I’m writing from the island of Sardinia, off the west coast of Italy, where the food is just as stunning and unique as the beaches. Seafood is the key here, and fresh fish can be bought straight off the boat from local fisherman as well as in the markets. In addition to the seafood, Sardinia, like all regions in Italy, has its own distinct culinary traditions, including a flat bread called Pane Carasau, a cous-cous-like pasta called Fregola, a fried cheese dessert served with honey called Seadas, and a wide range of other confectionary delights.
One of the more particular local specialties is a traditional sheep milk cheese that contains live maggots, called Casu Marzu. While I did not try the maggot cheese, there were a plethora of other local dairy products to make up for my lack of bravery, including Pecorino Sardo, smoked Scamorza and “cagliata di latte“, or milk that had gone off and thickened into clumps that was served with honey. There is also a plethora of sweets and biscotti – one that I have found to be especially intriguing is the Tiricche, pictured below. Agriturismo restaurants are another gastronomic pleasure – these are rural restaurants usually located on farms that use organic products grown by the owners themselves.
Tiricche: A sweet typical of Northern Sardinia and found during Easter, made of a puff pastry, ground almonds, orange grind, and sapa (cooked wine)
I’m staying in a village near Porto Rotondo, a small city on the northeastern Sardinian coast. Luckily for me, I have the benefit of a real Italian mamma, the Italian’s mother, from whom I can learn some authentic Sardinian-style cooking. While the Italian and his family are not from Sardinia, they have spent every summer in the vicinity of Porto Rotondo for the past 30 years. One of the first things we cooked is Bianchetti Fritti, or Fried Bianchetti.
Bianchetti are a tiny sardine-like fish that can be bought at a market or fished with a net straight out of the sea. They are not unique to Sardinia and are found along various Mediterranean coastlines, but they are a staple on the menus of most fish restaurants on the island. Fishing them is one of the Italian’s favorite childhood memories from his summers spent in Sardinia, and as such we decided to go the adventurous route and break out the fishing net rather than buy them from a market.
The Italian and his fishing net
Catching fish in a net is actually harder than it sounds, and the first time we went out we came back empty handed, as it was midday and the fish weren’t hungry for the bread we were using to lure them out. The second time we went out again around 6 pm and they were everywhere. Picking them off the net was the hardest part – they were very wiggly and slippery and kept trying to jump out of our container! But at the end we came back satisfied and with enough fish for a good antipasto.
Our catch of the day
Cooking the fish is surprisingly easy, although eating them is not for the squirmish. The bianchetti are so small that it would be impossible to clean and gut them, and therefore you simply eat them whole – eyes, innards, scales and all. The recipe we used didn’t have any exact measurements but was done by feel and eye – the way a real Italian mamma cooks.
Bianchetti Fritti (Fried Bianchetti)
Place Bianchetti in sieve and rinse under cold running water. Let them air dry or pat dry with paper towel.
Heat vegetable oil in a pan.
Toss the Bianchetti in a bowl of flour until evenly covered. Fry them in pan until golden brown (about 3-4 minutes), shuffling them constantly in the pan. Be careful not to stir them or they will break. Remove from pan and place on paper towels to soak up excess oil.
Serve hot with lemon or lime.