Yuletide Sicily

The festive season is always a beautiful time of the year to visit Sicily as it is filled with the colours, tastes and sensations of a traditional Sicilian Christmas.

A Yuletide Sicily offers visitors a unique way of experiencing the island which is inhabited by fewer tourists and is ultimately a more authentically Italian celebration.
December in Sicily is about traditions based around the nativity, Christmas markets with a little decadence thrown in.

Winter on the island over the past few years has been rather pleasant, apart from the chilly weather, a definite chill in the air, some rain it is quite rare to see snow be deposited around most of the island, apart from of the higher parts and the snowfields of the Madonie Mountains and Etna’s favourite skiing tracks.

The focus of December is as always about the food and traditions, the advent calendar is filled with roasted chestnuts in the squares, folk concerts around churches, food festivals dedicated to things like fried dumplings and other sweets. Wine is always featured in winter feats, and roasted pork is the featured meat dish.

As Christmas gets closer there impromptu folk music performances featuring traditional instruments like the Sicilian bagpipe or zampogna. Religious art is always a firm part of the Christmas season with exhibitions of detailed dioramas of the Nativity in Papier Mache, or even live reenactments of the nativity tale from the Bible.

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Every major city has its own traditional characteristic Christmas markets filled with folk art, Christmas decorations and food and wine stands which are also common in other European cities.

In Sicily, the religious festivals are as always a substantial part of the events and include everything from the feast days of St Barbara, the Immaculate Conception, San Nicola di Bari, St Lucy, Santo Natale, San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve) through to and the Epiphany in early January.

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Photo by Charl van Rooy on Unsplash

The festive table is always filled with baroque bounties where the best of what is available is consumed liberally throughout Sicily.

Christmas celebrations are seriously religious here in Italy, but the true religion is not in a church but at the table, a hedonistic ritual which demands extensive preparation and consumption. Celebrations begin on the Eve’s. Yes, the most important meals are Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve which stuff you with so much food you don’t want to eat for an entire year.

The Italian Cenone is the essence of gluttony.

A Sicilian menu is endless: starting with appetisers like bruschetta, arancini rice balls, fried bread batter, canapes, cheeses, ham and cold meats. Then a selection of at least two different pasta dishes which could be anything like lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, farfalle or fusilli prepared with an array of rich sauces ranging from hefty béchamel flavoured with smoked salmon, porcini mushrooms or the classic Bolognese. The menu varies depending on which part of Italy you find yourself. Some believe each Vigilia must be celebrated only with seafood.

A typical menu can include main courses of roasted beef, pork, lamb, chicken, baby kid, wild boar, stuffed pigs feet, fried crumbed veal cutlets, fried baccalà or dried and salted cod, seafood salad, Russian coleslaw or lobster. Everything is washed down with red and white wines, topped off with a selection of exotic and winter fruits such as pineapple, dried figs stuffed with hazelnuts, oranges, mandarines.

 

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Photo by Food Photographer | Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

Then there is the obligatory slab of Panettone or Pandoro Christmas cake for those who don’t like sultanas or caramelised fruit. Not to mention the endless desserts like drenched liquor dumplings, cannoli, profiterole cream puffs and alike!
Finally, there is a glass of sparkling Spumante for good luck, before a night of indigestion and antacids.

For those brave of heart and strong of stomach you might indulge in a shot of digestive liquor ranging from potent Grappa, sour as hell Amaro, lemony Lemoncello or deliciously light chocolate or hazelnut delights.

The Cenone is sacred, and it’s only once a year, thank goodness!

The abundance of Christmas provisions serves to be shared with equally abundant friends and family as the festive season is where the gregarious Italian culture finds its true expression, it is excessive but needs to be as you never know how many relatives will show up between Christmas and new years.

Here below is my own personal list of events in Sicily this December (2018) for you to pin and use as a guide on your Yuletide planning.

Buon Natale to everyone and to all a good Nye celebration.

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Yuletide Sicily

Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II


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Messina’s Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II was built in 1852 by Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies.

The building is in the Neoclassical style and was designed by Neapolitan architect Pietro Valente. Previously known as the Teatro Sant’ Elisabetta its name was changed after the Expedition of the Thousand (Italian Spedizione dei Mille) which was a part of the Italian Risorgimento that took place in 1860.

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Spanish Bourbon King Ferdinand II

A corps of volunteers led by Giuseppe Garibaldi sailed from Quarto, near Genoa (now Quarto dei Mille) and landed in Marsala, Sicily to conquer the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, ruled by the Spanish Bourbons in a bid to help unify the Italian peninsula into modern Italy we know today.

