Today I have done some entertaining myself, for a change, and very happy about it I was, too! I didn't know these friends were coming till about 5 pm yesterday, so it was a bit of a mad dash to think what to prepare, go shopping and get cooking.
Last night I whipped up my "standby" chicken pâté, using chicken livers, sour cream [well, ordinary cream with a dash of lemon juice, as you can't get sour cream here; all cream here has a different texture from the kind on sale in the UK, by the way] and a goodly splash of mandarinetto liqueuer. Then I made a ragù bolognese to go with the obligatory pasta, mainly because it does not contain tomatoes, to which one friend is allergic; instead, you add a little diluted tomato purée to the mixture. For dessert I tried out Nigella's idea of using pandoro as the base for a sophisticated trifle and can report that it works very well. I'm sure the fact that the pandoro I had to hand contained limoncello helped the flavour along! [The recipe is in Nigella's Feast book.]
Then this morning I got some fine Parma ham from the superb Sfiziosa deli along the road. Parma ham needs no embellishment as part of your antipasti. No time to make my own bread, so pane arabo, also from the deli, had to do. I made some bites of fresh cherries and Asiago [a mild-flavoured, non-crumbly cheese] and also of cherries and chunks of mortadella [above] and plonked a dish of olives, together with one of fresh almonds, on the table as well. As a main course I served "Mediterranean chicken" , the recipe for which I posted here a few weeks ago. All was enjoyed and lunch lasted till 6pm!
I do hope a few people will vote! I'd really like to know what your perceptions are and, via the comments, whether I have, in some small way, managed to change any of them. If you have other ideas about Sicily, please let me know about those, too!
Simi thinks I should show you all our other "card corner" as well, and it's particularly for M... of Laugh More, Love More, so that you can see that I did get your lovely card, M., and it has a place of honour! Oh, and the second one down on the right, she insists I tell you, is Simi's birthday card from her mummy!
How the Italians love a game of tombola, especially at Christmas and on New Year's Eve! Time and again, after you have feasted, out come the cards and the bag or container of numbers. These days the cards come with little plastic shutters that you can slide over your numbers as they are called but at one time pieces of orange peel were used and you ate the oranges during the game. I never used to play "bingo " in Britain, but I can see the attraction of tombola as a family game during these festivities: it is convivial, as it is played around a table; any number of people, of any age, can play; and its fascination may go back to the ancient idea that man's fate is somehow linked to numbers. I had great fun, yesterday and on Sunday night, learning the Italian nicknames for the numbers - I don't even know them in English, apart from "legs 11" and "clickety-click" - and there is a list on the right here if you are interested, though there will be regional and local variations. Some of the names are comical, as in English, whilst others have religious overtones, such as Natale for 25, Santo Stefano, whose day it is today, for 26 and gli anni di Gesù [the age of Jesus] for 33. [How many British people would know that these days, I wonder?] I particularly like "le pantofole del Papa" [the Pope's slippers] for 88! Every now and then, a number would be called as "so-and-so's age" and the speed at which every family member worked out which number it signified astonished me, as I couldn't tell you the age of any of my cousins or second cousins! [So here is yet another indication of the closeness of the Italian family.] A game takes ages to set up, by the way: first there is great debate over who will "call", then another over the stakes, then the "pot" has to be worked out and finally everyone has to decide what number card [s] they want, so they will think aloud back to the last time they won and try to remember their "lucky" card number. So much good-humoured ribbing, reminiscing and fun are to be enjoyed during the playing of this simple game.
Now I want to begin to share with you some of the food I have been lucky enough to have been offered over the past two days: the peperoni in the first picture were dried in the sun during the summer and were then lovingly conserved in oil, strattù [tomato paste] and herbs. Then we have Linda's pasticci di verdure or little vegetable pies, filled with Swiss chard. The crimped edge may remind you of pasties in Britain, but the texture of the pastry is much softer, as the flour used here gives a very different result. The third picture shows a tomasino, a pastry filled with sausage and ricotta. More on the next post!
Hi, folks, it's Simi! You didn't think I'd stay off the computer today, did you?! I know I've already said "Buon Natale" but I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas on the day itself, which, as you see, is a very wet one in Sicily! We're late posting as my mummy's been out, which gave me a chance to catch up on my sleep under her duvet.
