Guest Blog Post by Sarah Black (see her bio at the end of the article).
Sardinia is an old land, with thin, rocky soil, scrubby trees twisted by the wind, and a landscape covered with lavender, rosemary, and wild thyme. The interior has very little fresh water or arable land. The wind smells like salt and dried grass and sunshine on granite… A perfect place to raise sheeps and to make traditional sheep’s milk cheeses, like Fiore Sardo, Pecorino and ricottas.
Tourists tend to stay along the coast, where the gorgeous, empty Mediterranean beaches and isolated coves and islands lure people to play in the water. But a trip through the interior, and you’ll go back to a slower time, a time measured by seasons and the movement of shepherds and flocks of sheep. The landscape is dotted by old gray granite churches, rustic farmsteads and the prehistoric ruins called Nuragi.
Most of the farmsteads are outside of the small towns that dot the interior, but every village has a square with a church and a cafe to visit. Locals will point you to the ruins, and may settle in to tell you a story over an espresso.
The farms serve artichokes in the spring, asparagus with lemon, tiny salads with bitter greens. On the outdoor barbecue is meat, a roast suckling pig or a piece of mutton or goat; some risotto with musky truffles and mushrooms; or tiny new potatoes with parsley and butter. And with every course they serve Sardinian cheese.
Some farmsteads are famous for their Fiore Sardo, a raw sheep’s milk hard cheese aged at least 6 months. It is traditionally made from the single milking of a unique flock, so individual shepherds and farmsteads are proud of the terroir of their Fiore, which reflects the unique mix of herbs and scrub that cover the farmland. It is a rich, nutty, complex and delightful cheese that hints of figs and caramel. A great deal of traditional Fiore Sardo never leaves the farmsteads where it is made.
Pecorino is the traditional sheep’s milk cheese that can be both grated and melted into a number of traditional dishes, as well as simple eating from a cheese tray. When young, the pecorino is a lovely pale yellow with a light, lemony flavor; as it matures, the pecorino develops enhanced nuttiness, with a rich salty flavor that is quite unique to the farmstead and continues to develop as it ages. Many Sardinians prefer pecorinos over parmigianos. A traditional cheese plate will include a Fiore or two, as well as a new pecorino and several aged pecorinos. Traditional Sardinian meals also always include ricottas.
Sheep’s Milk Ricotta
Sheep’s milk ricotta is a local specialty, and is made for both fresh eating and as salted and aged cheese that can be grated and melted in pasta or risotto. Ricotta is usually made and packed into small woven baskets. A traditional desert is fresh ricotta with candied orange peel and wild thyme honey, eaten with a spoon, or sliced and eaten with figs and fresh grapes. Tiny lavender flowers are sometimes sprinkled over the honey and cheese. Some bakers slice or spoon some fresh ricotta over a piece of pound cake, layered with lemon curd.
How to Travel to Sardinia and Discover their Local Food and Cheeses
A large ferry moves between Olbia, on the northeastern coast, and Rome on a regular basis, and other ferries move between Corsica and Sardinia. The ferry gives visitors time to admire the gorgeous sea and slow down a bit. To move to Sardinian time, though, visit a farmstead, and take a walk into the hills with the shepherd and his flock. After your afternoon’s rest, watch the sun set from the porch, and listen to the farmers discuss this year’s sheep, the new lambs, the milk, and how the cheese is coming. If you look hungry, someone will give you a tiny bowl of fresh ricotta with candied orange peel, and maybe a sweet biscuit.
There are a number of sites that can direct travelers to various agriturismo sites. These are working farms, and can usually take visitors during spring and summer. Some provide multi-course feasts on the weekends, with lighter meals during the week. Notices tend to be local; the village trattoria or coffee shop will usually know what is planned.
The farmsteads that are agriturismo offer different types of accommodations, including a room with full board, half board, or just the room. Often they put up wooden signs by the road that say, agriturismo. The joy of staying on one of the farmsteads is eating the fresh produce, the meats and eggs from the livestock, eating tiny cakes and sweets baked by a farm wife, and especially, tasting the local cheeses.