Sardinia’s pane carasau is a crisp, crunchy bit of bread magic – the thin light layers are created from flat rounds of dough that puff up in the oven, and are then carefully split in two, cooled and baked again.
“Once you discover it, you always want it,” says Pietro Porcu, owner of Melbourne restaurant Da Noi, who grew up on a farm in the south of the Italian island. “It’s part of the Sardinian table, always,” he says.
“When we are open, we use it in many, many ways,” he says. Right now, with no dining at the restaurant under COVID-19 restrictions, many of those dishes are difficult to do, but crunchy pane carasau is a key part of the charcuterie board on the Da Noi takeaway/delivery menu (you can see each menu on the restaurant's Instagram account).
Fellow chef Giovanni Pilu also loves this taste of the island where he was born. It’s served up at both of his restaurants in Sydney, Pilu at Freshwater and AcquaFresca, often getting another quick visit to the oven to add even more colour and flavour. He, too, serves it on snack plates.
In the past he's had a dish called pane frattau on the menu: pane carasau layered with tomato and topped with an egg. The recipe for that also appeared in his cookbook.
Pane carasau is one of the most common names, but there are variations right across the island, including pane carasatu and pane fresa/fressa (the name used by Pilu’s family). When Ainsley Harriott visits Sardinia in Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook, he visits a bakery in Siniscola, in the island’s north-east. There, a family bakery shows him how they make their pane carasatu. “Something I know as music bread,” Harriot says. He’s not alone – you might have also heard this crispbread called carta musica, although as Pilu explains, that name is more commonly used by mainland Italians, or other visitors to the island.
“That's an Italianised kind of name. You know the story behind that was 'oh it's really thin like paper'. And when you eat it, it makes a bit of a sound.” So, it’s a good story? “It's a great story! But we don't call it carta musica in Sardinia."
The way pane carasau is made means that even today, where many bakeries are mostly automated, there’s still one part of the process that’s very hands on. When made correctly, rounds of dough puff up in the searingly hot oven to create big, air-filled pockets. As they come out of the oven, they are flattened and carefully cut, by hand, right around the edge, creating two very thin layers of bread.
The layers are stacked and cooled, and then returned to the oven to be dried out. “You can’t mechanise that,” Pilu says. “There is no machine that can pick up this hot bread and split it in half, so it is all hand done, with a little knife.”
The breads were traditionally cooked in a wood-fired oven, but you can make them at home too – try this recipe from Matthew Evans, who leaned to make these in Sardinia, from a friend’s aunt.
As Pilu, who hails from the island’s north, explains, the dry bread often sustained shepherds who might be away from their villages for long periods of time, moving flocks of sheep around the island.
“Traditionally the bread was made for the shepherds to take when they went away with the sheep for two or three months. The bread will keep because it's completely dehydrated, you know, it's crispy. There is no moisture and that was the idea, it keeps for months.”
And while the names might vary, what the bread has in common all over the island, say both chefs, is that super-thin crispness.
“We've got different versions of flatbreads in Sardinia, but the specialty of pane carasau is to be very, very thin. So it has to be thin, crunchy and crumbly when you eat it,” Porcu says.
“The thinner the crispier, and the lighter,” says Pilu. "So, the trick is always to buy or make the thinnest bread. Like anything, though, some people like it in one way or the other. But for me personally and for my family, it's always how thin the bread is. My father is crazy about that. It's got to be thin, and the second cooking, it has to be well cooked, because it gets obviously more golden colour, it becomes crispier, it's got more flavour."
Traditionally, Porcu explains, the bread was made by groups of women. “Almost only by ladies that are, like, quite grown up and not young anymore, and they don't let anyone touch it, it was like a really important happening.“ The skill is passed down, even today, from mother to daughter, or to other young people keen to learn, just as Porcu's mother is teaching kitchen skills to his daughrer. "Sardinia is very proud of what we do and what we have. And so we make sure that we pass on."
"Sardinia is very proud of what we do and what we have. And so we make sure that we pass on."
Pilu knows well how much skill is involved – he used to make pane carasau at a bakery he ran alongside a previous restaurant he had in Sydney. You could do everything the same he says, and yet sometimes the dough rounds just didn’t puff up. These days, both chefs use bread imported from Sardinia, for a genuine pane carasau taste.
There are many ways to enjoy pane carasau. In one of the most common, the sheets are moistened with some olive oil and a little salt and toasted on a grill, in an oven or even over a flame.
Pane frattau, made by softening the sheets of bread then layering them with a tomato sauce, and topping with poached eggs, was an easy meal to make for tired workers – “When shepherds came back after hard day, for dinner it was easier to do one meal and put it in the centre of the table rather than multiple dishes,“ says Pilu. “And think about it, it's got bread, it's got tomato, it's got protein, which is the egg. Then you've got cheese - you've got everything.”
“One of the things that we do at home, we most moisten it with water. And then it becomes soggy. So we have the soggy bread for lunch - we'll have a tub of water in the middle of the table, and the bread it's just in water, not with oil or salt or anything, just plain. And then my father and I, and the family, you know, we put the bread in the water and it becomes soggy and then we use the bread with things, and to mop up sauces.”
And Porcu’s favourite way to eat it? “Oh, in a million ways!” But two in particular, he says: One is the classic, with oil and salt; the other is with bottarga (salted, cured fish roe): “Warm up the bread really fast on a grill or maybe straight in the flame, to revive it… and then, grated bottarga, lemon juice, little bit of pepper and then crunch, crunch, just talking to your friends and having some vermentino!”
Inspired to get cooking? Find our collection of bread recipes here.
A traditional dish of Sardinia, culurgiones are made on special occasions, like the end of harvest and the Day of the Dead (1 November), and they are given to others as a symbol of friendship.
These charming little saffron-scented, star-shaped, honey-brushed ricotta pastries are typical of Sardinia.
This pie owes its heritage to the isolated and rural Italian island of Sardinia where simple, homely dishes are often cooked. You can also make smaller, individual pies and bake them for about 50 minutes instead. The hot-water pastry is lovely and flavoursome and will lift your pie to great heights. If you can’t find duck or goose fat, use 100 g lard with the butter, instead, and the result is nearly as good.
Also known as sebadas, these Sardinian deep-fried pastries are filled with fresh pecorino and drizzled with honey. They were originally eaten by shepherds as a main course and a way of using up their abundance of sheep’s-milk cheese. Sardinia has a long history of honey production, with many producers still using traditional cork beehives. Honey varieties include chestnut, asphodel and thistle, but corbezzolo, a bittersweet variety native to Sardinia, is traditionally used for this dish. As it is difficult to find in Australia, we've used chestnut honey instead.
I can’t remember where I first heard about this dish, but I was in a Sardinian frame of mind and I had lamb, I had saffron and I had potatoes. It tastes kind of like a Mediterranean goulash.
Fregola is another distinctively Sardinian ingredient. It is a type of semolina-based pasta, similar to couscous, that is used in soups and stuffings. Here, Giovanni uses it to take rice pudding to a whole new level.