourself and glorious sunshine at times, but you may be dodging torrential downpours at others. However, at any time there's still plenty to keep the Italian food and wine lover occupied. Just about every road side bar will serve you the perfect bowl of pasta, whip up a tasty, fresh salad and grill you a good piece of fish. Buon Appetito.