A walk to the fig tree

The fig tree

In the summer Sicilian’s become like frugivorous animals living off the fruits produced by their gardens. So my husband, son and I are obliged to take a walk to the fig tree to gather up its bounty.

The only problem is the tree is hidden deep below a steep precipice behind overgrown bushes and prickly vines. So a simple walk to a fig tree becomes a trek through the Sicilian undergrowth.

According to my son’s fertile imagination, we were buried in the jungle. In reality, we were making a path through the rugged and abandoned countryside. I was imagining twisted ankles, ripped clothes and thorns.

 

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After literally cutting a path through the bushes we were rewarded by a pleasant walk under the shade of overgrown hazelnut trees in a pathway well hidden from the still burning afternoon sun littered with small mulberries we all love to eat.

 

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When we finally reached the tree, we receive the most indulgent reward, an elaborate tree filled with lush mature fruit. Something is satisfying about eating fresh fruit from under a tree. As I pick the most delicious figs, the white sap bleeds onto my hands, and the figs split open, I place them in my mouth.

 

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While slurping up my first fig of the year, I recall how Italian Renaissance poets used the image of the fig as an erotic metaphor for female genitalia, who knew to eat a fig would be so provocative.

 

 

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The fig has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is native to the region between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The tree repeatedly appears in the Bible, and some scholars believe the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was a fig rather than an apple.

 

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We are forced to fight off the birds for the figs, as their growing season is so short and intense, we have to be quick, or we’ll miss out. If there is an abundant crop, I might get the chance to make fig jam, or we can choose to dry them in the sun so we can eat them later with roasted hazelnuts in the winter.

The exciting possibilities are endless.

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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.

Un fiore Siciliano

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

Sicilian Impressions: the end of Carnevale

The Sicilian Carnival is beginning to taper off at the end of February, the costumes, dancing and revelry officially comes to an end on the first Wednesday of Lent, known as Ash Wednesday the beginning of a period of sombre preparation for Easter.

In these ever secular times some celebrations are extended to make the most of expensive floats in larger Carnevale celebrations around Italy.

What I take almost every year from this hedonistic celebration are the faces of the children, who adore the music, jokes and costumes of this time of year.

Until next year’s Carnevale time I want to share my favourite costumes from my local celebration, as every small town has their own parades filled with home-made costumes, fun and joyous spirit to live life to the full ….

Carnevale 2015

Carnevale 2015

The end of Carnevale 2015

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Sicilian Impressions: History

Wherever you find yourself in Sicily, history haunts you and comes alive in a visceral sense.

This slumbering knight in the Duomo at Noto, Syracuse tells us his story with effortlessness as if he is about to sit up on his crib and talk to us.

Knight's tomb, Duomo Noto Syracuse

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Sicilian Impressions: Maschere

Carnival time in Italy is filled with endless fried desserts, parades, tricks and masquerade.

The masks can be beautiful like the ones at Venice’s world famous Carnevale or terribly ugly like these.

When you see one do not be afraid, they are harmless they only want to be offered a glass of wine or mime something funny or rude to make you laugh.

They don’t talk, they are only strange spritely manifestations of the Carnival spirit.

Maschere 1

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Sicilian Impressions: Art

Sicily is filled with delicate pieces of art always where you least expect them.

You will find intricate statues in dusty churches, decaying statuettes in the nooks of decrepit Palazzi.

Fine art is always a surprise even if it is so terribly neglected by a country which is overburdened by an aesthetic abundance, sadly without the ability to maintain it.

Noto, Syracuse detail

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Sicilian Impressions: Belvedere

Stopping at a ‘belvedere’ or lookout on the side of a Sicilian mountain road will give you a spectacular surprise and a sense of the expansive nature of Sicily.

On a clear day you will feel like you are in the heavens looking out onto a new world.

The closest belvedere to me looks out at the Ponte di Naso road down to the coast between Brolo and Capo d’orlando in the province of Messina.

When the weather permits you can see, part of the Messina-Palermo autostrada and beyond to the Aeolian Islands of Stromboli and Vulcano.

