Gods, Aubergines and The Volcano- Sicilian Holiday Part Three

Some years ago I reached the breaking point where I had read about all the Scandinavian crime literature a sane human being can handle and decided to venture onto pastures new. Since Scandinavian poetry seemed to be somewhat taxing, I stayed with the crimes, but went for more sub-tropical ones, namely the books of Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri. His Montalbano series has a cult following in Italy and is also quite popular with English readers- I don’t envy translator Stephen Sartarelli for having to find a good way out of Camilleri’s charming but often uneven mix of Italian and Sicilian, but I must admit he’s being superb at it.  
 
The thing that most spectacularly sets Montalbano apart from his Northern peers is the food. Whereas Scandinavian crime writers seem to take dubious pleasure in describing the measly sandwiches, unappetizing leftovers, sordid re-heated pasta concoctions and possibly, in the case of Icelanders, half rotten fish dishes the detectives munch on between apprehending two cold hearted serial killers, Camilleri takes a much more understandable pleasure in lavishing sumptuous meals on his hero.
 
This therefore leads us up to the pivotal matter of what to eat and drink in Sicily. The answer is to be found in Camilleri’s books again, when the detective, asked by his faithful restaurant owning friend what he would like to eat modestly replies: everything. Sicilian food is basically the awe inducing distillation of all the best elements of both Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.
 
Due to its mild climate, the island is a natural home to mouthwatering produce such as tomatoes, olives, capers, oranges and lemons, aubergines, almonds or pistachios, which then get mixed into usually rather basic but absolutely appetizing recipes. It’s also intriguing to see how, although Arab occupation is today a thing of the distant past, the elements of oriental cooking are still very evident in Sicily, setting its dishes apart from those of continental Italy.
 
One dish which islanders claim to be theirs (to the dismay of Neapolitans) and seems to have received a bit of Arab help in its introduction is pasta. The legend of Marco Polo bringing pasta from China is more widespread yet historically extremely dodgy, therefore I tend to side with the Sicilians on this delicate subject.  The factually sounder version is that dry pasta was brought to Sicily by the Arabs and thence, speckled with various sauces, it spread first onto continental Italy, then the rest of Europe and finally, modestly, it conquered the world. All the classical Italian pasta dishes are available in Sicily as well, but you may consider trying local ones, such as pasta alla norma (which hails from Catania and sports aubergines), pasta alla trapanese (which hails from, well, Trapani and sports almonds) or pasta con le sarde (its coordinates are Palermo and sardines).
 
Another tell-tale sign of Arabic traditions is couscous, which is more typical of the western shore of the island, especially around Trapani, but can be found pretty much anywhere- the classical Sicilian version is couscous al pesce. Fish and other creatures of the sea are of course staple dishes, with swordfish being the most frequently used alongside tuna, cuttlefish and seabass. This here is basically Chinese to me, as the names of fish in any language have always been esoteric mysteries. I am kind of happy I can tell a shark and a dolphin apart, and know that the latter is a mammal. Actually, it’s more than Chinese, basically a translation from Mandarin to Cantonese- I just jutted down the Italian names from the menus, and then googled them English.  I can however vouch for the swordfish, which I have already tasted in Greece previously and found to be un-fish-like enough for me, and also recommend pasta dishes with swordfish. 

A crowning achievement of Sicilian cuisine is caponata- eggplant salad with capers in a sweet and sour sauce, which, according to the region, can be un-vegetarianized with octopus, lobster, shrimp or the by now oft mentioned swordfish. The island also has its singular and pretty ancient street food item as well: arancini are thought to date back to the 10th century and Arab rule. They are small orange shaped (hence the name) rice balls deep fried in bread crumbs and usually filled with ragù, mozzarella and peas. In the Catania region they are generally more conical, which I found to be not very congruent with the name, but they taste absolutely delicious nevertheless.

I will confess to finding most Sicilian sweets overly sweet- yes, I perfectly understand the silliness of my statement, sweets are supposed to be exactly that, sweet. And Sicilians take this point very seriously- their number one specialty, the cannoli, are ricotta filled pastry tubes, and just when one is about to sigh in relief that ricotta can’t be that sweet after all, let me tell you, it contains candied fruit and is a supernova of sweetness.
 
