“The people are good here”, said the owner of the B&B, driving us for free and at her own insistence in her battered Fiat Panda to pick up the hire car.
I found the pleasures of holiday living in Sicily around the edges in flickers of generosity or hope on the road, on the side of the road, in the airport, in bars, opticians. It is a poor island, there is a lot of dereliction: abandoned buildings unbuild themselves brick by brick, unowned dogs walk out in front of cars, the boards that board up unoccupied houses disintegrate, leaving holes we can look through, but still, the ground is bright red-orange and still fertile as it was when Odysseus appeared and observed that even the Cyclopes could grow enough food without sowing any seeds (I thank Mary Taylor Simeti for quoting that passage of Homer’s text in her book Sicilian Food).
The list of these things
The offer of granita at breakfast, or cremolata as it is called in Sicilian dialect, made by hand and flavoured with almond milk or pistachio, both of which grow here, with rough pieces of nut giving bite, a cold sweetness in the morning.
The giving of unadvertised and uncharged-for food with drinks in the evening, ‘aperitivo’, which ranged from olives, nuts and crisps, to hot slices of pizza with melting cheese, little sandwiches, little pieces of frittata, piadini (folded and filled bread), and more consumed too quickly to be marked in memory.
The scale of antipasti, peaking with a table that seated four people covered with food at a farmhouse restaurant with a television showing loud cartoons for the boy who took the payment at the end of the meal: a round of fresh ricotta, a well rested caponata (acidity indiscernibly blended with sweetness and richly fried vegetables), homespun sun dried tomatoes, bitter cured olives with pieces of carrot, sweet brioche with olives embedded, bread, piadini filled with ricotta cake and other things, sliced meats and salami, sliced hard cheese, more. Elsewhere, couscous stuffed sardine rolls, small deep fried balls of rice filled with cheese and other things (arancini).
Piadini from a side street bakery in Modica: Two hot folded over flat breads one filled with spinach, onion and anchovy, the other with tomato and cheese.
Being instructed to try all five of the grape varieties on sale, some twice, before buying at the market in Ortigia.
Being handed many fat cubes of cheese – smoked mozzarella, caciocavallo (see Simeti for further), marinated ricotta with no suggestion that I buy anything if I didn’t want to.
The use of mint, with aubergine in particular.
A large, white haired man with a vegetable cart on the side of the road in a poor district of Noto who gave me his recipe for pumpkin risotto and sold us almost more vegetables than would fit in the car and of very good quality and very fresh eggs, and he cut wedges of melon with a large knife for us to eat while looking at his vegetables. It was sales tactic of course, but there was no trick.
I use smell as a way to get to know an object or person and instruct people at moments they do not expect to smell something so they may also deeply appreciate the thing, usually a vegetable. I urgently present them with it and tell them to inhale. On our holiday I obsessively smelled plants as we wandered around, hoping to identify things to eat or cook with, and to comprehend the landscape. Around the house we stayed in I identified wild thyme, wild fennel, a pungent kind of mint or oregano and rosemary growing wild. In the abandoned city that was mostly destroyed in the seventeenth century due to an earthquake, Noto Antica, I found wild rocket with yellow flowers growing as a weed on verges. I initially took it to be a variety of broccoli/rapeseed (cime di rapa), which looks similar, but I picked a leaf and rubbed it between my fingers, expecting a broccoli-like smell, and breathed in, but it was peppery like rocket. I tasted it. It tasted like rocket too. I picked a bunch to eat at home, but then it wilted in the car home and I threw it away. I am impressed by modern packaging methods that allow the transportation of rocket so it is still crisp. If I lived here, would I value rocket?
Cassatini, the green marzipan-covered cakes with sweet ricotta, sponge, pieces of chocolate and preserved peel eaten in the airport café, thank god, I had been eying them up the whole time.
Don’t eat too much free aperitivo food if you want to eat a pizza afterwards.
I gutted and de-boned anchovies that had been packed in salt for the first time. It was very satisfying to squeeze out the guts and peel out the vertebrae, leaving two pristine livery brown coloured fillets, ready to melt in olive oil.
Other things we have realised
Green olives turn black when they are ripe and fall off the tree and oil comes out when you squeeze them.
Arancini means little oranges.
I learned from Mary Taylor Simeti’s book Sicilian Food about the abundance of oranges that have always grown in Sicily to the extent that there are even too many.
‘Orange is opulence: the ineffectual, useless opulence of the past, when the gardens around Palermo were filled with what an eighteenth century diarist describes as “common oranges, those only good for making juice or polishing copper”; and the wasteful opulence of the present, when government bulldozers trample and crush hundreds of tons of Sicilian oranges that can find no market. It is difficult from someone from such a northern climate to become accustomed to such an overabundance of oranges.’
She quotes from a book called Conversations in Sicily that I haven’t heard of by someone called Vittorini an anecdote too long to repeat in full here about a sad man on a ferry who could not sell his oranges, who tells another man about Sicilian orange salad with garlic and olive oil and bread. Simeti then continued to write about Sicilian salad with fish from Palermo, smoked herring or tuna with orange, or rolled-up stuffed sardines baked with orange juice, breadcrumbs pine nuts and other bits.
Reading this bit of text led to two realisations during the holiday:
First: After we watched the Godfather part 1 in our first hotel that had Wifi, I realised that Don Coroleone’s being shot with a gun when buying oranges, and his constantly being shown peeling oranges was to do with his lasting emotional corporeal connection to Sicily, the country from which he migrated to America, which was in the end both his strength and his downfall. His love of oranges revealed his sensuality, his loyalty, his history, his connection to his body, his fallibility, his mortality, his fate. He falls down among the tomato plants, watering them, teaching another generation to water.
Second: When we were taken out for lunch by the fun, older, wealthy strangers we met in Noto, to a restaurant where they knew the owner and all the food we ate was off the menu (fried tiny octopuses, fried sardines, fried pancakes made from tiny tiny fish, fresh thin pasta with pistachio and prawns) I could contextualise the salad of prawns and orange and onion that was one of the starters. I pondered that the inclusion of prawns, a speciality of the south east might be a variant from the smoked herring version that Simeti mentions in Palermo. Later that week we had raw langoustines served in their armour with a wedge of orange in a town called Marzamemi.
Some meals that I cooked in Sicily:
A slice of melon bought from the roadside trader
Half a large violet aubergine, sliced and salted briefly, fried and served with fresh tomato sliced and seasoned with olive oil and salt, two hard-boiled eggs cut in two, pieces of fresh ricotta and fennel pollen on top.
With apricot nectar and coffee.
Pumpkin and pancetta risotto with ricotta and parmesan
Bruschetta with tomato on toast
Peppers from the man on the side of the road, stuffed with anchovy, tomatoes and garlic (Elizabeth David)
Boiled wild chicory bought from Ortigia market, mixed with fried pancetta slices bought at the supermarket in a poor part of Noto where adolescent boys hung outside the supermarket and catcalled us tourists, with vinegar and olive oil both already at the house.
Aioli that I made with two egg yolks, the brilliantly good garlic from the roadside trader, with grilled peeled peppers also bought from the man on the roadside, with boiled then grilled green beans and fresh basil from Ortiga market.
Bucatini pasta with cauliflower, breadcrumbs, anchovy, currants and pine nuts.
Part of the way through this week I became deeply involved with eating Nutella for breakfast and forgot about eggs. It reminds me of my Neapolitan friend Dominico who had Nutella on a chocolate biscuit with a cigarette and an espresso for breakfast when I lived with him twelve years ago.