|Let's Visit Sicily|
Standing slightly apart from peninsular Italy, Sicily has always been something of an enigma. The island has been overrun by a succession of invaders (Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, and Spaniards) each imparting some of their culture and influence and most importantly, the flavour and ingredients of each cuisine.
From south-western Calabria, Sicily comes into view as just a smudge on the horizon across the Tyrrhenian Sea, giving little away as to its delights and secrets. If you were to pan the camera a little to the right, you would see the faint outline of the still active volcano of Stromboli.
Regular car ferries link the mainland to the city of Messina on Sicily, a trip of around 25 minutes. The Straits of Messina were once defended, some say, by a many-headed watery she-monster. These days people often fear the underworld society of Sicily's interior even more. For some time, there have been plans for a 3.6-kilometre bridge across the straits. The plan was axed a few years ago, but Prime Minister Berlusconi has now renewed the project and current plans say it could be finished by 2016.
Watch out for signs like this, perhaps the most potent proof of how the food of Sicily has been influenced. Couscous, entered the menu via the Moorish (Saracen) invaders in the 13th Century. Oggi means 'today' in Italian so this sign lets diners know that they are serving it today. Much like 'frying tonight' in Britain! This seems like a permanent sign, but look closely.
Chefs everywhere need time out after a busy lunch service. Ortigia is Siracusa's ancient island laden with baroque buildings and strapped to the town by three bridges. As a coastal city, this restaurant specialises in marinare and teaches how to use it. Seems they do takeaway too.
Sicily is more tourist-oriented than many other of the southern regions of mainland Italy, south of the Amalfi Coast. That doesn't mean that everything is easy to find. Streets are medieval-narrow and parking is ... well let's just say, you need to become inventive!
If ever there was a signature plant of Sicily it would have to be the prickly pear. The fichi d’India grows wild on roadsides, the plump red egg-shaped fruit tacked around the abundant broad green pads. Note the filament-fine spines sprouting from each dot on the skin, and realise that this is truly 'cactus-fruit' and to be handled accordingly. Use gloves, or other protection when removing the spikes. For me, the flavour of the pinkish flesh does not seem to justify the work in getting to it. Some say it tastes of strawberries. Some say it is an aphrodisiac.
Moretti beer has a picture of a man in the hat on the label, but is not a Sicilian 'person of interest' as you might think. This famous beer has been brewed since 1859 in the Friuli region of northern Italy. The man was first noticed having a quiet cold one at a trattoria in 1942. He appeared so typical that a passing Moretti rep asked if he could take his picture. His services came cheaply, too. As the story goes, all he wanted by way of compensation was another Moretti beer. Given the company’s saturation of the Italian market, you would have to hope he received them in regular supply for the rest of his life. But just imagine how disturbing it would be to knock back beers that all had your picture on them?
Modica is an ancient and crowded city on Sicily's southern coast. Ronald Ashri and his partner, Katia Amore operate the Love Sicily cookery school (which obviously derives its name from Katia’s last name) which operates at Palazzola Acreide, inland from Siracusa and Modica. We met for a granita, another Sicilian specialty served in glasses packed with crushed ice. The traditional milky mandorle (almond) is most popular although caffe and limone are good too. Simply sweeten it to taste with sugar syrup provided in tiny jugs.
The couple told us about Rizza just down the street. This shop offers souvenirs, typical Sicilian products and – its real selling point – free tastings. Ronald had told me about the locally-made chilli chocolate and I was drooling in anticipation. Dolceria Bonajuto is the oldest chocolate maker in Sicily, established in 1880. Here they use a cold process, like the Mexican method. The cocoa beans are blended with sugar – actually crushed into it rather than melting the mass with heat – using a sort of huge rolling pin and a curved stone, in much the same way as a mortar and pestle is used in other dishes. This means the resulting chocolate will not melt as easily, a plus in the fierce Sicilian heat, and remains crunchy with sugar, which can be something of an acquired taste for texture-freaks.
This shop holds a comprehensive selection of local foodstuffs: sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, tapenade, olives, sauces and condiments manufactured in Sicily from produce grown on this deceptively fertile island. Shelves around the room display ceramics decorated with the sunny colours of lemons, mandarins and prickly pear fruit. In another room a video explains the process of making cold-process chocolate.
Owners Graziella and Claudio are charming and knowledgable, and (yes) I bought far too much.
Nearby a simple cheese shop sells local cheeses. Sicily produces a range of goat and sheep’s cheeses: pecorino siciliana and ricotta, piacentinu (sheep’s cheese coloured with saffron and studded with peppercorns) from the centre of the island, although ragusano, a hard cow’s milk cheese, is regarded as the ‘king’ of cheeses.
This utility parked outside a frutta e verdura shop, faces out into the street so it can act as a very useful de facto fruit barrow. These garden vegetables are most widely grown in river valleys in Sicily.
Erice is located 750 metres above sea level, perched on the tip of Monte San Giuliano, almost vertically above the surrounding land. The corkscrewing road to it measures around eight kilometres. The city of Trapani lies below, the salinas (salt beds) in the foreground and the sea beyond. It is here that a community of nuns create super-sweet ground almond-based cakes. The sign to an Aladdin's cave of goodies is homespun: Antica Pasticceria del Convento, indicating this is truly a culinary heritage.
Wonderful offerings include brutti ma buono (ugly but good) the rough and ugly cake that tastes wonderful, and a treasure trove of ready-shaped cakes that taste divine. There must be hundreds of these dainties in the Sicilian pastrycook’s repertoire, and even here just a fraction is on display.
And just when I thought I knew all the street foods of this country, an intensely savoury aroma drew us to these in Capo Mercato, a food market in Palermo, Sicily's capital. There it is, the ultimate comfort food on a cold day: a brazier of smoky roasted onions, in their skins, just begging to be peeled and savoured.
Sicily's hot Mediterranean climate (just a hundred or so kilometres from the northernmost tip of Africa) makes for ideal growing conditions for many of the staples of Italian cuisine. These tomatoes are doubly interesting. The tag saying where they have been grown reveals they have come from the town which is widely believed to be the hub of the Mafiosi.
Nearby, another fishmonger was slicing magnificent wheels of flesh from a swordfish, pesca di spada. To underline the size of the creature, he had set its head up to attract attention, the surprised eye gazing lifelessly at all who passed.
On the far eastern coast of Sicily we stay at the San Domenico Palace Hotel is a former 14th-century monastery. It has made the transition exceptionally well, if the wall-full of plaques and framed certificates in the foyer mean anything. It remains top of my list of places to which I would return.
With a view of the bay in one direction, and Mount Etna in the other, who wouldn't want to breakfast here? Somewhere as we travel, we catch a TV quiz program that poses the question to a contestant: Which is further east, Venice or Etna? Surprisingly, Etna is.
Taormina as the fashionista that can’t resist a party. And it seems everyone has been invited as you set out to walk to Taormina’s prize tourist attraction, the ancient Greek theatre. There are many shops, obviously geared for tourists, even fellows like this. And yes, one came home to add to my collection of chef figurines!
Others showcase the pastries and frutta martorana, tiny realistic marzipan fruit, for which Sicily is justly famous. Their kaleidoscopic beauty in some way are symbolic of the colour and vibrancy of this flamboyant island.
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