The three archways at its portico entrance are elegant in the early morning sunshine and are embellished by marble architecture created by Messina’s sculpture Saro Zagari.

Walking by the theatre in the early morning the building is covered in a beautiful golden glow, each elegant embellishment seems to catch your eye and it is always a focus of contemporary art and performance. It’s outer halls often are host to exhibitions from antique opera costumes to contemporary pop art there is always something to see.

 

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Intrigued by these two busts engraved into the front of the theatre I googled them immediately on my phone. Count Vittorio Alfieri (1749 – 1803) was an Italian dramatist and poet and considered the creator of the Italian tragedy.

While Giovanni Battista Niccolini (1782 – 1861) was a believer in the independence of Italy and his neoclassical drama showed his idealistic belief in liberal politics with a distinct romantic flare. So it is no surprise why these two playwrights are featured on the facade of the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II at Messina. Both were symbols of the new Italian theatre when the building was first constructed.

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Inside the theatre, the ceiling was decorated by Sicily’s most well known contemporary artist Renato Guttuso and represents the legend of the half man half fish Colapesce who dived below the island to discover its mysteries.

The expansive painting is stark, modern and typically evocative as is usual in Guttuso’s style. The anorexic mermaids pose around observing the skeletal Cola Pesce who is diving naked down under the island of Sicily to discover the lava river flowing at its foundations. Noticing one of the four pillars holding up Sicily is about to give way he stays below, helping to hold up the island from the abyss below.

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In between Christmas and New Years of 1908 Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II was enjoying its winter Opera season as a thriving Sicilia Opera house.

On the 28th of December as the crowd of spectators had finished enjoying an excellent performance of Verdi’s Aida and the orchestra was packing up to go home in the early morning, the worst tragedy possible happened, wiping out the grand city in a dozen or so terrifying seconds of the earthquake and tidal wave.
The aftermath is the subject of hundreds of books, biographies and testimonies which tell the sad tale of too little help arriving too late, hundreds of orphans, looting and thievery of ruined houses, broken families, fortunes and hopes.  Millionaires became paupers, a thriving city reduced to rubble in seconds, the population became ghosts and the city a desolate wreck.

And many more stories still of heroic acts, of many locals who returned home to help their city to rebuild, the Italian Parliament who decided to fund the reconstruction of a town which no longer existed, the many generations of people who lived in temporary homes while the city was rebuilt and the many acts of kindness towards Messina from the Italian royal family to the entire world.

The Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II reopened its doors for performances once again in 1980.

 

Short and sweet classical history

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I’m gradually adding to my Reading Trincaria reading list and so I will be posting a regular quick Sicilian themed book review during the week to gradually extend our Sicily related reads.

This week I’d like to share one of the first books I ever read about this magical island, a true classic which helped to spark my love of Sicilian history.

 M I Finley and Denis Mack Smith: A short history of Sicily.

This book was the definitive guide to the history of Sicily for many generations and is considered the best general history book on the island. This ageless classic is a beautiful introduction to Sicilian history for anyone wanting to begin a journey through the various epochs of Sicily. Written in a clear, precise and evocative style, it encourages you to seek out more about this fascinating place.

Denis Mack Smith was an English historian, specialising in the history of Italy from the Risorgimento onwards.  An Emeritus Fellow at Oxford, Mack Smith was considered the world’s leading scholar on Italian history for the English society in the post world war two period.

A History of Sicily, with Moses Finley, was initially published in two volumes, Medieval Sicily 800-1713 and Modern Sicily after 1713. Later an abridged and reprinted version was released as the single volume titled:  A History of Sicily with Moses Finley and Christopher Duggan.

Denis Mack Smith’s real talent lies in being able to take the often dry elements of historical fact and turn it into clear, readable and engaging prose, popularising the history of Sicily to a broader audience, his writing was filled with wonderfully quotable phrases.

This book while a little dated is still worth picking up as it is a brief clear single volume introduction into one of the most complicated European histories.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print so the best way to track it down is through the public library system or through second-hand book stores. But it’s definitely worth the effort.

The Ultimate Sicilian History Lover

 

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John Julius Norwich:

The Normans in the South 1016-1130

The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194.

Sicily: A short history from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra.

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

The Middle Sea: A history of the Mediterranean.
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John Julius Norwich’s series dedicated to the Normans of Sicily is the ultimate Sicilian historic read.

