The presence of mankind in Sardinia has left its mark since the Paleolithic Era. At that time, humans on the island hunted, fished and foraged for natural foods like vegetables and shellfish. In the Neolithic Era, humans began to take the first steps towards domesticating and farming vegetables and animals. The remains of reared livestock such as sheep, goats and pigs have been discovered in some settlements of the period. Equally, human remains indicating a population with a varied diet, possibly based on cooked food, have been found in the burial sites of the Bonu Ighinu culture.
Although detailed recipes haven’t endured to the present day, archaeological finds such as wheat, barley, mussels, oysters, bones and leftover meat from sheep, snails, hare, rabbit and pig are able to give us some indication.
At the time of Nuragic Civilization (1800-238 BC), great steps were made towards civilization, with a series of activities aimed at food preparation. The Nuragic people were a nomadic civilization and interacted continuously with other Mediterranean civilizations such as Egypt, Crete, Cyprus, Phoenicia and the Etruria, trading products such as obsidian, at the time a priceless commodity, and salted fish. At that time, humans had already begun to carry out certain careful food processes such as salting, roasting and smoking. Various tools and utensils were used during the era, and as such it is fair to say that there was already a form of “Nuragic Cuisine”. Discoveries include ovens for baking, grinders for making oil, bowls, pestles, fusaroles and rectangular basins designed for making bread, transforming cereal production and for a primitive form of wine making.
They cooked simply using basic cooking techniques such as roasting and boiling. They also smoked and salted their food, as well as use various types of fermentation to make cheese, wine and vinegar. They also had a well-developed bread-making technique which was very similar to the methods still practiced on the island today. These include the traditional Sardinian breads of su civraxiu, pane poddine, su tundu, sa fresa and sas cotzulas, as well as many ceremonial breads known as sas pintaderas. These bread-making methods were very similar to those used by other Mediterranean civilizations. As such the diet was a rather refined one: unleavened and leavened breads (pane purile and cun madrighe) as well as sweet breads (cotzula de gerdas and pade de saba), roasted lamb and piglet (de anzone and de porcheddu), blood sausage (from sheep, lamb, goat and pork), rennet and curd (merca, giagada, casu axedu).
The collection of wild honey was also important; at the time this was as dangerous as hunting and was only practiced by men. The collected honey was used to prepare sweet dishes or was eaten neat as a nutritional supplement. The shepherds of Barbagia and Gallura still eat a simple dish (latuca e mele – lettuce and honey) to supplement the diet of a largely carnivorous population.
Natural vegetables eaten in Sardinia at the time included endive, leeks, cicerchie, peas, lentils and cardoon (cugunzula), as well as oats, barley, wheat (trigu cottu) and mushrooms (antunna).
Polenta made with corn and vegetables was certainly part of the Nuragic diet, and many of the names and recipes of these simple cooking techniques are still used today: Ambulau, Oglia, Lusarza, Farre, Succu de faa, Pisci a collettu and many others, documented by the Latin authors of the coming age.
In around the 8th century BC the Phoenician civilization reached the island; some academics suggest that when the two cultures met, they recognized each other as close relatives and as such were able to live in harmony. Salt and fishing were important aspects of the Phoenician economy and, thanks to the Roman writer Columella, we have also been able to learn details of their olive growing techniques. Classical sources describe the lush vegetable gardens of Carthage as resplendent with artichokes, cabbages, cardoons and garlic.
Carthaginians, close relatives of the Phoenician population, took control of the island in order to farm the land which it considered to be particularly suited to the production of wheat, effectively turning the island into a granary to supply the city of Carthage.
In the wake of the Punic Wars, in 238 BC Rome took full possession of the island, putting an end to a civilization which was already a shadow of its former glory.
The Nuragic people left numerous bronze statuettes which demonstrate their farming heritage, including a statuette of a farmer leading a ram by a rope (found in Sorso and now housed in Museo Sanna in Sassari), another statuette depicting a man carrying a ram over his shoulders (discovered in Dolianova and now on display at the Museo Archeologico in Cagliari), a statuette representing a hand holding sheep skins and finally another statuette found in Illorai showing a bull with nicked ears in the same method of identifying livestock used by the farmers today..