I'm afraid I wouldn't pose under the tree like Harvey and Holly or keep still in a hat like Mojo as Babbo Natale [in the form of my mummy] was so late coming and by the time I got this new yellow toy all I wanted to do was sit on the sofa in the warm and play with it.
My mummy thought James, in particular, would like to see our "Christmas card corner". She wants me to tell you that this is the only time of year she allows book titles to be partially obscured. She's so fussy about her books but I don't mind, as long as she's fussier about ME!
I hope you've all got lots of chewy sticks and new pully toys to keep you happy. I'll be back soon!
Sicily is treating us to one of its storms today and, as it is eleven days after Santa Lucia[13th December] Raffaele tells me that we are in November, for each day after that saint's day corresponds to a month. Therefore we have November weather today but yesterday was fine and sunny as befits October here.
Everything is open all day today and above is the Via Sacro Cuore at 10.30 am.
What is it about Christmas that makes everyone hypersensitive? Or is it just me? Earlier I bumped into a friend who asked what I am doing on New Year's Eve. When I said I didn't know, she said she was going to her sister-in-law's and would ask if I could come along, though it might be a bit squashed, space-wise. Now this person would not hurt me for the world, but I felt a bit like a burden that has to be shared among my group of acquaintances. I wouldn't have felt like that at any other time of year, but would have just asked her not to worry about me, which is, in fact, what I did say. I think I've got the single person's "Xmas pricklies" again: I'm not ungrateful to my wonderful friends here but when you are the single one you don't get to do the entertaining yourself on the main day of any feast. I think that's mostly true in the UK, too. And, although I love cooking and adore it when I have people to do it for, I couldn't possibly sit the large numbers the Italians invite, so what am I whining about?!
I'm also prickly because Amazon have lost my parcel of books [OK, they're sending a replacement but I won't have them for Xmas - it is Xmas!], a new ID disc I'd ordered for Simi isn't ready and because icing sugar here is sold in irritating 125 gr little packets instead of a nice, big box.
Now I've got that off my chest, here are the things I miss about Xmas in Britain:
1. The sound of the "Scouts post" Xmas cards dropping on the mat, usually on the last Sunday before Xmas. You feel loved because they all come together!
2. Baked, glazed ham. You can't get that type of ham or gammon joint here; it is just cured in a different way.
3. Sitting round the fire.
4. Outdoor Xmas lights - on houses and in gardens, I mean. There are plenty of Xmas lights in the streets here but you don't see many outside ordinary dwellings.
5. Good carol singers at the door [but in December and preferably on Christmas Eve!]
6. Being able to do all my shopping in one place in one go and collapsing into a taxi with it.
And here are the things I don't miss:
1. Roast turkey. It's OK but I think there are better meals in the world.
2. British women's magazines with their "countdown to Xmas" and "how to survive the visiting family" articles. They used to make me feel completely out of it and guilty because I did not have a family to cook for on the day. Mind you, even msn italia was featuring a "guide to surviving the mother-in-law" earlier today, so maybe things aren't that different here for some families!
3. People fighting over the last brussels sprout in the supermarket. If you are not British and don't believe me, take a look at this. Here the supermarkets are a little more crowded than usual and the queues for the meat counters are longer, but there are no endless check-out queues such as those you see in Britain. Probably this is because the Sicilians still use their small, trusted shops as well and do not rely on the supermarket for everything.
4. Being cold!
5. Carol singers who can't sing, don't know the words and who have no intention of giving the money collected to charity knocking on the door at all hours from November onwards.
6. Being "taxi-gazumped" outside supermarkets. You know: you order a taxi and when it comes the driver shouts your name and someone comes out of nowhere, yells "Yes!" and before you realise what is happening off they merrily go in your taxi.
Hmmm - that's pretty even.
Gina and her husband popped round this afternoon and were surprised to see all my cards on display. [Despite the above Scrooge-like ruminations, I have got lights and decorations everywhere.] They asked if some of the cards were from other Christmases! [I've mentioned before that Italians, in general, only send cards to those who live far away and even when they receive some, they don't put them out for all to see.]
I'll be less Scrooge-like on the blog tomorrow, folks!
These are pagnuccata, little balls of dough fried and covered with honey. Below, on the right, is torrone, a nougat of almonds, honey, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla. Long ago, the Arabs brought sesame seeds to Siracusa and when these are used, as on the left, the concoction becomes known as cobaita, or cubbaita in dialect, both words being corruptions of Arabic qubbayt. Many women make their own versions of all three delicacies.
