A crash course to Sicily, I have returned from 6 days on the Eastern side of the Island, consuming all that it has to offer; the sun, the food, and the passion to all things sweet.
We landed in Catania heading straight to La Pescheria, Catania’s (amazing) fish market. A whirlwind event consisting of local fishermen promoting their catch while gutting it; shiny fish so fresh a new word need inventing just for them. The Mediterranean’s best in show, it was a truly a spectacular display of sea creatures, colors, textures and tastes, with one local vendor slicing thin pieces of tuna, sword fish, raw shrimps and tiny fish for us to sample.
The next morning (or middle of the night as loud, drunk bar goers at next door to our B&B seemed to think), we hopped on a boat and sailed with the local fishermen in search of anchovies. An added bonus was the sun rise, always a spiritual experience, let alone when one is on a boat, among fishermen, at the feet of an active volcano…
Lunch that day was at Ambasciata del Mare, a restaurant in the fish market. It would not be an exaggeration to say this was probably one of the best meals I’d had in Italy, from the Technicolor sea based anti pasti bowls of goodness, to a pasta con frutti di mare, a spectacle of sea fruits gathered from the Med, and picked from the adjacent fish market hours before, finished of with a plate of sheep’s milk ricotta cannoli and tarts. The place, the service, the company and the food all came together and formed a perfect whole.
Remaining on the fish theme, there were two visits to fish farms as well as an anchovies packing factory, where we enjoyed a lunch that consisted of processed crackers topped with a wide selection of anchovies, be it salted, as paste, a pate or grilled. It was nice. It also made me very thirsty.
A new food related word: Rigor Mortis. Say that a few times. It rolls on your tongue leaving your mouth wanting more. It’s actually the stiffening of limbs that occurs after death. In Latin. The fish are packed in polystyrene trays arched so that once the rigor mortis kicks in they are laying in the same position. The kind of thing that we learn standing in a fish farm packing room…
I knew prior to my arrival in Sicily that I was in the right place for dolci. With a heavy influence from the Arab ruling in the area, added with the high quality local produce of citrus groves, almonds, pistachios among many others, and a highly active local sweet tooth, it is a haven for sweet lovers. Looking at locals in cafes, morning to evening, children and elders as one were all enjoying a Granita (flavored crushed ice), topped with whipped cream, accompanied by a breast shaped giant brioche (symbolic of the local St Agatha whose breast was lopped of because of her Christian beliefs).
Then there was what must be quite a popular dish we were served for dessert in several places: Goo. Red orange, bitter lemon, almond and pistachio Goo’s to be precise. Flavored fish Gelatin.
We visited a chocolateria in Modica, specializing in Modica chocolate. Prepared based on a traditional recipe dating back to the Aztec ancient civilization and handed down by the Spaniards, it is an aromatic chocolate. Characterized by a typical sandy texture, the sensation is similar to that of biting into a chocolate bar that fell on the beach. This is due to its production method of mixing the ingredients over a low heat, resulting in the presence of sugar granules in the chocolate. Its good chocolate with a texture that may require getting used to.
A trip to the small town of Lentini was scheduled to introduce us to the local bread ‘Pane di Lentini’. Made from natural ingredients, and baked in a wood burning oven to burning almonds shells, olive and citrus, this bread left us speechless, our mouths full as we devoured the warm slices seasoned with olive oil, salt and chilli flakes. A highlight.
Let me ask you a serious question. If you were a pastry, which would it be? What form of dough baked with a sweet filling would express and stand for everything that is you?
I’ll go first. A Cannolo. Don’t ask me why. Its something that you feel, not a rational decision. So I was on a mission in Sicily. And Cannoli was it. Finding the best cannoli in town Wherever we arrived was a ritual. Small and large, lined with chocolate, sprinkled with pistachio, freshly made in a bakery, served as dessert in a restaurant, where there was Cannoli, there was me.
By medieval standards regarding food and diet Sicilys’ is a ‘poor man’s diet, with its kitchen based around local fruit, vegetables, cereals and legumes. Eggplants, fava bean, ricotta, lemons, pistachios, almonds, oranges and sweet sweet tomatoes, It was all that I’d imagined Italian cuisine to be, and had finally experienced.
A visit to Rosario Floridia, the only remaining Modicana cow breeding farm and cheese producer we saw the grass-reared bronze colored cows. they yield a low amount of milk which is used to produce the local Raguzano cheese. A lactic tasting lunch consisted of dense bread chunks soaked in whey and topped with warm ricotta, followed by cubes of young and mature Raguzano cheese. Ricotta, let alone warm ricotta makes the world a better place.
The final visit on the last day was to a donkey-breeding farm. All the donkeys I have ever encountered were always badly treated, boney, sad creatures.
So a breeding farm? Donkey milk?
Then I met the donkeys. 160 of them, they were the happy healthy version of any donkey I had encountered. Friendly, affectionate creatures at ease around their owner that referred to them as his family.
We had cookies and panna cotta, as the low fat content means it cannot be used for cheese making. Then I downed a plastic cup of the white stuff. The milk is closest in composition to human milk, with none of the aftertaste that comes when drinking cow’s milk. I am now a convert. This calls for a revolution.