I last wrote anything on here in January (the 15th) – nearly three months ago. Writing is a craft I am learning. To become a good writer, you have to write, write some more, keep writing. “Write every day” my friend Rachel tells me. But I stopped. The words dried up. Or rather they bottle necked. I had plenty of words. Too many words, but there was no sense or reason to them.
The Sicilian and I finished. After nearly four years. On the shortest day of the year.
It was something that had been approaching for months. I thought that watching its slow and steady approach towards us would shield me from a Titanic moment. It turns out I was wrong. I may not be Leonardo di Caprio in this version, but I had a damn good go at being Kate Winslet.
For three weeks, I was fine. I stumbled through the horror of my dysfunctional family Christmas, I hosted New Year. There was sadness. Relief.
On the 16 January, I found myself at work, in front of the computer. Crying. Crying uncontrollably. Overwhelmed by loss, regret, coulda woulda shoulda, self loathing and doubt, emptiness. Hating my job, my life, myself.
I spent a week on the sofa. Sometimes in foetal position. Sometimes not. I wrote furious, vitriolic, crazed messages that helped no one and produced no answers. The GP ordered therapy and told me to call urgently if I had any suicidal thoughts. Dark days. One night I sat crying on a wall for an hour. I stopped eating and lost 8 kilos. The dogs got edgy and clingy.
And for three months nearly, I was off work. I thought that I would use my time to be productive. To make the allotment the best in the country. Become fluent in Italian. Visit Florence and Rome. Finish the book. Decorate the house. But I did none of these. I sat. I gardened a little. I walked the dogs. Every week I would meet my boss for a coffee and try not to cry. The thing that was furthest from and closest to my mind was writing.
I discovered that depression is exhausting and jealous. It demands all your energy, it allows no room for anything else.
Fortunately grief and madness faded. Time did its cliched work. There are still scabs that I mustn’t pick at and I will have scars, that I shall wear stoically, if not proudly. And I am left with the need to write, but without the knowledge of what to write about. Who wants to read the guesswork of some guy from Nuneaton fumbling his way through another culture’s food? Remember that self doubt I mentioned?
Friends reminded me to cook. To keep up the journey. To claim it as wholly mine. Rebrand it if you like. It was difficult. I had to stop reading Anna del Conte’s biography, there was too much to remind me of another life. There were many books I couldn’t finish. Couldn’t start. Recipes I couldn’t cook.
Just as Lombardy was starting the most localised of lockdowns, I went to visit my friend Stefano in London. I went to Borough Market and, as citrus season was in full swing, bought bergamots and citron. Something began to tilt. These were wholly mine, and what I did with them was down to me and to no one and nowhere else. I cooked more, I made the boobs of St Agata, blood orange curd, bergamot marmalade, candied citron, Agra dolce everything, polpette. I cooked English food, French food, Sicilian food. I had a few dates, I met a guy for one evening who’s great (apart from living in Amsterdam, damn this lockdown!).
As we know, the world then went to pot. On a Friday (the morning after my date with Mr Amsterdam), my GP and I decided I was well enough to return to work. On the Monday, the University where I work shut itself down and physically locked the gates. Officially I work from home, but it’s hard to operate a laboratory remotely.
And then I became ill. The worst flu I’ve ever had. Temperature, coughing, fatigue; began to get better and then 8 days in relapsed and spent nearly 48 hours asleep. This being Britain, I shan’t find out if this was just flu, or the new thing. I kept out of circulation, a friend walked the dogs.
This was a month ago now. Through it I cooked only with what I had in the house. Things grown on the allotment from the freezer, or pickled or jammed. Despite the illness, it was a fun experience. On the days that I had the energy, I had the time and the resources to eat wonderfully; alone, yes, but wonderfully. When I emerged from my isolation, I found the shops stripped bare. No eggs, no flour, but thankfully, still gin. So I carried on cooking from my reserves, and kept returning to Italian and Sicilian things of three or four ingredients. Beans and vegetables, pasta and tinned sardines, stale bread turned into bruschetta with peas and broad beans. I found cherries bottled in vodka and orange wine. I made a crostata with marmalade. Risotto got deep fried as little not arancine. I found a magnificent sacred heart of a cotagnata from last November. And I started to plant seeds – this year’s crops for next year’s stores. My peach tree had two flowers on it.
The world today is one of sadness, loneliness and strangeness. But these things in my freezer and cupboards have at least given me some hope again. The remind me that my past is not all waste and loss. With hope comes a voice. The bottlenecked words might have found a release.
So this is not a blog about Sicilian food written by the partner of a Sicilian, rather it is a blog about mostly Sicilian food – the growing and cooking of it, written by a single, adopted-Brummie, because he is greedy, loves the sun, and likes to grow and cook things.
