Sardinia's north reveals itself to the discerning gourmand
by Elizabeth Willoughby
Although Sardinia is Italy's (and the Mediterranean Sea's) second largest island, next to Sicily, it might be one of Italy's least known areas, especially to foreigners. Italians are attracted to Sardinia's white sand beaches and clear Mediterranean waters with no sharks, tides or undercurrents.
Its north region has some unique qualities even lesser known than the island in general, where curiosities exist such as albino donkeys, and ancient constructions that date back to the bronze age, but also true-to-tradition cuisine and quality wines, which may have something to do with why Sardinia can boast one of the world's highest number of centenarians. It is also influenced by the fact that this land broke away from France, so Sardinia's terroir does not mimic the rest of Italy's.
Only 30 minutes from the Alghero airport, from the coast, and from several sites worth visiting in northern Sardinia, Sassari is the unofficial capital of the north. Steeped in history, culture and traditions different from the rest of the country, Sassari's old town is a great place to spend an afternoon strolling around the neoclassical architecture in the city with one of the best climates in the world.
Sassari's atmosphere is hard to describe in a word. It's not so slow as to be 'laid back', the influx of its university's youth does not make the city edgy, its commercial importance doesn't make downtown a bustling office space, and its proximity to the coast does not make it touristy. It's not even 'joie de vivre' Italian style. It's simply Sassaresian-love-of-home-and-life style. They even have a name for it – cionfra: life is to live, eat, joke and sing. Eating, as one of cionfra's elements, should not be underestimated.
Northern Sardinian cuisine is actually quite simple and is linked to the farms in surrounding towns, where produce is grown and animals are raised in traditional methods, most often yielding only enough for local needs. Dishes are based mainly around vegetables, such as artichoke, aubergine, onion and broad bean, and accompanied by haslet of lamb and pork, fruits from trees, soups, breads (there are over 400 different varieties in Sardinia), and cheeses, particularly from sheep milk. Closer to the sea, fresh fish, seas urchins, lumache (various types of snails), moscardini (small spiced octopus), baccala (codfish), and sardines also play an important role in dishes. Naturally, the wines from northwestern Sardinia have a strong presence at mealtime as well.
Reportedly, a study by the University of Sassari says that northern Sardinian products have a better nutritional value than imported products sold in supermarkets. Once you see a few family farm operations, it's not surprising. Production by old fashioned means also preserves the natural flavors, undistorted by modern technology and chemicals. You'd be hard pressed, however, to get a taste of it on the mainland. There isn't enough to 'export'.
As dictated by cionfra, the last elements that typify a Sassaresian meal are live music performed by local musicians, and laughing and joke telling. Pick a trattoria and try it. Besides the music and frivolity, expect several plates with dishes such as sausage and cow cheese on spianata bread, granelli (battered bulls balls with artichoke), fava with pork, and pork liver with regional olive oil, then wild fennel soup, homemade pasta ricotta salad with salted sheep cheese and tomato sauce with red wine, followed by lamb in tomato sauce, and several other plates until it's time for dessert. Trattoria La VelaLatina in downtown Sassari is a worthy choice.
Other day trips you should take from your beach house in northern Sardinia:
• Alghero's Mediaeval downtown, the walled city is surrounded by bastions over the bay. After walking the wall, check out the Middle Age streets, where there are cafes, restaurants and abundant shopping opportunities, particularly for red coral jewellery.
• Visit 12th-century Castelsardo, another Mediaeval walled city. The castle, museum, and church still stand atop a steep maze of narrow residential streets overlooking the new port and neighborhoods. Try to catch a Gregorian choir presentation at the church if possible.
• If you want to catch a Sassaresian festival, time your visit accordingly. The third Sunday in May is when 200-year-old Cavalcata Sarda takes place, a parade of traditional folk costumes on foot and on horseback. Candelieri, each August 14, is the parade of candle men. This 500-year-old celebration shows each group carrying tall, wooden candles with their guild's sign attached, through the streets to the Church of Santa Maria (recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage of humanity).
• Visit the Nuraghe Santu Antine at Torralba – one of the best preserved nuraghes, a beehive-like stone structure from the bronze age, only existing in Sardinia.
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