Food & Drink you must try in Sardinia

The other day I met a chatty Swedish guy in a pub called Hannes, who told me he was flying to Sardinia for a family holiday and landing in Cagliari. What an odd coincidence! I’m not referring to the fact I met a Swedish guy in Sweden or to the unexpected coincidence that random chat with strangers occured in an alcohol serving premises but to the fact that his family chose to go on one of the few flights a year between Stockholm and Sardinia. As soon as he told me this I got him to give me his email address and promised I would give him a list of things to eat and drink which he must try when on the island.
Aperitivo

Start at the beginning with the ‘Aperitivo culture’ also known as Aperitif. It is comparable to the better known tapas culture in Spain, as it is the principle of going to a Bar/Cafe and having something to drink which is served with many little nibbles. The most popular of all is Aperol Spritz but also Campari Soda, Negroni, Negroni sbagliato, Garibaldi, Americano are all worth a try. Alternatively you can also have straight Prosecco or beer.
Beer

Surprisingly enough Sardinia has many local breweries which have popped up like mushrooms in recent years. I cannot say I’m an expert in handcrafted beers but Barley’s Friska is really good. For more info on the different craft produced beers in Sardinia there is Micro Birrifici – Sardinia which is a good link to check out. There is the most common Sardinian beer produced in the industrial area just outside Cagliari called ‘Ichnusa’. It is readily available all over Italy and in many countries across the world including Germany, UK and Sweden. In the last few months System Bolaget, the only chain of alcohol selling shops in Sweden, started selling it across the country in the ‘new beers’ section.

 

Wine

Red wine all the way, although there are also some really good white wines to try. House wine is cheap but most of the times really good, often better than more expensive bottled wine that can be bought in UK or Sweden. Cannonau is a typical variety of Sardinian red wine which is produced throughout the island and is quite strong in flavour. I’m no wine expert so will not go into further detail, but if you are looking for wine that you can also buy outside of the island the biggest producers are Argiolas (in the south) and Sella e Mosca (near Alghero, in the north).
Bread

Pane Carasau, Guttiau and Pistoccu are three different variaties of hard, crunchy bread one can only find in Sardinia. Similar breads can be found across the world such as Sweden’s rye crispbread ‘Knäckebröd’ but nothing beats Carasau served with local extra virgin olive oil and salt. There are also different varieties of normal bread in Sardinia that are worth looking out for, some of which are made in really artistic shapes and are characterised by a crunchy brown crust and a really soft doughy part.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil:

Plenty of brands, plenty of varieties as Sardinia is abundant with olive trees, some even several hundred years old. ‘Spremitura a freddo’ is the highest quality one can find as they only press the olives without any heat (a freddo) so as not to ruin the flavour and also to preserve the natural qualities and ‘goodness’ of the olives.