Today (Good Friday), I made an utterly English Simnel Cake. It has some of that Borough Market candied citron in it (very Elizabeth David), candied ginger (for extra medieval). I ballsed up the crystallised flowers, because there is no caster sugar in the shops. They cracked and shattered, but now is not the time to be wasting eggs to have another go. I also made the marzipan lamb of Sicily, one of the campest, most delirious things in the world – Jesus as marzipan; my middle aged long sightedness means he ended up all googly eyed, with a distinctly home made look. My kitchen was both English and Sicilian today. Two places that my healing Irish heart is very attached to. Suddenly there were words again.
Me going beyond two comfort zones. (No recipe yet, not until I’ve nailed the thing).
1) First there’s my comfort zone. As I get older and older, the only certainty that I have so far settled on is that a recipe is just a list of instructions. The rest of life still remains a mystery to me.
And it is almost impossible to capture in a recipe and a photo, what a dish should ‘be’. In the four years now that I have been learning to ‘properly’ cook Italian and Sicilian food, all I know is that everything is subjective. Every version is personal, familial, communal. And dependent on the quality, and the soil of the ingredients.
I can follow, to the letter, a recipe given to me, but The Sicilian would say it was a facsimile, a northern approximation. Removed from the physical presence of the island, that great, lowering, volcanic, ancient massif of rock and culture, the recipe is born without something essential.
Alternatively I can present a truly ‘authentic’ Sicilian meal to British friends, and they will take away their version of it, without the fruit, halving the sugar, cutting out the offal and eyeballs, sanitising all traces of the island from it.
A recipe can only ever be a face pressed up against the window, because it cannot recreate a place, a moment, the heat or light or perfume of the setting. And when you are cooking the food of a culture other than your own, these are the missing ingredients; you were not raised on them and there are no instructions on how to add them.
2) Second; Sicily is an island the size of Wales. To talk of ‘Sicilian food’ is, at best, a sweeping generalisation. It ignores the history and identity of the island; that Palermo believes itself to be overwhelming superior. But then so does Catania. The interior is still terrifyingly wild and at times dissolute. The east is Greek and the west is Arabic (even though this has not really been the case for millennia). Time is different there. Rivalries stick over generations, across mountain ranges, between cities and geographical points. Nothing is truly Sicilian, only, of Sicily. And all I really know, second hand and diluted, is the view from a Palermitan, a loud and strident voice among many loud and strident Sicilian voices. It is against this that I measure my cooking, but there is much in Sicily that is not of Palermo.
Such as bread pie – Impanata.
This is inherently Sicilian in the way that lava bread is inherently British; it isn’t. It’s from that Greek corner of the island, Ragusa, Syracusa. So, when asking The Sicilian for advice, I drew a blank; ‘We don’t do those in the west’. I am left resorting to ink on the page and my own judgement, and the closest thing that I could draw on was Britain’s own ‘Homity Pie’ of potatoes, cheese, egg and spinach (itself perhaps a modern invention or reimagination).
I am vastly fond of carbohydrates. So anything that combines potatoes and bread catches my eye. Truth be told, it catches my heart. And Impanata, can be just that. A pie of bread, stuffed with potatoes (as though created to seduce this Irishman). It can also be many other things. It can have anchovies, meat, chard, tomatoes, cheese. The list, the variety, is limited only by the ingredients available and the particular rules of your family. Every writer has a version; the grander the chef, and the further they are from Ragusa, then the greater the complexity – throwing in nutmeg and pine nuts and raisins, all the herbs, chilli. But going back to how these things originated (and Impanata is a thing of the day to day, think Cornish Pasty with added mediterranean), it is best to stick with the general rule of Italian food, remembering that less is more.
Bread is typical of the differences that arise when you use an Italian recipe with British ingredients. Tangents are flying all over the place to confound this home cook.
I have made bread since the 70s, when everyone made bread, briefly, during one national crisis or another. I’m good at it. I know that, only because I’ve been doing it the same way for years, decades now. I know what works, I know how to knead, how to prove, how to get the right rise. I have been using the same strong Canadian flour forever, and know just how to play with it, adulterate it with rye, or add spelt or beer or cider, and still get the blousy result I want. I can’t claim any credit, it’s just practice and familiarity.
But Italian bread just isn’t like this. Think, for example, of pizza dough that is chewy and crispy, with a rise that is totally different; bigger bubbles, no height, it can’t support its own weight. And the bread of the pie of the impanata, should, I think be more like this. A crust, not a loaf.
I have never overcome this disparity – is it flour? Is it oil? Is it the Birmingham air? Nothing, no one, and certainly no recipe, has ever stopped my bread turning out like a yeasted, rosy cheeked, Saxon, farmer’s wife.
So of course, the first time I make my Impanata, guided only by the page and accompanying picture, I create not a solid, almost unleavened thing to make Ragusa proud, but a stuffed Bloomer. Admittedly, it is the most delicious of bloomers, all the juices and saltiness of the filling (potatoes, chard, cheese and prosciutto) have seeped into the bread. It is intensely savoury and satisfying. You can see how and why it came to be a staple of Greek Sicily. It feels ancient, you know that people were eating something similar when the Cathedral of Syracuse was still a Temple of Athena. Few foods do this. Few have the ability to make you realise that we live within our own history. That the people of three thousand years ago were the same, but without the mod cons and that the untrammelled joy a slice of impanata cannot have changed much since then. I’m sure that when I eat this, I am sharing a near identical sensation lived by a long dead, hungry and eager child.
