Sitting on the bumpy, stony Sicilian beach I soak up the eccentric backdrop. This isn’t a beach; it is a rock mine, full of large pebbles, boulders and blocks of concrete dropped along the coast to create artificial barriers between the shoreline and the eroding sea. You can’t dive into the water without putting yourself in danger of serious concussion or spinal injuries, there are endless craggy boulders skulking under the water.
Walking down the beach my shoes begin to fill with pebbles. As I spread out my towel, my body is roughly fondled by the intruding stones. How I wish I could be cushioned by the sand and let my feet bury themselves under fine grains. Apart from a total lack of sand, there isn’t the convenience of a single shop or public toilet. It is harsh, rugged and rustic.
Watching beach umbrellas, pop up along the seaside, I begin to smear myself with sunscreen, as this is the standard procedure for people with milky coloured thighs left unexposed to the sun during winter. In Australia the sun is one danger of many to protect yourself from, an Australian doesn’t go to the beach without sunscreen nor do they go walking in long grass without boots or ever forget to check their shoes before they put them on to look out for poisonous spiders. Around me I see at least half a dozen women roasting themselves in the sun, I can smell barbecue meat.
Italian women take an enormous risk during the summer, turning themselves the colour of roast chicken. The tanned look is very fashionable and according to popular logic; the darker you look, the healthier you are. Obviously, they are in denial about the existence of skin cancer.
We’ve come down to the beach with a large collective group of in-laws, friends, cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces and their children. All the kids jump into the water without sunscreen. Here the sun doesn’t seem to be so harsh, you can easily stay out for a few hours and not burn to a crisp. I guess Italy is far away enough from the hole in the ozone layer to worry about the risk of melanoma.
All my female companions are in bikinis and I am in a full piece bathing costume complete with short pants to cover myself from the sun and hide my flabby stomach. It’s strange to see so many women in bikinis. I’ve always been self-conscience about exposing my body at the beach, I’ve never been part of that tall tanned beach going Ozzie set. I’ve never spent an entire summer at the beach, neither am I the athletic type.
These conservative Sicilian women, usually cover their bodies so carefully and fashionably during the year, yet in the summer they easily strip down without a second thought into the bare minimum of beach attire. They abandon themselves to the ideal bohemian fantasy of summer, without looking at themselves in the mirror.
Italians hold their right to a seaside holiday as dearly as their right to vote. It is a sacred privilege. Those who have left Sicily to work in the large industrial cities like Milan and Turin, return every summer for their obligatory beach time. Those who live in Sicily, who really don’t work very hard during the year, at least by European or Australian standards, relax and spend summers by the sea as rigorously as those who are fully deserving of a restful holiday.
Beach-going is extremely fashionable, as it was once a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and famous. Today everyone takes their little turn on the catwalk at the Italian seaside. Even on our own little-isolated strip of Sicilian coast, there are people who have convinced themselves the world is watching them in their seductively draped sarongs, strategically exposed tattoos, the latest shaped fashion sunglasses and the occasionally freshly styled hair and makeup. Everyone is ready to roast their abundance in the Siculu sunshine.
Trying to be social and fit into the beach going routine, I lie on a towel under one of the many beach umbrellas, as everyone strips down, I just want to dive into the water and have a swim but obviously, it’s not the done thing. First, we must sit and catch up with the goings on at the beach and the local gossip.
Not having any desire to participate I soak up the sun until a collective decision is made to play volleyball in the water to gradually dip ourselves into the sea. It becomes obvious no one is taking the game seriously, either that or I am the only one with any handball and swimming skills.
The gossip continues, the ball is bowled back up onto the beach as everyone sits in the shallow waves and continues to talk. I really don’t know about any of the people featured in the current conversation. I am excluded from the intricate web of social connections and nicknames so I cannot contribute anything to the gossip session and struggle to understand the shorthand speak being exchanged.
After a bit, I decide I’ve had enough and dive under the water swimming a few meters further out from the group. As I pull my head up they wave and whistle out to me, I wave back, realising they seem sincerely alarmed for my safety. I make my way back with a leisurely breaststroke to reassure everyone I’m fine and I just wanted to swim.
The others are surprised at how well I move in the water and everyone said they thought I’d drowned. A collective sigh of relief is made as I promise not to duck dive under the water or to swim out too far out into the calmest sea I have ever seen.
I smile to myself as I remember my childhood in Australia, every summer at the local pool had made me a good swimmer by Sicilian standards, yet in Australia, I always came dead last in any school swimming race.
Italians at the beach are dispersed in small chatty posed groups, roasting and gossiping in the sun, only the children are playing or swimming. Why would someone go to the beach and not swim?
Last year I was back home in Perth, Western Australia for a visit when I suddenly became a victim to reverse culture shock. It’s a bizarre affliction for an expat living in Italy as every day you are battling tiny little moments of friction between yourself and your new home, but slowly you begin to adjust and don’t think about the smaller things.
And apparently, you begin to assimilate the new behaviour into your personality.
Then when you go back to your hometown thinking, you will be able to settle in comfortably without thinking, when you realise how much you’ve forgotten.
Speaking mostly Italian, I find myself losing words and helpful phrases, sometimes my accent becomes a little Italianized without me realising.
I begin to miss the spontaneity of Italians, for organising things at the moment, I find it strange not just to turn up at friends homes only with a bottle of wine and whip up a bowl of pasta with a few simple ingredients; instead I have to make appointments to go out to eat with them in advanced.
I never order pasta at a restaurant in Australia as I’ve gradually become a pasta snob (yes there is such a thing). I will not eat over cooked pasta, it must be al dente.
And of my last visit home, I feel awkward at Australian coffee shops. Don’t get me wrong I still love, all-day breakfast and brunch is a dirty little pleasure I always indulge in whenever I’m in Australia, but it’s just I have a problem with the coffee.
I’ve become an avid espresso drinker in Italy. Every morning I have at least two cups of the thick black delicious liquid, I can’t get enough of it, I even will drink it without sugar to get the most of the bitter, full flavour.
