Sardinia can do more than primitive food

Sardinia’s cuisine is simple and rustic, a cuisine of shepherds and farmers. In the island capital of Cagliari, however, young chefs are reinterpreting home cooking in a sophisticated way.

Desiderio Monni knows the subtle differences of Sardinian cheeses

Cagliari – Almost everyone who travels to Sardinia has heard of the island’s culinary myth: the Casu Marzu. Since 2005, maggot cheese may no longer be sold in the EU – for understandable hygienic reasons. For the mature Pecorino to be so creamy and flavorful, the cheese fly has to lay its eggs in it. The maggots that hatch from it partially digest the cheese and make it ferment.

"Do you want to see him?", Desiderio Monni asks abruptly. The Casu Marzu? Monni nods and smiles conspiratorially. The 36-year-old is a cheese seller at the Mercato di San Benedetto, the famous indoor market in the center of Cagliari. He waits until there are no customers at his stand. Then he waves and pulls out a plastic bag from under the counter. The content smells sour, but the loaf is still young, explains Monni. He presses a hole in the soft rind. "Oh," he says disappointedly, "hardly any maggots yet."

Sardinia’s culinary cathedral

No problem, fortunately there is more to see in the sacred halls of the Mercato di San Benedetto. Everything that Sardinia has to offer gourmets is piled up here on two floors.

On the first floor, deep red chunks of tuna, artfully fanned clams and nets full of mussels as well as shrimp, cod and mackerel lie on marble tables in a bed of ice. A vendor holds up a lobster waving its claws tied together in fright. On the floor above, some traders are barely visible behind the mountains of eggplants and tomatoes, melons and prickly pears.

Star variations at Cagliari’s finest corsair

Sardinia’s traditional cuisine is rustic, with the shepherds and farmers mainly meat and bread came on the plate. But in Cagliari there have long been light, modern, high-class variations thanks to chefs like Stefano Deidda. Deidda’s grandfather opened the "Dal Corsaro" restaurant in 1965 and won a star. In 2016, the grandson reclaimed it.

The star menu is served in the vaults of the "Dal Corsaro". Even the first of seven courses is a feast for the eyes. The oyster in zucchini-mint cream and the chicken liver, rolled into a brown ball with porcini mushrooms, are served on shells and black stones in a wooden casket.

A tribute to tradition is the flambeed mullet in a green bed of bean puree. It is sprinkled with carvings of bottarga, the dried, pressed and smoked roe of the mullet. In the market hall you can buy them as shrink-wrapped sausages, for up to 200 euros per kilo. The bottarga is tough, sticks to the teeth and tastes penetratingly fishy. But when paired with the delicate mullet and the oniony pungency of chive, it unleashes a fireworks display of seafood flavors.

The island drops are molting

Sardinia’s wines were also long considered rather rustic and heavy. "But in the past 25 years, the quality of Sardinian wines has improved significantly," says Filippo Mundula, 45, who runs the Oyster wine bar. Crucially, outstanding oenologists such as Giacomo Tachis came to Sardinia, bringing with them innovative techniques from Piedmont or Tuscany.

The most famous drop of the island is a red wine. "Cannonau represents Sardinia best," says Mundula. Because each region of the island has its own Cannonau with a certain character that reflects the soil and climate, he says.

Mundula’s wine shop is in Marina. The former fishermen’s quarter is now the city’s nightlife district. In the evening, its winding alleys are one big open-air restaurant. Floor lamps on the tables conjure up a posh atmosphere.

Pierluigi Fais has also set up shop here. The top chef moved to Cagliari a few years ago and initially opened a pizzeria called "Framento". Of course, Fais was not satisfied with ordinary pizza. He experimented at home and finally found his special, Sardinian twist.

Sourdough is the secret of the best pizza in Sardinia

"Framento means sourdough in Sardinian," Fais explains. From it he kneads his pizza base. The emmer flour and durum wheat semolina are of course organic. And only local ingredients go on the pizza – except for the wild salmon he occasionally uses.

Making pizza with sourdough is difficult, says Fais. For consistent quality, baking time and temperature must be exactly right. And the pizza has to be baked twice, because the base alone takes four minutes – and the mozzarella must not be left in the glowing heat of the wood-fired oven for too long.

The effort is worth it. On the wall – next to an old tandem bike wrapped in fairy lights – hang the framed certificates from all the awards. In 2017, the gourmet publisher Gambero Rosso gave "Framento" the top rating of three pizzas – the only pizzeria on the island to do so.

Grandma’s classic in a refined guise

Meanwhile, Fais is an important figure in Cagliari’s gastronomic scene. A few houses away from his pizzeria he runs the "Etto", which is a butcher’s shop during the day and a restaurant for lunch and dinner. And in the old warehouse of a sawmill, Fais cooks live upscale cuisine in the evenings. "Josto" is the name of this new flagship of Fais.

"We’re experimenting with our grandparents’ cuisine here," says Fais. "The goal is to transform the recipes with new flavors."His spaghetti with bottarga – a Sardinian classic – is as thick as earthworms; Fais binds the roe into a fine cream with water and olive oil. "An emulsion like mayonnaise," he explains. "Roe is eggs, after all." Sounds a bit like Casu Marzu. But it tastes much finer – just like everything else in the new Sardinian cuisine.

Arrival: Direct flights to Cagliari are available from several German cities.

Entry and Corona location: Italy is currently classified as a high risk area. If you want to enter Italy, you have to show a negative test result. A PCR test must not be older than 48 hours, an antigen test not older than 24 hours. Those who are not vaccinated or recovered must enter a five-day quarantine, inform the local health department, and submit to another test after the quarantine is over. Vaccinated and convalescent people are exempt from this duty. (Stand 25. January 2022)

Travel time: In spring and autumn, the temperatures are most pleasant. Summer is hot.

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