I am a technical nitwit so have only today managed to upload the Blogpower banner, a wonderful idea of James's. [I couldn't get the banner to go where I wanted it in the sidebar, though!] So soon I'll be linking back to all who have been kind enough to link to me in the past few days. Thank you all for your pazienza!
Hello again, everyone, it's Simi here! I'd just like to tell you that I am eight years young today and my mummy says that means I am now a "big girl", only when we are having a cuddle she keeps telling me I'll always be her "little girl" - she gets confusing like that. I'm just like the Queen, you know, as I have two birthdays, one today and in February the anniversary of the day my mummy got me.
Today I got this green pully toy which I can drop into the tub while my mummy is having a bath, this kebab thingummy to eat and this rather fetching jumper. Eat your hearts out, catwalk girls - you've got competition on the dogwalk!
Winter's just full of excitement as on Sunday night mummy says Santa Paws is coming! I know it's my mummy, really - I'm not daft - but sometimes you have to humour your human.
This [which I am having to put on the next post] is the pavementless stretch of road I've mentioned before, connecting the bus terminus where one supermarket is with the location of another, larger one and several other stores including Bruno's Electronics and the petshop where I was heading this morning. Quite apart from the lack of pavement, just look at the state of the drainage! You have to choose between nearly drowning and getting run over if you try to walk around the water. For goodness sake, city planners, put bus stops outside all the supermarkets and build some pavements!
Se, per caso, leggono questo blog gli urbanisti di Modica, Vi prego di pensare un po' ai pedoni! Sarebbe tanto difficile costruire i marciapiedi e mettere le fermate d'autobus vicino ai supermercati? Questa strada è davvero pericolosa per chi deve camminare. Io vorrei che i miei lettori conoscano Modica come città moderna, non del terzo mondo!
Anyway, getting splashed along there put me in an irritable mood and this was not helped by the bus deciding it wasn't even going as far as the terminus, my supermarket points card being out of date and there being no one around to renew it [not that I use that particular supermarket much - I was just out of pazienza again].
Then the wait in the bank where I pay the rent was almost as long as in the post office, due to there only being one counter operating and the woman in front of me carrying out about fifty transactions [or maybe five very slow ones!] The wait was not the fault of the clerk but rather of Italian bureaucracy and the amount of print-outs and literal rubber-stamping required for every request. For something to do while I was standing there, I opened my bank statement which I'd brought out with me and was not pleased to see that I am being charged six to eight euros for each direct debit that goes out. When I tell friends here that there are usually no bank charges in Britain, provided you are in credit, they look at me in disbelief. I don't know why these relatively high charges should apply here; there are plenty of banks and so there is plenty of competition.
So now you know that I do have my down moments: maybe you are thinking that it doesn't take much to irritate me. And it doesn't, when it's raining, the transport is inefficient and I have been unnecessarily drenched! By lunchtime the sun was out and I was ready for the g and t which was beckoning me in the Altro Posto.
Off to Ragusa last night to attend a multi-lingual carol service. The approach to old Ragusa, or Ragusa Ibla, softly lit at night, is another sight that literally takes my breath away every time I see it, by the way. Lessons were read and carols sung in Italian, French, German, English, Danish, Dutch, Japanese and Spanish. Everyone took along some food and something to drink so we enjoyed a very jolly get-together afterwards, too. The Spaniards take the prize for sheer exuberance and energy as they were still dancing, shaking their maracas and singing "A Cantar en Navidad" when we left!
There is no tradition of door to door carol singing here.
And these jolly lights around the palm tree outside the butcher's lift my spirits when I walk in the other direction!
I have just been stared at, whistled at, beeped at and cheered by people in passing cars who couldn't work out what on earth I was photographing, so I didn't linger to get a better shot, dear reader. I seem to be getting a reputation as a very eccentric foreigner indeed!
This pretty arrangement, which appeared a couple of days ago, cheers me up as I walk past it on my way to the shops. Sorry about the car but there's never a time when there isn't one parked there!
