Drive the country from coast-to-coast searching for the best in street food, cheese, convent pastries and cannoli. Ishay Govender-Ypma explores Sicily on a culinary road trip. This article was written for SAA Sawubona inflight magazine, June 2017.
A ghostly mist settles over Erice on Sicily’s hilly western face, once a medieval fortress town and the site of a pagan cult dedicated to the Greek goddess of fertility, Aphrodite, or Venus, to the Romans. A harrowing night-time drive “the wrong way up”, I’m later told, leads us to the characteristic cobbled streets and labyrinth alleyways where we settle for a few days. The next morning the ominous mist lifts enough to reveal rolling hillocks and jagged rocks tumbling into the frothy, bright-blue coastline below from the ruins at the fort. Howling winds suspend the cable car service for another day. It looks like we’ll be driving down to Trapani – this time, we pick the kinder road.
It’s here in Erice, that former convent orphan, Maria Grammatico set up her famous pastry shop in 1964, two years after leaving the convent at age 21. When her mother could no longer afford to take care of a young Maria and her sister, they were sent to the convent where they laboured in Dickensian conditions, sometimes over 18-hour days. It was also at the convent that Maria was schooled in the art of almond pastry making; grinding the flour by hand, stirring pastes in gigantic vats for hours on end and scrubbing trays and pots.
“I put in a long apprenticeship at the San Carlo: for the first three years I did nothing but scrape the pans. They had to be perfectly clean; if I made a mistake I got a rap on the knuckles,” Maria Grammatico says in in Bitter Almonds – Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Childhood by historian Mary Taylor Simeti. In Italy, the nuns are the keepers of the ancient almond flour cookie and cake recipes. Profits generated from the baked goods sold were critical to keeping the convents afloat and particularly so during the post-war depression. When Maria opened her shop, some say as an act of revenge against the cruelties suffered at the hands of the nuns, she placed those delicious secrets on display.
When I meet her, now 78, at the shop’s second premises in Via Vittorio Emanuele that she moved to in 1975, she ushers me into her pristine kitchen. In front of Maria is a tray of elegant cookies filled with fig paste called the buccellati that she twists deftly in a knot and sprinkles with hundreds and thousands. Ornately painted marzipan frutta or fruit are piled on fancy silver trays. Precious pistachio nuts, called “green gold”, grown in the shade of Mount Etna in the east of the country are dusted over some pastries. A mixed box of cookies to gift is weightier than three boxes of chocolates of the same size. I decide to eat my fill while driving through Sicily with my husband.
A Movable Feast
It was Goethe, in 1786, who said that to see Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all. “For Sicily is the clue to everything,” he continued. Today, the shadow of the mafia, a reputation that remains hard to shake, follows the country. Locals become understandably annoyed when the mafia is mentioned as a foreigners’ first association with Sicily. It’s not without irony that roving street bands play strains of Nino Rota and Carlo Savina’s masterpiece from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, one of the most lauded big-screen gangster movies, romantising the Sicilian mafia in the U.S. The bands weave between diners on the cobbled square of the fish market in Catania where families gather in the humid evenings to feast of a bounty of seafood. At Trattoria Il Mare, the fresh fish crudo is cut paper-thin, the crab legs are sweet and the lobster still wriggling in tanks – diners chose from a selection available each day.
I travel from Catania in the east down to Syracuse, Ragusa and Noto in the south, to the western mountains of Erice and the bay of Trapani, the flash of Palermo in the northwest and to the craggy tops of the resort-town Taormina in search of the tastes that define the land. A constellation of socio-economic reasons has kept Sicily the poorest region in Italy and it’s visible to tourists in the run-down buildings and perpetual listlessness in the countryside. The food, like most of Italy’s best, has peasant origins. Pasta alla Norma, the classic and definitive dish of Catania combines the holy trinity of sun-sweet tomatoes, aubergine and salty aged ricotta – aubergine being the poor man’s meat. Arab influences punctuate the Sicilian plate – think saffron, marzipan used to make frutta, cassata topped with candied fruit, ricotta-filled cannoli, seafood couscous from Trapani and pasta dishes featuring sardines, pine nuts and raisins. “I’d say we’re Sicilian first, and then Italian,” says Aureliano Garozzo, a food guide with Street Eats, who takes us around Catania. At Antica Rosticceria, a hole-in-the-wall takeaway in the market, opened in 1910, Agatha Fisichella and her son Roberto have taken over her late husband’s great grandfather’s stall. Table de calda (hot table snacks) may include rice and cheese filled arancini, cipollina (pastry pockets), scacciata (cheese calzone), thick-based pizette or sfinsione, chickpea panelle and potato croquettes. These hearty, €1.20 bites fortify the idea that Sicily must surely be one of the original street food capitals of the world.
Ricotta and Gelato – Lessons in La Dolce Vita
Cannoli in Sicily, both ubiquitous and adored, are wholly dependent on the ricotta that fills them. The feather-light clouds of curds are whipped with sugar and sometimes studded with dark chocolate nubs. You’ll find cannoli in bakeries, cafés, family lunch tables, markets and in kiosks that serve a single item – crisp pastry shells piped with ricotta. To understand how the cheese, and other local varieties are made, I visit the family-run Cilone Di Giovanni Tumino in Ragusa, where a heritage Modicana breed of cow provides milk that Maria, the matriarch on the farm, works by hand. It’s something she’s been doing since age nine, she says. Maria serves guests a lunch spread second to none – just like “mama made it”. She decks a table with ten cheeses and homemade focaccia; sweet ricotta fills silken ravioli pockets, grilled pork and sausage follow and finally, her mini cannoli arrive. Red wine, Francesca Giovatto, my guide says, serves as both aperitif and digestive. “You never end with a coffee with milk,” she warns. “Espresso is fine.”
Thirsty Sicilians know to grab a green or orange-coloured mandarin sciroppi or soda from the kiosks around town – a tradition from the old days at the markets where men would sell a refreshing drink of water to patrons. Some play a game of drinking the soda before the bicarbonate of soda poured in results in it flooding the counter. A local in Palmero tells me that the drink, which resembles an antacid in this form, is the perfect digestive. It’s acceptable to burp loudly, she adds.
A tradition I prefer to examine is the gelato and granita Sicily is so famous for. The baroque city of Noto, honey-hued limestone and neat gridways through the magnificent main gate or Porto Real, houses Caffè Sicilia, a forth generation-run café opened in 1892. It serves daring flavours like tomato and basil and saffron with orange rind. Many insist it’s the best in the country. The almond and coffee granita – silky smooth shaved ice, made with mountain snow in some cases – is a treat paired with a large, buttery brioche. To sit at a café and watch life unfold while indulging in ice cream on a warm morning – there can be few things more redolent of the good life. “Not every day, though,” Francesca advises of local sensibilities, “Just some days.”
- Admire the main duomo (cathedral) in each city – it’s usually the liveliest section in town.
- Take a street food tour in Catania and Palermo – www.streatpalermo.it/en
- People-watch from a pavement café while sipping an iced coffee or an espresso
- A visit to the archaeological park with the Greek amphitheatre and take a boat ride in Syracuse.
- Buy chocolate in Modica, which is made in the ancient Mesoamerican fashion. Book a tour at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, established in 1880 www.bonajuto.it