The first and second of November in Sicily are sombre, holy and sad days dedicated to Saints and dead souls. A month of meteorological transition, which has been causing havoc all over Italy this year (2018) with extensive flooding in Veneto and Alto Adige.
In the south, there is a flux between the hot scirocco winds from Africa which whips up wind storms and slowly is pushed aside by the cool Baltic stream.
Every year the days are always uneasy, with hot allergy-inducing sandy winds in the day, followed by cooler longer nights and then days of rain before gradually settling down into a routine of winter-like chill.
The garden and the plate are also transforming as tomatoes and aubergines are replaced with mushrooms and pumpkins.
As the vegetable garden prepares for winter greens in the planting of fennel, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, peas, beans, spinach and other leafy greens.
We welcome the persimmons and pomegranate together with our friends the walnut and chestnut.
With the feast day of San Martino on the eleventh of November where the pressed grapes of October are miraculously transformed into ‘vino novello.’
French Saint Martin was the third bishop of Tours and is one of the most familiar and recognisable Christian saints in the Western tradition.
When Martin of Tours was a soldier in the Roman army and stationed in Gaul (modern-day France). As he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens, he met a scantily clad beggar. Martin thought to cut his military cloak in half to share with the man. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”
In another version of the famous story, Martin woke to find his cloak restored to its original state. The dream confirmed Martin’s mission in life, he was baptised at the age of 18 and then became a religious minister.
St Martin’s shrine in Tours became a famous stopping-point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. His cult was revived in the French nationalism of the Franco-Prussian war of the late nineteenth century and as a consequence became the patron saint of France.
In Sicily, San Martino gives us his ‘summer’ of Saint Martin, a blessed week of fine weather and sunshine before winter sets in. A perfect moment to taste the year’s new wine and drink a toast to the patron saint of soldiers, conscientious objectors, tailors and vintners.
In fact, the feast of Saint Martin features heavily in the events calendar of Sicily this month. Here is another list of suggestions to pin later for anyone visiting the island this month.
(Events may vary from year to year, this information is valid for November 2018.)
Images are taken from Unsplash.com, Canva.com and Wikipedia Media Commons.
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.
Many of Sicily’s sweets and desserts were created inside convent walls. The image of nun’s innovating and mixing new decadent inventive creations from the Frutta Martorana, marzipan which is moulded into tiny sculptures to the tantalising ‘Minni di Sant Agata’, tiny little white Saint Agata breasts, ricotta filled sweets complete with little red cherry nipples.
The convents were supplied with high quality local ingredients such as fresh ricotta cheese, almonds, pistachios and above all sugar. The sisters had the time to experiment and thanks to the excuse of religious celebrations and Saint days they were able to express their culinary expertise. It’s a truely beautiful cinemagraphic image to picture these women, subtly shaping Sicily’s sweet tooth.
One of the most well known Sicilian creations are the ‘Pasti I Mennula’ a true classic of Sicily’s confectionary from Messina province. Made from a simple short crust pastry, generally in a moon shape or ravioli form, covered by icing made from sugar, egg whites and lemon juice and finally decorated with colourful sprinkles or dark chocolate.
The magic comes from inside this super sweet bomb which is heaped with sugary goodness, potentially teeth rotting and diabetic inducing sugar levels. The Pasta di Mandorle is at the apex of Sicilian Baroque decadence, perhaps the nun’s were sick of their fasting and daily sacrifices and heaped in as much glucose as they possibly could.
The pastry is filled with crushed almonds which have been turned into a type of marmalade, cooked up together with syrupy white sugar in to a caramel, flavoured with cinamon, often paired with a mixture of candid orange, lemon and citron peel and small pieces of dark chocolate.
Predominately prepared for Easter, the Pasta di Mandorle were also used by young lovers when proposing marriage, the biscuits would be used as a gift for prospective in laws. The origins of the Paste are found deep in the Sicilian province of Messina, in the ancient village of Ficarra. The Ficarrese hold tightly and jealously onto the original secret recipe.
The town of Ficarra has a history which dates back to the Norman period, the name of the city was first mentioned in an official court document from1082 in the Sicily ruled by the French Count Roger the first.
Today this beautiful medieval town looks out at the Aeolian Islands from a strategical position high up on the Nebrodi mountains, in the same idealistic spot its been for centuries. Luckily this place and other towns dotted around the island still hold onto their traditional recipes with great pride. Small towns like Ficarra are treasured little pockets of an ancient Sicily which are sadly disappearing.