Another development in the street - an ironic one for me as I love the place so much - is the building of the new post office premises up here, right on my doorstep. At least it will be easier for me to go there [I was going to write "pop in" but I can't imagine the service speeding up that much!] in the afternoon, when I'm told it's quieter. It does stay open through the siesta hours but in the summer I've just been too hot and bothered by 1pm to make my way down there. Let's hope they recruit more staff and order in some faster computers! I'll keep you - er - posted....
The water lorry arrived at 6pm yesterday, driven by a new gentleman who couldn't find the opening in the wall to direct the water into the cistern. It was pitch-dark and it's black as Hades and slippery down the slope leading to it anyway, so no way was I risking breaking my neck going down there. I was the only one in again, but luckily, just as I was beginning to panic, the upstairs neighbour arrived back and he was able to show the driver where the opening is. What's the betting the supply will run out again on Christmas Day?!
There are several things I've never been able to do: skip, sing in tune, get to grips with mathematics, play any sport or do anything arty. So I am quite pleased with my effort at a Christmas table centre here, using a cedro, some cinnamon sticks slotted through Christmas napkin rings, walnuts, clementines and an orange studded with cloves. Tomorrow I'll get around to drying out some oranges in a slow oven, which is what you are supposed to do before you stick the cloves in them.
I used to dry oranges in the microwave in Britain and the above was a preamble to telling you that I don't have one here. I haven't got around to getting one, and, having survived 18 months without such a contraption, I am wondering if I really need one. What did I use it for in Britain? I'm not a ready-meal sort of person [which is just as well because there are none here] so I used it for melting chocolate, cooking rice for one person and for a few recipes such as garlic mushrooms. Oh! - And for warming one of those herb-filled pads that soothe your aches and pains. Another consideration is the amount of electricity a microwave would use; I haven't an idea what that would be. Sorry to repeat myself if you've been following the blog, but if you haven't, you may not know that each dwelling has only 3 kilowatts of electricity all over Italy. [You can buy more kilowatts but then your tariff goes up.] So far [touch wood] this has not been a problem for me, though I have had to get used to the idea of thinking about how many electrical appliances I can have on at the same time; for example, I can't have the oven and the washing machine on together and I have to check before I put the electric kettle on as it apparently uses a lot of energy. So if I bought a microwave, that would be another appliance to worry about in this regard and also, as I would use it mainly for vegetable side dishes or certain antipasti, I'd probably want it on at the same time as the oven, wouldn't I? You don't see them in many houses here. What do readers think? How many of you find a microwave essential? Would you buy one if you came to live in a culture where they are used so little? [I think they are used more in the north, where you can get ready-meals, I read, but I'm sure they are not used to the extent that they are in Britain. A lot of women here use pressure cookers for vegetables and those things scare me to death!]
This is the last of my reminiscences of Modican Christmases past.
Christmas 1995 and I am back in my beloved Modica. This time I am staying with my journalist friend, Irma, her husband, Cesare and daughter Maria, who has graciously given up her bed for me.
I open my diary of that Christmas and see that inside the cover I have pasted one of those delicate little cards with a Florentine design on the front. On it Irma has written, "Per ricordarti un vecchio fatto" [= "to remind you of an old truth"]. This was the card she gave me with her Christmas present that year - a beautiful pen. She has been encouraging me to write a book since I first met her in 1992: "È come avere un bambino" [= "It's like having a child"]. Well, I am using the pen now, Irma!
Having been unable to get a flight to Catania, I had flown into Palermo and got a bus down to Modica the next day, Christmas Eve; this is a five-hour journey almost diagonally across the island and my co-travellers were in good spirits; most of them were, after all, going home to Mamma for the festivities. As always, I felt my own spirits lift as we neared Ragusa and then Modica in the winter sunlight. And there was dear Cesare waiting for me. I remember we did a detour for him to commit un furto [= a theft], in the form of "liberating" some rosemary from someone's garden, for we were to dine on lamb brought from Calabria by Irma's brother the next day, then we sped on to a wonderful welcome at the apartment.
In the evening we are invited to the house of Cesare's sister, Lucia. We arrive there after doing a tour of the homes of all Cesare's other relatives [which took a good hour or two] where we dropped his gifts off. Everyone receives a Christmas plate and I am presented with one, too. We greet so many happy people and I drink so much comforting, fresh coffee [in the tiny cups so that you can go on drinking it].
