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.
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.
I think I may have inadvertently led people to believe I had a wonderful summer lazing around the beach and traveling around Sicily.
In reality I had a terrible summer, every time I tried to go to the beach it was friggin freezing and in August my mother in law spent the month in hospital at Taormina which meant I was helping out at my in-laws, taking 2 hour stomach churning car trips back and forth through the mountains to relieve my sister in-laws who stayed in hospital with my husband’s mother (trust me you don’t ever want to be left along in a Sicilian hospital!)
So summer was a hazy mirage of heat, family obligations and late night sleeplessness to get through writing deadlines.
I did manage to snap a few pics which will give you a sense of my summer on the road, it is nothing like last year (2013 was great with visitors and trips to Etna and Taormina). Here is what my summer looked like:
The road back and forth going from Montalbano, Linguaglossa, Moio Alcantara, Giardini Naxos to Taormina hospital.
Hot August Summer traffic outside of Giardini Naxos.
Where have all the tourists gone? The economic crisis makes itself felt in the seaside resort of Giardini.
Sicilians in their balconies and deserted streets at Giardini.
The crumbling and utterly depressing Taormina hospital which is far, far away from touristy Taormina.
True old fashioned Sicilian’s don’t go to Taormina for their holidays they get treated for cancer at Taormina hospital. They don’t go to Acireale for Carnivale they go there to buy second-hand cars in the acres of car yards.
This summer I became a true Sicilian, forgot about vacation time, rolled up my sleeves without complaining and did what was needed. Their tenacity is to be admired. These Sicilians are certainly tough but they never really truly enjoy their own island, which gives them a melancholic quality and why I hope never to be one hundred percent Sicilian.
Even if I dislike shopping around touristy type shops I am often surprised to find stunningly original items in amongst the tacky kitsch. Working my through I heart Sicily post cards, every possibly shaped lava sculpture, bamboo flutes and knickknacks I saw these little babies. A series of handcrafted tools used to pick those particularly prickly Sicilian fruit the ‘fica d’india’ or prickly pear. Priceless really!
The scirocco is an infernal African air current from the desert who whips up the heat in the Mediterranean to unbearable levels during the summer . If this hot wind is still the day is pleasant but if it is on the prowl it makes the air too hot to breathe.
Someone who is sciroccato has fallen victim to the scirocco, literally withered and windswept by the arid breeze. A victim of this Sahara based hurricane isn’t a good sight to behold, tired out, dehydrated and perpetually perspiring. The best cure is to bathe in the cool sea, find some shade under a beach umbrella, drink plenty of water and wait for the first rains of August.
In Italian someone who is sciroccato is a dazed and confused person who behaves in a bizarre and incomprehensible manner.
I’ve always loved Sicilian churches prolific use of mosaics. Last summer I got to the church of the Madonna of Tindari (ME) and managed to sneak a shot of this beautiful image of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
These mosaics are like living breathing operatic scenes filled with life and drama. I think I’ll never tire of visiting them.
Lately I’ve noticed a new development with my language skills. I think I’m going native. Many missionaries from past centuries wrote of how after years of living with a foreign culture and language they have felt like a constant outsider until the day when they realise their tongue has somehow assimilate elements of the local dialect, to make them connect and communicate in a way that they almost feel like part of the local community.
This is a new stage of language acquisition for me, like dreaming in another language. I find I dream in both Italian and English, mostly in English and never in Sicilian.
Well I’ve inadvertently begun to insert certain Sicilian phrases and words while talking to locals and I haven’t been met with hysterical laughter or suggestions to stick to standard Italian.
I can hear my mother crying out in tears, ‘But she used to have such a beautiful Florentine accent!’
Do not worry Mum, I am learning more Italian every day, but I have discovered it’s fine to pick up new accents and understanding different dialects is helping me to discover new elements of Italian culture.
The Sicilian dialect has a long and proud history which dates back even before the Florentine school. Sicilian’s were writing poetry and sonnets long before Dante or Shakespeare and their language incorporates many elements of European and Middle Eastern cultures.
Sicilian is part Arabic, French,Germanic, Spanish and North African, incorporating different elements of many civilizations and wisdoms.
I grew up listening to an archaic form of Sicilian which my maternal grandparents spoke and combined with English. Today Sicilian has melded more with the standard or ‘Tuscan’ Italian but the sounds are still similar to me.
As a child I used to spit out ‘nozzuli’ from grapes and would get ‘spine’ stuck in my fingers from the rose bushes.
Nowadays if I speak to the people in my Sicilian neighborhood I sprinkle my phrases with a local accent and convert the verbs into Sicilian.
I say things like:
Amunini – instead of andiamo (lets go)
Shalare – instead of divertire (to have fun)
Capiste – instead of capisce (do you understand)
Cosa facchiste? – instead of che cosa hai fatto? (what did you do?)