The Norman period in Sicily was a medieval renaissance, a golden age of enlightenment despite the backdrop of darkness in Europe. Norwich was a formidable historian and storyteller, and these books read like a charming historical novel, shedding light upon a lesser known period of the islands past.

This specific historical period is particularly evocative and is linked to images of crusading knights who left for the holy land from the port of Messina and the French Norman kings who battled with Saracean armies who had been ruling Sicily for centuries as a peaceful Arab Emirate. It’s fascinating to think that in the early middle ages Sicily spoke Arab, Greek and Latin and Palermo was a melting pot of culture, education and science.

The first Norman King Roger of Hautville, actually combined the best of the Arab and Latin worlds which made his Sicilian court a single source of enlightenment and wealth, while the rest of Europe was going through the dark ages.

Today, unfortunately, apart from many medieval castles, dotted around strategic coastal and inland locations there is precious little left in the form of documents which reflect this Sicilian Renaissance, only fragments remain of the developments made in Sicilian literature, science, agriculture and geography.

As the Normans pushed out and exiled the Sicilian Arabs the only evidence of this extraordinary period are the remnants of Arabic in the Sicilian dialect, north African ingredients in the cuisine, converted mosques which have become churches and archaeological ruins of elaborate gardens which used irrigation systems introduced by the middle eastern conquerors of the island.

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John Julius Norwich is a well known British historian, intellectual, aristocrat and personality, who chose the Norman Period as inspiration for some of his books and his work will make you fall in love with the rich tapestry of Sicilian history.  Norwich discovered Sicily quite by accident in the 1960’s while searching out a sunny place for a vacation with his wife in mid-October they decided upon Sicily. Stumbling upon the island they immediately fell in love with the area, and he became obsessed with the neglected Norman monuments liberally dotted around the island.

Norwich has a gift of turning extensive historical information and jargon into something exciting and readable. While wading through the convoluted ancient texts which are the base of his books he was able to reveal the human element to the stories and mould the material into a fascinating story.

The son of a diplomat and British aristocrat, Norwich claims to be descended from King William IV. His education is impressive, he studied in Canada, at Eton and at the University of Strasbourg. Later he served in the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford.

He has written more than thirty different books on subjects as varied as Venetian history, Britain, the ancient Byzantine Empire, architecture, Shakespeare, Ancient History, The Papacy, several Novels, world literature and books for children.

Norwich’s two most recent books about Sicily (Sicily: A short history from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra and The Middle Sea: A history of the Mediterranean) are excellent introductions to the general history of the island and the whole area of the Mediterranean in. For anyone who doesn’t know much about the history of southern Europe, these books, in particular, are a perfect introduction.

All of John Julius Norwich’s books are available from the Book Depository.

The eternally misunderstood melanzana

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For more on how to join in on the fun click here.

The Dolce Vita Bloggers are getting serious this month, we are talking about food and our favourite Italian recipes. Thanks again to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com for giving me a chance to explore the nature and origins of the aubergine in the Sicilian kitchen and the best way to prepare it. I can’t wait to read everyone’s mouthwatering posts.

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Melanzana, eggplant, aubergine or however you choose to call it is the quintessential Mediterranean vegetable. Aubergines are exotic, sumptuous, voluptuous and irresistible if cooked properly.

Many people don’t understand the eggplant, they find it strange and hate the taste, but if prepared well it can become the crowning glory of any dish.

The Melanzana is a precious fruit of the Sicilian summer, every year I impatiently wait for its plump white flesh to ripen, chop it into cubes, and fry it up to make a signature dish from Catania pasta alla Norma covered in lavish shavings or oven dried ricotta cheese.

I occasionally slice them like French fries and make my own Sicilian chips. Or cook it together with other summer vegetables like tomatoes, capsicum and onions to create a classic Sicilian caponata fry up.

Sicilian’s say ‘la morte della melanzana’ (literally the best death of an aubergine, or the best way to prepare it) is deep frying. Italians in general love to dip everything in batter and cook it in the deep fryer, everything from seafood, to zucchini flowers and even eggplant.

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My favourite Sicilian plate is the involtini di melanzane alla Messinese. A simple oven baked pasta dish prepared in the summer which basically takes slices of deep fried eggplant and wraps them around, cooked, tomato sauce drenched, freshly made Sicilian maccheroni.