But this version of mine, is still, I know, inherently wrong. I see this however as a blessing. Because, purely in the interests of research, I must now spend a few weeks practicing my impanate, not just the bread outside of things, but the guts – I have a larder full of ingredients to use up; preserved aubergines, anchovies, dried tomatoes from last year; mozarella near its use by date and caciocavello that didn’t make it into a risotto. I finish my first impanata challenged to work harder, to cook better, read more, strain the limits of my Italian, seek advice, and to find skills I don’t currently have. I sense the beginning of an adventure. It is exciting.
I mentioned in the last post, as an aside, that I’d bought two citron in Testaccio’s market on my flying visit to Rome. Because my hand luggage of books and artichokes needed filling out, and because who knows if I’ll be able to bring wonderful things back from European markets, once Brexit gets done and throws up the walls of insularity around little England.
Citron are the Neanderthal throwback of the citrus world. One of the ancestral species of citrus fruit who’s genes went rogue, diversifying and hybridising into the pantheon we have today. They are beasts, swollen, pock-marked, without symmetry, or grace, or panache. It is unlikely you will ever encounter one in the UK; another fantastic thing that doesn’t make it over the Channel. But, if you are in Italy in the winter, and you visit a market, you may spot them; steroidal lemons hulking in an almost visible haze of citrus tang. They’re called Cedro (pronounced Chedro) in Italian, and first impressions can be baffling and confusing. But buy one anyway, and smuggle it back for the thrill of it.
Slice open your citron/cedro, and what you’ll find is several inches of thick white, spongy pith, dense and softly corky, encasing an entirely normal, lemon-sized heart of flesh. This flesh is the least important part of the whole thing, indeed, most recipes tell you to just discard it immediately. So, flesh discarded, you’re left with the meat. You’re not in Kansas anymore.
Now, I bought mine for a specific reason – to practice the dark arts of candying. I have been trying (and mostly failing) to produce crystallised fruit for four years now. It’s a long and drawn out process of sugar syrups and repeated heating and coolings. It involves commitment and attention to detail. Ask the Sicilian, neither of these could be truthfully be included in any list of my attributes. I have managed to turn many clementines and lemons to caramel and marmalade, but never have I produced a solid slab of fruit turned sugar to adorn my cassatas.
But when citron is involved, it all gets a hell of a lot easier. All that pith, I think it evolved to be candied. It is the Candying 101 of the candying world.
The process is simple, you take your citron, prick it all over, and then soak in cold water for a week, changing the water every day. This removes any lingering bitterness it may possess about having been relocated from Rome to Birmingham.
Get a big pan of water on the boil and now peel your citron; try to keep as much of the pith and peel intact as possible, aim for hunky chunks. Slide these into your boiling pan and let them simmer for 20 minutes. You’ll see a change, the pith will shift from opaque white to the creamy translucence of the cartilage you dig out of a roasted chicken. The yellow ping of the skin will dull, but, worry not, the flavour won’t
Make up a sugar syrup by dissolving 300g of sugar in 1 litre of boiling water and slip your cooked citron into it. Immediately turn off the heat. Now walk away for 24 hours.
For the next week, you’ll be living a deja-vu existence. Take the citron out of the syrup, bring that back up to the boil. Return the citron, turn off the heat and walk away.
At the end of the week, the syrup will be so concentrated that (science alert) it will have sucked all the water from the citron, and replaced it with liquid sugar. Osmosis will have worked its magic.
Take the slabs of sugar fruit from their bath, and let them drain and dry in the air for a couple of days. They will now keep indefinitely – sugar is a marvellous preservative, nothing will dare touch these babies. If you can leave them for a few weeks, all the residual water will dry off, and you’ll have solidity, sourness, sweetness. Alchemy.
And what to do with them? I’d advise having some adventures. I found an Elizabeth David piece about Christmas Puddings and the importance of candied citron – she was such a show off, but I made it anyway; I gave some to a friend who wants to make a Tudor mincemeat; I sent some to an instagram friend – because I love instagram and the people on it and good things should be shared. I made a Sicilian conserve that I’ve been wanting to try for ages. And the rest, the rest – that is reserved for a cassata of cassatas. I can’t wait.
I’ve not long come back from Rome, my first visit. Yes, it overflowed with art, history, architecture, treasures, but, let’s be totally honest, I went there for artichokes, globe artichokes, by the bushel.
It vexes me that they are treated with such apprehension and confusion in the UK, that you can’t buy them easily or cheaply (even though their season is nearly six months long). We can fly insipid blueberries and asparagus in from South America, year round, but seldom manage to haul a few loads of thistle heads the short distance from southern Europe.
