Seadas, Sardinia and Some Home Truths
Yesterday my little brother cooked a recipe for the first time in his life. At the age of 30 you may well think; 'about time'. You see, Billy sort-of cooks, in that he has a small repertoire of dishes he can easily prepare, including scrambled eggs, chilli con carne (mostly involving tins) and toast. He doesn't follow recipes for these dishes, and he really doesn't like cooking. He's a Marine, so if he's not being cooked for by a Marine chef (thank you tax-payers) or eating rations, then he eats ready-meals. He is not remotely interested in what goes into his mouth, and his battery of opinions on food consists of just two: 'yum, that's delicious', or 'yuk, that's disgusting'. He infuriates me with statements like 'I don't like fish with bones in' or 'I'll have the grilled chicken breast'. He likes Chicago Town Microwave pizzas and Old El Paso taco kits. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of the above - with liking grilled chicken breasts, or taco kits, or microwave pizzas, but I suppose I have inevitably accumulated (after years of working in restaurants where the importance of so-called 'quality' ingredients was drilled into me) a certain amount of food snobbery. We all have our prejudices, we wouldn't be human unless we did, and it is only ever a good thing to have them checked, especially if it is by the people we love, as this way we are perhaps more likely to re-examine them. That, however, is a conversation for another day. These observations only serve to illustrate the point that Billy is NOT interested in cooking, or really in food at all.
That being said, despite our conflicting views in almost everything (food, wine, money, politics, how to make a cup of tea, cleanliness, hygiene, TV programmes, sofa etiquette, driving, films etc) he is touchingly supportive of me and my career (will I ever not chuckle ironically when referring to my haphazard existence as a 'career', I wonder). So yesterday, he diligently followed one of my recipes from Bitter Honey. For some reason which remains obscure to both of us, he chose to make the Seadas. I spent a fraught evening as he whatsapped me through every painful step of the process, which was doomed to fail from the beginning, and I lay awake all night worrying about his failure, feeling racked with guilt, and thinking about how I could improve the situation.
The recipe for Seadas, which is Sardinia's most iconic dessert, is a difficult one. It is difficult for many reasons. Firstly, because it is almost impossible to replicate outside Sardinia. Trust me, when I thought about including it in the book, I spent many a sleepless night worrying about how I would advise people who didn't live in Sardinia to go about making it. The filling of the Seada is traditionally made with fresh pecorino. When I say 'fresh' I don't mean it in the loose, generic 'fresh' way like 'fresh vegetables' but instead in a very specific cheese-making way as in this pecorino is a day old, perhaps two at a push. That means it is lily-white, aerated, wobbly and wet, as bouncy and fresh as a daisy; unsalted, unaged, unmatured. Elusive as an elf, fleeting as a fairy and hard to find even here in Sardinia: I have to go to a small cheese-making shop in town on a Friday in order to catch it. This shop deals directly with shepherds and cheesemakers, makes ricotta on site and sells this fresh sheep's milk ricotta, mixed ricotta (sheep and cow's milk), fresh mozzarella, and fresh pecorino.
To make the Seadas, the fresh pecorino, once found, must be left outside under a cloth to sour and become slightly acidic, which usually takes two to three days, depending on air temperature. Once sour, it can be used for the process of making Seadas (I include the recipe below).
My brother Billy, in lockdown near leafy Exeter, bought a pecorino from Sainsbury's, which was - as almost all pecorino in the UK is - hard, salty, and aged. This was never going to melt properly, or to work at all in the way that it needed to in order to produce a Seada.
I worried when including this recipe in the book how people were going to replicate it at home, but I decided in the end, that I must include it, because I was, after all, writing a book about Sardinian food, and it would be plain wrong to overlook what is Sardinia's most feted sweet. I felt uneasy at the idea that there were any recipes in the book which were 'unachievable', but at the same time I also felt that sometimes recipes are more than just a set of easy-to-follow-and-execute instructions, they are also records of history or traditions. The Seada is a huge part of Sardinian history and tradition, and not to have included it in Bitter Honey would have been callous and disrespectful. Every Sardinian I know would have been offended and surprised had it not appeared in the book. But then by including it, I have also done something which goes against all of my beliefs, I have set people a near-impossible task. I guess, sometimes, you really can't win.
Before I accepted defeat and culpability once and for all, I decided to make one last trip to the cheese shop, and to ask their advice about how this special cheesy filling might be replicated or reinterpreted.
