Warning: this blog post contains clichéd images of stereotypical Italian holidays. Sorry, I couldn’t help it.
If I had to describe Sardinia in one word, I’d choose stunning. But since I can be as verbose as I wish (I’ve been quiet for ages!) I’ll also go with warm, incredibly varied, exotic, funny, intriguing and unforgettable.
Having mostly lived in enormous cities, I’m always surprised to find myself in fully working cities that are also manageable on foot. Alghero has 40 thousand people living by the sea (I am told this number goes up to 4 times as much in summer), and the Mediterranean is right there. You can smell it and see it from anywhere in town. It was really my civic duty to get to know their sea food properly. Luckily, our flat was just down the road from the daily fish market, which made the task less arduous. Inside the market, I ate at what is probably the restaurant with the fewest overheads in history: fresh fish from 5 minutes away, fried or barbecued. And a choice of local cold white wine.
I’m not sure if I was more excited about the market or the restaurant itself. They’re both outstanding. We spotted the Boqueria restaurant – more on that surprising Spanish influence on Alghero to come – early on a Saturday and felt very smug for having discovered such a hidden gem – only to be told to book immediately for any chance of getting a table that day. By early afternoon, the place was packed. As it so often happens in Italy, I went with what the waitress told me to, and received a plate with king prawns, squid, and a magnificent bream (orata) cooked in a crust of salt. Simply barbecued with nothing more than salt, it was all delicious, but the orata was the star of the show. The thick layer of salt kept the sweet flesh from direct heat, resulting in a moist, tender, delicate meat that held well as you picked it up, only to melt in your mouth a second later. Washed down with a bottle of prosecco, that sent me straight to a very happy holiday afternoon nap. Unfortunately, the Resident Vegetarian had to supplement his lunch with a cheese sandwich. This was the non-meat item on the menu:
Vegetarian menu shortcomings aside, that meal was one of the highlights of the week, and the market on Via Cagliari a stop I’d recommend to anyone visiting Alghero.
As for the city itself, it was full of surprises. This was my first time in Sardinia, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from Alghero. The image I had from Sardinia was exclusive beaches, remote Berlusconi villas, and intimidating millionaire tourists on dubious yacht parties. What I found on our first stop was a beautiful, lively city that has a life outside the tourism industry, although it clearly makes the best of the summer months too. I didn’t see any obvious millionaires, but I met a lot of fishermen.
The walled historic centre is reasonably well preserved, while the town that has developed around it is well planned and green, and the local beaches clean, accessible and gorgeous. Alghero was populated by Catalan settlers from the 14th century, and in its eventful history has had both Catalan and Spanish as the official language, before it went back to Italian rule in the early 1800s – well, it was then really the House of Savoy before the Italian unification, but that country has way too complicated a history for this blog. My point is, the Catalans have left a strong mark, and the local dialect heard in the streets, along with the unique architecture and local food makes the place feel very Spanish. There is a local version of paella (same name) made with the Sardinian fregola pasta; crème catalan is a ubiquitous dessert, and food names such as seadas sound decidedly un-Italian. And speaking of seadas: thinly rolled-out dough made into a large pasty, filled with fresh sweet cheese and deep fried. What can I say? Seadas are usually served with drizzled honey (I found they have an adoration of honey all over Sardinia, with menus specifying which varieties you can have: from strawberry tree honey, to rosemary, eucalyptus and chestnut), or sugar. It is an amazing dessert. Available everywhere I went, always freshly made. I had mine with sugar.
Back at the market, being left alone in that fish Disneyland for 5 minutes, I of course could not resist buying some squid and sardines, and since I was there, some Sardinian buffalo mozzarela smuggled amongst all the seafare. The mozzarella was firmer and saltier than the better known one from Campania, but still very good. We had a lovely flat with a roof terrace overlooking other terraces and gardens that looked much more tropical than Mediterranean: I had breakfast over banana trees, pomegranate and sharon fruit. Determined to use as many Sardinian ingredients as I could manage, I used the sardines with pan carasau and herbs to make a stuffing for the squid. I then barely grilled the squid just to get a bit of a smokey flavour in them, and cooked them in Vermentino white wine. To go with the squid: green fried tomatoes, the breadcrumbs crust also made with pan carasau. I am fully aware of how touristy this is, but is there anything better than a quick food shopping spree in an Italian market for a delicious, fresh and easy dinner?