At Lucia's there is a 90-year-old nonna, whom I have met once before at Christmas 1993. Then, she sang the famous Italian carol, "Tu Scendi dalle Stelle" with the young Maria, who has a beautiful voice. Something about the combination of the old and young voices caught at my throat and I missed Mum so much at that moment. And that old lady sensed something, for she came over and hugged me. [This is a tactile nation and it's OK to grieve; it's also the most natural thing in the world to give comfort by holding someone.] Tonight la nonna remembers me and, to my delight, I discover she's a real "leftie"! I christen her "La passiflora di Modica" in my mind.
Lucia's Menu, 24.12.95 olives meats in aspic militti pasta focacce [of course!] carciofi arrosti [roast artichokes, cooked in a wood-burning oven] pandoro dolci [little pastries]
The roast artichokes are heavenly: you just suck the sap - very messy to eat but unforgettable.
A passable version can be made in a conventional oven, I have found. Just cut the stalks off the artichokes and carefully pull the leaves outwards a little. Sprinkle some coarse seasalt over them and brush the inside and outside of the leaves with olive oil. Place on a foil-covered roasting pan or tray and roast at 200 C till the leaves seem tender and are beginning to blacken at the tips [an hour or more - you may need to turn the heat down during this time]. Put out plenty of paper serviettes, make a mess and enjoy!
2006 update: I have recently learned that it is now fashionable to eat these right at the end of a meal, after the fruit and dessert. I've not tried them served at that juncture, but I suppose it is no different from the British eating their cheese, grapes and celery at the meal's very end. [The Italians, like the French, eat the cheese course, when there is one, before the fruit and dessert, whilst bread is still on the table.]
I was lucky enough to be invited to Raffaele's celebration last night so found myself whisked off to the Ristorante Le Magnoliein Frigintini, a village in the Modican countryside renowned for its olive oil. We dined like rather rustic kings on chips, pizza drizzled with the amazing oil ["whisky verde", as Raffaele calls it] and almond parfait which was, indeed, perfetto!
Here [centre] is my wonderful hairdresser, Raffaele, with his team. He celebrates his salon's twentieth anniversary today. I would like to thank him for being my mentor, psychologist and friend as well as my hairdresser, and for allowing his staff to act as my occasional chauffeurs and handypeople. Here's wishing you many more years of happy hairdressing, Raffaele!
Questo [al centro] è il mio parrucchiere meraviglioso, Raffaele, con i suoi collaboratori. Oggi festeggia il ventesimo anniversario del salone. Io vorrei ringraziarlo di essere non solo il mio parrucchiere ma anche il mio mentore, psicologo ed amico e di aver permesso ai ragazzi di essere, a volte, i miei autisti e uomini tuttofare. Ti auguro molti anni ancora di lavoro felice, Raffaele!
The Via Sacro Cuore gets festive and today I partake of chicken thighs and potatoes in olive oil and rosemary at the Altro Posto. [No, they don't pay me for mentioning them in this blog, in case you're wondering!]
Shops and businesses where you are a good customer are likely to give you a little Christmas gift here. Just now the doorbell rang and there was the lady from the computer shop - whose staff I drive crazy at least once a week with my queries and wails of "Help! I don't know how to....!!" - with a pretty package containing these delectable hand-made almond biscuits, among other goodies.
I'm continuing my reminiscences of Modican Christmases past today!
31.12.93: The last day of what had been a very sad year for me. Yet there was light at the end of it, for it had also been a year of new friendships in a country where I had always felt at home. Now, in Sicily, I was beginning to feel that I was home.
I remember it was a beautiful, sunny day, just like the warmest of spring days in Britain. I wrote in my diary that I felt "free and happy wandering around Modica Bassa in the sun". Modica Bassa ["Low" Modica] is the old town, but, should you come along the Corso between 1pm and 5pm, do not let the shuttered and somewhat crumbling* façades fool you! For at 5, when the town comes alive again, the shutters are rolled up to reveal the most modern and expensive of boutiques - some displaying shoes to die for! - ceramics shops and perfumeries, interspersed, it is true, with the odd tiny, dark tobacconist's from another world here and there. Modica Alta ["High" Modica] is older still, the remains of its castle and tower seeming to balance precariously on the rock way above the narrow streets.