Not that they even need to come that far, mind. They can grow perfectly well here in the UK, if you pick the right spot and the right variety. And I do grow my own on the allotment, across a shorter season and in constant fear of hard, claggy winters; but they are temperamental and I’m definitely a long way from self sufficiency. Consequently my knowledge on how to prepare and cook these most delicious of never-to-blossom flowers, is woefully inadequate.
So I went to Rome. Needs must, and all that.
Two Roman cooks, Carla Tomesi and Rachel Roddy, do many wonderful things with words, food and people, one of which is a day devoted to the artichoke. The buying of, the prepping of, the cooking of and, oh my, the eating of. I have been waiting for this day to reappear in their calendar since I first spotted it last spring, right at the end of the artichoke season.
And I have been squirrelling my pennies away into a special artichoke piggy bank, and raiding the replacement car fund (again), for the sake of my peculiar passion. And so, finally, two weeks ago, I jumped on a plane and found myself in Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse district of Rome; I am full of cold and anticipation.
The weekend was apocalyptic – storms and rain the like of which I’ve never encountered. The kind that blows open the windows and billows the curtains of your AirB&B. Gothic, sprang to mind. And given that I was staying two minutes from the Protestant Cemetery, with its slew of Romantic Poets, all seemed very appropriate.
It being Italy, I feasted on the first night; artichokes, of course, braised with lemon and butter; pasta with crab, wonderful parmesan by the chunk and grapes of Canaan. But this was just a prelude. The antipasto before the Saturday, which dawned with me overflowing with cold, deaf in my right ear and missing both my senses of smell and taste. A great start to a day of cooking and eating.
Purely by chance, I’m staying less than a minute from the mercato di Testaccio, where we’re meeting. So, I’m there, early of course, brimming with excitement and influenza. It is, as to be expected, a grotto of wonderful things. The market is, let’s be kind, late century modern, I’m guessing 90s. Purely functional, a hollow box in the terracotta shadow of the Monte di Testaccio . But inside is the meat and the marrow. Charcuterie, cheese, bread, vegetables, flowers, fruits, wines, oils. There is mundane, there is high end. It’s not huge, but, Lordy, it is bountiful.
And we meet up – six artichoke fans, and Rachel, who is all height and exuberance, and we buy bags of artichokes, taste olive oil (I sneak in a couple of Citrons to fill up my hand luggage; another story, another day), and then make our way through the old abattoir, over the Tiber
to the Latteria Studio – a cookery school that is also, as near as damn it, my perfect kitchen. And if I can have a resident Carla, all knowledge, droll and raised eyebrow, I shan’t complain.
In a laid back whirl of prep and information, we trim and tidy 36 artichokes. These then are chopped and sliced to be braised, pureed, battered, soused. Carla makes focaccia, and makes it look easy, studding it with sweet grapes and dusting with cinnamon. Rachel pours cocktails, Cynar (more artichokes) and Prosecco. My cold improves instantly. There are eggs and oil to be whipped for mayonnaise, pasta to be rolled for lasagna. A caponata of artichokes emerges, all agrodolce Sicilian, and wonderful. A jammy cake of polenta and oranges from the oven, joined by buttered, drunken pears baked in their own steam.
A day of cooking is always fun, but cooking in good company, being taught by cooks whose knowledge and enthusiasm is endless, followed by a late and long lunch together, is definitely worth travelling to Rome for. Hell, it may even be worth moving to Rome for.
As dusk unfurled, and in the ceaseless rain, we tripped our way back down the hill, over the river and went our separate ways, six very contented and dedicated fans of the artichoke. There was, I knew, still a little room in my hand luggage. So I stopped at the supermarket, and bought just a few more artichokes, to squirrel back to Birmingham.
British people find this a daunting thing. It’s best not to tell them what’s in it, lest entrenched prejudices and fears are (justifiably) roused. Just present it, a fait accompli, raising ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’
However, people from the Mediterranean; Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, rhapsodise over this, tear up at the thought of their island’s version of it. It is memory of a dish. It is a pudding of almonds, pistachios and rosewater. A jelly with no gelatine. Virginal white, like the travertine of Ortigia. There is wobble, sensuality, opera even. Am I getting carried away? Perhaps. It is, after all just a blancmange.
And with that single word, I can hear the klaxons sounding on five continents.
Images of lurid, set-foam pink frightening the horses.
Stick with me.
Imagine the summer heat of Sicily, the almond harvest has hit the markets, and you are weighed down by their velvety abundance. What to do? What to make?
One of the most refreshing things you can do is to make almond milk (as ever, this is a very, very distant cousin of the stuff you buy in cartons). You can mix just a few bitter almonds into the mix to intensify the flavour from their added cyanide kick (not essential, especially if you’re of a nervous disposition). And then the sun of Sicily, sitting on the same latitude of North Africa, has already ripened those almonds to perfection, imbibing them with a depth of flavour you will seldom encounter anywhere else.
