This time I take the stand.
Slowfood’s Salone del Gusto is the occasion for all sorts of interesting conferences, and during the last edition the Regione Sardegna organized a conference on the influence of the Americas on Sardinian cooking and food. I attended, expecting to hear about peppers and tomatoes, and perhaps potatoes and corn. Instead they talked primarily about prickly pears and beans, and it was quite interesting.
For me a bit of a surprise, too, because the Italian term for prickly pear is Fico D’India, or Indian Fig, and I had always assumed the India mentioned was the Asian Subcontinent, not Columbus’s Indies, i.e. Central America.
But they are from Central America, and had a profound influence upon the topography and agriculture of Sardinia. Not as food, though Sardinians, like those in other parts of Europe where the prickly pear was introduced, do eat the fruit (unlike Mexicans, they never did think to eat the paddle-like leaves), and also transform it into tasty marmalades and sapa, a sweet fruit concentrate.
Rather, they took advantage of the ease with which prickly pears grow under arid conditions, and replaced the stone fences traditionally used to mark the boundaries of the fields with imposing prickly pear paddle palisades. Which did require pruning, because prickly pears are invasive if not kept in check, but that also captured moisture and returned some of it to the ground during the drier seasons, thereby helping the other crops to grow.
A fence that supplies both food and moisture isn’t at all bad, and if you drive through the arid parts of Sardegna you’ll still see prickly pear fences. Nor are they obsolete; the same ability to capture moisture that made them important in the days before irrigation is important now that groundwater is becoming scarcer and the costs of pumping water are increasing.
Corn? It was introduced in more humid areas of the island, and used to make popcorn, polenta, and also cornbread. Potatoes were instead introduced late, in the 1700s, and heavily promoted by both the clergy and the functionaries of the Savoy government, though they didn’t become popular until people figured out what to do with them (early attempts to use them to make bread were less than successful). Tomatoes? They were introduced in the 1700s, and though we now tend to think of them as being used fresh, or at the most canned, before the development of canning and refrigeration a significant portion of the crop was dried and stored.
After these brief mentions, we came to beans, which are culturally quite interesting. Since commercially raised white and dark beans are readily available and have been for quite some time, one might have expected to find them in people’s fields throughout Sardegna. But this is not the case; botanists who did studies of the beans grown in the fields and vegetable patches of small farmers found that most of the beans being grown are genetically quite distinct from those preferred by agribusiness.
And quite diverse; beans are original to a large swath of land extending from Mexico to the Andes, and as one might expect given the size of the source area, there are differences from place to place. Andean beans tend to be larger than Mexican beans, and also have different genetic markers in their proteins. About 70% of the beans found in old Sardinian bean patches can be traced to the Andes, and the remaining 30 to Central America; the researchers suspect, and it would make sense, that the farmers who first planted the fields selected Andean beans because of their larger size.
And why are we still finding these old cultivars in the fields despite the flood of modern commercial seeds? Because people become attached to them; the plants that were grown by parents and grandparents become a link to them, and therefore modern-day farmers continue to plant them. In other words, the fields become a link to childhood, and to those who have gone before.
And what influence did beans have on the Sardinian diet? While they were and are an extremely important source of protein, and in this sense had a major impact, they had a considerably smaller culinary influence because they simply replaced other legumes the Sardinians had already been using.