Listen to this article
There we stood, not between Scylla and Charybdis but in the Calabrian town of Scilla, where legend has it the monster once lived, staring out at where Charybdis might be. We were on the Italian mainland and there in front of us was Sicily. We attempted to guess how far: was it half a mile away or three miles? Houses and even cars could be plainly discerned, and the curve of the bay that led to the port of Messina was just as it appeared on the map. Nobody could possibly say that I have not seen Sicily.
I have seen it but I have yet to visit. There have been a few near misses but something holds me back. It certainly cannot be because of the food.
I have heard so much about the fish at Da Vittorio, about the wild strawberries and lemon sorbet at this little place in Palermo, about the cannoli and melanzane, the cassata and the frittedda, that I sometimes convince myself that I have been there and that la cucina siciliana is part of my birthright.
One of the many who have brought Sicily to life for me is Matthew Fort. Five years ago he wrote about it in Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, and he is now planning A Summer in the Islands. The book is yet to be written but Matthew has had the ingenious idea of raising funds to publish it first and write it later. I am ready to pledge just to hear the old boy explain where we are all going wrong with our insalata caprese or describe the correct use of Sardinian bottarga.
The main aperçu from the Sicilian mission was that we chefs had got it all wrong with tuna. The Sicilians cut it quite thin and braise it with wine and vinegar, bake it in the oven with chopped tomatoes or cook it in a great block and stew it for an hour and then slice it finely. In any case, they cook it through and it tastes infinitely better. For once, I took this particular piece of evangelism to heart.
We “discovered” fresh tuna in Britain some 30 years ago and decided that it should be cooked like fillet steak and got very excited. We cooked these steaks blood rare with red-wine sauces, produced terrible salades niçoises with chunks of rare tuna (I never actually succumbed to that one) and just assumed that our Sicilian friends had got it wrong – if we thought about it all – for the last two or three millennia. Nowadays, while I still love raw tuna and even seared and chilled tuna, I have become terribly bored with rare tuna steaks.
Matthew suggests that pledging to his book will “save you the bother” of going around all those Italian islands yourself. I might just help him along, even though I would like to see Elba and Stromboli one of these days. And I still mean to catch that ferry to Messina or the plane to Catania and see Sicily for myself. One day.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Tonno alla stemperata
This recipe is adapted from Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti – yet another reason that I have not felt the need to go to Sicily for myself. Serves six as a main course, many more as an appetiser.
3 tbs sultanas
3 cloves garlic
3 celery stalks
4 tuna steaks less than 1cm thick
2 tbs stoned green olives
2 tbs capers
50ml white wine vinegar
• Place the sultanas in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Leave them to steep for half an hour so that they plump up and become tender. Peel the garlic and the celery and dice finely.
• Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan and add the well-seasoned tuna steaks. Colour them on a high heat on both sides – say, two minutes a side – and then transfer to a plate. In the same oil fry the celery and garlic together until they are lightly coloured.
• Add the olives, capers and sultanas and stew in the oil for a couple more minutes.
• Return the tuna steaks to the pan and spoon the mixture over them. Pour in the white wine vinegar. Turn up the heat to evaporate the vinegar. Simmer for five minutes longer and then remove from the heat. Serve immediately or allow to cool and serve as an hors d’oeuvre.
Rowley’s drinking choice
There are many exciting wines coming out of Sicily at the moment. Grillo can make an aromatic, poised white, and there are reds made from obscure grapes such as Nerello Mascalese that have a refined mineral quality far removed from the more brutal wines of the past. Tuna is happy with red or white.