The milk is easy to make in the UK too, take at least 250g of dried almonds and blanche them in hot water. The word makes it sound fancier than it is. The hot water loosens the brown papery skin around the almonds, so you can pop them out, all creamy white sweetness. It is not a chore if you do it in front of the TV, or whilst chatting to friends with a cup of tea. Then blitz the denuded nuts, and soak them in cold water for 24 hours with a teaspoon of almond extract to compensate for any flavour lost in transit.
Strain the steeping wonderfulness through a clean cloth, muslin if you have it. The nuts will have lost most of their flavour, but you can still use them in baking, once they’ve dried out.
The bone china drink you get out is essence of almond. It is perfumed, and when sweetened and chilled, can transport you to an imagined world of sultans, of Cleopatra, legendary cities and wild adventures. It smells and tastes like decadence distilled. And its ability to refresh and restore in the leaden heat of Palermo in August, only adds to its magic.
Can it be improved? Well yes. It can be made into a pudding, for sculpting and moulding. For adding theatre and silliness to a meal.
Take your litre of fresh almond milk, and use a little of it to mix up 70g of cornflour. To the rest, add 100-200g caster sugar. This is a sliding scale of Sicilian. The more Sicilian you are, the more sugar you’ll add. Grate the zest of a lemon into the sugar and milk and gently warm through to dissolve the sugar.
As soon as this has happened, add the mixed flour and remaining almond milk. Turn up the temperature, and stir continuously.
Very quickly, it will sputter and bubble, and the milk will thicken to a set custard consistency.
Before you started, you could have had a rummage around the back of the cupboard, pulling out any odd little cake tins or jelly moulds you may have inherited, or bought from Ikea on a whim. You can lightly grease them with almond oil. If you don’t own any frivolous cake tins, small glasses will do.
Turn the heat off, and with not a moment to lose, fill your chosen molds with the now scalding milk., which will rapidly become sullenly viscous as the temperature drops.
Once it’s cooled to room temeprature, chill until you’re ready to serve.
Turn it out and decorate as you see fit; chopped green pistachios work, I make a praline with the leftover ground almonds and sugar (then blitz it to a powder). There is a Cypriot version of this that uses rosewater – so the dried rose petals I can get in my local Iranian deli work really well for that.
As a pudding, it’s easy to make, (24 hours of soaking aside), and it’s even easier to make it look special, camp, grand. But so delicate to taste, a one hit flavour and a smooth, becalming texture. This is not the blancmange of post war Britain, sucking the joy off the table, but a Blancmange of William the Good and his legendary Norman court. Something otherworldy. Something mythical.
- 250g whole almonds (if you want a stronger flavour, use more, up to 500g if youre especially decadent). And if you can get fresh, you’re laughing.
- 1 litre of water
- 70g cornflour
- 1 lemon
- 100-200g caster sugar
This was a year of a BIG birthday, with all the accompanying pressures to throw a party. But, I’m not a party kind of persona. Posh frocks and loud music aren’t my style. Plus the birthday was back in April, around Easter, with a strong likelihood of bluster and downpours. So despite demurring and equivocating, I was eventually pursuaded that I could hold a summer party, an official, Queen’s birthday, if you like.
My allotment site is tucked away on a hillside in Birmingham. The entrances are out of the way and hidden. You have to find your way down unadopted roads, or have a key for a gate in the woodland known only to dog walkers and spliff smoking kids. These semi-concealed gateways conceal the size and beauty of the space. They lead you to unexpected views over rolling valleys of trees; an incongruously bucolic setting, in the middle of a sprawling conurbation. There are plots of enviable order and control, where pristine sheds are equipped with wood burners and bunting flutters on verandas. There are plots given over entirely to callaloo and spuds. And there is mine, given over mostly to weeds and dahlias. Most importantly though, aside from all this controlled and shambolic verdancy, there is a clubhouse, complete with bar, pool tables and a glitterball. It seemed the natural place to throw a party; remote and low key, when the idea of throwing a party induces waves of social anxiety.
I decided to do the food. I was on a budget, and thought it better to stick money behind the bar than throw it the way of sagged microwaved samosas. I thought it a no brainer. Just because the oven was still on the fritz, the freezer was full up with beans and raspberries, and there was the small matter of a full time job, none of these needed to be an obstacle to cooking for 60.
But for the main, I needed something that could be made in advance and reheated on the day. Something vegetarian, but with enough umph to fool the carnivores. Also, something allotment appropriate – allowing me to show off, and say ‘of course, I grew the ingredients’ (well, some of them).
It seemed, therefore, a parmigiana appropriate event. I cleared out the freezer, co-opted a friend’s cooker and raided Poundland for their entire stock of foil roasting trays.