The Pasti I Mennula were the subject of Sicilian documentary filmmaker Calogero Ricciardello’s new project Sicilian Moments, dedicated to sharing snippets of traditional everyday life in Sicily.
Click on the link to see Calogero’s wonderfully personal video dedicated to the Pasti I Mennula and the women who make them.
If you want to hear more about Sicilian Moments read my interview about the project here.
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 unarmistizio che permette all’inverno di arrendersi e dare inizio ad un nuovo ciclo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Quando il tempo comincia a scaldare la terra i primi frutti di primavera letteralmente saltano su dal nuovo fogliame. Fra i più pregati c’è l’asparago selvatico che cresce spontaneo e abbondante in tutta Italia.
L’asparago è un membro della famiglia delle giglio ed è ricercato per i suoi teneri, succulenti e commestibili germogli. Gli asparagi sono coltivati da più di 2000 anni nella parte orientale del Mediterraneo. Gli imperatori Romani lo amavano tanto da creare barche speciali, la flotta Asparago, con lo scopo di andare a prenderli.
Gli asparagi selvatici germogliano tra le spinose piante di more, in freschi e umidi burroni o in posti isolati dove sono nascosti e si mantengano teneri e maturi per quelli che li cercano ogni anno.
Ci sono due tipi di asparagi selvatici, una prima varietà riconoscibile dalle spessore e dall’altezza, più dolce presente in molte aree; e un’altra corta, scura leggemente affusolata e amara che crescetardi nella stagione. La varietà dolce è la più popolare mentre il tipo amaro è un gusto da apprezzare man mano che si mangia.
La ‘caccia’ è un battaglia. Spesso è una gara a chi prende i posti migliori per primo e puo essere tutto molto competitivo. Come durante la stagione dei funghi, gli asparagi sono una prelibatezza e tirano fuori la natura competitiva nelle persone.
I ‘cacciatori’ di asparagi hanno un’intensa soddisfazione e possono gustare le molte preparazioni di questo dolce vegetale, che può essere pulito e fritto con olio d’oliva per fare una frittata o avvolti in fettine sottili di formaggio e prosciutto cotto per essere infornate.
Personalmente quando vedo un mazzo di asparagi appena raccolti sento che una quichè deve essere preparata. Piatti come questi sono un elisir per l’inverno, con il calore della primavera loro assicurano che il freddo sta arrivando alla fine.
As the weather begins to warm the first fruits of spring literally ‘spring’ up from the new foliage. A favourite has to be wild asparagus which grows randomly and abundant throughout Italy.
Asparagus is a member of the Lily family and is sought after for its tender, succulent, edible shoots. This plant has been cultivated for more than two thousand years in the eastern Mediterranean. Roman emperors loved it so much they kept special boats for the purpose of fetching it and named them the Asparagus fleet.
Wild asparagus shoots up between thorny blackberry plants, in cool damp gullies or secluded places where they are hidden and keep themselves tender and ripe for those who search for them every year. The spontaneous uncultivated variety has a sweeter taste than the domesticated type and is a sort after ingredient during the early days of spring.
There are two types of wild asparagus, a slim, tall, sweet variety dispersed in every area and then a short, dark, slightly spindly and bitter asparagus which grows later on in the season. The sweeter variety is the most popular while the bitter type is an acquired taste and often needs to be blanched in hot water to take away a little of the bitterness.
The asparagus hunt can be as popular as mushroom or truffle hunting in the Italian autumn months. The hunt for asparagus can turn into a war. Often it’s a race to get to the best spots first and it can be quite vicious. Like mushrooms, asparagus are a delicacy that bring out the competitive nature of people.
The asparagus hunter has an intense satisfaction and can relish the preparation of this sweet vegetable which can be cleaned and fried with olive oil to make an omelette, or wrapped in thinly sliced cheese and prosciutto cotto ham and baked in the oven.
Personally when I see a batch of freshly picked asparagus I feel like a quiche is coming on. The culinary possibilities really are endless. Dishes like these are an elixir to the wintertime, like the warmth of spring they assure me the cold is coming to an end.
When people come to Sicily they tend to go along the well followed tourist road, sticking to places like Palermo or Catania or visit coastal resort towns like Taormina or Cefalù which are all beautiful and worthwhile but the island can offer so many more unique experiences.
I always advise people to go and visit a smaller town, whether it be tracking down the village where long-lost Sicilian ancestors came from or simply hiring a car for a day and heading up into the mountains, along the coast or into the interior of the island. There are literally hundreds of smaller towns to see. In the province of Messina alone there are 108 towns each with their own unique history, sights, sounds and tastes.