Sure enough they had the fresh pecorino for sale, today being Friday, and I asked the lady behind the counter if I could buy some. I told her I was making Seadas.
'It's the right cheese' she said.
'I know,' I said, smiling, 'but could you recommend any other cheese that might work instead? If, for example, someone was making them and couldn't get fresh pecorino....'
'No', she said, stony-faced behind her mask, 'this is the only way'
'Maybe mozzarella...?' I tried, feebly.
'No', she said, more firmly than ever, 'mozzarella is made from cow's milk, and this must be sheep's milk. If you are making pizza, yes you can use mozzarella, but you are making Seadas, so you use fresh pecorino. Either you are making pizza or you are making Seadas. It's as simple as that'.
I left with my fresh pecorino.
It seems, despite my best efforts to prove the contrary, that there are simply some dishes that don't translate. But that doesn't mean they are not worth talking about, or even including in a recipe book. I hate the idea that I am writing 'unachievable' recipes, as my fundamental belief is that good food is for everyone, and that all efforts should be made to make it accessible and inviting for everyone to make and to eat. However, it is also true that Bitter Honey is not only a book of recipes, but also a book about a place, a place where a fascinating and delicious dessert is made in this particular way. I had to include the Seada, and I am truly sorry to Billy and anyone else who cannot replicate it at home, but I hope its inclusion will at least be of some interest, and entice you to come and eat it in situ yourself.
Sardinia - and her delicious, uncompromising Seadas - are waiting.
The recipe for the inimitable Seada is here:
Also known as Sebadas, this is Sardinia’s most iconic dessert.
These pastries are a celebration of the simplicity and quality of Sardinian produce: more specifically, cheese and honey.
Traditionally a fresh pecorino is used, which is only aged for a few days and allowed to become slightly sour, then seasoned with lemon zest and encased in a lard-based pastry. The cheesy parcel is then deep-fried until it blisters and puffs and is served, golden and glistening, bathed in honey. Often the honey is the famous Miele di Corbezzolo, which has a slight bitter- sweetness; a chestnut honey works well too.
If you dislike lard, you can use olive oil or butter, and if you can’t find fresh pecorino, try to find a fresh sheep's cheese. What is essential is that it is rubbery rather than creamy, as this is what gives it the stringy texture when melted.
M A K E S 4
For the dough:
pinch of salt
100 g (3½ oz/¾ cup) 00 flour, plus 1 tablespoon for the filling
100 g (3½ oz/¾ cup) semola
20 g (¾ oz) lard, at room temperature
For the Filling:
260 g (9 oz) fresh pecorino, cut into small pieces
zest of 1 lemon
sea salt (optional)
sunflower oil, for deep-frying
honey, for drizzling
Add the salt and 100 ml (3½ fl oz/scant ½ cup) water to the flour and knead together to form a smooth dough. Now knead in the lard. This should take a good few minutes of steady kneading.
Wrap in cling film (plastic wrap) and leave to rest for 30 minutes.
Melt the cheese very gently in a bain marie. When it starts to form one gooey mass, add a spoonful of flour to soak up the liquid that has seeped out. Stir gently and add the lemon zest – if using fresh pecorino, add a pinch of salt here too.
When the cheese mixture has come together into one melty mass, tip it onto a clean baking (cookie) sheet, spread in into an even layer 1 cm (½ in) thick, and leave to cool and set.
Meanwhile, roll out your pastry to 1mm thickness, using either flour or semola if things begin to get sticky. Cut circles using a biscuit cutter, around the size of a large orange or small grapefruit.
Using a smaller cutter or a glass tumbler if you don’t have one, cut smaller circles of the cheese; by now it should be solid.
Place the circle of cheese in the centre of the circles of dough. Brush around them with a damp pastry brush. Place another circle of pastry on top to sandwich the cheese, and then press down to form little parcels. Seal them well (I cut them into circles again at this point using a ravioli cutter to get nice, even, crinkly edges).
Place on baking sheet lined with baking paper and keep in the fridge or freezer until ready to serve.
When you are ready to cook, bring your oil to frying temperature, 190ºC/375ºF (see page xxx). Delicately place the seadas in the oil and fry them until they are golden and crisp. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and drain them quickly on kitchen paper. Serve, drizzled with honey.