In my part of Sicily in the province of Messina maccheroni are long fresh handmade pasta which resemble bucatini. The melanzane wraps are placed into a baking dish, topped with more sauce and a generous topping of grated oven dried ricotta cheese which simmers and melts into a plate of orgasmic proportions.

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The aubergine is so versatile you can eat it fried, stuffed, boiled, sliced, grilled, dried, braised, mashed, pickled, pureed, or breaded and fried. It is an essential ingredient in Italian ratatouille and Middle Eastern baba ganoush.

Eggplant is one of the sponges of the vegetable kingdom and soaking them in salted water before cooking helps reduce its natural oil absorption tendencies and removes any lingering bitterness.

The plant comes from the nightshade family, which also include the potatoes, capsicum peppers and tomatoes. Originally from India, China and Sri Lanka. This spiny, bitter, purple or white oval shaped vegetable with distinctly spongy white pulp has been cultivated for more than one thousand and five hundred years.

The Latin/French term aubergine originally derives from the historical city of Vergina (Βεργίνα) in Greece. The eggplant is estimated to have reached Greece around three hundred and twenty-five B.C after the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon. The conqueror fell in love with this new vegetable during his conquest and its seeds were taken back to Magna Grecia accordingly.

 

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As trade routes opened, the eggplant was introduced to Europe by the Arabs and transported to Africa by the Persians. The Spaniards carried it with them to the New World and by the early eighteen hundreds, both white and purple varieties could be found in American gardens.

In fifth-century China, the plant was made into a black dye which was used by aristocratic ladies to stain their teeth, which, when polished with the eggplant colour gleamed like metal.

Also in China, it was a requirement of a bride’s dowry that a woman must know how to prepare at least twelve eggplant recipes before her wedding day.

In Turkey, the imam bayildi is a tasty treat of stuffed eggplant simmered in olive oil and is said to have made a religious leader swoon in ecstasy.

When first introduced to Italy, people believed that anyone who ate the so-called mad apple was sure to go insane.

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The plant is often misunderstood by many people who just don’t like the taste or develop an irrational aversion to it, but as with any exotic acquired taste you do either love it or hate it.

Legendary Italian movie director Federico Fellini hated the melanzana and once told an elaborate erotic tall tale explaining the reason behind his aversion. Apparently, when Fellini was a young boy with peeping tom tendencies, he accidentally witnessed a lady using an aubergine to pleasure herself, an experience which left him traumatised and unable to stand the sight of the vegetable.

Then there is the terrible corruption of the eggplant emoji which certainly makes you look at an aubergine in an entirely different way. Such a misunderstood vegetable, yet so delicious.

This is part of the #DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #10 September 2018 – Favourite Italian Recipe. Click on over to read other mouth-watering posts.

Past #DolceVitaBlogger Link-Ups:

#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #9 August 2018 – Culture Shock.
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #8 July 2018 – La Dolce Vita
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #7 June 2018 – Hidden Gems in Italy
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #6 May 2018 – Five Italian Words
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #5 April 2018 – The Perfect Day in Italy
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #4 March 2018 – International Women’s Day
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #3 February 2018 – A Love Letter to Italy
#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #2 January 2018 – Favourite Italian City
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #1 December 2017 – ‘The Italian Connection

Food Festivals in Sicily

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Sicily has a wonderfully variegated cuisine, its plate is filled with influences from all around the Mediterranean from the Middle East, to North Africa, Greece and many more.

There is great pride in preparing local specialities and showing off the abundant talent of each chef.

Like in most of Italy each region, even town from town will have its own local variety of wine, interpretation of pasta, bread, cheeses, salami, desserts and even biscuits.

Each place embraces its individuality and has proudly perfected its particular type of local cuisine in the way of distinguishing itself from other towns and in turn showing off the richness of agricultural fertility and skill in the preparation of century-old products.

One way to taste the best of each place is to hunt down a Sagra or food festival, where for only a handful of Euro you are able to sample the best of local fare.

The Sagra event calendar in Sicily is never ending through the year and coincides with the seasonal calendar as Sicilians like all other Italians believe in eating what is strictly in season. So in the summer expect to see a dedication to products like strawberries, melons, tomatoes and peaches. While the winter/fall the Sagra gives you a taste of wine, salami, pork, mushrooms and fried specialities.

Most of the events are annually around the same date and are proudly sponsored by locals as a way of fostering local tourism. The events are local, so the best way to learn about them is through the local press, picking up flyers at your local cafe and looking at posters pasted up on the side of the road.

