For six years we have been running the family restaurant in my husband's seaside town, surviving the economic crisis, volcanic activities and local competition... Friends back in Ireland think we have the life of Riley, but the grass isn't always greener...
Every good cook book has a story behind
it, and this one is no exception...
Sicilia in Bocca by Antonio Cardella, received as a wedding gift
from savvy Tuscan friends years back. It’s printed on yellow-tinged paper with
a rustic feel to it, like the placemats you get in trattorias. The
illustrations are witty, the prose has socio-political undercurrents (the
author prefaces the Starters section with a caveat: Don’t get the idea that
Sicilians are used to anti-pasti; not so long ago hunger was the norm. “It is not
easy to change a state of forced abstinence into one of cheerful guzzling.”) And
the recipes are in dialect, Italian and English – with creative translating from
the original and a good dose of Sicilian wisdom and proverbs. I need to consult
all three version to make sure I’m following the recipe correctly J
I went to my libraio di fiducia, my
favourite bookseller, Filoramo, and asked him if he had a copy. I wanted to
give it to an American friend who is getting married.
“Ah,” said Filoramo. “A fabulous book. Sadly
it’s no longer in print.”
And why not?
The publisher did a low print
run at first, thinking only a few copies would be sold - to the more discerning
tourist. But Filoramo called the publisher after a few days:
“I’m all out of
that book. Give me 50 more.”
“I only have 20 copies.”
“Well, bring them here!”
It sold out so fast that soon the publisher was making regular trips to Milazzo
and Taormina with his carload of recipes. And then, as can happen when money
enters the equation, the thing went sour. Someone tried to cash in on the
success, with another book called Isole in Bocca; they were sued for copyright
infringement, and the result of the legal fallout was that Sicilia in Bocca could be printed no more.
“The greatest shame,” said Filoramo, with
heartfelt lament, “is that I didn’t keep a copy for myself. So treasure yours.”
Humble aspirations: "We offer you firstrate, authentic Sicilian cuisine, borne out of fantasy and popular imagination.
Cardella suggests that every recipe, being
a creative act, is inherently incommunicable – pretty much in line with my
mother-in-law’s culinary gems. “Oh I just throw in a handful of this, a pinch
of that”. Everything is “a occhio” –
an expression that means a rough estimate, but in terms of cooking connotes
instinct and how you’re feeling that day.
Of course, it is so much more than a mere
recipe book. The author takes us on a reconnoitering stroll across Sicily: through
mountain towns of Saracen origin such as Geraci Siculo (“… [whose] inhabitants,
very affable to visitors, live the life of a little mountain village”) to fish
markets, where “[F]oreigners are always cheerfully amazed at the crafty and
noisy expedients used by fishmongers in order to compel the hesitant purchaser
to buy something”.
Recipes are pitched with hearty reverence,
from “Agghiotta di pesce spada”, a Messina speciality, to Pasta with sardines,
and wild fennel: “[T]o find it, it is necessary to go to Sicily as it does not
exist anywhere else”. Everyone who has contributed to making Sicily what it is
gets a mention, including musicians, writers, artists and demagogues – and not
forgetting legendary shapers of Sicily such as Aeolus and the Cyclops. Cardella
honours centuries old traditions and gives us his take on Sicilian history: and
this is the book’s passionate achievement.
My favourite Madonna of all the
multitude of Virgin Marys venerated by the Sicilians, is the Black Madonna of
Her feast day takes place on 8 September, but the festivities go on
all weekend: these include the annual pilgrimage to her Basilica at the top of
Mount Tindari, fireworks and local processions.
Part of the draw is the place of
her shrine: Tindari, off the beaten tourist track, sits high on a rocky
promontory with spectacular views. Founded by the Greeks in 396BC (by Dionysius
the Elder, a nasty despot from Syracuse), the ruins of the city include an
amphitheatre, the gates to the city, stone arches and tombs.
You can enjoy a
picnic there without a Japanese tourist snapping a photo of you while you munch
your sandwich (likely to happen in nearby Taormina).
But the interesting thing about the
Madonna of Tindari are the stories surrounding her origins. Legend has it that
the cedarwood statue was hidden on a cargo ship returning from the Middle East
to save it from destruction during the Iconoclastic Wars. A storm blew up and
the ship took refuge in the bay below Tindari. When the storm had passed, the
sailors lifted the anchor and started rowing but the ship didn’t budge. They
left some of the cargo on the shore, thinking that was the cause of the
problem. Still no joy. It wasn’t until they left the Black Madonna on the shore
too that the ship started to move again. Local fishermen found the statue and
decided to build a shrine one the highest point of the plateau of Tindari.