Pasta: A variety of sauces
Arselle e Bottarga or Bottariga. Normally long pasta such as linguini or spaghetti are served with clams and ‘Bottarga’ which some call ‘parmesan of the sea’ for the fact it is grated and adds salt and flavour to the pasta. Others call it ‘the caviar of the south’ as it is made by salting and drying fish eggs. Bottarga can also be eaten in slices as an appetizer, served with fennel or artichokes and a drizzle of olive oil .
Carlofortina pasta: from the island of San Pietro (south west of Sardinia) the village of Carloforte is a Genovese colony whose population brought over a series of traditions from their region and above all pesto. So Carlofortina pasta or pizza is made with green pesto, tuna (as they fish high quality tuna off the costs of that island) and fresh tomatoes.
Culurgiones: Sardinian ravioli filled with potatoes and cream cheese. These are served with a freshly-made tomato sauce (not ketchup) and a sprinkle of pecorino or parmesan cheese.
Fregola alla Pescatora: fregola is a typical Sardinian pasta which in many ways recalls couscous. Pescatora is a sauce made with a mixture of seafood and is very flavoursome. Different restaurants make it in different ways, some make it more dense,others a bit runny. Out of the two I personally prefer the dense one but it is a matter of taste.
Al Nero di Seppia: pasta cooked with squid ink. To some people this may look disgusting as you find yourself with a plate of spaghetti covered in a black sauce,but it is the most flavoursome spaghetti you will ever try! Obviously it tastes of fish to a certain extent, so if you hate seafood you might want to avoid this one.
Fish and Meat:
Polpo – octopus. Might sound disgusting but it is really nice, It is normally boiled and served in different ways either ‘alla diavola’ with a spicy tomato sauce or served cold with potatoes and balsamic vinegar as a sort of salad.
Bistecca di Cavallo – horse meat steak: now I can imagine the horrified faces of those who would believe that only barbarians would be cruel enough to eat a poor little horsy, but that is a very hypocritical thing to believe if the person thinking this eats veal or lamb which are the cutest of ‘baby animals’ that have not even had the chance of discovering the joys of life before being slaughtered or those who eat battery farmed chicken; how morally correct is that? Either way it is a very tasty steak which is comparable to beef in many aspects ,but more flavoursome. In some places they make fast food sandwiches for €5 with cavallo e patate (shredded horse meat and potatoes). Normally a classic ‘Fiorentina’ horse steak is served with fresh ruccola and shredded parmesan cheese.
Cheese: lots of cheese production takes place in Sardinia. Many of which are made from goat or sheep milk. Pecorino(sheep cheese) is a classic which you have in all different shapes and sizes, more or less matured, smoked, cream pecorino spread with chilli and so on. There are also other types of cheeses that are really nice made from sheep milk of which my absolute favourite is ‘casaxedu’ (read casascggedu as the x in the Sardinian language is read something like scgg) but it is not readily available in bigger supermarkets, being easier to find in inland villages. Out of the cow milk cheeses ‘Dolce Sardo’ made by Arborea (the Sardinian equivalent to Arla) is really nice as it is of a soft consistency similar to Brie and also quite sweet in flavour.
Dessert

Sebadas is a classic ,but its very filling as it is a deep-fried, sweet, large, ravioli filled with soft cheese, served with honey. If your meal was relatively small have this to fill you up at the end.
Dolcetti Sardi: small typically Sardinian cakes that one would have to accompany a coffee at the end of a meal.
Espresso Coffee

Sardinia has three major coffee brands: La Tazza d’Oro, Karalis (both produced near Cagliari) and Moka Domus (produced in Ogliastra,in the centre of the island). It is just as nice, if not nicer, than the big Italian brands with the added bonus that it’s locally produced.
Digestivi also known as Ammazza Caffe’ (coffee killers) or Amari

These are commonly drunk to finish a meal, after the espresso coffee (that locals have even after dinner) , a strong liquor that will make you tipsy enough to start dancing as one would do at a wedding, first communion or traditional village festivities. Locally produced Limoncello is nice but the must try which is unique to Sardinia is Mirto. This can be bought in bottles but is often home-made and is fairly strong (30 – 40 – 50 per cent), has an intense flavour and dense texture. Some people compare it to Jagermeister ,but I disagree as the taste is quite different. It is made from the myrtle berry that grows wild and abundantly in the countryside all over the island. If you want something really strong Fil’e Ferru might be for you: it is also known as Sardinian aquavit as it is really strong and most of the times homemade. The name translated from Sardinian means metal wire as when it was illegal to produce your own alcohol people in the countryside used to bottle it and bury the bottles in the ground and only a metal wire stuck out to indicate where the drink was hidden.
The good and the bad thing about Sardinian food and drinks is that they are quite unique and hard to find outside of the island. The bad part is you cannot find these products in other countries, the good part is that, like with every drug, you will have to come back to have some more. And as it is a good drug, Sardinian people will be glad to see you back on their island!