If you’re new to this dish, it is a staple of the south (disregard the name, it’s not from Parma) If there’s such a thing as a Sicilian pot luck supper, this is what you take. You see it for sale in cafes to take away with you, but equally, it’s a surefire way of wrestling the aubergines and tomatoes under control, as they start to overwhelm you in August. At the end, you get a rib sticker of a dish, that can be frozen for darker days.
It’s a laborious process – involving a fry-a-thon, with all the accompanying smoke and splatters and grease spots. It’s an extractor full on, windows flung wide and back door open type of recipe, but I promise you, it’s worth it.
Sliced aubergine is plunged into hot, deep olive oil and cooked to a roast chicken skin brown on both sides. Drain the slices on kitchen roll and then layer, in a deep oven dish, with passata, basil and mozzarella When you’ve filled the house with haze, and the dish with aubergine, grate namesake Parmesan over the top and bake until bubbling and brown.
Now, you can eat it straight away, or you can let it cool, then refrigerate and have it cold (or reheated) the next day. When it will be better by miles! It is best with hunks of crunchy bread that you use to wipe up the carnelian-red sauce and wrap with strings of elastic mozzarella.
Parmigiana di melanzane. (4 greedy people, 6 at a push).
There are some very complicated versions of this recipe around, with added herbs, red wine, nuts. Feel free to try them, but I think that the success of this dish is its simplicity. It is typical of much of the food of Sicily, in that it is home cooking, making use of the best of whatever is available,. The more flavours and textures you add, ironically, the more you lose. Like so many Italian recipes, especially in the south, you are actually only relying on three or four main ingredients to get the end effect.
- 6 big, purple aubergines. Sliced lengthways, just over 0.5 cm thick.
- Olive oil (be generous)
- 300g mozarella (ideally buffalo)
- Fresh basil
- 100g Parmesan, grated
- Black pepper
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 litre passata
- Salt the sliced aubergines, leaving them to drip for an hour, then rinse and pat dry (this is not to remove bitterness, but moisture, so that they are firmer when fried).
Now start frying the slices, a few at a time, in enough oil to almost submerge the slices. They will absorb a lot of the oil, which is part of the end flavour, and texture. You can, for economy or health, grill or oven bake, but it will be an entirely different dish at the end.
Into a little cold olive oil, add crushed garlic, and gently heat it up until the garlic is on the edge of golden brown. Add the passata and bring to a simmer for up to 30 minutes, reducing it down by about a third.
Next is the easy bit, Blue Peter cooking.
Put a layer of aubergine slices on the bottom of your oven dish, then add torn blobs of mozarella, basil leaves, about a fifth of the parmesan, black pepper and enough tomato sauce to smooth over and cover everything. Add another layer of aubergines, and repeat the cheese sauce process.
Keep doing this until you have filled you dish (probably 4-5 layers), and finish with a generous helping of parmesan and black pepper.
Bake at 200 degrees C/ Gas mark 6 for 30-45 minutes (you want a browned top and bubbling edges)
Leave for at least ten minutes before serving – longer if you can; overnight ideally. And before you serve, throw some more fresh basil over the top.
I forgot to ask the name of the shop, or to take a photograph for posterity via social media. I was too excited and made giddy by discovery. It’s a Brigadoon of a place. Fading from memory now, its only chance to be kept vivid coming from my keyboard.
The shop is a stone’s throw from the original Palermo home of the Frutta di Martorana (hand painted marzipan fruits), carved out of the back wall of the Chiesa di Santa Catarina. There is a tiny workshop where a man and woman – perhaps married, perhaps brother and sister, make moulds out of Plaster of Paris for creating 21st century marzipan fruit.
Although, these have become ubiquitous across much of Europe – from the dust of Spain to the drizzle of a British Christmas, it was here, just a few metres away in a convent, the Monastero della Martorana, where nuns created the first of these edible jokes, to decorate the bare, winter branches of trees in honour of a visiting bishop, or cardinal, or pope. It’s a fey tale, I hope it’s true, as it might indicate that the convent life was not as grim and restricted as the heavily barred and caged windows imply.
The nuns have mostly gone now, they’ve broken free from their holy prisons, but the tradition of giving these marzipan fruits has remained – initially to expectant children on All Saints Day (November 1st), but now you can see them year round in the pasticerrias, piled high like a greengrocer’s display, garish treats for a very sweet tooth.
But we found the source, by accident, on via degli Schiopettieri. The studio is almost anonymous. A subdued sign says ‘Decorazzioni in Gesso. B Ferrante’. If they’re closed, it’s a pulled down grey shutter, graffiti and parked vespas. But when they’re open, they spill out onto the street, piling racks and crates of bone white moulds into the sun. Even in October, in Palermo, the sun can cook the unwary. And these forms are wondrous, not just the ordinary pears, figs and chestnuts. Here there are heads of artichokes, split pomegranates, bunches of grapes, clusters of cherries. And then as you look closer there are cracked sea urchins, ferocious weaver fish, sardines and strange exotic species that defy identification.