Cosa succediu? – instead of che cose’ successo? (what happened?)
Scantare – instead of spaventare (to be afraid)
I’m far from fluent but I understand every word and find it fascinating to listen to even if I am still not Sicilian.
Strangely enough Sicilians have a real problem with my name, Rochelle is simply too foreign for them and Del Borrello despite seeming to be Italian sounds too Spanish for them, I am often mistaken for a ‘Borello’ which is a local family who run a local restaurant. So despite my learning their language I’m still very much an outsider.
N.B: Sicilian unfortunately is considered a dying language because it is no longer read or written extensively. Apparently when a language is only spoken without a certain level of grammatical knowledge or development it is in danger of disappearing, which would be a terrible tragedy. I thank goodness for organizations like: Arbasicula a journal of Sicilian Folklore and Literature edited by Gaetano Cipolla based at St John’s University Languages and Literatures Department in New York, it is a non-profit International Organization promoting the language and culture of Sicily. Arba Sicula is published both in English and Sicilian and is such a worthwhile project, offering a way of recording this ancient language.
Its normal to ask for a discount on expensive items particularly jewelry, designer items and white goods. Ask for it, demand it and you will get it!
2. Be careful with technology
GPS off the main roads and the autostrada has a tendency to take you off the beaten track onto old tracks and very much on the scenic route. So if you decide to trust a GPS have plenty of time on your hands and a full tank of gas.
3. If you ask for a coffee (caffe) you will get an espresso.
If you want a long black ask for a caffe Americano or stick to cappuccinos, who will be mildly warm and are strictly considered a breakfast drink and not usually ordered after eleven a.m. You will get a strange looks if you ask for a cappuccino in the afternoon!
4. Have a beer in the park
Alcohol laws are less stringent in Italy so you will be able to buy wine, beer and spirits in the local supermarkets and local cafes will also sell whatever your heart desires.
In restaurants you usually order wine in 1/4 liter, 1/2 liter or 1 liter jugs or bottles. House wines or ‘vino della casa’ are usually locally made, which is very economical and highly recommended.
5. Follow the rules of food.
If you are ordering in a restaurant Italians usually start with an antipasto plus a first course (primi) of pasta or a first course of pasta followed by a second course (secondi) of either meat/chicken or fish.
Any sides will have to be ordered separately.
Or if you are starving you can go the full hog: antipasti – primi – secondi followed by coffee or digestive liquors which will help you burn through all the calories.
I live a few minutes drive from the hometown of my maternal grandparents who migrated to Australia in the 1950’s. Visiting Raccuja is like seeing ghosts pass before my eyes, it’s a strange visceral experience. I grew up hearing my grandparents stories and it is emotional to find myself passing upon their footsteps. Even if they lived and worked out in the countryside, Raccuja was were they did their everyday business.
My great grandmother Catena Scaffidi would leave her six young girls home to do the chores while she put on her one good pair of shoes to go to the ‘paese’ for church services every Sunday. The church of the Madonna is where my grandparents and great Aunts celebrated baptisms, communions, confirmations, funerals and marriages.
I would have loved to see the local Carnevale parades filled with masquerade, music, wine and fun. My grandfather once recalled how he and his friends dressed up as particularly ugly looking women, all in the name of Carnival fun.
Raccuja was founded during the Norman domination of Sicily by Count Roger d’Altavilla at the end of the eleventh century and was ruled by a succession of feudal nobel families including the Alagonas,Orioles, Valdinas and Brancifortes it was under the jurisdiction of this final family that Raccuja became an independent town in fifteen fifty two. The name of the town is derived from the Arab words Rahl (farmhouse) and Kuddia (hill), literally the farmhouse on the hill.
Count Roger d’Altavilla led his army in a bloody battle nearby Raccuja against the invading Saracens during the period of the Crusades which left behind many heroic tales and stories of deep dark Saracen tunnels secretly constructed by these mysterious nomadic people in the surrounding mountains.
Today Raccuja is suffering from the decay which is evident in most of secluded Sicily. This tiny mountain village used to be an important agricultural producer, with the wealth of hazelnuts, oranges, lemons, olives, wheat and other once precious crops. With the gradual decline of agriculture Raccuja’s bank has closed, the post office has moved away and many other precious services no longer exist. The local primary school is barely holding on and the parish priest does his best to inject some life into the local square, uniting the younger parishioners for regular celebrations.
Over the past decade the Raccujese have kept their town alive with great love and inventiveness. Their annual festa’s dedicated to the Madonna (21st September) and Saint Cosimo and Damiano (October) still attract small crowds.