I don’t crave thick creamy milk lattes, I can no longer stomach full cream milk cappuccinos or frappuccinos. Out with a friend for coffee, I accidentally ordered a latte instead of a flat white as I didn’t remember the difference and then felt terribly sick afterwards.
There are a lot of little Italian peccadillos, which I seem to have picked up without realising. I want my coffee in a cup, not a glass (it gets cold too quickly in a glass, and it tastes better in a cup), I want my cappuccino warm not boiling hot and I think people are strange to order a cappuccino in the afternoon (as it usually is a breakfast drink). I am yet to find a good espresso in Australia that does not taste bitter or burnt.
I like going to an Italian Caffe’, known as a Bar and having a quick, strong espresso while standing up, or grab a quick grappa if I’m feeling cold in the winter, or the ultimate ice coffee granita with whipped cream and brioche sweet bread in the summer.
I often wonder where on earth I will eventually feel more at home, in Australia or Italy. I’m currently debating whether I might need to create my own nation apart to accommodate my strange culture shock affliction.
For the record in Italy the coffee selection is usually as follows:
Cappuccino [cap-puc-cì-no] : equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk
Caffè latte [caf-fè] [làt-te]: espresso with more steamed milk and less foam
Latte macchiato [làt-te] [mac-chià-to]: steamed milk “marked” with a splash of espresso
(These milky coffees are only consumed until about 11am)
Caffè macchiato [caf-fè] [mac-chià-to]: For the softer side of coffee, enjoy this espresso “marked” with a splash of frothy milk. Unlike the breakfast drinks, this lightly milky caffè can be enjoyed as frequently as normal caffè.
Caffè corretto [caf-fè] [cor-rèt-to]: Literally translated as corrected coffee, this drink features espresso with a splash of alcohol, such as grappa or sambuca.
Caffè americano [caf-fè] [a-me-ri-cà-no]: After trying drip coffee in the United States, Italians decided to offer tourists a taste of home. Their interpretation: espresso diluted with plenty of hot water.
Caffè lungo [caf-fè] [lùn-go]: This “long coffee” comprises espresso with a splash of hot water but is stronger than the americano.
Marocchino [ma-roc-chì-no]: A marriage of cocoa and espresso. A shot of espresso, a layer of foam, and a sprinkle of cacao powder in a glass mug that has been dusted with cocoa powder.
Shakerato: The shakerato is Italy’s answer to an iced coffee. A chilled espresso poured over ice and shaken to a froth.
Caffè freddo [caf-fè] [fréd-do]: Literally cold coffee, an espresso which has been cooled down in the fridge or freezer.
Crema di Caffè [crè-ma] di [caf-fè]: A mixture of whipped cream and espresso coffee, a light coffee flavoured dessert.
Caffè affogato [caf-fè] [af-fo-gà-to]: Another variation of dessert, have your coffee literally drowned in a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream.
Granita di Caffè [gra-nì-ta] di [caf-fè]: Shaved iced coffee usually topped with whipped cream and consumed with sweet bread for breakfast in Sicily.
Bicerin [bitʃeˈriŋ]: A Piedmontese drink similar to a hot chocolate. Served in a big glass mixing coffee, chocolate and whipped cream.
Caffè al Ginseng [caf-fè] [gin-sèng] : An espresso prepared with ginseng extract and needs no other sweetener.
Caffè d’Orzo [caf-fè] [òr-zo]: A 100% naturally caffeine-free coffee made with barley.
It’s been a while since my last rant about the irksome parts of culture shock in Italy. To be honest, I’ve simply learned to adapt to most of the stuff I used to find bothersome, after all, you cannot pretend that an entire culture will change to fit your own convenience.
I take culture shock with a smile and try to put a comic slant on it. Most of the time I feel like David Attenborough in a BBC documentary, interacting with the natives while being fascinated, perplexed and amused at the same time.
To be honest, after 16 years of living in Italy, I often go through a strange kind of ‘reverse’ culture shock every time I’m back home in Australia (but that’s another story).
So here are ten points of culture shock which I still need to navigate and which sometimes bother me, make me laugh and others which aren’t too bad. The hilarious consequences of living in Italy instead of merely visiting.
1. A lack of personal space
In Australia like in America, we have way too much space compared to the population. Here in Italy, there are a lot of people with respect to the physical space. The result is tiny apartments and houses, not enough parking and a population which has no problem invading other people’s personal space.
You will be spoken to way too close to your face, people do stare, your new in-laws will be commenting on your appearance and interfering simply because we have to live our lives ‘vicini, vicini’, up close and personal, it’s just the way it is. Yes, it’s suffocating, oppressing and soul destroying but you’ll get used to it.
The in-laws will be doing it out of love, the community wants you to be a part of it, and strangers simply have always done this. Don’t feel like a victim no one is out to get you, it’s the reality.
2. An insane formality
Italians can be terrible intellectual snobs, they are very proud of their language, hard-earned titled, jobs, and education. So be prepared to be extremely formal when first meeting people, be sure to use the special ‘lei’ ultra formal grammatical way of addressing teachers, doctors, lawyers and people who are older or more experienced than you.
I was surprised to discover Italian society has an intellectual class system. There is a distinction between those who can speak Italian well, with a particular level of education or accent and those who can’t.
As a foreigner, you will always be corrected when you make grammatical errors or reminded of your quaint accent. Over the past few years, I’ve been working in the local schools in Sicily, and I’ve transformed from a foreigner to a formal colleague of other teachers, who happily address me with the title of ‘maestra’ or ‘collega’ and using ‘lei’ instead of the informal ‘tu’.
I think it’s hilarious the silly game many Italians are forced to play. We are all the same people, get over your airs and graces.
3. Male and Female dynamics
I’ve always been perplexed by the relationship between the sexes in Italy. I think women have a terrible struggle with sexism and bullying in Italy something which has never been acknowledged, for goodness sake, there isn’t even a word for sexism and harassment in Italian (eventhough the English terms are slowly being adopted.)