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Ghost Villages in Sardinia (2/5): Transport Connections

This part of the series on ideas to counter the increasing ‘Ghost Village’ phenomenon in many rural areas in central Sardinia, is dedicated to transport connections. As you might have figured out from many other posts on this website such as #BusNotturniCagliari campaign, I am a massive believer in public transport. For me this is the most fundamental part in countering this phenomenon and also making the roads safer and less clogged up with traffic and hence this is the longest post in this series. 
When talking about small communities the importance of good transport connections is vital. This can be the ‘make it or break it’ factor when choosing whether to stay or leave the village you grew up in. Whilst in the past the communities rarely needed to move much,now times have changed and so there is the need and wish to be in contact with the rest of the world. 
Whether to go to school, work, see a doctor or to hang out in the cool bar in the neighbouring village, it is important to provide safe roads and reliable, frequent and affordable public transport connections. 
Sardinia has two railway systems: Trenitalia and Ferrovie della Sardegna. Trenitalia is owned by the Italian state whilst Ferrovie della Sardegna is owned by the Sardinian regional authority which also is the owner of ARST, the biggest bus company on the island. The problem is that amongst the many illogical things on the island, there is no cooperation whatsoever between the two transport systems which are still ultimately subsidised by the Sardinian tax payer.
What is my idea?
The network
Well, first of all Trenitalia should run frequent express services between the big cities with very few intermediate stops. Simutaneously there should also be local ‘slow trains’ that run between the two larger stations where the express train stops,connecting those two centres to all the minor communities by stopping at every station.
Ferrovie della Sardegna should also do a similar operation and this must come with a modernisation of its fleet which is still mostly based on the ‘Litorina’ model, originally introduced under Mussolini’s regime with the most recent up-dates in 1970s/80s to most parts of the network. These modern trains with air conditioning, step free access, wifi could also potentially reach higher speeds than the current average of 50 Km/h. Most of these routes are only used in Summer for tourism purposes as the single track route offers beautiful views over the undiscovered inland heart of Sardinia. The modernisation of the fleet would also require a certain amount of maintenance to the tracks and stations adding, for example, information screens with train timetables and ticket machines (possibly available in several languages). Same as Trenitalia, there should be local trains and longer distance ones.
As most of the island ,however,is not connected by the railway network there needs to be a good bus service to integrate with the railway connections ensuring the bus arrives at the station a few minutes before the arrival of the train,and also leaving a few minutes after it departs in order to take the railway passengers onto their final destination with minimal delay. The bus fleet is modern yet really uncomfortable, has no wifi, no card readers to sell tickets onboard and very few cater for handicapped people. As if this wasn’t bad enough the buses are also large which makes it really hard for them to be driven up narrow and winding mountain or coastal roads which characterise more than 80% of the country roads in Sardinia.
To sell the entire fleet and invest in a new one is a must in my view. The waste of public money for these very good looking and modern luxury* buses seen from the outside is sickening (* ‘luxury’ by definition as they all have an espresso machine incorporated on board which has never have been used but is there just to tick the box in order to comply with the definition, this is how low Sardinian politics can get). The new buses beyond being modern (card reader, air conditioning, comfortable seating and Wifi) together with a step free access should be of two types: long and short distance. The long distance ones, which should be used only in areas that are not covered by the railway network, should have a greater capacity maybe even double deckers to maximise the number of people that can be transported by one driver, hence controlling the price of the individual ticket. These buses should run an express service, similar to the one previously mentioned for trains. The local buses should be smaller or even perhaps mini-vans which can move with fewer difficulties, more engine power and faster along the winding roads compared to the current large buses (which in most cases travel half empty). These buses would pick up passengers even from non designated bus stops like a sort of taxi service along the route and do the same for dropping people off. The local drivers, with good road knowledge of the area covered, could even offer to make small detours to accompany people to their door which could be really good for people with reduced mobility and the elderly. This sort of bus system is very popular in Eastern Europe. 
Finally it is important that the bus system must be perfectly integrated with both railway systems. This means an efficient website in several languages where tickets can be purchased online from A to B which would include local buses, trains, coaches and if necessary ferries to the smaller islands. These combined tickets should also be available for purchase via an App and in newsagents, tobacconists and supermarkets across the island. The option to buy tickets on board with a surcharge should also always be guaranteed. 
Offering free travel to all the residents of these communities over the age of 65, handicapped people, children under 16 and reduced fares for students would encourage a more proficient use of these transport networks. 
Throughout this post I have stressed the availability of free wifi but offering this service (when technically possible) would allow businessmen and students to work whilst commuting and other passengers to enjoy entertainment whilst being driven from their rural community to the bigger centres.
This may be a utopian dream but as Walt Disney said ‘all of our dreams can come true – if you have the courage to pursue them’.