My morning peregrination has to end as the shutters go down at 1 o'clock, and it is back to Linda's for lunch. Afterwards, the kitchen is again a hive of activity, for Linda and Chiara are preparing a paté**for the evening's festa. It is not, strictly speaking, a Sicilian recipe, but an Umbrian one, though I'm sure it has become an "honorary Sicilian" dish by now!
The paté is taken to zio Giorgio's as the party is to take place in his gym! There are to be about 30 people altogether, including the children of the various families. This is the lovely, inclusive nature of the Italian festa. These people would look at you in uncomprehending horror if you were to speak of babysitters on a night such as this!
Linda had explained to me that it is traditional to eat lentils on New Year's Eve and that the more of them you consume, the more money you will have in the New Year! And indeed, I have had frugal years following the one or two New Year's Eves since then when I have forgotten, or been unable, to eat my lentils! Incidentally, if you overdo the lentils and have the esplosioni the next day, your fortune doesn't seem to be affected. It's eating them in the first place that counts!
Once everyone has arrived and greetings, kisses and preliminary gossip have been exchanged, we are at last seated at a series of trestle tables, each gaily covered in bright tissue paper. Every family has prepared a dish for the occasion and a nominated male from each family walks down the length of the tables proudly serving everyone a helping - or two! A modern and sensible touch is that we eat off jolly, red, plastic plates. We don't need background music as everyone is talking loudly at the same time so that their friends three tables down can hear them. The toddlers are toddling, the older children are playing games and running up and down between courses and the babies are gurgling happily in their prams.
Here is what we ate that night: Menù del Capo D'Anno 1993
Chiara's paté 2 types of pasta al forno [baked pasta] served from the great, wooden containers used to mix the flour brodo [broth] of green lentils Linda's scacce pollo ripieno [stuffed chicken], served hot cold chicken various meats in aspic mushrooms in mayonnaise
Later out comes the fruit and, later still, the panettone. Just before midnight the sparkling wine is poured, we are all handed a sparkler and the lights are turned off. On the first stroke of 12 we all wave our lit sparklers and everybody kisses everybody else. Then the dancing begins! Buon anno.
IL PATÉ DELL'UMBRIA This paté, when made with the authentic ingredients, is almost black in appearance. In the UK I have managed to get it quite dark, but not as dark as when Chiara makes it. It must be spread on hard bread. Rye bread or French toasts would do very well. The paté freezes beautifully.
Put in a saucepan: 1 chicken liver a veal or pork spleen [As far as I know, regulations do not permit spleen to be sold in Britain now. However, a good butcher should be able to recommend a substitute.] 2 slices of mortadella 2 slices of prosciutto crudo 1 Italian sausage some chopped green or black olives some capers lots of chopped rosemary and sage 2 chopped carrots 1 onion studded with 1 or 2 cloves a bay leaf 2 crushed juniper berries a slice of lemon
Cover it all with some olive oil [as much as looks right to you!], add some seasalt and pepper, chuck in some strong red wine and a dollop of red wine vinegar. Bring it all to the boil and let it simmer a couple of hours. [Add a little more wine during this time if it appears to be drying or sticking.] Let it cool a bit, then pour it into a food processor and whizz it till it looks, well, paté-ish in texture. Refigerate it overnight.
The photo shows one of the "fortune baskets" that are sold as souvenirs here at this time of year. Note the lentils and the coin tucked in for luck, too.
* The façades are not so crumbling these days.
** For the pedantic among you, I am using the Italian spelling, not the French.
In my posts, A Love Affair Beginsand A Place Called Syracuse I told you a little about how I first came to know and love Sicily. Today, as I look around my apartment, now decorated for Christmas, I reflect upon how many of my seasonal ornaments and knick-knacks came from here in the first place, so each one brings back a flood of memories, as do the photos of other Christmases spent here. And I remember how very much those first Sicilian Christmases meant to me, at a time when I was facing bereavement and then a career crisis. So I thought I would tell you about them. I wrote these notes some years ago as part of the draft of a Sicilian cookbook which I still hope to write some day!
1993: A First Sicilian Christmas.
Linda, sensing how lonely I would feel facing my first festive season without Mum, had invited me over. Even the check-in staff were "holiday happy" that Christmas, in the days before the normal apprehension which most people feel about flying, if they're honest, metamorphosed into fear. The young man in front of me at the Alitalia desk had two suitcases - yes, suitcases! - which he wanted to take on board as hand baggage. When challenged, he just shrugged and declared, "Regali sono" [="they are gifts"] . And then he was given the OK. [I have, many times since then, when my luggage has been overweight , smiled and pleaded, "Regali sono" - which has been true! - and have rarely had to pay any excess.]