It has always bothered me how men and women in Italy cannot be considered merely friends, Italian’s have terms like fidanzato/a, amico/a which refer to boyfriend, girlfriend or fiancé, there is no term to express a platonic friendship, it’s sad, why can’t you just be friends without any sexual connotations or expectations?
While Italian men who are friends with other men seem to be a lot more intense, you will often see perfectly heterosexual men kissing one another on the cheeks, walking arm in arm, standing close to one another and embracing. If you saw this kind of male behaviour in any anglo saxon country, you would assume it was a gay couple. Not so in Italy.
Female friends are not so amicable, women are competing with other women, instead of lifting up one another, they are judging one another physically and playing the sexism game amongst themselves.
Even on a grammatical level, the Italian language drives me crazy as all objects are either male or female, it’s an epic task to recall which are which and how to make the definite and indefinite articles match up with the nouns. First, you need to identify the gender (masculine/feminine) then pay attention to the number (singular/plural) of the terms they refer to. It’s a daily struggle for me.
One of the things I noticed even on my very first visit to Italy is how dirty the place is, in the big cities it is dusty, people sweep their balconies out onto the street, laundry hung out to dry from balconies will drip on you as you walk by, you will accidentally step on abandoned dog poop and stumble upon dumped trash along the side of the road and under bridges (especially if there is some kind of labor strike occurring).
This is a massive social and environmental problem in Italy, which I hope Italians address soon. The concept of recycling is slowly being taught, and the use of plastic bags is banned by law. But there are large parts of Italy which have been permanently damaged by illegal dumping of toxic waste including areas outside of Naples, the sea floor near the island of Capri is in the middle of a major clean up and parts of Sicily’s interior near Gela and Caltanissetta have become terra bruciata– burnt out wasteland thanks to decades of a poorly managed petrochemical industry. All terribly heartbreaking.
5. Dolce Vita
Despite the negative aspects of culture shock, I love the pigheaded Italian approach to life. Their dedication to the Dolce Vita is what allows them to savour life to the full. Italy is all about slow living, taking the time to talk, socialise, taking care of themselves, enjoying a drink, a quick coffee, preparing good food, then taking the correct amount of time to taste and digest it all.
There is always plenty of holidays during the year to spend time with friends and family, as work is seen as a necessary evil and should not get in the way of living in the moment. Amen to making more memories and not more money.
6. Gossip mill 100%
When you come to Italy, you can be assured that someone will be talking about you. The Italian gossip mill is an outstanding machine, it connects everyone to everyone else professionally and personally. So why not use it to your advantage!
Let people know you can teach English, take good photos for a reasonable price, make birthday cakes, babysit. It’s the best way to get a job, honestly! And also how to find a good plumber, electrician, accountant or lawyer.
Make friends with the local gossip, just be careful not to make too many waves, just blend in. Complain about the same things as they do, agree with them but don’t add to the venom.
7. Coffee culture
Italy has the best coffee in the world, yet having coffee here is quite a rigid traditional ritual. In Italy coffee is exclusively a short black (espresso), cappuccino is strictly a morning drink served with full cream milk and not piping hot.
A latte will give you some milk with a dash of espresso, a macchiato will provide you with a short black with a splash of milk. Coffee is served quickly standing up at a ‘bar’ or cafe together with other drinks like juices, wine, spritz and bitter aperitifs.
If you are after something more substantial, you could sit down at a wonky table and grab a cornetto (croissant), pastries or a quick panino but don’t expect much else.
An Italian bar is a spot you nip off to for ten minutes at a time when you are at work or if you have nothing to do during the day.
Starbucks has only just opened its doors in Milan this year (2018), so there is no takeaway coffee, no small, medium or large frappe, no free wifi or working on a computer at the cafe’. Sniff!
8. Arrogant Doctors
Medical practitioners in Italy rarely have an excellent bedside manner, it seems that’s been left out of the pre-requisites. So be sure to revise how to use the formal ‘lei’ form while addressing them and write a list of questions to ask and insist on them being clear because they ain’t wasting time on explanations, unfortunately.
The poor public hospitals are the victims of terrible cutbacks and lousy management, so be kind to the doctors and nurses as they are very stressed, they are doing their best despite any rough edges.
9. The danger of ice
Since we are at the beginning of a long hot tourist inducing Italian summer I thought I’d mention the fear Italians have of consuming cold drinks with ice and avoiding air conditioning. Many visitors are always complaining of the lack of icy cold beverages and arctic blast air con. I totally understand this insanity as I grew up in Australia where people used to put their glasses in the freezer to get their beer extra chilled.
I feel a little embarrassed for my Italian friends and family when I explain their avoidance of cold things in summer to others, as they believe it is bad for your health. It seems Italians are slight hypochondriacs and avoid icy drinks (except for granita) and air conditioning as they fear it could make them sick or in some extreme cases kill.
My husband is always telling me the same story about a school friend of his who drank an icy cold drink one summer and consequently dropped dead as the difference in temperature sent his body into shock. If this story were true, then I surely would have died of brain freeze many years ago.
Now this may come as a surprise, but Italian bureaucracy has a gigantic problem with middle names. It is critical to consistently use all of your names on every possible documentation from bank accounts, I.D cards, passports, to bills, signatures and tax file numbers. You will be denied payments, get other people’s bills to pay and get perplexed looks from confused postal workers.
A signature is always written surname first then the first name followed by all middle names.
If you decide to abandon your middle names at the border as they are too confusing for Italians, then good for you as long as any other documents you use do not contain them as you will be forced to update everything if a middle name is discovered.
If you don’t have any middle names, lucky you!!
I’ve always had problems as my mother named me like a member of the British royal family with two middle names. In Australia, I always have to spell out my complex Italian surname as no one understood it or can pronounce it. So when I moved to Italy, I thought that’d be the end of that. But it turns out my pronunciation of Del Borrello to a Messinese sounds like I am saying Gian Borello, numerous times my name has been transformed and one of my consonants robbed.
It seems Sicilians only like local surnames and not ones from other Italian regions. Santa pazienza! So it looks like I will always have a struggle with my name.
