Smoky roasted Artichokes

SicilianArtichokes

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: Icy blessing

From New Years to February my little part of Sicily has been blessed by snow.

For me it is a blessing as I am Australian who had never seen snow until I moved to Italy in 2002, for those used to icy Northern Hemisphere winters I’m sure it’s all like ‘get over it will you.’

But until the magic and novelty I will still be in awe of these pristine winter mornings when I have awoken to find the landscape transformed …

Icy winter landscape 2015

Icy winter landscape 2015

Icy winter landscape 2015

Icy winter landscape 2015

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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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Sicilian Impressions: Beaches

In the middle of the winter I always get nostalgic about summer and the beach. I have always had a difficult time with Sicilian beaches and their rocky nature, I miss sandy Australian beaches.

I like the sparse rustic nature of the coastline which gives me the sense the beach belongs to me.

I also have an extensive collection of lava rocks and stones.

Sicilian beaches

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Sicilian Impressions: Taormina

Today Taormina is a major tourist Mecca in Sicily but it was once a place of decadence attracting many artists, writers and bohemians alike, inspired by its isolation, beauty and ancient quality.

In amongst the gaudy tourist stores there are many small artist studios and speciality stores which reflect the creativity and artistry of Sicilians, they are what draw me back here.

Taormina art studios

Taormina Art studio

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