Small towns aren’t going to be as bustling and vibrant as the bigger cities but visiting them will give you a sense of the real colour and pace of day-to-day Sicilian life which is much more satisfying than merely crossing things off a bucket list.
You can easily hire a car from any major airport in Sicily and with GPS technology it is easy to get off the Autostrada and explore.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Bring a phrasebook
Once you get out of the tourist areas the frequency of spoken English disappears so you will need some Italian to make yourself understood. Some guidebooks will make you believe you will be hearing mostly Sicilian dialect, but the reality is most people are well versed in Italian although it will be spoken with a thick Sicilian accent. Once the locals see you trying to make yourself understood in their language they will do everything to accommodate you, as they are proud of their town and will do anything to show it off.
Get there early
Get going early as most towns tend to slow down after midday and you will have to avoid any traffic heading out of the bigger cities. I suggest arriving in time to have breakfast (strictly a coffee/cappuccino or fresh orange juice and croissant which most cafe’s/bar offer regularly) and that way you can ask the waiter or barista what you should be doing in their town. Bar owners are fonts of great local knowledge as they are usually located in the centre of town and are always in the know. Sicilian’s freely give information on local events and the best local places to eat, so you can’t go wrong by simply asking.
Start with the churches
The best place to see traditional Sicilian art is in Sicilian churches, the Roman Catholic church once engaged the best local artists and artisans to beautify their places of worship and so you will literally find a treasure trove of sculpture, architecture and paintings.
Even the most run down looking church will give you the best surprises. Most churches are open throughout the day, they don’t cost you anything and you can walk around without any problem just as long as there are no religious services and you are respectful and don’t take too many photo’s especially of the altar. If you are feeling generous you can slip in a donation into the Offertory boxes which usually go to the upkeep of the church.
Castles and palaces
Every town with either has a Castle/Fortress (Castello) or historical aristocratic Palace (Palazzo). Many have been turned into museums and most will be opened to the public. They are always fascinating places to visit as they are focal points for local history. Sicilian small town are places with many centuries of history, the island has been inhabited since prehistoric times so there are endless fascinating historical sites to see. Once again be sure to ask the locals for advice.
The best way to see a Sicilian village is to park the car and walk around the town focusing on little side streets, suggestive abandoned houses, tiny little stores and hidden courtyards. If you are visiting a mountain town this walk with mean hiking up, discovering new perspectives and picturesque views. While coastal towns will give you romantic strolls along the seaside or panoramic outlooks carvedout of the landscape. Sicily is perfect for slow travel as Sicilians always take the time to savour the moment.
Feste, Sagre and Market time
If you want to see a Sicilian paese with it’s best face on, then you must visit when there is a local Festa (saint day celebration) or Sagra (local food festival). Each town has its patron Saint and protector which is celebrated with elaborate markets and processions during the year, so it is always great to see this celebration which is usually accompanied by other events like art exhibitions and concerts.
Sicilian’s are great connoisseurs of food and always love to promote their own local products, throughout the year each town celebrates their food by offering visitors a taste. For a few euro’s you can often enjoy a full meal. There are food festivals dedicated to everything from ice cream, to pistachio’s, sardines, salami, roasted pork, chestnuts, ricotta and oranges, the list is endless. Most are advertised through large posters fastened to walls on the side of the road or on billboards and above all by word of mouth. So if you see one be sure to swing by. These are usually evening events so you may have to arrange accommodation for the night.
The market day tradition is still very much alive in Sicily and each town has its own open-air market day during the week. You never know what you will find at the markets, there can be anything from cheap Chinese clothing, fabrics, local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, food carts, folk art and antiques. It will always be worth the effort even if you simply grab a few local products to taste for a picnic lunch.
Food is never a problem in Sicily, even if you hurriedly run into a small supermarket just before they close for the lunchtime siesta you will still be able to ask them to make up a quick panino and deli lunch which you can wash down with a beer or wine easily available from the store.
If you are shrewd enough to follow my advice and asked the local barista where you should go for lunch you would already have a selection of recommendations for a place to enjoy a local meal.
Generally if you want to taste fresh local fare the best bet is to eat at a Trattoria (family run restaurant) or Agriturismo (agricultural tourism hotel) rather than a Ristorante (restaurant) which will charge you more and give you less.
Each small town has a local tourist information office which is usually associated with the local town hall. If you decide to find a place to stay and experience the town over a few days they will be the place to go for recommendations about local bed and breakfasts and other places to stay overnight. The Pro loco will be a great font of knowledge as each town is connected through a network of other tourist information centres so they can give you in-depth information about the surrounding areas too as things like web pages and online information is hard to come by.