Inside Snr Ferrante paints the dried moulds with a sealant, kept heated on a single electric ring, in a can that predates possibly all of us, encased in layers of historic drips. This resin is dissolved in neat alcohol, so the tiny, dark, cramped studio space smells like a pub at closing time. As he brushes the molten varnish inside the moulds, it looks like a glossy smear of nicotine. Shelves reaching to the ceiling are stacked with parcels wrapped in brown paper, reached by his sister/wife precariously perching atop a wobbling three legged office chair. Between them, they know the contents of every parcel, with a certainty that must come from decades of close proximity.
This is a true Aladdin’s cave – bleached jewels of gesso for the taking at just two euros each. It is out of time and out of kilter with the rest of the world. How can they make a living with something so fragile, so unique to its place? Defying mechanisation, a simple, hand made process lives on in a back street of Palermo.
We leave, clutching a bag of treasures, including the artichoke and the sea urchin – but also a scallop shell mould so we can bring The Chancellor’s Buttocks back to the UK (a story for another day), and a giant Easter lamb mould, to make a dentist weep and destined to be packed with homemade pasta reale, its almond fleece encasing a pistachio heart.
There wasn’t room in the bag for any more, so I will have to go back, not least, for the spiky, dangerous fish. I want to produce a fantastical still life from marzipan, all sea urchins and scales and sugar.
With allotments, come gluts. It doesn’t matter how well you plan your rotation or how large the family is; there will always be times when you have too much; too much to eat, too much to give away, just too much to damn well cope with. Some things are more prone to this gluttishness than others – runner beans have a mission to run amock, tomatoes conspire in a simultaneous, overwhelming rush of ripening, apples scold you with their lemming like windfalling. Their fertility becomes a chore, a curse. There are of course, other gluts that are never onerous. I never heard anyone complain that they had “too many cherries”, or that they were “over run with greengages”. And even when over abundance forces you to turn all WI and start pickling and preserving, a three year old jar of raspberry jam is always a delight to discover, whereas a jar of green tomato chutney half its age, never fails to ruin anyone’s day.
So what’s the Sicilian connection here? Aubergines. Melanzane. That’s what.
Aubergines are buggers in Birmingham. They are, admittedly, way outside their comfort zone. So much so, that the only way I guarantee success is to grow grafted plants, prewarned about their life 52 degrees north. Some years they work, some years they languish and succumb to black moulds and some years they go into overdrive. 2019 was one such year. If I knew why, I’d be the horticultural love child of Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh.
But, I’ve no idea why this year turned out so well. The summer has been decidedly lack-lustre; mostly rain, wind and greyness, with short-lived bursts of yah-boo-sucks extreme heat to remind us what summer could be, should be like. They’re in the same tunnel as some decidedly forlorn tomato plants, more inclined to produce stunted greenery than to reproduce. Similarly, chillies have reluctantly, begrudgingly thrown out a few desultory pops of heat, but more as a two fingered insult than as a call of nature.
But, for whatever reason, the under-cover aubergines, got their feet under the table and decided to fruit, continue fruiting, and then carry on some more.
They’re proper aubergines too – all unforgiving stalk spines and corky ingrown blips that shelter woodlice. They don’t have that glossy, pantone perfection of the supermarket. More, the look of something stitched together by Sid Phillips in Toy Story. But, hey, once they’ve been despatched, chopped, homogenised; they’re the best tasting aubergines in my postcode.
So it’s been a summer of caponata, of aubergines stuffed with mint and cheese, of parmigiana (whose idiot idea was it to make parmigiana for a summer party of 50?). And still they come. The end is in sight, but a glut is a glut, and I’m about to be overwhelmed by Borlotti beans now jostling their way to the front of the harvest line.
Two things then come to my rescue. Oil and sandwiches.
An aubergine sandwich is a thing of joy. It’s also a thing of Palermo; a staple – taking fried steaks of aubergine, adding what ever you like; cheese? basil? mortadella? tomato? anchovy? If you want to go full Palermitan, add pannelle. But the aubergines are the creamy, almost meaty base that asks to be added to. Quick, cheap, wonderful. On the other hand, an aubergine sandwich made with steaks that have been steeped in oil, infused with garlic, chilli or bay. Well, that’s altogether a more wonderful thing.
Take your glut of aubergines then, slice them into generous 1cm thick steaks which you salt (as much to draw out water as imagined bitterness) and leave for at least an hour. Then rinse and dry, then fry on griddle pan, scarcely oiled, to get “I did this, aren’t I cool” scorch lines, flip and repeat on the other side. Take your cooked steaks, and start to pack a sealable jar with them, layering with the herbs or spices you’re using and topping up with olive oil as you go. The flavours will do all the work here, so don’t use an expensive extra virgin grade, go for a cheaper, blended version. This is heresy as far as the Sicilian is concerned, but he’s not paying my olive oil bill!