An excellent general guide for the usual events is the site Sicilia in Festa which will give you a good indication of what’s happening around Sicily during the year month by month and province by province.

Here is my own personal list of the more significant, more well organised and famous food festivals you really shouldn’t miss filled with the best Sicilian ingredients, tastes and music.

Food Festivals better

 

Mata and Grifone

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Sicily is famous for its ceramics, designed in the classic Maiolica glazed style with delicate baroque patterns. The most original pieces and those who stimulate the most interest from visitors are the Moorish head designs, which consist of pairs of pots, cups or jars which depict a fair-skinned woman and a man with distinctly North African features.

Most foreigners are perplexed by this extravagant couple, which is often impressive features of many exquisitely groomed balconies and gardens all over the island.
Behind this couple, there is an intriguing mix of mythology and Sicilian history.

Theirs is a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, with a surprisingly gruesome mixture of violence and folly. The story takes us back to the end of the Arab period in Sicilian history from 831 to 1091 when the island was known as the Emirate of Sicily (Arabic: إِمَارَةُ صِقِلِّيَة).

This intriguing tale has been interpreted many times, and the characters at its heart have inspired many artists throughout the centuries.

The original folktale comes from Palermo and tells of a Saracen merchant who falls in love with a beautiful local girl. They start a passionate love affair until the girl discovers her lover has a wife and children waiting for him in his homeland. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she murders him in his sleep, cutting off his head so that her lover would stay with her forever. The girl uses the head as a vase to grow a beautiful basil plant. Others who saw her flourishing plant forged themselves colourful clay head pots in an attempt to recreate the bountiful fertility.

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A more romantic version of the Moorish heads tale comes to us from Messina. Every summer as part of the elaborate mid-August celebrations dedicated to Messina’s patron the Virgin Mary, the pagan founders of the city is also featured in the religious procession.

The gigantic eight-meter tall papier-mâché statues of Mata and Grifone riding on horseback date back to 1723 and reenact the arrival of Roger the first of Sicily to Messina, after the island was finally liberated from the Arab domination in 1071.

Roger, I was a Norman nobleman he became the first count of Sicily, and his descendants continued to rule Sicily until 1194.

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In 1547, when archaeological excavations outside of Palermo first unearthed the remains of mini elephants and hippos which used to roam prehistoric Sicily, this discovery lead to the widespread belief that Sicily was founded by giants. The elephant skulls were also taken as proof that the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey existed. The elephant skulls peculiar shape, and a typical single hole at the centre seemed to confirm that the animal in question had a single eye.

Many Sicilian academics believe Messina’s Mata and Grifone are manifestations of ancient nature gods, the pale-skinned Mata is a version of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone who was the daughter of the goddess of nature Demeter and who was kidnapped by the underworld god Hades, ruler of the ancients afterlife. There is a secure connection to many other pagan gods representing contrasting elements which coexist such as night and day, male and female and winter and summer.

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The tale told at Messina is a love story, with a staunchly Catholic flavour and no bloodshed. Mata was the daughter of a Messinese nobleman caught the eye of Grifone a general in the invading army who had just conquered Messina.

Pledging his undying love for Mata, he asked for her hand in marriage, which was granted with the understanding Grifone would convert to Catholicism, which he did and then the two went on to become rulers of ancient Messina.

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Probably the most famous version of the gruesome Moorish heads story is the one retold by Boccaccio in the Renaissance short stories from his Decameron. Boccaccio sets the story directly in Messina, the main protagonist is Lisabetta or Isabella an orphaned noble girl who is jealously guarded by her three brothers.

Isabella falls honestly and spontaneously in love with Lorenzo, a local boy of modest means. Their love affair goes on in secret until the three brothers discover Lisabetta leaving to meet her lover and decide to put an end to the relationship to avoid tarnishing the good name of the family. The brothers lead Lorenzo out of the city and murder him, hiding his body in a shallow grave and on their return home tell their sister Lorenzo quietly left on business.
But when her lover is absent for too long, Lisabetta becomes desperate with worry. One night Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream telling her he was killed by her brothers and where his body is buried.

Determined to find Lorenzo, she obtains permission from her brothers to go on a trip to the countryside with her female servant. She finds Lorenzo’s body and unable to give her lover the burial he deserves and insane with grief she cuts off Lorenzo’s head. At home, she hides the head in a vase and plants some basil in it. The plan blossoms, watered by Lisabetta’s tears.
Isabella’s behaviour alarms the neighbours and her brothers discover Lorenzo’s head. They get rid of the evidence of their crime, leave Messina and flee to Naples leaving behind a distraught Isabella to die of a broken heart.

