On a warm night with friends in Sardinia’s capital Cagliari, Alessandro, an avowed food lover and member of Slow Food Sardinia, scribbles his list of the best food pilgrimages on the island. As he writes, we devour some of the most unusual pizzas I’ve ever eaten – schiacciata – like a crisp pizza sandwich filled with local cheeses and herbs.
Alessandro’s list becomes the most precious piece of paper for the next five days as we drive around the twisting roads of the island, through incredible mountain passes and around hairpin bends to seek out his 'great finds’ – those treasured places creating some of the best regional food available. Often hidden down alleyways or up a dirt track, finding them and sampling their food is one of the great joys of my life.
I’m on a mission to put together an itinerary for Sardinia and Corsica for a group who had travelled to Greece with us in 2009. They loved travelling together and wanted a new experience to share, so the idea of finding a 'same same but different’ experience came to us. How about finding two islands with distinctly different food, culture, language, coffee, wine, music and bread? What could be more perfect than Sardinia (Italy) and Corsica (France), just 13 kilometres apart?
My partner Toufic and I squeeze into a tiny Fiat Panda, and, along with Alessandro’s list in hand, we are joined by a marvellous local guide – Sardinian-born Melbourne chef Pietro Porcu (of Da Noi, South Yarra and the Tea Rooms in Yarck) who is visiting his mother and keen to help us create a perfect sample of his homeland for food-lovers. He is wonderful to work with and incredibly exacting – the food must be first class, the people welcoming and a great example of what Sardinia is about. Near enough simply isn’t good enough.
Pietro knows a perfect restaurant tucked behind high stone walls in a village on the west of the island. After walking through twisting cobblestone streets, we reach its heavy wooden doors, bang on the large brass knocker, and enter a stone courtyard with fruit trees and wafts of wonderful cooking aromas. It is perfect for our group and we decide to spend two nights there. We arrange for Pietro to do a special cooking class with the restaurant’s chef Roberto, who blends Sardinian ingredients with flair. One of the entrees we are served is traditional Sardinian flatbread carta di musica (music paper) with slices of pecorino. The bread and cheese are melted in a hot oven and drizzled with the adored Sardinian honey corbezzolo. It’s Sardinia on a plate.
Then, there’s chef Pietro’s beautiful mother Maria who cooks us a five-course lunch complete with home-cured salami and hand-rolled pasta. Spending time in her warm kitchen is a joy, and we weave her into our journey, planning a demonstration of sweets and biscuits in her large sunny garden full of fruit trees. Maria beckons me into her pantry to show me some of the food she has made over the seasons. This is a woman who even makes her own vino cotto (reduced grape must, often used in a similar way to balsamic vinegar) using prickly pear, which you see all over the island. It’s a long process of peeling the fruit, chopping and then boiling it down to a rich syrup – and it often means staying up all night. The result is sweet and mellow, and unlike anything you can buy commercially.
According to Pietro, Sardinian food is "pure and clean, sincere, simple and based on good produce". Over the years, invaders and visitors alike have left their recipes and ways of eating – Arabic, Spanish and Italian (particularly the merchants and sailors from Genoa). "But the flavours stay true to themselves," says Pietro. "People respect the purity of flavours in Sardinian olive oil, in our meat, and every part of an animal is used as a sign of respect"¦ suckling pig, one of our favourite dishes, is always served whole – removing the head would be frowned upon," he explains.
Pasta is everywhere, but the Sardinians do it differently, making their version of ravioli stuffed with ricotta, or potato, pecorino and mint, while their pasta sauces are often made with game meat such as wild boar or rabbit.
Aside from the taste, Sardinian food must contain some amazing properties, considering the high ratio of centenarians on the island. Living to an active and happy 110 years old here is not unusual.
Italy is a nation of distinct regions and Sardinia has a number of treasured regional dishes that must be sampled. Pietro helps us find one of the kings of suckling pig on the island. His name is Bruno Paba, a smiling solid man whose little restaurant is tucked away on the back street of a small town. He has a rule that most of his produce must be sourced within a 10-km radius, because the flavour is better, he says, and is simply cheaper with rising fuel costs. 'I always go and taste things myself before I buy, and if I like something, I’ll get it," he says.
The low-food-miles model is also followed at the magnificent hotel and country resort Su Gologone – one of Alessandro’s must-visit food destinations. It is snuggled beneath an impressive ridge of mountains, and nice and close to the turquoise beaches on the east of the island, on the Golfo di Orosei.
Here, the open fires roast 15 suckling pigs at a time, while the kitchen turns out the most perfect handmade pasta. I fall in love with the silky spelt flour tagliatelle dressed with fresh tomatoes and basil. The gnocchetti with wild boar is also delicious, but the standout is the capretto (kid goat) slow-braised with fennel. It is subtle, falling-off-the-bone tender and a dish you would happily cross the world for.