There is no reason not to go forth and explore.
Sicily has had a bad reputation in the past but if you use the same level of caution you usually use while travelling overseas there is no reason to be afraid. Keep in mind things like controlling your change while shopping so you don’t get short-changed, don’t leave cameras or expensive equipment in your car, keep valuables either at home or close to your person, don’t take too much cash and keep your documents in a money belt under your clothes to avoid falling victim to pickpockets. Don’t be ostentatious in the way you dress as it will identify you as a foreigner and you will become a target for a mugger or tourist fraud.
Generally, avoid run-down neighbourhoods or isolated areas like train stations or abandoned city squares late at night, if you don’t see people around it means you shouldn’t be there either and simply be aware of any potential danger.
These are the general rules to follow if you travel anywhere around the world, Sicily is no different to any other international travel location.
As for me I think I am in serious danger of falling flat on my face here, you see I’ve never been the romantic type. I’m the one who encouraged my brother and his former girlfriend many years ago on Valentine’s day to fake a wedding proposal to get a free meal at a fancy restaurant (which they did by the way and a bottle of expensive champagne!) So I’m probably not the best person to praise the nuances of this day.
My husband doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body (I’ve written before about the rule I have about vetoing inappropriate gifts, so he generally avoids giving me anything). I’ve never received flowers of any description other than the potted variety which usually die a long a cruel death when I forget to water them.
With the risk of sounding like a Valentine ‘Scrooge’ I need to find something to redeem myself on the theme of romantic love which infuses this day for so many people.
On my search for inspiration I found myself ready every possible romantic phrase possible and I got distracted by reading about the Valentines Day mob massacre in 1920’s Chicago (fascinating reading if anyone is interested) but didn’t find anything worthwhile, apart for an inexplicable desire to watch the Untouchables starring Sean Connery and Kevin Costner.
Googling San Valentino
Inadvertently I have become somewhat of an expert on the enigmatic character of St Valentine, thanks to our friends at Google and Wikipedia. Here is what everyone should know about this early Christian Saint:
Saint Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, is an official feast day in the Anglican, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. While Saint Valentine the Presbyter of Rome is celebrated on July 6 and Hieromartyr Valentine (Bishop of Interamna, Terni in Umbria central Italy) is celebrated on July 30.
The Catholic Encyclopedia and other sources speak of three Saint Valentines. One was a Roman priest, another the bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) both buried along the Via Flaminia outside of Rome. The third was said to be a saint who suffered on the same day with a number of companions in the Roman province of Africa, for whom nothing else is known.
While under house arrest of Judge Asterius, Valentinus (the Roman pronunciation of his name) evangelized about the life and miracles of Jesus. The judge asked Valentinus to cure his blind adopted daughter and laying his hands on her eyes and the child’s vision was restored. The judge was baptized into the Catholic church together with his family and household servants and freed all Christians he had imprisoned.
Valentinus was arrested again for converting Romans to Christianity and was sent to the prefect of Rome, the emperor Claudius himself. The emperor took a liking to him until the Saint asked Claudius to embrace Christianity. Claudius demanded Valentinus renounce his faith or else he would be beaten with clubs and beheaded the saint refused and was executed outside the Flaminian Gate February 14, 269.
The flower-crowned skull of St. Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. In 1836, some relics that were exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus on the Via Tiburtina, then near (rather than inside) Rome, were identified with St Valentine; placed in a casket, and transported in a procession to the high altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and all those in love.
In 1836, Fr. John Spratt, an Irish priest and famous preacher, was given many tokens of esteem following a sermon in Rome. One gift from Pope Gregory XVI were the remains of St. Valentine and “a small vessel tinged with his blood.” The Reliquary was placed in Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, and has remained there until this day.
One legend says, while awaiting his execution, Valentinus restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. Another legend says, on the eve of his death, he penned a farewell note to the jailer’s daughter, signing it, “From your Valentine.”
The historical character of St. Valentine was most probably a martyred Priest, he is the Patron Saint of couples, bee keepers, engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers travelers and young people. The Saint is depicted in art often surrounded with birds and roses.
The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in a The Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated book printed in 1493. Alongside a woodcut portrait of him, text states that he was martyred during the reign of Claudius the Goth [Claudius II].
Under the rule of Claudius, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. The emperor had to maintain a strong army, but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. Claudius believed Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families.