However the real crowd pleaser is the annual Sagra of Maceroni. The local businesses, church groups and other volunteers offer a selection of local products together with a small concert one night in August where visitors can eat a flavorsome plate of freshly made maceroni pasta and a drink of your choice for a few Euro.
Last summer I went to Raccuja’s Sagra with some cousins of mine who were visiting from Australia and we had a good time tasting cannoli, eating Nutella covered crepes and sipping hazelnut liquor. People were being ferried in and out of Raccuja well after midnight on courtesy buses. There were many people visiting from places like Germany, Australia, Argentina, northern Italy and local areas.
Some visitors to Sicily (and in fact most of Italy) plan out their vacations moving around from Sagra to Sagra, particularly in the summer. The humble Sagra is a guaranteed cheap meal and you can taste typical products produced in the local area. Some famous Sagra festivals include the Pistachio’s at Bronte (CT), Cous Cous festival San Vito del Capo,Sagra of the Blood Oranges at Centuripe (EN). There are Sagras dedicated to hazelnuts, salami, cheese, roasted pork, oranges, lemons, it depends where you find yourself in Sicily.
I am contented at Raccuja’s inventiveness and smile at Sicilian’s natural shrewdness, an instinctive trait which helps them to survive. I think my grandparents would be proud of their beloved paese.
This year I was fortunate enough to get to San Leone’s ‘festa’ at Longi (20th Feb) which I find is generally more traditional and particular then the one celebrated at Sinagra (even if I love them both!)
I liked the solemn religiosity and playfulness of Longi’s interpretation of this Saint’s celebration. Not only does the procession take the Saint’s statue around the town, it has him dancing to the time of the local brass band. Leone doesn’t move without musical accompaniment, here the catchphrase is ‘Viva Santu Leo … E musica!’
The face of San Leone is always the same yet the elaborate decoration gives Longi’s festa a more traditional feel, here he is decorated in flowers, monetary offerings, bells chiming, threaded wheat shafts, golden vestments and the local children adore him too. The procession lasts nearly the whole day from after the late morning church service until four o’clock in the afternoon when he is placed down in the square before the parish church to receive final offerings and salutes from the devout.
During the procession the warmth the locals have to their patron is palpable and it quite frankly gave me goosebumps. A saint’s day in a small town is a particularly special occasion everyone puts on their best face and there is a real sense of pride and religiosity through out the day, it is an exceptional Sicilian tradition.
For more details on San Leone and other Sicilian saints see my article on Times of Sicily.
Ok, so I’m running a little late with the Friday photo. But it is spectacular nonetheless!!
Etna has been acting out once again, this time with an avalanche thrown in. We saw this amazing cloud formation, from her which seemed like a giant UFO.
It’s a bleak time of year here in the mountain villages of the Nebrodi. The intermittent rain and hail is interrupted by tiny specks of sunshine quickly smudged out by the billowing charcoal clouds. The chill makes me want to shut myself up inside. My lips are chapped and my hands are rough and sandpapery as the winter seems to erode them evermore every year that passes.
During these ‘blackbird days’ as they call them here, they are the coldest of the year, I am usually wrought with melancholy, yearning for an antipodal summer, but I find myself savoring the winter.
I climb into the attic of my house in the ‘Centro storico’ of my little Sicilian pearl of a town, open the window and observe the winter landscape. In the summer the sun is too harsh and even my photo’s seem burnt by the sun. Yet today the sombre, seductive light gives everything a new perspective.
The rooftops in front of me are in their usual jumble and the odd poky chimney occasionally emits puffs of pontifical smoke. From my tippy toes I can make out the Castello’s time piece high in the tower, my son’s kindergarden is out of my view of sight and directly in front of me halfway up the mountain I see the rundown pizzeria housed in a decaying villa which closed down many years ago and wistfully remember eating my first calzone there.
This weather makes me want to curl up with a book. I’ve been curling up with my Kindle e-reader but it’s not quite the same. I’ve also made a mistake in my choice of reading, stupidly diving into a friends rather lengthy memoir, his is a heavy world filled with a nightmarish childhood and a litany of genocides which coincided with his story. Not the most uplifting read even if his voice is one of eloquent reason, love and intelligence. Yet somehow apt as in Europe the twenty seventh of January is dedicated to the remembrance of the holocaust.
Shaking off the collective memories of the horrors, I go for a walk and promise to get back to the memoir when I feel less morose.
I need a change of pace, a glossy magazine, a Disney cartoon for my son and a surprise offer of coffee by a new friend. There is nothing like a coffee break in a local bar to lift your spirits and some idle chit chat to remind you life isn’t all doom and gloom.
After these giornate dello merlo which are the final few days of January comes the Candelora which is a kind of Sicilian ground hog day. We shall watch on the second of February, if it rains the whole day through then spring is just around the corner and if the sun shines the snow will come and bring us another forty days of winter.