Cassata has Proustian effects on me by bringing to mind the mythical pastry shop of my childhood- Romanians were always in awe of Italian sweet making and loved to give both stores and products often misspelled Italianate names- our shop was Casata, and to this day I find it hard to place the accent correctly in Italian as we all know that old habits die hard.  More to the point, though, cassata is basically cannoli on speed: sponge cake moistened with fruit juice and or liqueur, layered with ricotta, candied peel and chocolate or vanilla filling.  
 
In case you are about to turn mildly diabetic after consuming a cassata, you might chill down with a granita, a semi-frozen dessert of water, various flavours, usually of local fruit, and, yes, sugar. This leads us to another Sicilian obsession, that of ice, and besides the ubiquitous Italian ice creams they also indulge in making semifreddi, which are basically half frozen mousses. Sweet mousses.
 
When it comes to alcohol, Sicily is best known for wines- both the climate and the volcanic soils of the Etna region being perfect for growing grapes. A typical and quite excellent local red is the Nero d’Avola,  and, surprise, they also make plenty of desert wines such as the famous Marsala. Our trip has however revealed to us an up and coming craft beer scene- Bar Licchio’s in Taormina has a selection of fine local beers both from Sicily and continental Italy, while Birrifcio Timilia’s ales seem to be the most widespread ones in restaurants- bottled versions are still quite hard to find in stores though.
 
True to their wino nature, Sicilians usually serve beers in 0.75 l bottles, chilled and in what look conspicuously like wine glasses- they are pretty pricey too, but definitely worth a try. Commercial beers have never been Italy’s strength, but local contender Messina is definitely of a better sort, a passable light summer beer to be sipped by the beach. Regarding spirits, limoncellos and other cremoncellos (cream liquors with various flavours, such as pistachio or orange) are typical for the area, and some pretty good, yet not overly strong amari (Amaro Averna, Amaro dell’Etna) are also available- usually consumed after the meal, hence leading to cross cultural confusion over the Eastern European habit of drinking the shot before the meal, to open the appetite- Sicilians seem not to need it, just a bit of help with digestion at the end.
 
I originally intended the food and drink section to be pretty short and to the point- and perhaps it actually is, by Sicilian standards, therefore we can now proceed to the part about what one can see and do on the Ionian coast. Firstly, of course, you can bathe. As already mentioned in the previous post, Giardini Naxos, about an hour’s bus ride from Catania, has some fine sandy beaches, with several well-kept lidos that offer umbrellas and sun beds for rent, usually for about 15 euros per day for a set and generally have a restaurant included as well.  The beaches closer to Taormina, at Mazzaró and Letojanni, are somewhat pricier and also a bit stonier overall- they compensate with the view and the closeness of the island (or peninsula, depending on the sea level) of Isola Bella, which used to be the property of Florence Trevelyan but is now a nature reserve and can be visited.
 
Taormina herself is of course near mythical, one of the most fashionable holidaying spots in Italy, alongside the likes of Capri or the Amalfi Coast. It is also extensively featured in one of my favourite films, Luc Besson’s The Big Blue. I therefore had great expectations- and was somehow afraid and even half convinced that they would be deceived. But for once I was wrong, and happy about it. The location for one is absolutely breathtaking- it’s not postcard perfect, it’s better, because you see more of it, feel more of it, the breeze coming from the sea, the almost unsettling majesty of Etna on the horizon. The town was also completely livable- maybe only due to it being September already, but bar the Corso and the environs of the Greek Amphitheatre, one could have a pleasant walk along half deserted streets without being overrun by herds of tourists.
 
As I’ve mentioned it before, I am not a big fan of visiting museums in places I’ve hardly ‘met’, so the only museum-like endeavour we ventured on was the Greek Amphitheatre, because that is an absolute must- the views are stupendous yet again and the structure itself is amazingly well preserved and gives great insight into the Greek chapter of the island’s past. As I was pottering around on the hillside area towards Castelmola I also completely accidentally bumped into Casa Cuseni– now a museum, it is the house at the heart of Daphne Phelps’s memoir,  A House in Sicily, which is the best possible beach read one could wish for on a Sicilian holiday.  Other two musts when in Taormina are a visit to the Public Garden (Giardino Pubblico) (it’s that view again) and a short coffee break at Wunderbar– it will be a pretty expensive coffee break, but it’d be such a pity to miss the place where Tennessee Williams used to sit and watch ‘the squares go by’.
 