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In 1849 the sad tale of Isabella of Messina was revived by British artist Everett Millais who created the first painting in the romantic Pre Raphaelite style. The canvas of Lorenzo and Isabella is filled with hidden messages and subtle phallic symbols which have intrigued art lovers for generations.
Another imminent Pre Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne Jones painted a portrait of Isabelle and the pot of Basil in 1867. This interpretation of Isabelle depicts the emotive moment the girl weeps over her basil plant towards the end of the story.
The Coley Burne Jones masterpiece draws on ancient mythology, recalling elements of traditional folklore, for example, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed basil was associated with hatred, and according to folk beliefs the plant had to be sown with swearing and ranting. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in the embalming process, making it also a symbol of mourning.

Romantic poet John Keats used the story as the inspiration behind his poem Isabella, or the pot of Basil. In the hands of the highly idealistic romantic Keats, the tale became a love story corrupted by the pride and greed of Isabella’s brothers who treated her like an object.
The Romantic’s version is set in Florence, the poem is filled with profoundly violent imagery before and after the murder occurs. Keats quotes the Greek myth of Perseus who killed Medusa the gorgon serpent-headed monster, which is at the centre of the Trinacria an ancient symbol still used to represent Sicily today.
Behind every work of art, there is always a story, Sicily takes this aphorism to an extreme with its history filled with violence, tragedy and loss.

The baroque ceramic Moorish heads are the artistic expression of the islands rich yet dark mythology.

Food and religious festivals in Sicily this August

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

August in Sicily

 

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.

Una passeggiata fina un albero di fico

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Le possibilità sensuali sono senza fine.

Sagre and Feste in July

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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.

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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.

July in sicily

Summer decadence

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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.

 

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Paste di mandorle: un iconico dolce Siciliano

Blog post Paste di mandorle

Molti dei dolci e dessert Siciliani sono stati creati nelle mura dei conventi,mi piace immaginare una suora che innova e crea nuovi dolci partendo dalla frutta martorana, un marzapane che viene modellato in moltissime forme, un esempio sono le “minne di sant’agata”, letteralmente “seno di sant’agata” dolci a forma di semisfera ripieni di ricotta completati con delle ciliegie rosse a simboleggiare i capezzoli.

Le suore avevano accesso ad ingredienti di alta qualità come ricotta frescha, mandorle, pistacchi e in particolare lo zucchero. Senza dubbio loro avevano il tempo di sperimentare ed usavano le ricorrenze religiose come un modo di esprimire la loro abilità e competenza culinaria; è veramente una bellissima immagine cinematografica pensare a queste donne, che modellano le dolcezze della Sicilia da dentro un ordine religioso.

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Una delle più conosciute creazioni Siciliane sono le ‘Paste di mennula’ regine della pasticcieria Siciliana.

Composte da una semplice pasta croccante, generalmente a forma di ravioli a mezzaluna, coperte da una glassa fatta da zucchero a velo, albume e succo si limone e decorate con zuccherini colorati o cioccolato fondente.

La loro magia viene dall’essere ‘super piene’ di zucchero, nonche’ potenzialmente letali per i denti e per l’aumento dei livelli di zucchero. Fu all’apice della decadenza Siciliana quando le suore stanche del loro digiuno e sacrificio giornaliero, decisero di ‘chiudere’ tutto il glucosio che potevano in un piccolo contenitore.

La pasta è riempita con mandorle tritate che sono lavorate come una marmallata, cotte con sciroppo si zucchero caramellato e insaporite con cannella, spesso arricchite con un mix di arance, limoni e cedro canditi e a volte piccoli pezzi di cioccolato fondente.

Maggioramente usate per Pasqua, le paste di mandorle erano anche usate dai giovani innamorati quando facevano la proposta di matrimonio, i biscotti venivano donati anche ai futuri suoceri.

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Le origini delle paste risalgano alla provincia di Messina in un antico paese di nome Ficarra. I Ficarresi costudiscono fortemente e gelosamente l’originale ricetta segreta.

Ficarra ha un storia che risale al primo periodo Normanno menzionata ufficialmente in un documento di corte del 1082 sotto il dominio del Conte Ruggero I.

