The island of Sardinia is a wonderful place to visit. Set in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, south of the French island of Corsica, Sardinia can offer the bluest of seas and some of the most unspoiled sceneries in Europe. It also offers a great traditional cuisine which, contrary to popular belief, has much to offer to vegetarians.
It is also relatively off the beaten truck, as most tourists tend to come here only in August, and stay in the luxurious northern resorts of the Emerald Coast. And yet the interiors and southern coasts have much to offer. One of the best ways to visit, with a natural rhythm and with thought to the environment, is by bicycle, and for vegetarians nothing is better than the attentions that Ichnusa bike can offer to its travellers.
I met three of the Ichnusabike guides in the Campidano plains, just north of Cagliari, the mayor city. The plains suits me to start with because, I must confess, I haven’t been on a bike for nine years, and even before then I have never trained or ridden for long periods.
But the idea of cycling and stopping often in different villages (especially visiting wineries and olive oil presses) sounds great. And anyway, Ichnusabike designs tour for all abilities and my three guides, Marcello, Mauro and Franco, soon discovered that I am more suited to tasting wine than going uphill!
First I am taught how to handle a mountain bike, and then one of the guides rides next to me and tells me when to change gear, until I feel confident. When we reach villages or asphalt roads (many of the routes chosen in the Ichnusa itineraries are old Shepard’s’ tracks immersed in nature) I get a ‘guardian angel’ who covers the track for me from possible oncoming cars.
Expert riders go for the Transardinia tour, a very technical and exciting journey crossing the entire island. Others opt for different tours, covering the areas that most interest them, like the stunning coast, or the historical sites (like the amazing stone constructions of the Nuraghi, built between XVI-XIII centuries B.C.), or the nature (in the Sardinian plateau of the Giara there are still miniature wild horse roaming free). Itineraries are also designed for those who prefer to travel without guides, but appreciate a good map.
But the best thing to find out for me is that Marcello is a vegan, and he is not going to offer me roast piglet (Sardinia’s most popular dish!). Usually only breakfast and dinner are in the various rural or village hotels where the riders stay. Lunches are often picnics, and we are having the first one in front of a very pretty old country church.
There is food for the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian (which today is pecorino cheese and salami). The rest is very much based on the local rural diet – in fact it comes from the guides’ organic veggie gardens and is cooked by their mums! The spread includes potato salad, bean salad, Sardinian tomatoes and cucumbers, sautéed courgettes, olives, and different types of bread, including my favourite: pane guttiau, which is pane carasau, thin twice baked bread dressed with olive oil and salt. Fresh fruit (the figs are amazing!) and almond sweets complete the meal, which is delicious as well as nutritious.
The second day I had with Ichnusabike, Marcello’s mum even made fried courgette flowers for the picnic, especially for me. They were fantastic, but I felt a bit sorry for Marcello because these had egg in the batter and he couldn’t eat them. Still, he didn’t mind: he is used to catering for all types (and mum does make vegan fried courgette flowers, if requested).
Then one day we had the mountain rangers cooking for us. When they heard that I was vegetarian they presented me with three family-size savoury pies: wild mushroom and potato, eggplant, and tomato and herbs. Needless to say that I tasted all three, and they were fantastic – but they could have fed another 12 people! Then we had salads, cardoons, artisan bread and sweets, all washed down with home-made wine and liqueurs.
Restaurant and café meals can be a bit hard in Sardinia for vegetarians, and even more so for vegans. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of things to eat: wonderful pasta, often homemade, which is found only in Sardinia, outstanding fruit and vegetables, and the bread and traditional sweet varieties change from village to village. But as we all know sometimes it is ‘difficult’ to remind the chef not to sprinkle cheese on an otherwise vegan pasta, or add ham to our antipasto platter.
Marcello was invaluable as, being a local, he knows everything, even down to which biscuits contain honey, and where to find soy milk. So, for once, I could relax into my holiday without the need to explain my dietary needs at every meal!
Food notes for vegetarians:
Vegetarians must try the Amaretti biscuits, made with sweet and bitter almonds: they are amazing! Also fantastic are the Suspiros, made with Myrtle berries, and for vegans the Gattò, made with almond, sugar and orange peel. Visit the beautiful Durke patisserie in Cagliari or check the website where all ingredients are listed (to learn in advance which biscuits and sweets contain animal products) www.durke.com
Also in Cagliari try the ice-cream at Gocce, Piazza del Carmine 21, Cagliari (tel 328 0721589). All the ice cream is traditionally made using natural ingredients, like the best pistachio and hazelnuts in Italy. Also, all the fruit flavours and the granite (flavoured crushed ice) are dairy free and suitable for vVegans.
Nouro and the surrounding villages are the best places to buy pane carasau. (although today it is ‘exported’ to all other corners of the island). A packet will last for months and it is light and easy to transport.
Highly recommended is fregola, a type of ‘pasta’ which looks like big pellets of cous cous (scroll down for photos). I made this at L’Accademia, an Italian language school for foreigners that also provides cooking classes (including vegetarian) on request. www.laccademia.com
Other traditional products to try are cardi (cardoons), artichokes, wild mushrooms, saffron, olives and olive oil.
Hotel Su Gologone
Sardinian style luxury, for a truly special experience.
Charming and convenient, set in the medieval centre of Cagliari.
La Miniera Fiorita
Rural hotel, with memorable and convivial dinners.
La Terra di Mezzo
Open lunch Time
Via Portoscalas, 1, Cagliari
Tel 070 662 889
This is Vegetarian and we all loved it!!!
Pizza, fresh fish and sea views
Quartu Sant’Elena, Cagliari
Tel: 070 819 126
Traditional Sardinian cuisine
Via Sardegna 85, Cagliari
Tel: 070 657 902
Ristorante Paolo Perella
Slow Food appraised eatery
Corso Repubblica 8, Villasalto
Tel: 070 956298
Ittiturismo Sa Peschiera
Traditional fish farm and adjoining restaurant
Strada provinciale 6 - direction San Giovanni
09070 Cabras (OR)
Tel: 0783 391774
Traditional Sardinian sweets
Very Special Tours:
Custom designed mountain bike tours
For diving, boating, and costal tours
To see the wild horses
Eating with the shepherds