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Earlier this year we drove our Fiat Panda from Rome to Naples, caught the night-boat to Palermo, then made our way to a town in south-east Sicily to open up the house of my partner’s grandparents that had been closed for some 15 years. While Vincenzo and his cousin Elio discussed the condition of the water tank on the roof, I stood in the kitchen. I had heard so much about Nonna Sara’s cucina, with its low ceramic sink and floral curtain, hatch through to another small room in which the extended family would eat, and a window on to the street where Sara would bottle more than a hundred litres of tomato sauce each August. My reverie was noisily interrupted by the reality of something unravelling at speed and crashing to the ground. Vincenzo walked into the kitchen, two pieces of shutter and a pulley in his dust-black hands. “Marcia! [rotten]. Anyway, do you like the kitchen?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied.
I have lived in Rome for 10 years now, for most of that time with Vincenzo, who was born on Sicily at Gela and raised in Caltagirone until moving to Rome aged 14, so there has always been a Sicilian influence in the way we eat. That said, this influence was tempered as I became preoccupied with finding out more about Roman food culture and cooking. Saying Italian food is regional has become a bit of a cliché but it’s true. Roman food is Roman, and entirely different from the food of Umbria or Piedmont and most certainly from Sicilian food. It was by chance that I had ended up in a part of Rome called Testaccio. It turned out to be a good chance. The story of Testaccio involves a great deal of food, evidence of which bursts forth in a most unshowy way: the remains of an ancient Roman port, the façade of goods warehouses from the second century, a hill made up of pieces of broken amphorae that once contained olive oil, a sprawling former slaughterhouse. It was fitting, too, that the kitchen door of my first flat opened on to a balcony hanging over courtyard shared with a bread shop, two Roman trattorie and two dozen other flats, many of which were inhabited by people who had lived there all their lives and cooked in a traditional way. What else was I to do? With my door open to the cacophony of Roman life and cooking smells, I joined in.
A good Roman friend once said that watching me learning to cook in Rome was like watching a child learning piano scales. I cooked well enough before I arrived in Rome. However, I put all that aside and learnt the most basic things all over again. I then practised — only occasionally thumping the keys: making the soffritto of vegetables and herbs that is the basis of so many Roman soups (minestre); using pasta cooking water, the key to so many classic Roman pasta dishes; braising lesser cuts of meat into tenderness; cooking bitter greens; gutting anchovies and baking a decent cherry tart. I also wanted to understand local traditions and the often didactic Roman rituals around food. At times it felt as if I was pressing my nose against the misted-up window of a rowdy trattoria trying to understand what the hell was going on inside. At other times I moved forward, hesitantly. I asked questions, listened, read, shopped at the market a minute from my flat, cooked and ate. I also wrote, which was another way of making sense of where I was. “You are understanding Rome by cooking lunch,” said the same friend.
Rather like the fragments of ancient Rome that sprang up unexpectedly in the middle of Testaccio, Sicilian flavours would burst forth in our Roman kitchen: pasta with wild fennel and sardines, spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs, a panful of sweet and sour caponata, a tray of crisp cannoli filled with ricotta from the Sicilian stall on the market. Vincenzo has been in Rome for 25 years but the gastronomic traditions of his childhood are deeply ingrained. I can’t claim even a distant drop of Sicilian blood but I share his enthusiasm.
Ten years ago I left England and flew straight to Naples so I could take the night boat to Sicily. Travelling around the island for six weeks, unbothered by any sort of real itinerary, free from phone or internet, I was seduced by the island, its noisy, decadent cities, quiet, disconcerting towns, wild landscape and, of course, its food. It crossed my mind countless times to stay. But then I didn’t. I settled in Rome, with a Sicilian, who laughed at but also understood my idealism about the island his family had left 20 years earlier. After dinner, wine-soaked conversations would inevitably end in the same way, us agreeing that one day we would spend more time than just snatched holidays in Sicily. Vincenzo’s father suggested: why didn’t we go and open up the house in Gela? We had been waiting to hear these words. We made our first short trip in May, our second — broken shutters replaced — this month.
Boat is the best way to arrive in Sicily, and the deck is the best place to be as you leave Naples at dusk, the air warm, salty and metallic, the sweeping bay blinking with lights. The boat docks in Palermo at 6.30am, which means you can be having breakfast at one of the bars near the port by 7.30am. Vincenzo slips easily into old habits and orders himself an arancina (a rice ball the size of a cricket ball, filled with ragù, breadcrumbed and fried). Before we head off, we have short but welcome espressos. A significant section of the motorway collapsed some months ago (and seems to be staying that way), so we cut down the middle of the island on the S121. The sun already high, we pass rocky summits, sunburnt fields of wheat, twisted vines with promising leaves and gnarled almond trees, piles of rubbish, great gangly plants rising five and six metres that must be related to fennel, swatches of fichi d’india, like giant hands with fruit fingertips and treacherous little spines. Suddenly, there it is, the sea, azzurro puro, and a breeze that seems to push us along the coast to Gela. As we drive, Vincenzo, encyclopedic as ever, lists those who have courted this fertile land, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and, finally, the Italians, all of whom left their mark and contributed to Sicily’s extraordinary culinary tapestry.
Once the prize of the Greeks, Gela today is industrial and poor, and if you travel a few miles further along the coast, you will encounter the vast petroleum plant. You might be better off going to Ragusa, Noto or Siracusa, although those have hard edges too.