Oggi questo bellissimo paese medievale guarda le Isole Eolie dalla sua posizione strategica sui monti Nebrodi, nello stesso idealistico luogo in cui si trova da secoli.

Ecco un Sicilian Moment: Pasti i mennula

To see this post in english click here: Pasti i mennula

 

Eating the Springtime

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One of the life lessons Italy has given me is the special taste of eating according to the seasons. There is something wonderfully simple and logical about living with the natural worlds shifting seasons, as if you are following a natural internal rhythm.

Today we are all spoilt by supermarkets who have everything we want on the shelves throughout the year. But eating fruits and vegetables which have been freshly grown and have gathered the sunshine of the summer or the warmth of spring, the autumn or fall and winter showers, each with its own unique seasonal flavour.

Those who are passionate about gardening can understand all of the work and toil behind the preparation of the soil, planting, grooming, pruning and harvesting everything according to the particular month of the year. It is with a tremendous sense of achievement that they enjoy the fruits of their creation, like crafting a masterpiece, looking after a pet or raising a child.

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Every year I spend in Sicily I have an appointment to eat the spring time, like meeting old friends I look forward to a succession of different foods and tastes. Beginning at the end of March with artichokes which for me symbolise the end of winter, then with the first weeks of sunshine in the flux of changing weather the wild asparagus sprout out in amongst the bushes of the countryside.

Then comes a blossoming free for all as the heat ushers in a barrage of ripening fruits as the sleeping vegetation starts to wake. The final wintertime citrus makes way for the mulberries, cherries, strawberries, loquats, apricots, plums and figs.

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While the Spring is flowering the preparations for the summer begin with the planting of vegetable gardens which will yield ripened summer fare in a few months, like tomatoes, basil, eggplant (or aubergine), sweet and hot peppers, capsicums, beans and more.

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With the Spring comes the Sagra /sà·gra/ (festival)  season, the beginning of a series of endless food festivals that each town in all of Italy uses to show off their best local and traditional products, like a series of beauty pageants or country fairs. A preparation of endless stands which will give you a taste of everything over a couple days for only a few euros. The sagra season in Sicily begins with granita and gelato at Acireale in spring and ends with chocolate at Modica in December and literally takes you all around the island. In May alone there are a series of Sagras which are dedicated to ingredients like: asparagus, cheese, loquats, wild fennel, oranges, ricotta and strawberries.

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If you find yourself in Sicily in the spring here is a quick fresh food market vocabulary of what you might find on sale, in the garden or on the menu.

Primavera  /pri·ma·vè·ra/  (Spring)

aprile (April),  maggio (May), giugno (June)

Verdura (vegetable) : Asparagi (asparagus) , barba di frate (agretti, otherwise known as saltwort or friar’s beard), carciofi (artichokes), carote (carrots), cavolfiore (cauliflower, there are many types from a beautiful purple or violetta to a bright green or romano variety, as a self confessed cauliflower hater from childhood I suggest you try one of these Italian cauliflowers you will change your mind), cavolo verza (cabbage), puntarelle (chicory) , insalate primaverili (spring salads), luppolo (wild asparagus), cipollotti (spring onions), fave (broad beans), piselli (peas), zucchine (zucchini), melanzane (eggplant or aubergine), peperoni (capsicum), rucola (rucola salad), lattuga (lettuce), fagiolini (green beans) and cipolle (onions).

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Frutta (fruit): Fragole (strawberries) , nespole (loquats), arance (oranges), mandaranci (a cross of mandarines and oranges), clementine (clementine oranges), pompelmi (grapefruit), cedri (citron), kiwi (kiwi fruit) , limoni (lemons), pere (pears), mele (apples), ciliegie (cherries), pesche (peaches), albicocche (apricots), ciliegie (cherries), amarene (armarena bitter cherries), meloni (melons which include several different varieties) and anguria (watermelon).

Carciofi affumicati e arrostiti

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La primavera Siciliana è triste perchè il tempo passa da giorni piovosi a giorni di forte sole. Il vento di Scirocco nasce dal deserto Africano e soffia a lungo durante tutte le stagioni.

I fiori bianchi sugli alberi da frutto si mescolano con il grigio della passata stagione. La primavera è come un  armistizio che permette all’inverno di arrendersi e dare inizio ad un nuovo ciclo.

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I carciofi siciliani sono tanto spinosi quanto il cambiare del tempo, ma dopo che le loro spine esterne vengono rimosse, il carnoso fiore interno è un delicato rimedio per il freddo.

