For my first meal in Catania, Sicily I head to Razmataz where I meet Stefania, a Catanese who has recommended the restaurant. The dishes change daily, and today she recommends the Cous Cous a l’Aeolian (the small volcanic archipelago just off the coast of Northern Sicily). Not usually a fan of cous cous, I follow her advice. When it arrives I am glad I did. It is the lightest, fluffiest, and most delicious cous cous I have ever eaten. Just what you may imagine fluffy white clouds might feel like to bite into, light enough to be blown off the plate in a strong breeze. The vegetable cous cous is delicately flavoured and topped off with a dash of tangy orange. For dessert, Stefania is generous enough to share her Japanese cheesecake with me, also very soft and fluffy, and topped off with a purple scoop of yam gelato, a recipe brought across from the Philippines.
As we chat Stefania, who works for the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, explains that the nearby conflicts and instability in Syria and Egypt have meant increased tourism to Sicily, seen as a safer option for people craving a taste of North Africa or the Middle East. Sicily had long been a cross roads of trade and empires of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe, and this has given the food a diverse influence of flavours and dishes that continue till now. Stefania goes on to tell me that the international spy game has changed with the times, being much more a job involving IT and online information. It may be easier to track down criminals through their online activity, in some cases even through blasé Tweeting, but on the flip side, secret agents also find it harder to stay secret, with technology such as retina ID at airports making it much more of a challenge to stay undetected. The technology takeover makes me appreciate the tactile, sensual nature of food all the more.
Waking up on my second day in Catania I head to i dolci di Nonna Vincenza (Amore per la Tradizione) in Catania for breakfast and a Sicilian classic, Cannoli al Pistacchio and at the same time pick up a bar of my favourite type of chocolate – Cioccolato di Modica. Still made today in the Aztec tradition of gritty cocoa combined with unrefined sugar to give it a grainy texture and extremely satisfying crunch when bitten. Later I also pick up a Bignè al Pistacchio at bar Savia, the only place that is unanimously recommended by my Sicilian friends. Fueled by glucose and on the search for more sweet treats I travel down the coast to Noto to visit Cafe di Sicilia, founded in 1897, where I have a degustacion of three types of granita – basil, coconut, and mulberry.
After this indulgence, its now about time to have a go at making some of these dishes, so next stop is Syracuse, founded by the Corinthians and once the largest city in the ancient world. With the help of Fiora who has learnt the recipes from her mother and grand-mother we make Parmigiano a la Aubergine, Celery bulb soup, fresh pasta, porcini risotto, and of course Cannoli. If you fancy having a go yourself take a look at the recipes section for instructions.
Along, with the cuisine, one of the other dominating features of Sicily is Mt Etna, the active volcano, that formed at the same time the island rose up from the Mediterranean around 100,000 years ago. Tectonic activity continues to shape Sicily, with South-East Sicily since regularly having suffered from Etna’s destructive forces. Though as Mt Etna destroys life, it also gives life, looming over nearby Catania, the volcanic lava and ash is extremely nutrient rich, and this provides for plentiful crops of grapes, fig, pistachio, lemon and more. A climb up the slopes of Mt Etna also reveals an abundance of lovely Porcini mushrooms, perfect for making risotto and numerous other tasty dishes.
The ying and yang power of Mt Etna seems to pervade the whole island, with the contrast of lightness and dark all around. Around Etna the paving stones of nearby villages are near black, forged from heat and lava from eruptions, yet you’re never far from a place to enjoy the refreshing cooling pleasure of granita or gelato. I feel it too in the character of Sicilians I meet, their depth of commitment to family ties and community roots, sprinkled with a warm manner and quick sense of humour.
Walking around the island you come across lemons, figs, freshly caught fish, honey, and pistachios everywhere. The local ingredients define the food, and this connection to source is also felt in the family values of the island, with the two joining most perceptibly as everyone sits round the table to enjoy meal times together.
I feel grateful to have savoured the feast provided by Mt Etna and my Sicilian friends and guides, and hope you too will be able to try some Sicilian food by cooking recipes on this blog or on a visit to the island yourself.