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The sweets of Sardinia

The island of Sardinia has a sugary secret — a tradition of sweet-making that spans generations. Whether in quiet hillside villages or over the counter of beloved city bakeries, dolci sardi can be found in all their guises

The sweets of Sardinia
Sweets at Panetteria Antico Forno Dolci Sardi in Cagliari. Image: Karolina Wiercigroch

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“Assaggia, assaggia!” Plump, sugar-coated white gueffus twinkle like pearls on the tray in Elena Piccioni’s small, wrinkled hands. “Dai, assaggia! Try one!” With a smile like that, I can hardly say no.

I pop one into my mouth, and the squidgy sphere starts to fall apart, leaving me with all the fragrant, grainy sweetness of marzipan, only headier.

“Ti è piaciuto?” she asks, grinning. “Do you like it?”

It’s an emphatic nod, but I have to pace myself — there’s more to come.

I’ve come to the Piccioni sisters’ shop, Sorelle Piccioni, in Quartu Sant’Elena, a town just outside Cagliari. It’s a kitschy step back to the ’70s, with its wallpaper and lace, and I suspect the place has hardly changed since it was opened almost half a century ago.

“We used to make dolci for our fellow churchgoers,” says Elena. “But just for fun. Then our priest told us that he liked them so much and demanded we open a school to teach our skills to the locals.”

The local appetite shows no sign of waning, if the steady stream of regulars popping their heads round the door is anything to go by. And while the ladies might still be keeping the town’s dentists in business, they’ve come a long way from making cakes for the parish priests: hanging on the wall are various snaps of Elena and her sister, Mariolina, with each of the last three popes. I comment on the sun-bleached photographs. Elena’s coy but there’s a twinkle in her eye. Something tells me nothing’s quite come close to John Paul II tasting her amaretti biscuits.

“Try this.” She hands me a papassina — a dark little cake topped with white icing and sprinkles. “Raisins, spices, toasted almonds, two types of honey, citrus — the more citrus, the better — and sapa.” I ask about the latter and Elena produces a jar of viscous, red-brown liquid from the kitchen. “Sapa’s a grape syrup,” she explains, as I smell its treacly, fruity aroma. “But we have to make it with the grapes’ first press. And, oh, it takes time…” She shakes her head, hands raised. “Ten hours! We’ll boil down 10 litres of wine for just 250ml of sapa.”

It seems some things can’t be rushed. In the kitchen, Mariolina takes five with a glass of water. She’s been rolling and wrapping hundreds of gueffus by hand all afternoon. In 36C heat like this, it’s thirsty work.

“We’re preparing for a wedding in France at the moment,” Elena tells me as I try an S-shaped meringue that crumbles into sugary shards as I bite into it. Even for my sweet tooth, it’s a little cloying. “We’re making 10 kilos of dolci for the happy couple,” she exclaims.

Behind the counter are mounds of beautiful, ivory-white creations made from almond paste: scarpine (pixie-sized shoes; they bring good luck, Elena tells me), hearts and shells. And, although the sisters make everything by hand, they don’t seem at all fazed by the task they’re faced with. “We made 60kg of dolci for Milan Expo in 2015,” she says rather coolly. A wedding, then, should be a piece of cake.

Scarpine at Sorelle Piccioni. Image: Karolina Wiercigroch

Fat of the land
Given my soft spot for all things sweet, I’ve definitely travelled to the right place. Dolci sardi have been a mainstay of Sardinia’s cuisine for centuries; recipes that tap into an ancient larder of nuts, honey, fruit and flowers remain unchanged, having been passed through the skilled hands of housewives for countless generations. People I talk to coo over their favourite sweets, many of which are attached to memories of certain celebrations — carnival, Easter, weddings and baptisms. And, judging by the number of bakeries and pastry shops I pass, it’s an age-old tradition in no danger of dying out.

Having left Quartu Sant’Elena, I follow the old road to San Vito as it twists up the mountains like a snake — on one side, a steep valley, its pebbly floor tracing a parched river; on the other, prickly pear cacti and forests of twisted oak and cork. I pull over to stretch my legs. The road is deserted. A falcon circles high above. Cicadas chirp so loudly in the hot scrub they sound like whirring bicycle wheels. It seems incongruous that I’m exploring this rugged corner of the island in pursuit of dainty sweets; something more rustic — cheese, meat or foraged berries — would be more fitting.

In San Vito, Monica Farris shows me around the Fratelli Marteddu factory as a 10-strong team puts the final touches to today’s bakes: tiny silver balls, sprinkles and white icing. The Marteddu brothers — Dino, Sandro and Piero — opened their first bakery in the town in the ’80s and now own a (rather apt) baker’s dozen of shops across the region.

“Ah, one of our bestsellers,” says Monica with a smile, picking up an amaretti biscuit: a fat, golden dome studded with a single almond. I take a bite; its perfectly baked, macaron-like crust gives way to spongy, amandine filling.

