In Noto, a small Sicilian hillside town near the tourist playground of Syracuse, there is a pastry chef whose mission is to blend the past and future of Sicily in his sweets.
The Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Noto's main thoroughfare, is lined with examples of baroque architecture, built after an earthquake destroyed the town in 1693. Following the street, one passes a cathedral, a town hall and eventually the small, unassuming Caffè Sicilia, the laboratory of Corrado Assenza.
Assenza's first words to me were: "You are not here long enough. It is very hard to explain Sicily. You need a lot of time to understand Sicily, to understand her traditions."
His dark eyes gleamed with intensity. Then they brightened, turning into a warm smile.
"But first, you must have some lunch. Enjoy, and come back to me in the afternoon."
He sent me to a friend's trattoria.
Although Noto is only 20km from the coast, walking up steep hills to the restaurant placed me in geographic context. As I climbed steps carved into the tan street, through tight, turning alleyways, I caught glimpses of the view into the valley and saw trees and rolling earth, the sea obscured by hills and land.
When I arrived at the restaurant, it made sense that the menu offered rabbit and not the fish for which nearby waters are so famous. Rabbit alla stemperata is a Sicilian dish - first simmered in vinegar, then sautéed and served in a bath of fine olive oil with a combination of carrots, celery, olives, mint, parsley and capers. The meal's sweet, sour and herbal flavours bounced around in the mouth, distinctly but in pleasant conversation with one another.
I declined dessert, looking forward to sampling Assenza's work. I had, after all, come to Noto to try his cannolo and cassata. The former is a cracklingly crisp fried pastry shell, filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese; the latter another sweetened ricotta, spiked with candied fruits, wrapped in marzipan and set atop a layer of sponge cake.
In an American cultural imagination informed by strolls through Italian immigrant districts, these items typify Sicilian - indeed, Italian - sweets.
When I returned to the Caffè Sicilia, Assenza asked if I had enjoyed my lunch. This was important for him to know, because he is a man obsessed with quality, whose work is devoted to enriching people's notions of quality. I told him that it was marvellous, and he asked what I had eaten. We engaged in a sort of interview, and I suspected he was trying to get a sense about me through how I talked about the food.
Then through his greying beard came another smile.
"Come and sit down with me," he said, leading us to a table covered with jars, spoons, glasses and dishes in the rear of the cafe. He gestured towards the table, saying: "I think we cannot speak of things to eat without also eating."
I glanced over the table, hiding my disappointment that neither a cannolo nor cassata was in sight. There was, however, a spoonful of apricot jam that the chef motioned for me to take. As I reached for it, he told me its story.
"I decided one day that I must make apricot jam, because I want to help Sicily. I often go to the grocer's to see what people are buying, and I noticed that all the young mothers choose apricot jam when they buy jam. They feed it to their children, and babies like it because it is sweet, very sugary but uninteresting.
"And so I thought about my first memory of apricot, when I was only a child and I picked them off trees near here. I tried to remember that flavour and create it in a jam, so that when the children of Sicily have their first taste, it will be truly apricot, and they will know quality."
The flavour was unlike any apricot jam I have ever had.
The beauty of jams is that they are the concentrated essences of fruits, cooked and preserved to be enjoyed out of season, when their natural flavour is a memory.
This one, though, burst with the flavour of freshness, lightness; it was powerful but seemingly untouched by anything but nature, the sun.
Assenza smiled, explaining that he uses specific percentages of different types of apricots and cooks them for different times.
Before he studied pastry concertedly (he had worked on and off in this shop, owned by his uncle, all his life), he had pursued an education in chemistry and biology, and he brings the precision of scientific research to his recipes.
Yet his ideas come from human experience and tradition. They are rooted in the land and history, which he describes as "anti-scientific".
These apricots come from the trees of his friends and neighbours, keeping the product connected to this land, and he claims that his products can only work because of that connection. This land, this community, is part of his direct line to tradition and history.
"It is my past, my inheritance," he says. "I do not want simply to imitate the past. I want to use tradition to make a new tradition, every time I make anything."
He offered me cake, a base of flourless chocolate on which he spread a thin layer of quince jam, topping it with fior di latte cream and garnishing with raisins plumped in honey and balsamic vinegar.
The cake was delicious, showing care and consideration of flavour and texture. The acidity of the quince (which his friends had sent him) paired well with the bitterness of chocolate and balanced the cream's smooth richness.
There was a strange flavour and a peculiar heat, and I asked him if he had used pepper.
"White pepper, yes," he nodded excitedly. "Now, try this wine. It is Zibbibo di Pantelleria, and made from the same grapes as the raisins on the cake."
He described the wine as being of a traditional style of Sicilian sweet wines. Racy spices filled the nose and a sip revealed both a cooling aspect and a slow-burning heat, a heat just like white pepper.
"Yes," the chef exclaimed. "Exactly. Enjoy the two together. We must exalt the pepper."
Now, after three hours of tasting and talking, I understood why he was not having me try his cannolo. Why examine an embodiment of tradition when we can look at ways to deconstruct tradition - respectfully - in order to advance it? When we can make new food experiences with the gravity and flavour of history?
During our conversation I wrestled in my mind with the notion of this food being unSicilian and completely Sicilian at the same time, how that perhaps has always been the natureof Sicily, this beautiful, oft-invaded island, absorbing the dozens ofcultures that have overtaken it through its long history.
Assenza sensed my confusion.
"As I have said, it takes a long time to understand Sicily. Take your time, don't worry. What is important is that we are eating now."
Corso Vittorio Emanuele 125, Noto
Tel: + 39 0931 835013