Salvo Montalbano, the Sicilian detective created by Andrea Camilleri, spends his life searching for understanding and meaning. In the words of a Mafia boss in The Terracotta Dog, Montalbano is a man who “understands things” in a world that offers no simple answers or truths. For Montalbano there can only be absolute right or wrong in morality – and in the kitchen.
I share his joy at a plate of food that is just so, be it a simple grilled slab of sea-fresh hake or pasta riccia to make sfogliatella, a many-layered croquant pastry. Finding and consuming and, above all, sharing such food lifts our spirits; tasting anything other (or inferior) condemns us to a dark and grumpy day.
I suppose it is this food that brought Montalbano and me together. Camilleri’s writing made my mum hungry and she got me hooked on these brilliant books. As I read and salivated over the cuisine and the painterly depiction of a gritty Sicily, I concocted an idea: a series of lunches we held at my restaurant, each celebrating a different Montalbano mystery, with the dishes on the menus realised from the books’ pages.
Camilleri uses words to depict people and place and, in my bumbling way, I try to use food to evoke a place, and transport myself there for a moment. I encourage you to do the same – it’s a holiday for which you need only travel so far as the supermarket. This is one vacation that won’t use up a day of your leave, so get reading – and cooking. Buon viaggio in Sicilia!
Jacob Kenedy is chef-patron of Bocca di Lupo
‘The Treasure Hunt’, an Inspector Montalbano mystery, by Andrea Camilleri is published by Mantle
Pasta with raw tomato, olives and basil
From The Terracotta Dog
In the refrigerator, Montalbano found a plate of cold pasta with tomatoes, basil and black passuluna olives that gave off an aroma to wake the dead … Montalbano was in the habit of trusting entirely in the simple but zestful culinary imagination of Adelina, the housekeeper who came once a day to see to his needs, a mother of two irredeemably delinquent sons, one of whom was still in jail, put there by Montalbano. And this day, too, she did not disappoint him. Every time he was about to open the oven or fridge, he still felt the same trepidation he used to feel as a little boy when, on the second of November, he would look for the wicker basket in which the dead had left their gifts during the night …
Unlike Adelina, instead favouring my century-old and very much alive grandmother’s method, I serve this pasta hot.
800g ripe tomatoes – choose very fragrant ones with both a sweet and tart aspect
100ml extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, crushed
100g stone-in black olives, pitted and halved
400g spaghettini or fusilli
A small bunch of basil, leaves torn
● Finely chop the tomatoes – skins, seeds and all – and stir together with the oil, garlic and olives in a metal bowl big enough to eventually hold the pasta. Season to the hilt with salt and pepper and leave to macerate at room temperature for as little as a few minutes or as long as half a day.
● Set a large pot of water on to boil, throw in the pasta and balance the bowl of tomatoes on top to warm a little as the pasta cooks. Drain the pasta al dente but not undercooked (unlike most sauces this one won’t cook again in the pan) then toss it through the sauce along with the basil.
● Serve immediately.
It is also delicious served cold, in which case use a short pasta (fusilli are best for this).
From The Potter’s Field
Adelina had made him pasta ncasciata and, as a second course, rabbit alla cacciatore. She very rarely made this, but whenever she did, it brought tears of happiness to his eyes.
The Potter’s Field deals with themes of mortality and betrayal. It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the rabbits in Christian imagery and the rabbit in this stew, or the dissection of the carcass and the corpse in 30 pieces that opens the book, a Mafia allusion to Judas’s betrayal – but, really, I can’t. It’s just a rabbit stew (“hunter’s style”), and the only reason to make it is it’s just delicious ….
Serves two to three
1 farmed rabbit, jointed (legs and shoulders whole, neck and tail discarded, torso cut into four chunks)
2 tbs plain flour
50ml extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large, dark red pepper, chopped
2 celery sticks, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 garlic cloves, sliced
100g stone-in black olives (or 60g pitted ones)
A pinch of crushed dried chilli pepper
A decent sprig rosemary leaves, picked
2 bay leaves
80ml white wine vinegar
200ml white wine
● Season the rabbit with salt and pepper, dust with the flour and brown it in the oil in a heavy pan on a medium-high heat. Take out the meat, set it aside, and add to the pan the onion, red pepper, celery, carrot and garlic. Season with salt and soften for a good 10 minutes, stirring the pot from time to time. When the vegetables have softened, return the rabbit to the pan along with the olives, chilli, rosemary and bay, and cook together for five minutes more. Add the liquids (vinegar, wine and water), taste for seasoning and simmer, lid ajar, for 40 minutes until the sauce is thick and scarce and the rabbit tender.
● This dish is made for potatoes – roast, boiled, smashed or mashed – but a hunk of rustic bread will suffice.
From The Snack Thief
How thoughtful and attentive to abandoned children Mr Mimì Augello had suddenly become! Was he hoping for another glance from Livia?
Trust, fatherhood and jealousy interweave into the fabric of this touching novel. François is an abandoned boy who survives on snacks stolen from other children. To help win his trust, Montalbano’s right-hand man, Mimì, buys sweets, including torroncini – little pieces of nougat, sometimes covered in chocolate – for Montalbano to give to the urchin.
They are a bit of a palaver to make but sometimes a project is worth undertaking just for the fun of it.
450g caster sugar
250g glucose syrup
60g egg whites (about two)
Grated zest of an orange
Grated zest of a lemon
1 coffee spoon vanilla essence
120g butter, diced
200g almonds, toasted until golden
50g shelled peeled pistachios
250g dark chocolate
● Heat the sugar, glucose, honey and water in a saucepan to 140C – use a thermometer for accuracy. As it nears this temperature, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Gradually pour all the hot sugar mix into the egg whites – it should take half a minute to pour. Leave the whisk beating until the mixture is still hot but starting to thicken. Add the zests, vanilla and butter. Whisk until fully incorporated, then fold in the nuts.
● Line a 20 x 30cm baking tray with parchment and pour in the warm mixture. Cover with more parchment and press it flat. Leave to cool to room temperature then refrigerate for at least an hour. Turn out the torrone, remove the paper and cut it into torroncini. Put them in the freezer while you melt the chocolate in a bain-marie. When the chocolate is lukewarm but still runny, paint or dip the torroncini to thinly coat them. Keep them in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.
Extracts from Montalbano mysteries by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Picador) reproduced by kind permission of Macmillan