If you want to read some more about my experience with culture shock take a look at:
I recently saw this image on Facebook from a supposedly Italian restaurant in Australia and was reminded of how different food consumption is in Italy.
Yes, the photo does look delicious, but this is in no way an authentic way of serving Italian food. Italians would never put pasta together with meat on the same plate. This is never done as food preparation has determined rules and procedures which are never broken because each food’s taste must be savoured to the full.
An Italian would be shocked to see two distinct dishes haphazardly heaped together on a plate like this. The standards for food preparations in Italy are very high and demand food to be served in specific ways to respect each unique dishes flavours.
The structure of a meal follows very well-defined stages, which can quickly be picked and chosen from yet each course has its own way of being served.
Aperitivo [a-pe-ri-tì-vo]: the apéritif usually happens before a meal, where you sip Aperol spritz, non-alcoholic bitters like Crodino or other cocktails and drinks that help stimulate the appetite for a big dinner.
Antipasto [an-ti-pà-sto]: an antipasto is made up of many small samples of food which are meant to show the ingredients and flavours featured in the main meal. If you have seafood, everything will feature the elements in the main seafood menu, while at a Trattoria it can highlight the best ingredients of local cuisine in small dishes of everything from cheese samples, mushrooms, salami’s, bread, fried batters, pickled vegetables and many more.
Primo [prì-mo]: this is strictly a pasta, rice or minestra [mi-nè-stra] pasta based vegetable soup dish.
Secondo [se-cón-do]: the main course which can be meat, fish or chicken.
Contorno [con-tór-no]: these are your side dishes which are served on separate plates and include any salads or vegetarian options, everything from fries to lettuce or roasted vegetables.
Bis [bìs]: if you love a particular dish or antipasto you can ask for second helping or ‘fare il Bis’ (BIZ). If you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding or another major party event those waiting on you will automatically ask if you want a second helping of the pasta or main courses.
Dolce [dól-ce]: dessert in Italy is usually dictated by the seasons, if it’s summer there are selections of gelato or fruits, in winter usually pastries.
Digestivo [di-ge-stì-vo] / Caffè [caf-fè]: to help the meal go down well there comes the digestivo which is either a sip of liquor (from grappa, to limoncello or Amaro) or coffee anything that helps with digestion.
By no means are you expected to consume a huge meal like this each day.
You may go out and have an apéritif with friends after work which is usually accompanied by small snacks like potato chips, pretzels, crackers, olives, peanuts or small canapès.
You can decide on getting an antipasto with only a primo or skip the antipasto and choose a secondo with a contorno.
A Bis is not obligatory, neither is dessert or coffee. An Italian will rarely eat these courses unless it’s for a significant occasion like a wedding when the eating is spread out over a full evening.
If you are going out for a casual pizza at a pizzeria, you can usually get an antipasto, then pizza and if you have room a dolce or digestivo.
There are also many dishes, particularly in the United States, which are marketed as Italian but in reality aren’t at all. Many foods have been created by Italo Americans which have taken their Italian traditions and adapted them into the culture of their new homes, in a unique crossover cuisine which actually does not exist in Italy.
Distinctly Italo American inventions which would surprise and perhaps even be shocking to Italians include:
Lobster Fra Diavolo
Chicken and Veal Parmigiana
Cioppino (fish stew)
Muffuletta (a bread roll with the lot)
Spaghetti and meatballs
August is a month filled with endless food and religious celebrations which fill the table with local fare and many opportunities to witness ancient patron saint festivals. Most Italians have their annual summer vacation this month, so there is a particularly hectic series of outdoor events paired with epic traffic jams to match!
Italy in August means the thermometer hits its peak and the humid Italo summer closes down the entire peninsula as all Italians go to the beach, up to the mountains or overseas.
Ferragosto is the mid-August holiday, the Latin term Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ rest), was celebration first introduced by Emperor Augustus in 18 BC. In addition to the existing Roman festivals which celebrated harvest times, the Roman Empire chose to revel in the heat and basically take the month to rest.
During the ancient celebrations, horse races were held across the Empire, and beasts of burden were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. The many Palio horse races all around Italy still reflect these ancient Roman celebrations. The name “Palio” comes from the pallium, a piece of precious fabric which was the prize given to winners of these horse races.
The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto came about during the Fascist period. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organised hundreds of popular tours. People’s Trains for Ferragosto were available at discounted prices.
Today the 15th of August is a national holiday and a religious feast day which celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic church believes it was the day when the Madonna’s sinless soul and the incorruptible body was taken up to heaven.
In Sicily and Italy, there are many ancient festivities in cities where the ‘Virgin of the Assumption’ is the patron or protector. Ferragosto in Sicily offers elaborate parades and celebrations from Randazzo (Catania) to Messina, Capo d’Orlando (Messina), Motta d’Affermo (Catania), Novara di Sicilia (Messina), Montagnareale (Messina), Piazza Armerina (Enna), Aci Catena (Catania) and many more.
Here are some annual events to pin for later and check out in August.
For an impressive complete list see Sicilia in Festa which provides the most up to date information about festivities province by province during the year for all visitors to Sicily.
Be sure to check out official event links and web pages as event dates may be changed.
I am probably the worst gardener in the world, name a plant, and I’ve probably killed it usually by forgetting to water it.
Strangely enough, both my parents and grandparents were (and still are) fantastic green thumbs. Our family always had terrific vegetable gardens. In the summer we never needed to buy tomatoes, basil, eggplants (aubergine), zucchini, capsicums, chilli peppers or any other variety of Mediterranean vegetables. We always had figs and grapes in the summer and fennel or broccoli in the winter. My mother still has endless flowering plants decorating the outside of her house everything from roses to succulents and anything in between. My dearly departed Nonna Carmela grew flowers in her front yard. I still remember going out to check the mail, the perfume of her violets and the stunning antique white roses which lined the pathway.