Totally opposed to Taormina, I had but the haziest of ideas about Syracuse- something about it being Greek somehow, but in Italy, I couldn’t even place it properly on the map- perhaps because it never had a decent football team: Siracusa Calcio presently loiters in the third division and I just spent precious minutes on a perusal of its long and frankly pathetic history, which involves one of those wonderful Italian football terms I learned back in the good old days: ripescato, re-fished, teams which are saved from lower divisions due to some typically Italian administrative quirks and rethinks.
 
Syracuse the city is, however, everything its measly team is not: one of the most powerful city-states of Ancient Greece, it was also one of the biggest Greek cities in size, an equal of Athens in certain periods, and the birthplace of Archimedes. Today its best sights are fortuitously located on and around the Ortigia island, a jewel box of a Mediterranean city, with a maze of winding streets, courtyards, nooks and crannies, small bars and restaurants. It also has a totally spectacular sea front which at some point is modestly interrupted by the Greek fountain of Arethusa- the lady was a Nereid and so upset by the attentions of river god Alpheus that she turned into a stream of water. Please note here my powers of synthesis, quite similar to Woody Allen summing up War and Peace as involving Russia. Sicily is generally fecund from the point of view of godly activity, as we shall also see when touching upon the Gole dell’Alcantara a bit later on.
 
The city never again matched its ancient glory, though it did provide the world a revered saint- Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia as the locals know her- her remains are presently in the city’s cathedral, the Duomo, while Caravaggio’s painting of her is located in the other church which shares the Piazza Duomo with the cathedral- since I have become increasingly exasperated with ornate churches I’ve been to none, but some more enterprising visitors might give it a try.
 
Pretty much wherever you are on the Ionian coast, one presence will be looming large on the horizon: Mount Etna is, at 3329 metres the tallest active volcano in Europe and is affectionately called by the locals ‘a muntagna– the mountain. It’s not hard to see why. There is something primeval and elemental in its presence, something that makes it one of a kind, a highly beautiful and highly dangerous companion giving its people fertile volcanic soils harbouring lush vegetation and then suddenly wiping everything out of existence. Etna has however been on her best behaviour lately- although she is constantly active, with minor eruptions succeeding each other on a regular basis, the last event which lead to the destruction of an inhabited area was in 1928, and we have to go back all the way to 1669 for an eruption which could be called almost cataclysmic- the lava flows reached the harbour of Catania, though the number of proven fatalities is actually pretty low- it’s usually earthquakes, closely related to Etna’s presence in this part of the world, which prove deadlier.
 
These days ‘A Muntagna is mostly a tourist attraction- there are several companies organizing trips by bus or jeep to the Sapienza Refuge area at 1910 metres, from where a cable car takes you up to 2500 metres. It’s worth checking and booking in advance- this is what we, seasoned travelers, did not do- as trips are not necessarily daily and leave either very early in the morning, or just in time for the sunset. An alternative way of exploring the area is by taking the Ferrovia Circumetnea– a narrow gauge railway running around the mountain from Catania to Riposto. And yes, you can also drive up to the Sapienza Refuge in your teeny-weeny but super practical Fiat.
 
Since we missed out on getting better acquainted to Etna, we satisfied our geological thirst by visiting the gorges of the Alcantara river, which runs just south of Giardini Naxos and Taormina. It’s a smallish river of very cold waters, but as its bed was at one point blocked by Etna’s lava flow, it is now surrounded by spectacular symmetrical rock formations. For a 13 euro ticket you can visit the upper section of the gorges and then descend to the small beach by the river- the park also has many examples of Sicily’s typical vegetation and your printed guide will informatively lead you through the ancient couple crisis of gods Vulcan and Venera who had a bit of an argument over a possible third element of their relationship, which lead to Vulcan cooling the waters of the river out of spite.
 
Having reached a high point with this both very mature and very Mediterranean way of handling things, it was time to bid farewell to Sicily- one week on its Eastern coast brought us to the deep acceptance of the philosophical stance according to which the only thing we know is that we know very little, and we must therefore return to learn a little more. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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