Sicily - the nicest place I’ve never been to

I’m going to have to visit soon, the reasons are piling up like a plate of freshly sliced prosciutto which my dad has prepared on a Sunday with the old bacon slicer we keep in his garage.

I’m making a list of reasons to visit Sicily and the tipping point will be when I believe the children are old enough to sleep well in a warm climate. My Sicilian fantasy started with an Italian colleague of mine whose opinion I value [he’s from Modena] insisting over and over again that Sicily has the best food in Italy.

The arrival of my little daughter and the subsequent lack of sleep pushed my travelling ambitions into dormancy and I no longer dreamt of fresh green figs pulled off a tree in Tuscany or Languedoc or anywhere else. It sounds cheesy but I love figs so much; ripe off the tree and on their own particularly or in river café easy Pasta with figs and chilli , this example, or wrapped in bacon, pancetta or lardo (figgy piggies) and roasted. I like them so much I’ve taken a photo of my favourite fig tree, a Datterino in Tuscany.

Back to Sicily and lately I’ve become strangely addicted to Inspector Montalbano on BBC4 (ham-acted Sicilian police drama in the style of Lovejoy/Bergerac), the scenery is amazing and he’s often out lunching on pasta and fresh fish. Increasingly I am coming across more ingredients and recipes and of Sicilian origin (or nearby Pantellaria, more of that later).

The most important are blood oranges which have given us a truly great season. It’s March and we’re just coming to the beginning of the end. In November we had the arrival of the small and sharp Moro variety and I was wondering what the fuss was all about when BANG! massive deep red, sweet sharp perfumed Tarocco.

I started saving the rind in a bag in the fridge to grate into the morning porridge with raisins or to use in the Christmas “season” (try not to eat it too often) Panettone Bread & Butter pudding which is not only a splendid dessert but also a leftovers breakfast of champions, big fat full champions who want to go back to bed.

If you can find it use Jersey cream and a large handful of Lexia raisins soaked in anything sweet which you like. I like the TTD Pedro Ximenez sherry from Sainsburys which is incidentally also a good boozy topping for Vanilla ice cream. The key to splendid pudding is lots and lots of blood orange zest finely and carefully grated with a microplane to avoid skimming knuckles/fingers. Serve to a greedy crowd with the rest of the bottle of well chilled sherry.

If you can’t be bothered or don’t have Panettone then the grated zest and a little icing sugar can also be stirred through mascarpone as a quick and indulgent dessert. Make it healthier by mixing it through fruit or as a topping for sliced up blood oranges and sprinkling with chopped dates, crushed pistachios and orange flower water.

I try and use a strip of blood orange zest to liven up a stew or soup, particularly good with beef.

The grated zest also adds a complexity to the classic Moorish influenced Sweet & Sour (Agrodolce) flavours which permeate Sicilian cuisine; Caponata (previous post), numerous agrodolce pasta dishes such as this example and other fish dishes (particularly oily fish) like this example which I know is Spanish), Couscous (another Arabian import) with tuna in olive oil, raisins, pine nuts, parsley and blood orange juice.

And then we have the Castelvetrano olive. It’s a method of production which originated in the Castelvetrano region of Sicily and is typical laidback Southern Italian. Instead of de-bittering and then washing off the soda repeatedly to promote a fermentation which takes time and effort and then adding salt as is done for the Sevilliano method of olive production, the Castelvetrano method just involves pouring salt into the barrel which contains the Olives and the soda.

The result is a fresh green olive with no acidity which is ready to eat sooner rather than later.
The most popular variety is the Nocellara del Belice, grown in the Belice valley smack bang in the middle of Castelvetrano. It’s an early harvest olive with a mild buttery flavour and meaty flesh.
It looks something like a tiny shiny Granny Smiths apple.

Its nuanced salty sweet taste means that it pairs brilliantly with sparkling wine (Champagne, Prosecco, Franciacorta if you can find it) and is popular with those who find many olives too strong in briny flavour including my kids. The Castelvetrano olive works well with Burratta or Buffalo Mozzarella, in fact any good Mozzarella and can be thrown into a dish where you’d like olives but don’t want to overpower other delicate flavours. Having said that they also sit well in dishes where stronger olives thrive; eggs, lamb, pasta sauces, even Caponata. Possibly not Tapenade where you need some welly from the Olive.

Probably my single most used product from Sicily are the cherry tomatoes which, like the oranges, come from AgriCoop. They can be astounding on their own eaten as a snack, roasted in the oven with whatever, or added to almost anything that wont cover their sweet deep flavour. I wonder if it’s the “terroir” that makes the difference as the Spanish tomatoes taste of nothing in comparison. I’m not a fan of hydroponically grown fruit and vegetables, it might be psychological but how much flavour is there in rockwool compared to volcanic earth ?

Sicilian avocados are also rather good and combining the 2 (and adding a bit of pork) produces my favourite quick dinner; Avocadoes with Bacon vinaigrette on toast. It’s from Nigel Slaters Real Fast Food.

Like many of the ingredients I’ve mentioned previously and myriad others I’m extremely fortunate and constantly grateful to have the Unicorn Grocery in Manchester within driving distance.

Back to the med and a notable mention to Pantelleria (’daughter of the wind’ in the original Arabic Bent el-Riah), which I shall endeavour to day visit on the same fantasy trip. A small island 60 miles southwest of Sicily which produces the best, most fragrant and intoxicating salted capers [the Modena man buys them for me from Esselunga supermarkets in Italy and sends them over] and some stonking dessert wine; Moscato di Pantelleria which is fresh and bright and Passito which is dark and luscious (and linked to Ambrosia in Greek Mythology). The wine is made from the local Zibibbo grape (another arabian import, Zibib translates as grape). Its also renowned for dried fiogs and where there are dried figs there are fresh figs and where there are fresh figs there is an idiot with a greedy look and a camera smeared with fig nectar.

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Italian, Olives, Recipes, Lifestyle