To get rid of the problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.
The love of my life …
Putting aside cheesy sentimentalism, religious Saints relics and my own cynicism I must confess I have been in love for a long time.
Growing up as the grand-daughter to Italians who migrated to Australia gave me that sentimental-romanticized-bitter-sweet kind of love which is in every migrants heart for their long-lost homeland.
It was more than that, Italy become an obsession.
I remember being distinguished as an Italian at school by teachers and schoolmates. At first I didn’t know what it meant to be ‘Italian’ but I saw the superficial differences. I knew for example, other children didn’t call their grandparents Nonno and Nonna, they didn’t know the tastes of olives, artichokes, olive oil, prosciutto, mortadella, or eat crusty Italian bread for breakfast.
Being a strong individualist from an early age I enjoyed being different, being a part of something special not everyone could experience. I understood quickly the knowledge of another culture was a unique advantage which made life more interesting. Above all I loved my family and if being Italian meant being part of my family, then I loved being Italian too.
I was fifteen when I first spent six weeks in Italy with my family. We stayed with my mother’s aunts and cousins, we did a tour around the boot, found my father’s relatives in the Abruzzo region across from Rome on the Adriatic coast and spent the remaining weeks in Sicily.
After that trip I had a small taste of what the words ‘Italy’ and ‘Italian’ meant. Italy was loud, confusing, tiring, chaotic and puzzling, but I loved its history, language, style, inventiveness and cuisine. I still didn’t completely understand what it meant to be Italian but I had a stronger desire to comprehend and explore Italy. I resolved to learn the language and travel through Italy’s culture and history.
The rest is the long and sordid love story I tell on my blog every day.
Made up of the tastes, sights, smells, sounds and touch of Italy.
I grew up eating Panettone, every Christmas, at my Sicilian grandparents place it was traditional fare to cut slices, for afternoon tea, of this gigantic aromatic Christmas cake filled with sultanas, dried lemon and orange zest.
Every year that Panettone deceived me with it’s light and fluffy appearance, I’d bite into it’s tall and slender form expecting heaven and be totally grossed out by those candied fruits and stale taste, I hated that blasted Panettone as it deluded me every time.
Consuming this winter treat in the middle of the Southern hemisphere’s summer didn’t help. Christmas dessert in Australia is more appropriately served cold, an ice cream or fruit salad would have been more enjoyable.
It has been seven years since I’ve been home for Christmas and three years have passed from my last visit to Perth, Western Australia and so it has been a solid wintertime festive season for me for a while. I’ve been able to revisit the Panettone and consume it in the correct meteorological context and discover the Panettone’s close relative the Pandoro (which doesn’t have the candied fruit) and I can honestly say I relish it.
There are endless versions of the Pandoro to cater to anyones personal taste from custard filled, chocolate chip, Tiramisu’ coffee cream, Lemoncello liquor, ice cream centered, you and even take a plain Pandora and fill it with what you please.
I have learned to appreciate this benchmark of Italian festive cuisine as it really is quite versatile, like many other classic dessert take it and make it your own.
Without the luxury of a twelve-month gourmet tour, I’d like to offer you a brief appetizer of my own little piece of Italy, Sicily whose cuisine shows off its history and location at the centre of the Mediterranean.
The most important thing to remember is that all Italians take food very seriously and sustenance is officially the, not so secret pagan religion of Italy. To make a mess of your cooking here is blasphemous. If you overcook the pasta you could end up in jail (or worse still be ostracized forever, branded as a bad cook) it’s al dente or niente my friends.
I’ve heard Italians who take holidays overseas to everywhere from the Maldives to Ibiza and return to complain about not finding a decent plate of pasta to eat the whole time and therefore remaining morte di fame, literally dying of hunger, a sin punishable in Dante’s Inferno. By the way who goes to the Maldives to eat pasta anyway?
Italians are fussy as they really have it good at home. As usually is the case Sicily is the microcosm for the rest of Italy, the perfection of Italian cuisine comes from the island.
In Sicily, food is local, fresh and strictly seasonal which means the best ingredients cooked in traditional recipes during the appropriate time of year. The only imported fruit you will find here are bananas and pineapples for obvious reasons.
Fresh seafood is readily available in the towns along the coastline while mountain villages are famous for their traditional farming products such as cheeses, salami cold cut meats, fresh pork sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, aubergines and other fruits and vegetables. A menu for a wedding or other special occasion is dedicated entirely to the delicacies of the land terra or seafood pesce.
