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Flavors of Sardinia: Roasted Cheese, Bitter Honey

May 17, 2012

(Photo by david.niknvscanon)

I watched Anthony Bourdain’s Sardinia episode of No Reservations the other night. It made for an interesting episode since his wife Ottavia’s father grew up there. I had 2 main thoughts. One, the cuisine there rather sophisticated. For all the talk about times being tough, they sure use a variety of ingredients and cooking techniques – it’s probably because, as Anthony Bourdain likes to say,  invasions are good for food. And two, how had I never heard of roasted cheese with honey before? Anthony raved about it, and I was practically drooling. I didn’t know that was a thing. I googled, and indeed, it’s included in the  cookbook “Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey: The Mediterranean Flavors of Sardinia”, which I then knew I’d have to check out.

They ate this treat at an “agriturismo” – basically an Italian farm that caters to tourists by lodging or feeding them, or both. It’s agritourism that in this case refers specifically to staying on a farm in Italy, which according to the number of sites online that help you find a farm for your next holiday, is a pretty popular thing.

Watch from 10:57 for the agriturismo scene, including the heavenly roasted cheese:

I was hooked. And not only did I flip through the above-mentioned Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey Cookbook, I pretty much read it. It’s a wonderful introduction to Sardinia’s food and culture by a true Sardinian, Efisio Farris.

Sardinia is an autonomous region of Italy, and the second largest island in the Mediterranean. Interestingly, a very large percentage of its population lives to be centurions. National Geographic reported in 2005 that “residents of Okinawa, Sardinia, and Loma Linda, California, live longer healthier lives than just about anyone else on Earth.”

A Nation of Shepherds

Although you’d think that being an island, Sardinia would be big on fish and seafood, fishing this is only a relatively recent development. The staples of the diet are actually meat, cheese, and pasta. Sardinians have historically shied away from the waters, since the coastlines were frequently raided. And it is due to all this raiding that Sardinian cuisine varies so much from mainland Italy, with its Roman, Arabian, Moorish, Catalan, and other Mediterranean influences. So although Sardinians enjoy their seafood, Sardinia is actually known as a nation of shepherds, where sheep outnumber people three to one.

It’s no surprise then that sheep’s cheese, pecorino, is the most popular Sardinian cheese. There are countless variations of pecorino, with flavors varying from region to region and according to the length of the aging process. If you’ve had Pecorino Romano, chances are it was from Sardinia since it produces the majority of the world’s supply.

Bottarga, Honey, and Myrtle

Other than the pecorino, Sardinia is known for a few primal-friendly specialties:

  • Bottarga: the salted, pressed and air-dried fish roe, known as Sardinian caviar. The orange colored, sausage shaped delicacy gives a distinct Sardinian flavor to dishes, and can be incorporated into just about anything, or eaten on its own.
  • Honey: used frequently to flavor and sweeten dishes. Two honeys are uniquely Sardinian:
    • Miele amaro (bitter honey): I’m fascinated by bitter honey, which is said to have a complex flavor: “a deep yet fleeting sweetness, followed by an appealingly bitter aftertaste.” It is made from the flowers of wild strawberry trees. The process of making this honey takes the bees twice as long as for regular honey, and the flowers are only open for two weeks of pollination.
    • Abbamele: a honey and pollen reduction made by pressing honeycombs to extract the honey and pollen together. The honey is then reduced in copper pots to create a thick semi-sweet honey, commonly used on salads and desserts.
  • Myrtle: a small shrub which grows all over Sardinia. Its leaves, berries, oil and wood is used to flavor everything.

The cookbook confirmed what Anthony Bourdain joked about: all Sardinians seem to carry a knife. It’s always handy in case, while strolling the countryside, they come across some chicory, fennel, or other treat that grows wildly in abundance, or to slice off a piece of prosciutto or pecorino as a snack.

Other commonly eaten foods are artichokes (did you know that artichokes can be eaten raw?), olive oil, tomatoes, and figs. Also, eating nose-to-tail is commonplace in Sardinia, so that none of the animal goes to waste. There were plenty of recipes in the cookbook for tripe, liver, and sweetbreads. And yes, in case you were wondering, sardines are abundant in Sardinia :)

Roasted Cheese Recipe

As for that roasted cheese that inspired this post… The cookbook has a recipe for “Roasted cheese with pane carasu and bitter honey”, which is often served at the end of dinner. Pane Carasu is Sardinia’s trademark flatbread. Ideally, the cheese is roasted over a fire, but if you were to prepare this at home, you could bake the cheese on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper for 5 minutes, and then broiling it for 2 more minutes. You then drizzle warm bitter honey over the cheese (mild Pecorino Sardo or other pecorino cheese is recommended).

Mmmmm….

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie May 18, 2012 at 4:22 PM

The bitter honey intrigues me. I think I need to travel to Sardinia in order to try it! The thought of bitter honey served with roasted cheese sounds like a match made in heaven! P

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[email protected] May 18, 2012 at 7:07 PM

I know…. I am definitely going to be on the lookout for it.. although really, I’d also love to go to Sardinia :)

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M. October 26, 2012 at 6:59 AM

Excellent reading. Very detailed and particularly good.
Here in Sardinia we have a dessert which uses bitter honey as an ingredient: Seadas. They are round pastries (no sugar) filled with cheese and lemon zest, served hot with bitter honey.

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[email protected] October 27, 2012 at 6:23 AM

Thanks for stopping by and commenting – it’s neat to hear from someone who actually lives in Sardinia :) And that dessert filling sounds pretty awesome!

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M. October 26, 2012 at 10:49 AM

By the way… our main source of protein comes from cheese and pulses (broad beans, chickpeas, lentils, fave secche = dry broad beans), not meat.
We tend to eat meat in moderation, a couple of times a week, certainly not every day.

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