My first steps were on a farm in Serpentine Jarrahdale a few hours south-east of the capital of Perth WA, filled with animals and plants. Then when it was time to start school I moved to five minutes from the CBD in Victoria Park. Luckily with the luxury of large quarter acre blocks of land in the Australia of the 1980’s, there was always space for an abundant vegetable patch behind the house. Then moving to the semi-rural Swan Valley in Western Australia I grew up with the habit of eating fresh farm vegetables together with local table grapes, rockmelons and watermelons.
The Italian community always had the habit of planting their own fruit and vegetables a tradition which persisted and was shared with extended family and friends. There were bags filled with the first tomatoes from whoever was able to harvest first. Or bunches of platted garlic or onions from an overabundant crop. Kilos of broad beans or peas waiting to be shelled and frozen after a bumper year. And if someone knew your lettuce had been decimated by snails or rotted by fungus they’d likely give you some of theirs.
Since moving to Sicily, I can’t say I’ve suddenly inherited the gardening gene, but I have become more passionate about the art of gardening. A garden is a place of reflection, there is a sense of peace which connects you to the rhythms of the natural world. I love planting things and watching them grow. Growing things is like planting the seed of an idea in your mind and seeing it develop into its ultimate form. As a mother, a writer and creative I can see the obvious connections between the fertility of the natural world and that of the mind.
I love to spend my summers in the vegetable garden, planting, nurturing and watching everything grow. Every year I happily take my son into the garden and teach him about the different plants, herbs and vegetables and show him how to prepare them and enjoy them in his food.
There is a deep connection between my memories and the garden, every time I am there I feel connected to my ancestors who went through these same rituals.
In the summer Sicilian’s become like frugivorous animals living off the fruits produced by their gardens. So my husband, son and I are obliged to take a walk to the fig tree to gather up its bounty.
The only problem is the tree is hidden deep below a steep precipice behind overgrown bushes and prickly vines. So a simple walk to a fig tree becomes a trek through the Sicilian undergrowth.
According to my son’s fertile imagination, we were buried in the jungle. In reality, we were making a path through the rugged and abandoned countryside. I was imagining twisted ankles, ripped clothes and thorns.
After literally cutting a path through the bushes we were rewarded by a pleasant walk under the shade of overgrown hazelnut trees in a pathway well hidden from the still burning afternoon sun littered with small mulberries we all love to eat.
When we finally reached the tree, we receive the most indulgent reward, an elaborate tree filled with lush mature fruit. Something is satisfying about eating fresh fruit from under a tree. As I pick the most delicious figs, the white sap bleeds onto my hands, and the figs split open, I place them in my mouth.
While slurping up my first fig of the year, I recall how Italian Renaissance poets used the image of the fig as an erotic metaphor for female genitalia, who knew to eat a fig would be so provocative.
The fig has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is native to the region between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The tree repeatedly appears in the Bible, and some scholars believe the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was a fig rather than an apple.
We are forced to fight off the birds for the figs, as their growing season is so short and intense, we have to be quick, or we’ll miss out. If there is an abundant crop, I might get the chance to make fig jam, or we can choose to dry them in the sun so we can eat them later with roasted hazelnuts in the winter.
In estate i Siciliani diventano come degli animali erbivori, vivendo dei frutti prodotti dai loro giardini. Perchio mio marito, mio figlio e io sono obbligati a fare una passeggiata fino l’albero di fico per raccogliere i suoi frutti.
L’unico problema è che l’albero è nascosto sotto un ripido precipizio dietro coperto dalla vegetazione e piante spinose. Cosi una semplice passeggiata fino un albero di fico diventa un viaggio attraverso il sottobosco Siciliano.
Secondo la fertile immaginazione di mio figilio noi eravamo nelle giungle profonda. In realta noi stavamo facendo un percorso attraverso la rocciosa e abbandonata campagna. Io invece non posso smettere di pensare a caviglie slogate, vestite strappati dentro questi rovi.
Dopo aver letteralmente tagliato un percorso attraverso la vegetazione, eravamo ricompensati da una piacevole camminata sotto l’ombra degli alberi di nocciola. In un percorso ben nascosto dall’ancora caldo sole pomeridiano ricoperti da piccole more che tutti amano mangiare.
Quando finalmente raggiungiamo l’albero riceviamo la più indulgente ricompenso, un elaborato albero pieno di lussureggianti frutti maturi. C’ è qualcosa di soddisfacente nel mangiare il frutto fresco da sotto un albero. Raccogliere i fichi più succulenti, la linfa bianca nelle tue mani e i fichi aperti, mentre li metti nella tua bocca.
Mentre mangio il mio primo fico dell’anno, io mi riccordo come i poeti Italiani del Rinascemento usavano l’immagine del fico come una metafora erotica per i genitali femminili, che sapeva che mangiare un fico poteva essere cosi provocante.
Il fico è stato coltivato da più di 5,000 anni ed è nativo dell’regione fra il Mediterraneo e il Mar Nero. L’albero appare nella Bibbia e alcuni studiosi credano che il frutto proibito preso da Eva fosse un fico anzichè di una mela.
Siamo costretti a combattere gli uccelli per i fichi, visto che le loro stagione è così corta e intensa, dobbiamo essere veloci o li perderemo. Se c’è un abbondante raccolta, potrei avere l’occasione di fare un confettura di fichi o possiamo scegliere di assiggarli al sole così possiamo mangiarli più tardi con le nocciole tostate in inverno.
Food and religious festivals (sagre and feste) all over the peninsula are at the heart and soul of Italian traditions. The ones celebrated on the island of Sicily are particularly rich in history, colour and taste.
Sicilians are proud of their cuisine and dedicate a considerable amount of effort in preparing and sharing their typical plates. So a visit to a sagra is a celebration and invitation to taste the best of Sicily.
While patron Saint celebrations have a long history in Sicily and Italy linked to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe. Sicilians have a sincere dedication to their hometown Saints and a visit to a big feast day will give a unique experience into the intriguing history of Sicily as each has been linked to a particular place for centuries.
The Saints statues are works of art unto themselves, their stories are miracles are amazing tales, and the churches they are housed in are filled with more colour and art still. The celebrations include elaborate pageants like processions, music, fireworks, food and costumes.