Ghost Villages in Sardinia (1/5): Education

As a guy from the village of Ales, in central Sardinia, once said: ‘Studiate, perché avremo bisogno di tutta la vostra intelligenza’ / ‘Everyone should study, as we will soon be in need of all of your intelligence’ (Antonio Gramsci). Learning English properly is the key, not only in order to offer good tourist services, but also for personal enrichment to be able to make the most of opportunities that extend beyond the village and can reach the far corners of the world.

Starting from nursery schools, the English language must, in my view, be taught at all levels of schooling, ideally reaching a good enough level in high school to be able to study all` sciences 100% in English as opposed to Italian. This may seem to some as extreme globalisation, but on the contrary, having a solid basis in English would allow future university students to be able to choose to study in whichever university worldwide and also enable them to take part in global debates from their laptops and smartphones thanks to blogs, forums and social media platforms. Also, from a ‘Sardinian identity’ prospective, if English is the language spoken at school, the family could speak Sardinian at home without running the risk that their children would mix Sardinian and Italian which can be quite similar and which leads Sardinian pupils to make many grammar mistakes when writing in Italian.

If many more Sardinian youngsters were fluent in English, even university courses organised by the University of Cagliari or Sassari, the two universitie on the island, could be held in English, potentially by professors from other countries, thereby making the educational offer more interesting. Also, having courses taught in English would enable non-Italian speakers to be able to study in Sardinia, both as part of exchange programmes, but also for entire degree courses which in turn would be a great source of income for the universities and the entire island economy. Imagine if there were good courses in architecture taught in English, an English or American student who is used to paying over €10.000 / €20.000 for one year of tuition fees would pay a maximum of €3000 and would also have cheaper living costs. Not to mention the fact that the foreign students would love to have the chance of going to the beach when not in lectures and eating authentic pizzas and drinking Italian wine yet at the same time they would share with the locals part of their own traditions and culture which would benefit the island.

Distance learning courses could also be offered by the universities in Sardinia so that young people in the villages would not have to make a choice as to whether to study or continue their family business; they could do both. The knowledge given them through studying at university would empower them to improve and modernise their business in order for it ,not only to survive,but flourish in the modern world. This should not be too difficult to implement nowadays, as most articles and literature are available in PDF; the lectures could be streamed via video link and assignments uploaded to a student portal. The student would only need to go to the university to take exams and for certain seminars or events, but could still live and work in the inland village.

 

The Problem of the ‘Ghost Villages’ in Sardinia

In September there will be a one week course held in a rural community in the centre of Sardinia in which there will be lectures and discussions on the ever increasing problematic of ‘desertification’ of inland remote villages. As part of the application process the organisers asked me to write about what pushed me to sign up for the course and my answer was: will to learn and contribute to the discussion to find good ideas which could be, one day, put into practice.

The problem lies in the fact that communities are getting torn apart from the high levels of unemployment, lack of opportunities and future for the fact that many young people are leaving the villages to move to bigger cities in the island or go to the mainland or in other parts of Europe or the world. If one looks at the number of people who identify themselves as Sardinian I would guess almost half of them are not living in Sardinia. There has been a massive diaspora not due to war or persecution but due to another deadly factor: hunger. This does not merely mean hunger as in food deprivation as our land is fertile and we can be self-sufficient in terms of food production it is mainly hunger for opportunities, not living on the bread line and also getting in contact with the world which is portrayed via the internet and television. This phenomena is not necessarily a bad thing but there is the need, for the sake of preserving part of our identity, to strengthen these rural communities. Question is, how?

I think what is needed is a 5 step plan:

  1. Education
  2. Transport network improvements
  3. Technological improvements
  4. Incentives for start ups and businesses to open or relocate to one of the communities
  5. Better localised social and medical services for the population, especially the elderly.

Details of this plan will be further explained in the linked numbers or articles. Click on one of the five titles to read more about the specific idea to fight desertification of rural communities. If you like share the idea or drop a comment, having a debate and exchanging ideas in the hope that some concrete action takes place in order to reduce or maybe even reverse this phenomena.