“We make these with almonds and a little lemon zest, because they grow around here,” she says. “But if you go higher into the mountains, they’ll make something similar with hazelnuts or chestnuts. It’s all about using what’s available.”

Elisa — one of the brothers’ daughters — shows me their Sardinia-shaped ciambella biscuits. Their crumbly texture reminds me of shortbread. But where’s the butter? “We still use lard. It’s tradition,” she explains. “In older times, butter was difficult to make and store — especially with this climate — but lard was easy. Not everyone had a cow to make butter, either, but everyone kept pigs, from which they could make lard.”

Before I leave, I taste a pardula — a small cake made with ricotta, eggs and orange zest, wrapped in a thin dough that’s not too dissimilar to fresh pasta. Again, there’s no butter in the dough — only lard and deference to tradition.

sardinian sweets

Making ciambelle biscuits at Fratelli Marteddu, San Vito. Image: Karolina Wiercigroch

A taste of tradition
A couple of hours north, Antonietta Marotto hacks away at huge, marble-white slabs of sticky torrone on the counter of her shop with frightening ease. She’d make a good butcher.

“Torrone’s made all over Sardinia, but nobody really knows how it first came to be made here,” she says. Her family’s shop in the hillside village of Tonara sells little else other than this marshmallowy nougat studded with nuts. “It was probably brought over by the Spanish but we don’t know when or how,” she adds. Chewing on the torrone recalls sweet memories of turrón from Spain: brittle, almond-heavy bars sandwiched between rice paper. But this is quite different.

“Sardinian torrone is softer, and that’s the honey,” says her son, Angelo, who helps with the business. “We always use Sardinian honey, and we try to use local nuts as much as we can. It makes a difference.”

“We’re great lovers of tradition,” his mother chimes in, “so we only make three types of torrone: hazelnut, walnut and almond. The recipe — just nuts, honey and egg white — has never changed.”

The recipe may not have changed, but then neither have the owners. Just over a hundred years ago, Angelo’s grandfather, Pietro, sold his torrone at local festivals (feste) from his horse and cart. The business was passed to his son, Costantino, who opened a shop five years after marrying Antonietta in 1972. Of course, while the recipe hasn’t changed, some things have gone a little more 21st century. “We don’t use a horse and cart for the feste anymore,” Angelo assures me. “Now we use a little van.”

It’s a good thing they’ve done away with the cart, I reflect, as I tackle the steep, winding drive out of Tonara. I catch distant, cobalt glimpses of the Tyrrhenian Sea between the hills as the road then descends into the quiet town of Oliena. It’s here that the pastry chef Bastiana Deiana plies her trade; harvesting the fruits of the local woods for her sweets — not just oranges or lemons but pompia: a grapefruit-sized, knobbly yellow citrus exclusive to this corner of the island.

“Pompia used to grow in my father’s garden when I was a child,” Bastiana tells me. “It’s very unique. When you pick it, it has a bitter taste, but with a bit of work it becomes sweet and delicious.”

Laid out in paper cases at her shop, Dolci Idee, are lurid orange slicks of pompia peel, already boiled and dried, ready to be blanketed with honey. “They’re very simple — and very good,” Bastiana enthuses. “Really, I could eat slice after slice and not get fat. I’m like a toothpick.”

As I’ve now come to expect, there are rules to making this particular delicacy. “I don’t use any old crap,” she insists. “Sardinian honey only! Shiny, white and soft.” But of all the sweets stacked in her shop, the ones that catch my eye are her aranzate: bright orange tangles sitting like birds’ nests in green paper cases.

“I slice off the peel and cut off the pith, and then I prick the skin immediately,” Bastiana explains. “If you don’t, it can’t soak up the water and will go as hard as a rock.” She tells me that she then scissors the peel into thin strips and keeps the orange strands in water for up to three weeks to soften, before freezing. She’ll take them out and add the honey — a kilo for every kilo of orange — and slowly bake in the oven, before adding bitter slivers of almonds grown around Oliena.

All this effort and skill doesn’t come cheap. Her sticky, citrusy bundles are the gold dust of dolci sardi at €40 (£36) a kilo. “They’re expensive, so we’ll mostly eat these at weddings. They’re not a dolce that everyone does,” Bastiana explains. Suddenly the aranzate taste all the more sweet.

That evening in Pula, a town south of Cagliari, a festa is underway. This time, however, I’ve succumbed to the savoury — the pizza in front of me, strewn with Sardinian ham and pecorino, is the saltiest thing I’ve eaten in days. Around me, the Piazza del Popolo is bursting with people; music blaring from the DJ at the edge of the square. On the other side, there’s a couple in a white gazebo. ‘Torrone di Tonara’ reads the banner behind them, as they sell their cellophane-wrapped sweets.

I’m naturally tempted, but I remember to pace myself. Slow and steady. If there’s one thing I’ve learned here, there’s always room for dessert.

Learn how to make Fratelli Marteddu ciambelle biscuits here.

As featured in Issue 3 of National Geographic Traveller Food.