Decades ago (and I mean more than one) we were some of the first tourists to eschew the beaches of the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia and head inland. We found a genuine rustic sort of inn on an estate, comfortable with authentic Sardinian cooking and welcoming log fires. The hotel, the Su Gologone, has since become a bit smart (it didn’t have a swimming pool when we were there), but I understand it is still excellent.
One of the eye-openers in terms of food was the crispy round sheets of bread, which they warmed over the above-mentioned fire with oil and salt. It’s a sort of superior alternative to crisps.
A few years ago I brought some of this bread back to England, thinking that I was bringing back something precious and novel, only to walk into Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in Cambridge and spot a whole shelf of the stuff on offer to any visitor.
HISTORY OF PANE CARASAU
Pane Carasau (on some packets it’s spelt ‘carasatu’, and there are all sorts of other spellings, but my friendly Sardinian shopkeeper tells me ‘carasau’ is best) is an ancient bread originally developed to meet the needs of shepherds who were away from home for months at a time and needed food that would keep (pane carasaukeeps for up to a year) to sustain them – they ate it with pecorino (which they could make themselves from their own flock) and olive oil. It’s sometimes known as sheet music bread (carta di musica) because the thin, crispy, crackly bread has a tactile feel similar to the parchment on which sacred music used to be written.
How is pane carasau made?
Typically the bread was made once a month. It’s an ancient recipe – remains of this bread have been found in the nuraghi – the 7,000 odd stone buildings found all over Sardinia which were built between 1900 and 730 BC.
The method for making pane carasau is to make a basic flat bread, pane lentu, which puffs up when baked in a searing hot oven. This is split into two (pretty fiddly and skilled) and then the two sides are inverted so that the porous sides are facing outwards, then they’re stacked and covered with linen cloths to keep the thin sheets warm. It’s then toasted until is crisp and lightly golden, until it has the carasatura (a word in Sard for crust, from which the bread get its name). If you want to see just what back-breakingly hard work the whole process was (now it’s largely mechanised), take a look at this video clip.
What to do with pane carasau
Then you can do a number of things with it. It can be treated a bit like sheets of lasagne. It’s put briefly into boiling salted water, then layered with tomato sauce and grated pecorino, baked, and finally topped with an egg which has been poached in the same boiling water. This is called pane vrattau (from the Sard word for ‘grated’). I tried this once and I think I’ll stick to lasagne.
Try sprinkling with a little Spanish sweet smoked paprika, or some Aleppo pepper.
Otherwise it’s great just warmed as described below – vastly superior to ordinary crisps, or served with light dips (it’s quite breakable so nothing too thick and heavy) such as a ricotta and pesto mix.
Making pane guttiau from pane carasau
However, emulating the fragrant bread we ate on our first visit to Sardinia I’ve been heating up our pane carasau with olive oil, salt (Sardinian sea salt cut with lemon or orange); usually a herb, often myrtle; and sometimes some garlic. So, unbeknown to me, I’ve been making pane guttiau like a master for years. Efisio Farris tells us in his book on Sardinian cuisine, Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey, that his father told him you could do marvels with just fire, olive oil and salt:
“Pane Guttiau is pane carasau drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with fine sea salt and toasted golden brown. ‘Guttiau’ means ‘sprinkle like raindrops’ in Sard which is what you do with the olive oil and sea salt. Use a hot oven, or grill until golden brown. For a twist crush garlic into the oil before drizzling.”
All you need then is maybe some ricotta and pesto dip, some wine, a sunset …