Today, Tindari draws thousands of
pilgrims and visitors every year.
Then there’s the miracle: the
legend about the beautiful sandbank below the sanctuary, in the shape of a side
profile of the Madonna and Child. The story goes that a woman brought her sick child
to the sanctuary for a blessing but upon arrival, when she saw the Madonna was
black, she refused to pray to her. The child slipped from her grip and fell
over the cliff’s edge to the sea, hundreds of metres below. But instead of
drowning, the child was found playing safely on a ridge of sand that miraculously
rose out of the sea.
Finally, you have the theories
about the Black Madonna in general, for the Madonna of Tindari is not the only
one. Prevalent in Hispanic cultures from Guadalupe to Montserrat (there’s even
one in Dublin in Whitefriar Street’s Carmelite Chapel), the mysteries of the
Black Madonna are many.
Some say she derives from a pre-Christian mother goddesss
figure, linked to Demeter or the Egyptian goddess Isis. Others say that the
dark skin tone of the Black Madonnas reflects that of the Virgin Mary, who likely
had Semitic colours and features. She is often associated with miracles, always
invoked as a protectress.
Our Black Madonna of Tindari sits
on a throne, with the child Jesus on her lap, his hand raised in blessing.
Inscribed on the base of the statue are words from the Old Testament’s Song of
Songs: Nigra sum sed Formosa (I am black but beautiful).
Italian premier Matteo Renzi speaks eloquently on the issue of the Migrant crisis to the Guardian UK. Milazzo has a shelter for boys, mostly aged 18-20. I know the people who run it and several of the boys have worked for us at the restaurant under social projects. I know they are well-provided for at the shelter, with "tutors" or psychologists, and money to buy food etc. I wanted to speak to them about their experience but was afraid they would get upset. However, yesterday Emilia from Oxfam GB came by to interview some of them. Her questions were well-phrased and not too personal so the boys responded briefly without getting upset. I sat with two boys from Mali when they spoke in case they needed translation from French. I was struck by how much they spoke about their family back home and how they feel a loss of identity in coming here. "No one knows me here, no one knows my family," said Issa. With a smile he nodded at me and mio marito and said, "Now I know you." Issa wears an amulet around his neck. When I asked him if his mother gave it to him he nodded, eyes full of tears: for protection and luck. Modou from Gambia also works for us. He already has refugee status because his family was persectued by brutal dictator Yayhah Jammeh, in power for twenty years. He told me the real story of weeks of travelling from Gambia to Niger to Libya. Of the fear in Libya where he saw people get killed for the first time. The driver who left him at the border to Libya said: Don't look at an Arab woman or you will get shot. Don't say anything when they mistreat women and children, or they will kill you. Don't volunteer to navigate or captain the boat (for free passage) because when they discover you can't do it, they will kill you." In Libya for three weeks waiting to travel, he only left the holding centre to get food because of the danger of being assaulted by truckloads of "soldiers". "We are all ex-soldiers from the Gaddaffi regime," the human-traffickers told them. They take women and lock them in a room, then call their friends. "We have African women here," they say, and charge a fee. When I asked him about treatment of children, Modou wouldn't tell me. "Libya is a crazy place," he said. When at last his turn to sail came, they were given a sat-nav and nautical directions, and a mobile phone to keep in touch with the people-traffickers. "When you are three hours away from Italy, we will give you the number of the Italian coast guard," they said. "You must then throw all sateliite equipment into the sea so they don't know where the boat comes from." Modou knows that Europe doesn't want African migrants. But, he says, "There are thousands of Africans waiting for good weather to travel to Italy." As Renzi says, the history of humanity has been marked by migration flows... Europe needs a management strategy for the arrival and distribution of the migrants and also, most importantly, needs to address the underlying problems in the African countries from where they come, Libya included. Easier said than done, but this is a humanitarian emergency that is not being treated as such. The way these youngsters smile, you would never imagine their epic journey to Sicily via the harrowing hell experience of Libya. Barely eighteen, they are fleeing persecution under the Gambian regime of dictator Yayhah Jammeh, and post-war chaos in Mali and Sudan. They pay around €600 to travel from Libya to Sicily. The price of human life in so many cases.