While the cuisine of Sardinia is hard to turn away from, the Gallic flavours of Corsica beckon. It takes less than an hour to cross the narrow strait separating the islands. As you come closer to Corsica, huge white cliffs loom up out of the sea. The ancient walled city of Bonifacio greets us with its huge stone buildings perched on the cliff with the old stone walls and ramparts high above. We sail into a cove, with the cliffs and their secret caves close on each side.
All of a sudden, we switch from Italian to French, from caffè latte to café au lait, from carta di musica to baguettes. There is much that’s the same though – both islands make their own magnificent smallgoods (curing prosciutto and jambon, making salami and saucisson); both grow wild myrtle, which is used to make liqueurs and cure meat; both have chestnut trees and festivals associated with them; they both grow wild fennel, artichokes and asparagus; and both have a tradition of hunting wild game – boar, hare, rabbit and partridge.
We’re guided in Corsica by another list of 'must-visits’ – this time courtesy of my French cousin’s sister-in-law, France (yes, France), a biologist based in the university mountain city of Corte. She instantly understands exactly what we are looking for. We drive from the exquisite beaches around Porto-Vecchio to the mountains in just over an hour, traversing through stands of pine forest, up winding mountain roads towards the mountain peaks, which are covered in snow in winter. France has told us about a spectacular little place that grows all its own vegetables, cures its own pork, and raises everything served at their restaurant – including the vegetables, cows, sheep and pigs. At a handmade wooden table on their stone terrace with a glass of good Corsican rosé in hand and that fresh mountain air, it definitely captures our hearts.
Using France’s list, we also meet the doyenne of Corsican cuisine – Gisèle Lovichi and her daughter Marie-Pierre who runs the front of house in their beautiful open-plan restaurant built around a sweep of garden just below the mountain town of Sartène. She loves to use local produce in her menu – wild myrtle features in her exquisite pork terrine, and local cheese and wine are also served.
Corsican food, says Gisèle, is traditionally dark and heavy, but in the hands of a female chef, it’s lighter and sings with flavour. It sounds like a boast until you take a spoonful of her soupe paysanne (peasant soup) made with local vegetables. It is magnificent, hearty and served in a generous tureen with freshly cooked bread.
Soup, especially the Corsican fish soup, is delicious. We remark that the full-flavoured soupe de poisson (fish soup) served with rouille and baguette is bouillabaisse. "No, no, no," we are informed with pride. 'It is Corsican, not French!" Then there’s the Corsican cannelloni using local cheese with a dash of fresh tomato sauce: 'No, not from the Italians – this is pure Corsican!"
That independent spirit is also apparent in the wonderful wines produced on both of the islands – here are grape varieties that only exist in Sardinia and Corsica, blended with skill and finesse to create wines that are distinctive and impressive. At Cantine Argiolas in Sardinia, we taste their rich red turriga, which is simply magnificent.
At the biodynamic Abbatucci winery on the slopes of southern Corsica, winemaker Jean-Charles Abbatucci shows off his vineyard with its wide views of the plains below. He has been biodynamic for 12 years and has spent years cultivating and grafting the old vines of the region – grape varieties that are hundreds of years old.
Around the periphery of the property, the Corsican bush is lush and filled with fragrant myrtle bushes, wild lavender, fennel and the immortelle flowers that are often used in cosmetics. Jean-Charles says those wild fragrances are nuanced in his wines. Like everyone involved in food and wine on our journey, there’s a poetry in the way that connection with the land is described.
The delight for me is in discovering wonderful places and people, and introducing them to like-minded souls. As the Sardinians say, "Deus t’accumpangidi e a sa patti"" – good luck and good appetite!
The next Gourmet Safaris Sardinia and Corsica tour runs from 24 September–5 October. Visit gourmetsafaris.com.au.
The hit list
Enjoy a morning stroll through San Benedetto Market, then explore the cobblestone streets around the marina area with its great little restaurants. For seafood, try Lillicu (78 Via Sardegna, lillicu.com). Climb up to the Bastione di San Remy for a view of the city, then have coffee at Antico Caffè (Piazza Costituzione, anticocaffe1885.it).
Head to Il Caminetto and try the speciality, bottarga (mullet roe). 8 Via Battisti; ristorante-ilcaminetto.com.
Enjoy a wander around this beautiful Spanish-style town, then dine at Ristorante La Lepanto di Cecchini on the waterfront. 135 Via Carlo Alberto.
Enjoy great fresh food at L’Archivolto in the old town, in an ancient house with antiques and bric-a-brac. 2 Rue Archivolto.
Visit the beautiful Auberge Santa Barbara – home of chef Gisèle Lovichi and her wonderful Corsican food. santabarbara.fr.
Don’t miss Tempi Fà – a huge underground barn with wood fires and great charcuterie. 22 Cours Paoli.
Photography by Toufic Charabati.