Sicily is dedicated to its Saints and cuisine, and these elaborate parties show the best side of the island for all to see.
Here are some events to pin for your next trip to Sicily.
Sicily is filled with many culinary delicacies throughout the year, but it seems to outdo itself for the summer holidays when everyone is out to have a good time and forget their diets. There are the usual pastries and the cliché gelati but two particular summer favourites which simply must not be missed by any visitor to the island.
The first is the simple granita, an iced drink offered in a variety of flavours including lemon, strawberry, coffee, chocolate, almond, berry, peach etc. (the choice is limitless, depending on the imagination of your local café bar owner.) To be clear this isn’t merely shaved ice flavoured with artificial syrups, they are made from fresh seasonal fruit and ingredients.
The most irresistible temptation for a summer breakfast is packed with tonnes of, ‘ruin your diet,’ calories but, ‘really who the hell cares about that’ taste. A coffee granita, for caffeine lovers, is the ultimate iced coffee. It must be consumed with a thick layer of fresh cream and a giant sweet bread briosche to dip into it as you mix the cream into this exquisite creation.
For those who aren’t a fan of coffee try strawberry with fresh cream, when you mix the two together, it is like eating strawberries and cream. Or if you have something against fresh cream and sweet bread try ordering lemon and strawberry swirled together for a refreshing summertime drink.
Secondly but by no means inferior to the granita is an ice cream filled sweet bread. Yes, my friends you heard it right, a mega serving of ice cream inside a bread roll for a hamburger with a difference.
Not for the faint-hearted, a brioche con gelato is a regular meal substitute. Don’t, for example, have it after a big continental breakfast or a typical several course Italian meal because you will end up feeling very ill.
It may seem like a strange thing to eat but believe me, you will be tempted by a filling of two or more of your favourite ice creams, which will be complemented by the texture of the extra soft pastry as you devour it.
Try it, and you’ll understand what I mean.
La Sicilia è piena di molte delizie culinare durante tutto l’anno, ma sembra che ancora di più vengano fuori per le vacanze estive, quando tutti sono pronti per divertirsi e dimenticono le loro diete. Ci sono i soliti dolci e i classici gelati, due particolari preferenze estive che semplicemente non devono essere dimenticate da ogni visitatore dell’isola.
La prima è l’umile granita, una bevanda ghiacciata offerte in una varietà di gusti, quali: limone, fragola, caffè, cioccolato, mandorle, more, pesca ecc (le scelte è senza limiti, depende dall’immaginazione del propretario del bar. Per essere chiaro questo non è sempice ghiaccio tritato aromatizzato con sciroppi artificiali, sono fatti con frutta fresca stagionale e ingredienti veri.
La più irresistibile tentazione per una colazione estiva è un pacchetto ‘rovina dieta’, ma in verità per quel sapore, chi se ne frega. Una granita al caffè, per gli amanti della caffeina è il migliore caffè freddo della tua vita. Deve essere assolutamente consumato con uno spesso strato di panna montata e uno gigante e dolce brioche da inzuppare in modo da mischiare la panna in questa squisito creazione.
Per quelli che non sono fan del caffè provatelo panna e fragola, quando miscelate i due insieme è come mangiare fragole e panna. O se avete qualcosa contro la panna o la briosche provate a ordinare granita fragola e limone insieme per una rinfrescante bevanda. Alcuni Siciliani ordiano acqua minerale con un cucchiao di granita o te freddo e granita o la birra e granita le combinazioni sono infinite.
Poi c’è la briosche riempito con gelato, che non è inferiore alla granita per niente. Si amici miei avete letto bene, una porzione gigantesca di gelato dentro un panino per un hamburger con una differenza.
Non è per i deboli di cuore, una briosche con gelato è una sostituto di un pasto. Per esempio non mangiatelo dopo un abbondanti colazione o dopo aver mangiato un pranzo con tante portate perchè finireti per sentirvi molto male.
Potrebbe sembrare una strana cosa da mangiare, ma credetevi sareti tentati di sicuro da due o più gusti di gelato Siciliano, che si sposano perfattamente con la consistenza della sofficissima pasta quando la divorate.
The city of Marsala is the home and namesake of one of Sicily’s most ancient and popular wines. The town’s unique location on the western coast and its dry environment is part of the reason behind the deep flavour of Marsala. The coastal city’s sea breeze and pleasant weather throughout the year assures the health of the vineyards and gives this wine its unique taste. A sip of Marsala is a taste of Sicily.
A little way off the coast from the city are the Aegadian Islands of Favignana, Levanzo Marettino, Formica, Maraone and Motzia an ancient Phoenician stronghold filled with nature reserves, museums and archaeological sites. It was the Phoenician’s who brought with them the grapes and wine making techniques from the Middle East which gave birth to viticulture in Italy.
Side by side with the history the environment of the surrounding area which contributes to the character of the local wines. The nearby salt flats at Trapani with their farms and characteristic windmills were the focus of a prolific salt industry during ancient times. Today the old farms are a part of a natural reserve which protects a unique landscape that plays host to annual migrating birds from Africa including heron and flamingo.
It is within this idealistic setting in 1796 that British businessman John Woodhouse established the first commercial winery in the area. The tradesman from Liverpool exported Marsala to England after tasting it and realising its unique flavour would easily be appreciated by an English market who were already hungrily consuming fortified wines like Port and Sherry.
In 1812 a competing firm was founded at Marsala by Benjamin Ingham, followed by a third company run by Calabrian, Vincenzo Florio in 1832. Eventually, the Florio family bought and merged the Woodhouse and Ingham holdings with their own production. Today the Florio cellars have become a part of the Saronno group and continue to manufacture Marsala together with other Sicilian varieties of wine such as Corvo and Duca di Salapurata.
The Florio family were one of the most wealthy families of 19th century Italy, their empire included businesses in the areas of banking, pharmaceuticals, art collection and car racing. Their luxurious parties from the beginning of last century became symbolic of excessive wealth and decadence.