A trip to the local food markets at any time of the year will give you a sense of what kind of product you will be tasting in the local restaurants or if you are lucky enough to have relatives, what they will be making you for lunch and dinner.
Wintertime is filled with decadent grapes, many different varieties of citrus from unique blood oranges, navels, mandarins, grapefruit and the sweetest lemons you will ever taste. The cold will give you an appetite so it’s easy to stuff your face with arancine (rice balls filled with meat or ham and mozzarella) or the many kinds of panini (bread rolls). For the insatiable sweet tooths there are the hyper sugar coated cassate and cannoli (made with ricotta cheese) and marzipan sweets deliciously displayed in all patisserie pastry shops. For a typical Sicilian treat, most good restaurants offer the delicious semifreddo di mandorle or pistacchi (almonds or pistachio parfait ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce.) Sicily is famous for its ice creams, granita ice drinks and endless variety of desserts so be careful not to end up in a sugar-induced diabetic coma.
Spring is filled with refreshing fruits such as medlars (nespole) a little orange fruit originally from Japan, strawberries followed, towards the end of May by apricots, then cherries and tiny, sweet pears. The countryside is full of wild fennel, asparagus and artichokes. This is the best time to try the pasta con le sarde long fat spaghetti pasta known as bucatini with fresh sardines, wild fennel and pine nuts or local tuna (tonno) and swordfish (pesce spada).
Summertime gives you a plateful of different tastes from plums, peaches, apricots, cantaloupe, watermelon and figs, towards the end of August.
Autumn is the time for olive harvest, prickly pears (fichi d’india) and roasted chestnuts are sold in little kiosks in many towns. Specialties such as caponata a vegetarian dish with aubergines, celery, olives and tomatoes and peperonata (with peppers).
Throughout the year you can delve into the variegated palate of Sicilian wines and liquors which offer undeniably exquisite experiences. Sicily has twenty-three nominated DOC wines including Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Erice and Etna amongst many others.
Sicilian reds to die for include the eternally blissful Nero D’Avola which is one of the oldest indigenous grapes. One particularly delightful red is Etna Rosso which is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Mantellato and is produced on the fertile volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.
For lovers of whites, there is plenty to taste in Sicily including the Bianco D’Alcamo which is an excellent white is found all over Sicily, exclusively produced in the area between Alcamo and Trapani. While Kue is a white with the sweet perfumes of peach, apricot which is a perfect accompaniment to wonderful Sicilian seafood.
The sugar content of the grapes and the Sicilian sunshine means Sicily lends itself well to the production of dessert wines. The best known of these are Marsala, the famous fortified wine first produced by the Englishman John Woodhouse in the eighteenth century. The Passito di Panetelleria is made from Zibbibo grapes which have been dried in the sun to increase the sugar concentration, pure heaven from Sicily’s southernmost island. For the sweetest of the sweet, there is also Malvasia di Lipari and Passito di Noto both harmonious wines with a honey aftertaste.
For those who can handle stronger fortified wines, the Grappas made in Sicily are particularly intense and sweetened by the Panetelleria and Zibibbo varieties with an increased level of alcohol thanks to a complex distillation process.
For lovers of fine cheeses, Sicily has a thing or two for you to taste too.
Some like the provola di Nebrodi, caciocavallo Ragusano and fresh ricotta are perfect on their own or as part of an antipasto, main course or even as a dessert accompanied by an array of Sicilian honey and jams.
For meat eaters, Sicily has a wonderful selection of cured meats and salami’s to relish. The most famous is the Salame of San’t Angelo di Brolo, deep in the province of Messina is made from the sort after suino nero dei Nebrodi and other typical products such as locally produced pork, coppa, lard, prosciutto and fresh barbecue sausage seasoned with wild fennel and chilli pepper. For the more adventurous carnivores, Sicilian’s are really big on eating horse meat which is prepared as a delicacy by most butchers on request.
Olive oil is a standard ingredient in the Sicilian kitchen and the quality of Sicilian oil is phenomenal, even if this year’s production (2014) has been reduced thanks to unseasonal weather this golden treasure is a magical product. Sicily boasts several DOP areas whose products are protected by this special classification these include the olive producing areas in the Iblei mountains near Syracuse, Ragusa, Catania and Nocellara del Belice.
Sicily is regarded as the lost garden of Eden, simply because of its abundant fertility, an image which is reinforced by the wide range of fruits and vegetables grown here. The provinces of Agrigento, Catania and Palermo are dominated by market gardens with a rich harvest ranging from different varieties of eggplant (aubergines), artichokes, fennel, broccoli, tomatoes, peaches, pears, apricots, giant meaty Tarocco oranges (grown also in the provinces of Messina and Siracusa) while Agrigento and Caltanisetta produce the best table grapes on the island.
