The Simplest Italian Breakfast Is Breadcrumbs in Coffee
Ayear ago, I was hiding from the mid-morning sun at a shady picnic table on a farm in rural southern Sardinia, sitting across from a weathered old man from over the next hill. Between us sat a foot-high stack of pane carasau, the island’s ubiquitous brittle, paper-thin flatbread—the first dish set out for a feast later that night for which the rest of the farm was busy slaughtering baby goats and tossing their entrails onto slow-burning coals. The old man nursed a cup of coffee while I, told by my hosts to just relax but feeling like a lumpy burden, anxiously worried a string of prayer beads on my wrist. Then the old man cracked off the edge of a round of pane carasau, crumbled it right into his coffee, and let it soak for a moment. As he picked up a spoon to fish it out, he looked at me and grumbled: “Sardinian cornflakes.”
To this day, I’m not sure if this is a thing. I haven’t found Sardinian cornflakes in any English-language book or blog covering the island. It’s a far cry from the breakfast foreigners will find at any café, hostel, or agritourismo there, a mix of dry breads (pane carasau or otherwise), spreads, and maybe eggs or pastries. But I know that this old farmer isn’t the only local to make a casual morning meal out of crispy bread in steaming coffee; several acquaintances I spoke to in the region told me they’d either tried it at some point or knew a rural relative who enjoyed it. And whether or not it’s an institution, Sardinian cornflakes definitely fits the ethos of breakfast in the island’s backcountry, a rugged and economic allegiance to simplicity and minimal waste that might seem a bit gross to city folk, but has the gratifying smack of self-sufficiency to it.
This is an objectively odd ethos for an island that drips with all the nonchalant luxury the surrounding Mediterranean has to offer. Sweets aficionados know Sardinia for abbamele, a bitter reduced honey flavored with lemon and orange rind, or pabassinas, raisin-walnut paste cookies spiked with anise, cloves, and cinnamon, or sebadas, flaky, puffy pastries filled with rich pecorino cheese and drenched in honey. Foodies know it for myrtle-smothered slow-roasted pig, succulent horse steaks, and hard wheat-flour gnocchi infused with local saffron.
Yet while the capital of Cagliari is unabashedly fancy and coastal, any city slick will tell you that the true soul of Sardinia is the culture of the interior mountains, where farmers built a national identity over centuries spent hiding from maritime overlords. This core allegiance to a hardscrabble history is probably why pane carasau is still the cornerstone of any balanced Sardinian breakfast. Made of nothing but durum wheat, water, salt, and a dash of yeast, then twice baked at upwards of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, it was never meant to be a flavor explosion, but a staple that would keep for weeks or months for wandering shepherds.
You can do a lot with pane carasau. It’s been repurposed as a vehicle for honeyed smears and mainland spices. It’s got just the right consistency to soften and soak in liquids without becoming soggy and unpalatable; many Sardinians like to spritz it with or soak it in water to soften the bread before eating it raw. But at its core, it’s all about portability and efficiency, chucking together whatever ingredients come your way in fits of opportunistic kitchen-sink madness that build a humble base into subtle or stark flavor balances. It’s part of the same food culture that encourages men to chop up a dried goat’s stomach used to curdle cheese and fry it into their morning eggs for a shot of texture and astringency—another obscure but not unknown dish I chanced upon out on that farm.
For many Italians, who can be fussy about the right orders, ratios, or combinations of their simple ingredients, mashing flatbread into coffee is unthinkable. For Americans as well, watery bread and floaters in your morning Joe are anathema to good taste. But for some older men in Sardinia, it’s just a natural conclusion; novelty and inversion aside, it’s just what’s there.
As for how Sardinian cornflakes taste, I can’t give them a resounding personal endorsement. That’s just because I’m more of a tea man than a coffee bro, though. Folks who like the flavor boost of dunking cookies or doughnuts in coffee and don’t mind a little particulate will probably love it. But for the rest of us, they and the Sardinian tradition they’re a part of are a reminder that breakfast isn’t always about a meticulous flavor balance or presentation. Sometimes it’s just about saying, Fuck it, I need simple energy, and mashing together whatever’s in your pantry into a skillet, onto a piece of toast, or through a blender. Sometimes the experimentation of threadbare, waste-free necessity is just gross. But sometimes it yields a simple, accessible cult-hit mash-up.