The family was originally from the southern Italian region of Calabria and moved to Sicily after the earthquake of 1783, taking advantage of the stability under the reign of the Borbon king Ferdinand in the kingdom of the two Sicilies. Brothers Paolo and Ignazio opened a pharmacy in Palermo which sold spices and various remedies for common illnesses including malaria. After the success of their first business, the family branched out into winemaking at Marsala as well as exporting, sulfur mining, tuna fishing and canning.
For a century and a half, the Florio dynasty contributed to the wealth and development of Sicily. They were a symbol of the ‘bel Epoque’ of Sicilian history when the island first enjoyed the benefits of entrepreneurial wealth, refined taste and lifestyle. Today a visit to the Florio wineries gives you a taste of more than 180 years of Sicilian history which has produced the most distinguished fortified wines in all of Italy.
In the 1950’s Marsala found itself relegated to being considered a simple cooking wine as cheaper and less well made overseas varieties flooded the Italian market. In 1986 the Italian government introduced the D.O classification (denomination of origin) laws which protected the traditional producers and regulated the industry and Marsala slowly became a popular dessert and aperitif wine.
Marsala owes its unique flavour to Western Sicily’s warm, dry and windy climate. The three basic types oro (golden), ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby) are a result of a complex series of grape variety blending and a particular way of ageing the wine which lasts from one to six years.
In the process of making Marsala, Grillo, Catarratto and Damischino white grapes are mixed together to create golden and amber dry and semi-sweet types. Mosto cotto or grape must syrup is added to dry Marsala to give the amber variety a golden colour. Mosto cotto, vino cotto or saba is a thick syrup made by cooking the grape juice in the first step of winemaking. The grape seeds, skins and stems of the entire fruit are used to create a unique ingredient which is also used to add flavour to savoury dishes and desserts.
A mixture of Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d’avola and Nerello Mescalese red grape varieties are mixed to create the sweeter types. Sweet Marsala has a fruity profile while drier Marsala leaves subtle tobacco and liquorice notes, created by the oak barrels it is stored and mixed in an ageing technique known as the solera process.
Solera is a blending system which transfers the wine into different oak barrels over many years, blending various vintages together while perpetually adding flavour. It is used for ageing things like wine, beer, balsamic vinegar, brandy, sherry, madeira, lillet, port, mavrodafni, muscat, rum and whisky. The process is originally from the Iberian peninsula, hence the Spanish and Portuguese origins of its name.
Marsala is surprisingly versatile and can be used in many cocktail recipes or simply as an aperitif. Mostly used in traditional Italian dishes such as veal scaloppini and to make beautifully caramelised sauces to accompany many white meats and wild game dishes. It is also used in desserts like tiramisù, zabaglione or sabayon, a custard dessert often described as a French version of zabaglione.
Dry Marsala pairs well with blue cheese such as gorgonzola, roquefort, stilton or hard robust cheeses like pecorino and grana padano. It also enhances the aromas of medium mature cheeses like piacentinu Ennese and Fontana of Caciotta. It is excellent with smoked fish or tuna, toasted almonds, pistachios and couscous. It goes well with a range of Sicilian cuisine and ingredients which are usually difficult to pair with: such as asparagus, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, artichokes and chocolate.
Over the last few years smaller producers have added a new dimension to Marsala production by returning to the traditional methods of Marsala making. Marco De Bartoli started building his winery more than 40 years ago with the dream of reviving the original soul of this fortified wine. Today his children Giuseppina, Renato and Sebastiano continue his life’s work.
The De Bartoli siblings are continuing their father’s artisain approach to viticulture which includes the use of the traditional Grillo variety of grapes, in small low yield harvests, rigorously collected by hand with a focus on biological techniques, natural indigenous yeasts for fermentation, no artificial additives and a longer aging period as required by ancient wine making techniques.
The De Bartoli’s attention to small fundamental elements is used to obtain high quality and natural wines, which in turn reflect the beauty of Marsala and the landscape of Western Sicily.
The #dolcevitabloggers have chosen to explore the concept of the Dolce Vita in Italy. There is a fine line between loving and visiting the bel paese as a tourist and the reality of living here, in the search for your own personal sweet life. So cheers to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com for choosing such a fascinating topic this month. I can’t wait to read everyone’s posts.
I have a problem with people who idealise Italy, there are countless bloggers, Instagrammers and YouTubers who fall into the trap of depicting life in Italy and in general as an unrealistic bowl of cherries. Let’s be honest the world is far from perfect, and when you come to Italy, it isn’t going to be like Eat, Pray and Love or Under the Tuscan sun. But Italy does give you the freedom to make your own path. There is always a way to find or create your own Dolce Vita.
I live in Sicily which has a bad reputation when it comes to employment, so if you are the competitive type, a move to Sicily is not going to give you a better career. One popular joke describes the typical islander work environment as one Sicilian doing all the work and five others looking on at him. It’s probably more exact to say one Sicilian being paid and the others pretending not to do anything but secretly working and getting paid ‘under the table’ as no one can afford to pay all the taxes.
There is something about the South, all over the world which inspires a laid-back attitude to life coupled with decadence, idleness and corruption. It could be the heat, the poverty or history …
Sicily has always been the most downtrodden, taxed, molested, dominated and trampled part of Italy. If you read anything about the history of the island, you will be surprised by an endless diatribe of conquests, violent wars, pestilence and persistent subterfuge to most major world powers from the middle ages to modern times. No wonder Sicilian’s are so hedonistic as in their past everything has literally been taken away from them.
Unemployment is a concern throughout the peninsula, many Italians are forced to invent their own jobs. Over the past decade, for example, there has been a succession of young Italian creatives who have set up online businesses to export their own creativity overseas. Unfortunately thanks to the current economic crisis Italy is experiencing a massive ‘brain drain’ as many brilliant Italian entrepreneurs and students are leaving to work abroad, as many industries are closing down in Italy and moving offshore, tax levels are on the hike, and the economy is going in the wrong direction.