As long as the aubergine is submerged below the oil, and the seal is airtight, these things will keep for months, languidly infusing. In the middle of winter, when in need of a fast and easy lunch, you can slide a couple of these beauties from their slick, and add them to a Scooby Doo style sandwich, piled high on the best bread you have, or can make or can afford, with cheeses, meats, pickles, and enjoy as a virtuous, velveteen delicacy of your inexplicable green fingeredness.
Just to reiterate. I am not Sicilian. Or Italian. I’m half British, half Irish, from the most mediocre of small towns in North Warwickshire. The late and wonderful Terry Wogan used to joke about its mediocrity. It is that mediocre.
But the other half is Sicilian. It’s complicated. He lives in London, I in Birmingham. He likes clubbing. I like slippers and cocoa. And although he is on a near permanent diet (all those decades of pasta start to catch up eventually), a passion we share is our food and the cooking of it. When we got together, I can hand on heart say that I’d never encountered Sicilian food. I think I had heard of Cannoli, perhaps Sicilian lemons were on the radar. That’s it.
Here we are, getting on for four years later, and it seems that I’ve accidentally (and only partially) imbibed from some sort of Mediterranean fount of knowledge. It hasn’t gifted me with even a basic grasp of the language; I still burst out in a heat rash within 24 hours of arrival in Palermo, and I shall never get used to all the shouting that passes as conversation. But now I can turn out a passable cassata, turn sardines into songbirds, and have just planted a mulberry tree in the hope of one day granita.
There should be limits though. Birmingham is not Palermo, the flavours that I mimic can never be as strong, as strident, as Sicilian. They are faded facsimiles.
But I am stubborn. Some things are too ridiculous not to try. Too impossible. Too of the South.
Astrattu is one of these things (a quick word here on the name. Astrattu in Palermo, Estrattu or ‘strattu everywhere else – dialects, abbreviations, urban v rural. Things I’m sure I’ll never get to the bottom of).
In August, as the tomato crop is taking over Sicily, and the summer is at its most stifling, the crimson abundance is transformed by time and that damn heat into a concentrated, turbo charged fraction of itself. Boiled, sieved and salted, litres upon litres of pulped tomatoes are spread out on boards to bake in the sun. Fingers create furrows that drain away leaking water, and gradually, the sloppy pulp thickens, darkens, stiffens. The tomato sunburn turns iron oxide, knee scab red. What was once liquid, spread over table after table, is now reduced to the corner of a single board, scraped up and squirrelled away to add intensity and umami from the smallest of additions.
Perhaps it is the essence of Sicily? There is nothing quite like it. Don’t even imagine that it resembles the puree you get in tubes. It is scarcely even tomato anymore, it has had an apotheosis. You can smell its power. The brave spread it on toast, for a hit of salt tang shudder.
So, obviously, wearing my Irish stubbornness and pigheadedness like badges of honour, I chose to take this task, the one that demands at least three days of continuous and unrelenting heat, and make it Brummie.
The Sicilian’s usual mild amusement was replaced by out and out incredulity. Having lived through four of our summers now, he is beginning to understand what drives British fatalism. The idea of it hitting 40 degrees, of there even being three days of continuous sun, of being able to grow enough tomatoes, all was folly. Everything was against me. Crushing failure was certain.
But, I had a secret weapon. I had my poly tunnel.
The idea that I could achieve the impossible first dawned on me last year during that rare, glorious summer. A friend was in charge of watering said tunnel whilst the Sicilian and I were on holiday in Palermo, and she regaled us with tales of nearly fainting from the heat inside, when we returned. Admittedly she’s a red head, and wilts as soon as it gets above 25. But it sparked my imagination.
And then, on cue, over an August bank holiday weekend, a plume of heat rose northward from Africa, bathing Birmingham in the kind of warmth that makes us break out our worst clothing and drink too much cider on a school night.
I started small. Just two litres of tomatoes and a large wooden tray, balanced precariously on the arms of a camping chair. Heath Robinson sprang to mind, not the slopes of Etna. Wobbling like the chair, I began to doubt my sanity, as paste dribbled over the edges and a cloud passed over the sun. I left for the day, expecting disaster in the morning, and a puddle of red spatter on the floor.
But the next day, the Sunday, there was indeed movement, a definite trend towards a thickening, my finger furrows stayed put, and there was clotting in places. And so over the next 48 hours, it progressed. Next up I could spread it like putty, and then it began to crack, like damp mud in hot sun. Two litres finally became a smear, which bundled together was no bigger than a golf ball. It had that metallic whiff of fresh cuts and the best sun dried tomatoes. Somehow, for 36 hours, the gods of Sicily had decamped to a poly tunnel in the suburbs of Birmingham.
Will I ever make it again? Unlikely. You have to be ready at the drop of a weather forecast to attempt your astrattu, it’s cheap as chips in Palermo, and they don’t seem to have a problem with you sticking it in your hand luggage. But, then again, in a future, legendary summer, when the tomato crop is running away with itself and red headed friends are going giddy, maybe I will. Because, now I know I can.