An island state of mind

Island cuisine ... red mullet fillets with zucchini, tomato and pecorino.
Island cuisine ... red mullet fillets with zucchini, tomato and pecorino.

It took Giovanni Pilu five years to coax Sydney diners into sampling foods from his native Sardinia. Rather than succumb to the usual Italian menu of lasagne and carbonara, the chef was determined to showcase the flavours of the Mediterranean's second-largest island.

''People didn't know what [Sardinian cuisine] was,'' says Pilu, who moved to Sydney in 1992. ''It's a bit different. The flavours are something they hadn't tried before and hadn't grown up with, so the reaction was good and bad.''

Pilu at Freshwater is one of the few Australian restaurants dedicated to serving Sardinian fare. The menu includes fregola, a toasted semolina pasta, and oven-roasted suckling pig, of which Pilu serves up to 40 a week in summer.

''It's very simple [food] because Sardinians, traditionally, don't have a lot of money. They're shepherds,'' he says.

Sardinia's cuisine is as diverse as the island's rugged landscape and numerous dialects, with regional diets shaped through invasion by neighbouring countries.

''We had the Arabs in the south, the Spanish in the north, the Catalans; the Romans used Sardinia as storage for flour and grain,'' says Pilu, who hails from the north-western province of Sassari.

Residents of one part of the island often make recipes unheard of elsewhere. However, several ingredients, particularly meats, transcend these regional variations.

''When you talk about oven-roasted suckling pig, baby lamb, baby goat and especially pecorino cheese, which is our main cheese, you know that you're talking about the food of Sardinia,'' Pilu says.

Bread and cheese are staples of the Sardinian diet, served with every meal and in between as a snack. Many of the ingredients and flavours integral to the cuisine, including myrtle, honey and asparagus, are found in Sardinia's mountains and forests, while mint grows like a weed all over the island.

This dependence on the land means seasonality plays a major role in shaping Sardinian dishes.

''We never ate anything that wasn't in season because there wasn't any,'' Pilu says. ''Australia's different, we get things nearly all year round … there's also the stupidity now of importing fruit and vegetables, which is crazy.''

Sardinians cook with whatever they can and avoid wasting anything. This ethos is evident in the familial practice of rearing pigs, used to create sausages, pancetta, prosciutto and blood puddings.

''If my daughter saw a pig being slaughtered, she'd cry forever, but for me it was normal,'' Pilu says. ''I remember frothing the [pig's] blood so it wouldn't coagulate, because it comes out hot - as a child, that was your job.''

Though he now lives on the opposite side of the world, Pilu has little trouble finding local ingredients suitable for authentic Sardinian cooking. The only products he imports are olive oil and the deceptively hard-to-make Sardinian bread.

''That's Sardinian cuisine, because I'm using produce from the land where I live and where I come from now,'' he says.

A Sardinian Cookbook by Giovanni Pilu and Roberta Muir, Lantern, $49.99.

Red mullet fillets with zucchini, tomato and pecorino

In most of Italy, you rarely see cheese served with fish, but in Sardinia it's not uncommon to serve young pecorino with seafood; this classic dish is one example. Red mullet is very popular in the Mediterranean, but John Dory or whiting would also be great prepared this way.

8 x 90g red mullet fillets, skin on
Plain flour, for dusting
Extra virgin olive oil, for pan-frying
1 small brown onion, finely sliced
1 small yellow zucchini, finely sliced
1 small green zucchini, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, finely sliced
2 roma tomatoes, tops cut off, seeded and diced
Salt flakes, to taste
50g young Pecorino Sardo, freshly grated

Remove fish fillets from the fridge 20 minutes before cooking. Using a pair of fish tweezers, remove any small bones from the fillets, then cover and set aside in a cool place to come to room temperature. Working in batches if necessary, dust fish fillets lightly with flour, shaking off any excess. Heat a frying pan over medium heat, add a little oil and, when hot, cook fillets skin-side down until almost cooked through; press down gently with an egg lifter or fish slice to stop them from curling. Turn and cook on the other side for a few seconds, then remove from pan and set aside.

Add onion to the same pan and fry until soft and lightly coloured. Add zucchini, garlic, tomato and salt and cook for a further two minutes. Place fish fillets on top of zucchini and tomato, sprinkle with grated pecorino and cover for a minute until cheese melts. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

Pilu centre stage

On Saturday, Giovanni Pilu will demonstrate recipes from A Sardinian Cookbook at The Sydney Morning Herald Growers' Market, at 8.30am and 10am on the Market Chef stage. Stallholders include Bangalow Cheese and Highland Organics. Pyrmont Bay Park, Pyrmont (opposite The Star), Saturday, 7-11am.

This story An island state of mind first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.