A note on the bread: pan carasau is a Sardinian bread religion, and I was given a few lectures during the holiday on just why this is obviously the best and most versatile bread in the world. Of Italians I admire the passion for food, and the modesty. I must admit that I never ‘got’ pan carasau before. It is very thin, crispy, and I didn’t quite understand what to do with bread you can’t mop food with. A fortnight in Sardinia has converted me, and the stuff really is delicious.
Alghero had enough going on for a full weeks’ stay. The beaches were far above my expectations, and you would be happy if all you’re looking for is a beach break right in the middle of autumn. All it takes is a 10 minute bike ride (through pine trees!) to reach a stunning sandy beach – Pineta – almost deserted, despite the temperatures of over 25C and warm waters in late October. Walking through the beach in town, the scenery is very rugged and really wild, like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere in continental Italy. There are lots of other beautiful beach destinations, all under 10 miles away – Capocaccia being a highly recommended one, although we didn’t make it that far.
But Sardinia really is as varied as you’ll be told by any tourist brochure. We then headed to the mountains and found a whole other world, of which I’ll talk in another post. For now, I’ll keep looking at my photos and wishing I could pop round the fish market for a quick oyster feast.
Other highlights of the week in Alghero:
- Casa Del Formaggio: Via Mazzini, 43. We were treated to a sampling of pecorino by age: from 6 to 12 months, accompanied by full explanation of origin and production of each cheese by the passionate and deeply knowledgeable owner/shopkeeper.
- Our flat: through the wonder that is airbnb, we found this gem in central Alghero. The landlady, Giovanna, picked us up from the airport, gave us a city tour on the way home, and even baked us cookies! She lives in the flat downstairs with her family and my new Algherese best friend, Pongo the dog. And best of all, the flat has this dream of a pasta making table! Which I will from now on include in every birthday and Christmas wish list until I get one. A perfect base from which to explore the town, and a reminder of how shortsighted and petty New York’s attack on airbnb is. Long live airbnb and the benefits it brings to tourists, landlords and any city.
- Sardinian vermentino wine.
- Sword fish. This is my all-time favourite fish, and I tend to go crazy on it during trips to Italy, since it’s a popular fish there. At La Botteghina (Via Principe Umberto, 63), they had a sword fish carpaccio that was out of this world. Have it.
- Al Refettorio: Vicolo Adami, 47. Again, beautifully fresh swordfish cooked with capers. And a dessert I ate so quickly and so avidly the waiter asked if I’d like a second one. It was: a pistachio fondant with a warm almond and pistachio filling. Get out of here!
A special note of thanks to Luigi from Capo Caccia Foods in London, who generously shared his insider tips on his hometown of Alghero before we went – and who, bizarrely, we bumped into while there! If you’d like to try Sardinian food before you venture there, a visit to Capo Caccia will make you book your tickets in a minute.
Squid stuffed with sardines cooked in wine
I wanted to use local Sardinian ingredients for my dinner, although many of the ingredients here can be replaced. The pan carasau can be replaced by any bread. Just adjust the quantities, as the bread is there only to give some consistency to the filling. Don’t make it to doughy.
This recipe serves 2.
- 4 whole squid, cleaned, cartilage removed.
- 2 sardines, cleaned, gutted and roughly chopped
- 1/4 small fennel, chopped. Include the leaves, also chopped
- 1 small red pepper, chopped
- a few capers
- a handful of chopped parsley
- 2 chopped spring onions
- half an onion, thinly chopped
- olive oil
- 2 slices of pan carasau
- zest of 1 lemon
- 3 tbsp tomato sauce
- 1 cup of white wine
- salt and pepper to taste
Make the filling:
- cut off the squid tentacles and chop them.
- break the pan carasau into rough pieces into a small bowl and cover it with water and the tomato sauce. Mix it all and let the bread to soak while you prepare the sardines.
- fry the spring onions in 3 tbsp of oil. Add the peppers and fennel and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until tender. Add the sardines, the tentacles, some salt and pepper and cook for about 3 minutes on medium heat until the sardines are done.
- squeeze the bread to drain off the liquid and transfer it to a separate bowl. Add the prepared sardines, the lemon zest, capers, salt and pepper, and mix it well to form a paste.
Prepare the squid:
- stuff the squid with the sardine filling. Secure each squid with a toothpick.
- heat up a griddle pan and cook the squid on the highest heat for just about half a minute on each side, only enough to get a bit of colour and a smokey flavour.
- on a deep saute’/frying pan, fry the chopped onions in about 3 tbsp of olive oil until translucent. Add the squid, cook it for a couple of minutes, and cover it with the wine. Cover and cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes, until the liquid has almost entirely evaporated.