My own experience in the Sicilian work environment is almost as long and convoluted as the Sicilian penal code. As a foreigner, you will be starting off with a distinct disadvantage, and I discovered as an ‘extracomunitaria’, or as someone born out of Europe, my academic qualifications and even drivers license are not recognised in Italy.
I cannot tell you how many dead ends I came across while trying to have my degree recognised so I could teach in Sicilian schools or at least continue my studies. Someone told me I’d have to redo my entire degree. One politician said he’d validate everything with his big magic official stamp and even promised me a job as a ‘mother tongue English specialist,’ I’m still waiting on the phone call!
I have long since given up on the academic side of my life. And as for my driver’s license is concerned I will continue to renew my ‘International’ one until I find the time to swallow my pride to sit the written and practical tests together with skintight-jeans-wearing, eye-shadow-smeared high school children.
Since coming to Sicily, I’ve become a master of odd jobs and doing-all-kinds-of-shite-to make-ends-meet (this title is so on my resume) from the secretary in my husband’s architectural office, translator, interpreter, to English tutor of unmotivated ‘Liceo linguistico’. These language-based high schools are a particular breed of young adults forced to study the likes of Shakespeare, D.H Lawrence and James Joyce in implausible Literature programs when they are unable to string a simple sentence together in English.
It is difficult enough to explain the significance of Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ monologue to a bored Anglo Saxon student, but you can imagine the hours of fun doing it all in Italian, to a student who is studying English only to make his parents happy. It’s a real barrel of monkeys with much screeching and gesticulating, mostly on my part.
Nowadays my English students have almost disappeared, my work boils down to tricking people into occasionally publishing my articles, working with the primary schools in individual after-school English courses, some online work and my own personal passion projects.
Most of my work in Sicily has been either underpaid or not paid at all. That’s not to say there aren’t work opportunities in Italy, there is a huge tourist industry, and in the major cities, foreigners will find work opportunities in I.T, fashion, language teaching and childcare areas. You’re not going to become a millionaire, but you will find a way of making a living to stay in one of the most fascinating countries on the planet, even if this may involve lowering your standards or getting a second job as a waitress or shop assistant to make ends meet.
In small-town Sicily, where things are usually much more slow-paced and the time in between work is getting longer, there is nothing to do other than adopt a Sicilian ‘dolce far niente’ approach. This attitude of pleasant idleness has become almost a torture for this workaholic expat who keeps slamming her head forcefully into a wall of culture shock, which I always forget to look out for.
Living in the moment is normal for Sicilians but I worry about my savings, career and future and so these are challenging times for this unwilling expat who is always having to adjust. Sicily is perfect for reflection, writing, history, food and wine and finding stories. Work is not essential as life tends to disrupt employment in Sicily.
My Dolce Vita is about finding a balance between my work and life in general. I love how Italians will always choose to savour the moment, yet for me, work is something I cannot do without. I try to do as Italians do with their love of life while always working on my passions.
Want to read past Dolce Vita Blogger Link-Ups? Check out the links below!
One of the most sumptuous fruits of the Sicilian summer has to be the Tabacchere, a strange little squashed furry peach packed with enormous flavour.
I first saw these seemingly insignificant mini fruit at the fruit and vegetable stalls at the open air markets and took them as an inferior version of regular peaches.
I was seriously mistaken as the Tabacchere are baroque masterpieces of the Sicilian estival fruits. They taste unlike any other peach a concentration of delicate sweetness with a pungent aroma that is intoxicating.
A case of Tabacchere is a generous gift a real luxury and can cost up to three times the price of regular peaches. A house drenched in the perfume of these peaches is a sensual pleasure filled with the sweetness of summer sunshine, which lingers in the air and in the mouth.
Also known as saturn, snuffbox and tango doughnut peaches Tabacchere have been grown on the slopes of Mount Etna since the early 1800’s. The rich volcanic soil and the sunshine makes these peaches thrive. Since they do not keep for long and due to their odd size they are generally consumed locally during the short growing season.
These delicate little pieces of flavoursome decadence are characterised by a thin outer skin which easily slips off to reveal a light flesh with a strong scent of peach like a bouquet of roses, Its tiny Tabacchere pip makes it nearly entirely edible.
Peach cobbler is always on the menu when they are in season, any recipe that will make the most of this surprising abundance, to share them with extended Sicilian family and friends.
Everyone should experience the heavenly Tabacchere.
Uno dai più prelibati frutti dell’estate siciliana è la Tabacchere, una strana piccola pesca schiacciata dall’intenso sapore.
Ho visto la prima volta questa, apparetemente mini frutti insignificanti al chiosco di frutta e vedura al mercato e credevo fossero un tipo inferiore delle pesce normali.
Mi ero veramente sbagliata, le Tabacchere sono un capolavoro barocco dei frutti estivi Siciliani. Il loro sapore è diverso dalle altre pesche, un concentrato di delicato dolcezza con un aroma pungente che è inebriante.
Una cassa di Tabacchere un dono generoso, uno vero lusso, e può valere tre volte il prezzo delle pesche normali. Una casa inzuppata nel profumo di questi pesche è un piacere mischiato con la dolcezza del sole estivo, che rimane nell’aria e nella bocca.
Conosciuto anche come pesche Saturno, tango e ciambella.
Le Tabacchere sono state coltivate sulle pendenza del Mt Etna dai primi del 1800. Il ricco suolo vulcanico e il sole fanno prosperare queste pesche. Visto che non si mantengano per molto a causa delle loro piccolo taglia sono generalmente consumate durante il loro periodo di raccolta.
Questi delicate piccoli pezzi di gustosa decadenza, sono caraterizzati da un sottile pelle esterna che si tira facilmente per svelare una leggera polpa con un forte profumo di pesca come un bouquet di rose. Il suo piccolo seme la rende quasi totalmente commestibile.
Il ‘Peach cobbler’ torta Americano è sempre in menù quando sono di stagione e ogni ricetta che valorizza la loro soprendente richezza per condividerle con le famiglia e gli amici.
Tutti dovrebbero provare le delizia Tabacchere.