Sicilian view from a belvedere looking at Aeolian Islands

Belvedere, Castell'Umberto looking at Aeolian Islands

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Sicilian Impressions: Naso

Naso, is one of those feisty Sicilian towns, perched high up on a seemingly precarious peak, it looks down the valley at Sinagra and hauntingly peers down at the cars driving down the mountains towards the coast.

Literally  Naso is ‘nose’ in Italian and it would be more aptly named ‘head,’ but it is surely looking down its proboscis out towards the Aeolian Islands and the surrounding towns.

incidentally Naso is also the birthplace of Lady Gaga’s Sicilian descendants with the surname Germanotta, the town invited her to visit but she has never accepted their invitation.

Naso, Messina

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Sicilian Impressions: By road

I cannot reiterate enough the joys of exploring Sicily by car, it is easy to zig zag the island through mountains and valleys, weaving your way through endless small towns.

Sicily by road means effortlessly experiencing the ins and outs of the islands landscape and stopping at a local roadside Trattoria or family run restaurant will give you the most memorable literal taste of Sicily.

Roadside Maniace

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Sicilian Impressions: Winter

I used to think visiting Sicily in the winter is a sad and cold way of experiencing the island but I have changed my mind.

I love the feeling of having the place to myself.

The lava filled countryside near Etna is infernal in the summer and so the wintry months offer the perfect time to savor the landscape.

If you are lucky enough the perennial mist at Etna’s peak will lift long enough for you to get some fascinating snaps.

Etna in the winter

Etna from the countryside near Maniace

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Sicilian Impressions: Etna

Mount Etna is the most active volcano in Europe and is my current fascination.

Sicilian writers have the burning heart of Mongibello deep within their hearts, so much so they barely acknowledge it in their words.

For someone new to the island like this once Unwilling Expat, the mountain offers endless images over the ever changing seasons.

In the winter Etna is an ashen melancholic tribute to a lonely gravesite.

Etna in the winter

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Sicilian Impressions: Castello Nelson

One of the most fascinating historical sites I have discovered in Sicily is the Castello di Maniace (also known as the Castello Nelson) outside the small agricultural town of Maniace in the extensive plain between Bronte and Randazzo a city literally at the feet of Mount Etna.

Castello Nelson, Maniace

Admiral Horatio Nelson was given the estate of nine million hectares together with the title of Duke of Bronte as a gift from the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies after he helped the king to escape certain death during the revolution of Naples in 1796. Nelson himself never lived on the property but his descendants the Hood-Bridgeport’s took possession of the dukedom until the final heir sold it to the city of Bronte in 1981.

I have frustratingly passed beside the property on the way to Catania never having a moment to stop, but this place is calling out to me to visit, here near the ancient Simeto River which has been so loved by ancient poets.

Simeto river, Maniace

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Sicilian Impressions: Ficarra

Sicilian villages are amazingly steadfast and stoic.

I am constantly impressed by the way they have been constructed a top the mountains in the most unlikely places as if they have always been a part of the landscape.

This is Ficarra in the province of Messina which casually lounges on the Nebrodi mountains looking out to the Aeolian Islands.

We know of a natural water fountain where we refill our drinking water bottles which looks up at the village, as we fill our cups we hear the Ficarra church bells playing Schubert’s Ave Maria down to the valley.

A mountain road near Ficarra

Ficarra, Messina

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Sicilian Impressions: Wind turbines

Flamboyant Italian art critic, politician and intellectual Vittorio Sgarbi has criticized the use of wind turbines in some of the most picturesque mountains in southern Italy.

Sgarbi says they have ruined the natural beauty and wasted millions of Euro without producing much energy, going as far as to suggest links with organized crime.

I tend to agree with him, the Nebrodi regional park is flanked by endless turbines which are almost always dead still, they are terribly ugly and give me a menacing impression of a Jules Verne ‘War of the Worlds’ alien invasion scenario.

Nebrodi Turbines

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