Ahhhhh...You know summer is here when you catch the sweet scent of fried aubergines/eggplant on the air. These stuffed baby aubergines are one of my favourites of Sicilian cuisine. Make sure you get the chance to try these tasty morsels once in your life!
Like most Sicilian dishes, there are regional variations and family versions added to that. My mother-in-law makes the best ever :) These ones are stuffed with breadcrumbs (mollica), capers, pecorino cheese and a little fresh tomato sauce (passato) to bind the mixture together. The wonderful cipolla di Tropea (Tropea onions), marinated in white wine, vinegar and sugar and salt are then layered over them.
Temperatures are rising, and with it, tempers in the kitchen. So much so that the first cook almost assaulted the second cook last week. Almost, because in the chef's attempt to hit or headlock him, the second cook slipped out of his grip. Witnesses say the first cook was provoked by the second cook's gibes. Mio marito, so sorry to have to deal with such issues, did the necessary legal formalities.
So now we have a situation where the Second is afraid to work with the First Cook. I can understand: First Cook is a big guy. But Second Cook has now closed himself in a little world of his own and won't speak to anyone. Which makes collaboration in the kitchen slightly tricky.
Did I mention my husband's other job is with Oxfam Sicily? He's working on projects related to the hugely pressing issue of immigration into Sicily. From saving immigrants' lives to saving cooks in our kitchen. Imagine what keeps him up at night...
At the café. Sunday morning and I’m just about to pay
for my cappuccino when the owner at the till looks over my shoulder, says, “Are
you paying for a coffee, doctor?” And let his mate pay first. I smile
graciously (much more effective than fuming) and then pay for the two cappuccini
and cake we'd ordered for a birthday lunch. The owner realised his error and
gave me 50cents off. Half
the fun in cafés where there are traditional, uniformed barmen is listening to
the lively greetings in the morning. Buongiorno
avvocato; buona giornata, professoressa; caffè dottore? Good morning, Lawyer,
have a good day, Teacher, would you like a coffee, Doctor? (NB any flimsy old
degree entitles you to be called doctor in Italy).
However. We still don’t like queue jumping. Another friend who runs an English School
said she ordered two hot takeaway capuccini at her local café in a five minute
coffee break. The barman made the coffees and then let them stand before adding
the froth while he served a friend called Direttore
(Boss, as in head of business or school). But I'm a Boss too, my friend thought
to herself, and there’s my coffee going cold on the counter. The barman said, Don’t worry, sure I can just remake them…
Last weekend we parted company with our barman, who
has been with us since our rocky beginning six years ago. Through the winter he
worked Fridays and Saturdays, but recently the bar had been quiet on Friday
nights so mio marito had him come in
on Saturdays only.
He was a high maintenance kind of guy so last week he
handed in his notice saying once a week was just not worth it. He had tears in
his eyes, he said, which we couldn’t verify because this was a phonecall. He
ended by saying he would call in during the week to return the restaurant keys.
My husband turned to me and said: “Rubbish. He has a
new job and I know exactly where.”
Fact is, the barman duly brought the keys back – when no
one else was there. We only spotted them after noticing his cocktail mixers
were gone. Now, aside from the fact that from our point of view he took the
hint, it’s a shame our erstwhile resident diva didn’t have the balls to bid
farewell in person. Especially since his new employment is so close (mio marito was spot on).
It was a case of “This joint ain’t big enough for the
both of us”. Family members revealed he had complained that mio marito didn’t give him enough space
(now even I know that you don’t slag
a man off to his own family in Sicily). For example, why had my husband not
bought him that special aged Vodka that cost €40? Now with unemployment here at
over 40%, not too many punters would have been drinking that special vodka. And
speaking of Vodka, our former barman loved dealing out free shots to his pals,
so it looks like we’re going to be saving more than just his salary. We have it
on pretty good authority that his new employers will not look too kindly on
free shots; apparently he was working up quite a sweat last Saturday night.
Hell, I learnt a lot from him. I remember clearly
apprehending his expectations of me, which could largely be translated onto the
rest of the staff at the time. On opening day he told me
there was a leak behind the bar, which I appreciated, as joint manager with mio
marito. But he wasn’t simply informing me of that inconvenience, he just wanted
me to mop up. If only I'd learnt how to make more cocktails.