In Gela, the house Vincenzo’s grandfather Orazio built is in the old part of the city, a warren of narrow streets and tightly packed houses, some decadent and beautiful, others dingy, others functional, some simply a pile of rubble. The house is functional, three floors over a garage in which he kept the tractor his eldest son Totò would drive each day to the rented land where they farmed tomatoes, artichokes, aubergines, almonds, grapes, olives. In the kitchen where I now stand, Sara would cook and conserve everything her husband grew. I love these stories. Maybe too much.
Everything I thought I knew seems wrong, or horribly romanticised. Shops Vincenzo knew as a boy have closed, the aunt I was meant to cook with has quietly lost her mind, and Gela feels formidable. When I ask about the estratto, the concentrated tomato paste traditionally made on the flat rooftops of Gela, I get blank looks until Vincenzo’s cousin tells me nobody makes it any more. I put a tray of tomatoes on the roof to dry. One small tray, where Sara would have put 10. They look feeble. Later that day the rain starts. I run up three flights of stairs to find 40 wrinkled tomatoes floating in a puddle.
The rain was needed, it cleared the air. I have heard Sicilian cooking described as cucina di curtigghiu, which means cooking of the courtyards, flavours and recipes passed courtyard to courtyard, door to door, mouth to mouth. Advice here is much the same, so I started listening. I should seek out Rosaria, the farmer’s wife who sells what her husband grows from a sort of shop near Elio’s house. We buy gloriously good tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, figs, slightly hairy cucumbers called cocomeri, long, pale green courgettes called cucuzze with soft leaves and tendrils that make such good soup. For fish I’m told I must go to the pescivendolo near the cinema but to get there before 9am. To find good salted ricotta, I need to go to the shepherd’s house. Vincenzo remembers the bread shop his grandfather went to each morning on his way to the field; it is called Spasciamaronna, which loosely translates as “waste the madonna”. He comes back with two loaves made from semolina flour dusted with sesame seeds. Eventually, Vincenzo’s other cousin, Orazio, larger than life, arrives home and the shutters of his house opposite are rolled back. His enthusiasm is infectious. “Once everyone is back,” he says, “we will set the grill up in the street, we will drive to the port at Scoglitti to buy fish, go to Noto. But first we make caponata!”
Rachel Roddy is the author of ‘Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome’ (Salt Yard Books)
Sweet and sour aubergine stew
There are as many versions of this quintessential Sicilian sweet and sour stew as there are cooks who make it. It is a dish that makes absolute sense in Sicily: the abundance of aubergines, the tomato sauce some families still put aside each year, plentiful celery, olives and capers, the presence of sugar and vinegar, which help conserve in hot temperatures. That said, it is also a dish that translates well anywhere.
It is important you fry the aubergine in plenty of hot oil — I use olive oil. The cubes should dance around the pan until golden. Ironically, if you skimp on the oil, the aubergines absorb more of it. Like so much traditional Italian cooking, the key to this dish is good ingredients and practice, tasting and trying again and again until you have a version you really like. You can, of course, leave out the capers, olives, raisins or pine nuts, adjust the amount of tomato, tweak the sweet and sour. Caponata needs to rest for at least an hour, ideally three. It is even better the next day and keeps well in the fridge for up to four days (seven if you are Nonna Sara). I particularly like caponata with grilled lamb chops or as part of a picnic-style lunch with hard-boiled eggs, cheese and bread.
- Cut the aubergine into 1cm-2cm cubes. Heat 5cm of oil in a small, deep frying pan or heavy-based pan until hot. Fry the aubergine in batches — do not crowd the pan — until golden brown, drain on kitchen towel, sprinkle with salt and set aside. If you have used it, olive oil can be filtered and used again.
- Trim the celery of any tough ends or strings. Cut ribs in half. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add celery and cook until tender but still with bite, which usually takes about five minutes. Drain. Once cool enough to handle, chop the celery into 1cm chunks and set aside. If the capers are salted, soak them for a couple of minutes, then drain. If they are in vinegar, drain and rinse. If the olives have stones, remove them, and then chop in two.
- Peel and thickly slice the onion. In a large deep frying pan, warm four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, over a medium-low heat, add the onion and cook until soft and translucent. Add the celery, stir and cook for a minute or two. Add tomato sauce, cook for another two minutes before adding the capers, olives, raisins and pine nuts and stirring again.
- Make a well in the middle of the pan, add the sugar and the vinegar, stir and cook for a minute or two, tasting to see if it needs more sugar or vinegar. Turn off the flame, add the aubergine and ripped basil to the pan and stir the mixture gently so the aubergine remains in distinct pieces. Leave to sit for at least two hours, better still several, turning gently once or twice.
Torrone di mandorle (turrini ’i mennuli)
Like caponata, every Sicilian cook has a recipe for torrone, and it is a fixture at every celebration, religious or otherwise, often made expressly, the hot syrupy mixture ensnaring almonds, pine nuts, pistachio nuts or sesame seeds slapped down on cold marble surface with great aplomb. It is teeth-cracking stuff and very delicious eaten just so, or smashed and crumbled over vanilla ice cream. I was once reprimanded seriously when I suggested using wet hands to flatten the mixture on the work surface. You should use a palette knife or heat-resistant spatula unless, of course, you are foolish enough to use your hands.
- If the almonds have skin, plunge them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, drain, then — while they are still hot — rub them with a clean tea towel so the skins come away.
- In a small heavy-based pan, melt the sugar and honey over a low flame, then raise the heat to bring the mixture to the boil. Add the almonds and boil for another few minutes, then tip on to an oiled work surface or baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. If you dare, use wet hands to flatten the mixture, otherwise use a wet palette knife or metal spatula. Allow to cool. To serve, break into pieces. Keeps well in a tin.
Illustrations by Luke Best
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