One of the most famous fruits of Sicily is the pistachio of Bronte, a small town at the feet of Etna produces the best quality pistachio together with the other provinces of Caltanissetta and Agrigento. Not to mention an extensive production of almonds and hazelnuts which are used together with pistachios in dozens of Sicilian desserts and ice creams.
Being an island in the middle of the Mediterranean the sea offers a notable selection of seafood luxuriously prepared lovingly all around the island from swordfish, tuna, sardines which are prepared with simple natural ingredients like olive oil and garlic.
Having consumed the main dishes of the Sicilian table then a Sicilian dessert is in order, which is a baroque triumph of colours, flavours and pungent sweetness. You may be stuffed but you simply need to taste a spoonful of the typical dolci Siciliane, which are like heaven.
Every town has their own particular selection of cakes, biscuits and desserts which are prepared to celebrate various occasions throughout the year from Easter, Christmas and other religious festivals. Ironically enough many of the most decadent creations were created by Nun’s in convents who invented sweets to go with each particular religious celebration using products introduced to the island during the Arab period in the middle ages like honey, pistachio, cinnamon, citrus, sultanas and dried fruits.
The selection of treats is endless from the Sicilian cassata a sponge cake filled with ricotta cream cheese and covered in a thick layer of icing decorated with dried fruit which is typical of Palermo or Cannoli fried tube-shaped shells filled with sweetened ricotta or custard cream and enriched with pieces of dark chocolate or pistachios, almonds and dried fruits or the Giuggiulena which are a caramelized honey nougat candy mixed with sesame seeds used around Christmas time and is a speciality of the cities of Ragusa, Siracusa and Catania.The Impantiglie from Modica are sweet ravioli pockets filled with chocolate, almonds, cinnamon and orange peel and the hand make chocolate of Modica is said to derive from an original Aztec recipe which is unlike other chocolate you have ever tasted.
Wherever you go in Sicily there is an endless choice of fine fresh fare whether it be simply going to a daily fresh fruit market, street food is everywhere in most major cities and during the year each town likes to show off their best produce with local sagras or food festivals which give you a chance to taste everything on offer for a few euro’s.
The most well known markets on the island are the Vuccuria and Ballero at Palermo, Catania has La Fiera di Catania in Piazza Carlo Alberto and La Pescheria which are its two main fresh food markets. There are hundreds of ‘sagras’ throughout the year, some which have caught my eye include the ones dedicated to Granita at Acireale (June), Sagra del Mandorle (Almonds) at Agrigento in February, the Ricotta Festival at Vizzini (April) and the Couscous Festival at San Vito Lo Capo usually held in September.
Even eating out in Sicily is easy, the best food and wine will be found in locally family run restaurants or ‘trattorie’ which offer one hundred percent local produce for only a fraction of the cost of any flashy restaurant around. Even going to eat in a simple Tavola calda or basic diner will give you the chance of a hot meal and a grand selection of mains to choose from.
The most fascinating aspect of Sicilian cuisine apart from it’s impressive range and abundance is the rich history behind each dish. Sicily has been invaded by many peoples who have enriched the elaborate tapestry of local cuisine.
Greeks brought grapes and olives and introduced Sicilians to winemaking, the Romans introduced fava broad beans, chickpeas, lentils and some forms of pasta, Arabs or more accurately North Africans brought almonds, aniseed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, watermelon and rice.
African’s influence is still seen in the use of sweet and sour tastes together which are now considered typically Sicilian, for example the combination of raisins and pine-nuts with vegetables and fish that form the basis of several common dishes or the use of oranges with bitter vegetable and onions to make a fresh tasting winter salad.
Normans brought some of their northern European innovations including the rotating skewer for cooking meat and salting of fish.The Americas provided chilli and sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, prickly pear fruit and maize and all of these were incorporated into existing recipes and would now be unimaginable without them.
The world of Sicilian food is an expansive one and I must recommend more as I’m sure your appetite has been stimulated. There is no way I can do justice to this island’s cuisine so please seek out these two excellent books which have done Sicilian food so much better than I can possibly do in a single article.
Mary Taylor Simeti is an expert in Sicilian food and has adopted Sicily as her home for many decades, her book Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle is a must and is available on Amazon.
While Australian travel writer Brian Johnston stumbled onto the island thanks to the invitation of a friend and he wrote an extensive love letter to the wonderful food he discovered in one Sicilian Summer.