Il cariofo è un cardo selvatico e viene dalla stessa famiglia del girasole. Questo fiore commestibile è nativo del Mediterraneo, risale al tempo degli antichi Greci, e venivano coltivati in Italia e Sicilia.

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Secondo la mitologia Greca Zeus creò i carciofi da una donna mortale. Un giorno mentre cercava suo fratello Poseidone, Zeus vide un bellissima giovane donna, ed essendo molto colpito dalla ragazza, di nome Cynara, decise di trasformarla in dea. Cynara accettò questa proposta con la promessa pero’ di non tornare piu’ a casa, tuttavia la ragazza non riusci’ a resistere alla nostalgia e tornò di nascosto a visitare la sua famiglia. Quando Zeus lo scoprì si arrabbiò, decise di ributtare Cynara sulla terra e trasformarla in una pianta.

E’ sempre un piacere preparare i carciofi e servirli in tavola ogni anno. Può sembrare difficile prepararli ma sono molto versatili, facili da imbottire e la tenera parte interna che viene tolta può essere preparata separatamente come condimento per la pasta. Uno delle piante più squisite della primavera.

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Il modo migliore per preparare i primi teneri cariofi della stagione è di imbottirli con una combinazione di aromi freschi come pancetta, prezzemolo, cipolline, aglio, sedano tagliato finemente, un pizzico di peperoncino, il tutto bagnato con un filo di olio extra vergine di olive ed un pò di limone, e poi cuocerli lentamente sui carboni ardente o ‘braci’ come dicono in dialetto locale.

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Mettere i carciofi abbondantemente conditi sulla brace calda e lasciare che gli aromi gradualmente insaporiscano il tutto è il modo migliore per gustarli. Le foglie esterne sono croccanti e bruciate ma fungono da guscio protettivo per permettere al tenero cuore di cuocere. Il grasso della pancetta si scioglie e si amalgama con la dolcezza delle verdure in un irresistibile sapore affumicato.

See the english version of this post here: Smoky Roasted Artichokes

Smoky roasted Artichokes

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The Sicilian spring is moody as the weather fluctuates between rain and days of glorious sun. The Sciroccio wind whips itself up from the African desert and pushes the seasons along.

White blossoms in the fruit trees blend with shadowy greys. The spring is an armistice which allows the winter to gradually surrender itself and begin the cycle again.

Artichokes

Sicilian artichokes are as prickly as the late winter weather, but after their external spikes are removed the internal fleshy flower is a delicate balm for the cold. 

The artichoke is a thistle and comes from the same family as the sunflower. This edible flower is a native of the Mediterranean and dates back to ancient Greek times when they were cultivated in Italy and Sicily.

Greek mythology tells how Zeus created the artichoke from a beautiful mortal woman. While visiting his brother Poseidon, Zeus spied a beautiful young woman, he was so pleased with the girl named Cynara, that  he decided to make her a goddess. Cynara agreed, however she grew homesick and snuck back home to visit her family. Zeus discovered this and became angry, throwing Cynara back to earth and transforming her into a plant.

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Cynar is an Italian liqueur which gets its name from the artichoke and the mythological origins of this plant. This bitter alcoholic drink is made from thirteen different plants including the artichoke. It is generally drunk straight as an after dinner digestive or as a cocktail mixing it with soda water, tonic water and lemon, lime or orange juice.

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It is always a joy to prepare artichokes as part of the Sicilian table every year. They may seem difficult but they are versatile, easily stuffed and the tender internal leaves can be prepared separately as a pasta condiment. The discarded stalks can also be blanched in hot water, then blended together to make a creamy pesto like mixture.

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The best way to prepare the first tender artichokes of the season is to stuff them with a combination of fresh spring aromas like pancetta, parsley, spring onions, garlic, finely sliced celery, a pinch of hot chilli pepper, all soaked in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and then cooking them slowly over hot coals, or ‘a braci’ as they say in the local dialect. 

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Covering the richly flavoured artichokes with hot smoking embers and letting the stuffing’s taste gradually imbue itself into the artichoke is the best. The tough external leaves are crusty and burnt but act as a protective shell until the internal tender parts are fully cooked. The fat of the bacon melts and amalgamates with the sweetness of the vegetable in an irresistible smoky flavour. 

I love preparing them for my Birthday in late February every year. The only flowers I ever truly enjoy are a bouquet of carciofi.

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Vedi qua il post anche in Italiano: Carciofi affumicati e arrostiti