I am gradually tasting my way through Sicilian seasonal fare and occasionally share my experiences through my Sicula Cuisine articles.
This summer I photographed this Sicilian Oregano drying in the sun. Oregano grows wild in amongst the Mediterranean scrub of Sicily and is gathered and saved to add flavor to meats and other dishes. As I was taking this photo I was struck by the rustic almost dirty look of the rocks and the herbs, it is harsh but like the real Sicily, that’s the way it is.
The fertility of Sicily’s volcanic soil is well-known and thanks to the Sicilian habit of having a vegetable garden I’ve never been without fresh fruits and vegetables to prepare throughout the year, from eggplants, capsicums, chili peppers, basil and tomatoes in the summer to peas, potatoes, pumpkins and broad beans in the winter. There is always something fresh to sample in the Southern kitchen.
This year the seasons were quite late and the heat lasted well into October so we had a late yet bumper harvest of tomatoes, which has been both a blessing and a curse. It means we are still collecting fresh tomatoes for a salads and enjoying fresh pasta sauce, now in early November but to be honest we are a little tired of these darn tomatoes.
We made enough tomato preserve and bottled sauce to last two years, from peeled whole tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, we even roasted them as a side to barbecued meat and filled every-single glass bottle, jar and container we had in the house the last lot went into plastic water bottles and frozen in the freezer as we had no where else to put it.
Like most people of Italian descent I grew up peeling, boiling and bottled tomato sauce every summer and everyone has their own time-tested method and recipe.
In my part of Sicily it’s simple just wash, cut and clean the tomatoes, boil them up in suggestive cauldrons,
pass them through giant juicing machines which separates the pulp from the skin,
the clean bottles are filled and boiled to preserve the flavor of the summer.
There is nothing like the colour and taste of Sicilian tomatoes…
I recently got an email from a woman who was contemplating moving to Sicily from the US as she desired a change in her life and felt connected to her Sicilian heritage. She was looking for some advice and here is what I said to her:
Thanks so much for your email, I feel privileged you choose to contact me about such an important choice in your life, I will do my best to be honest and hope I can give you what you are looking for.
As an Italo Australian I can honestly say Italy and Sicily will always be quite alluring to you as it is a part of your upbringing, your family and heritage so you will always feel emotionally connected to Sicily in one way or another.
Living in Italy is never going to be the same as simply visiting it, even if you have gone back and forth for years to visit relatives being here full-time will be a deeply challenging and at times isolating.
I moved to Sicily ten years ago with my Sicilian husband and I can tell you it has not been an easy journey. Yes, Sicily is a beautiful place, great food, wine and the people are amazing. At the same time it is a land of crippling bureaucracy, it’s an old country and so with it’s ancientness comes the problems of an archaic place, it’s not all museums and Greek ruins, it is corrupt, inefficient at an infuriating level, people will try to rip you off and at times the culture shock will be mind numbing. The bigger cities in Sicily have the usual problems of big metropolis, they are densely populated, with high crime rates, they are dirty and confusing. I guarantee you will always feel like an excluded outsider, despite acquiring a fluent level of Italian, there is nothing you can do about it you will always stick out, whether it’s the way you dress, your accent or diverse point of view, a Sicilian will always pick you out as a foreigner and you will be constantly reminded of this.
I suggest if you are feeling strongly about moving overseas why not simply test the waters a little, if you have long service leave coming up why not try to spend a few months here and see how you go? Rent a house for a few months, perhaps instead of coming in the summer try 3 months in the fall when things are more relaxed and real. I think the secret to life in Sicily to create your own community, projects and work towards your goals and above all do not let anyone get you down, Sicily can be a negative place.
The language is going to be important for you too, Sicily more so than anything else will mean one hundred percent Italian as it is a thoroughly monolingual country and it would help if you understood a little dialect too!
Be sure you have a project to keep you busy and connected while you are here, be it doing a language course, teaching english, volunteering, learning about Sicilian cuisine, wine, art, writing a book or whatever else you might enjoy as it will help you feel more connected to the place. The connections to make to the place are what will sustain you if you are not actively experiencing Sicily and not simply complaining about it constantly you will never get anything out of your experience here.
The best advice I can give to you is to be honest and tell you the truth, moving to Sicily isn’t going to be a bed of roses, but if you want to be challenged the an expat life can be rewarding.
So try it and see.
Life’s a journey feel free to try new experiences.
Good luck to you and let me know if you make it to Sicily.