For some reason we all had to disembark for a customs check at Pisa and then get on again, so when we arrived at Catania we were treated as a domestic arrival. So there I am, waiting in the Arrivi Nazionali section for my luggage to appear, when Linda, every inch an Englishwoman in a raincoat and brandishing a very large umbrella, walks right in past the barrier and customs police. No one takes any notice.
Linda's son drives us through torrential rain to Modica and I know I am in Sicily when I am served delicious lemon tea made with fresh lemons.
On Christmas Eve everyone eats focaccia filled with spinach or broccoli [or, more often, cauliflower], sometimes accompanied by fish - the baccalà or salt cod - and various salads. [Focaccia, the filled flat bread, is familiar to most British people now, but it wasn't in 1993, and no British supermarket version can compare to those for sale or made at home here.] "Eat lightly tonight", counsels a TV presenter. On Christmas Day, most people eat boned chicken or turkey with a rice and pine-nut stuffing, but Christmas Eve is the main celebration. So we partake of the focacce [plural form] or scacce before attending Midnight Mass at the Capuchin Church, where we are, rather charmingly, put through our paces by the monks in a full rehearsal of the carols prior to the two-hour service!
Focacce can have many fillings, as I witnessed on my second Christmas arrival in Sicily, in 1994. That year I took the bus from Catania and very good time it made, driven by the "no messing" autista whom I christened my "Christmas driver". I arrive in Modica at 4.30 pm on Christmas Eve, to be met by Chiara and a hailstorm. When we arrive at the house, Papà Franco is already preparing the scacce, some filled with broccoli and others with a chilli mixture. I also remember Linda combining spinach and sun-dried tomatoes to fill scacce for the New Year's Eve of 1993. Once again I am refreshed by the glorious lemon tea and the scent of the lemons confirms that I am in Sicily.
At around 9pm on that Christmas Eve of 1993 the scacce are taken to the house of Franco's brother Giorgio and his wife Concetta. The menu consists of antipasti - delectable bite-sized morsels, including Concetta's olives; the scacce; various meats in aspic, much beloved of the Modicani and usually bought ready-prepared; melanzana, the delightful dish of aubergine, peppers, tomatoes and parmesan which is versatile enough to serve as main course or starter; and panettone, the Italian celebration cake. [I have heard British people say they find it dry, but maybe they have never had it dipped in the Vin Santo!] Then - for, just as you think you can't eat any more, Sicilians present you with yet another culinary surprise, and in this land so fond of miracles, you find that, miraculously, you can, just, make room for this next delight! - we are regaled with fruit, torrone [the rock -hard Sicilian version of nougat] and, of course, some Limoncello and Vecchia Romagna brandy!
I posted a focaccia recipe that will work with British flour here and you can see photos of scacce here and here.
Yesterday was a holiday, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which most people here regard as the real beginning of the Christmas season, putting out their cribs and decorations ready for that day. So I didn't post, as I thought I'd get mine up too, and spent most of the day having a fight with the Christmas tree lights. Now I find these temperamental at the best of times but in Britain, if you let the last few trail on a carpeted floor as you are hanging the rest of the string round your tree, it isn't usually a disaster; but it is on a tiled floor! Anyway, touch wood, we are "up and lit" now. [Incidentally, does anybody manage, after Christmas, to get their fairy lights back into the tiny boxes or packets they come in these days?]
From the Christmas I spent in America I got the idea of displaying photos of Christmases past as part of my decorations and friends here think it's a nice touch, too. So today, among other photos, I dug out one of the school nativity play I was in when I was about 5. I have never forgotten it, as I had to be a flaming cuckoo! My friend Mary Davies had"done a Violet Elizabeth" and screamed and screamed that she "must be Mary because my name is Mary" so there we all are, with Mary beautifully draped in blue whilst I appear to have a white sheet on. [Not only did I have to be a cuckoo, but for some inexplicable reason I had to be a white cuckoo!] Hmm! Well, seeing as it's Christmas, I'm in Sicily and it's 51 years ago, I'll forgive you, Mary Davies... Whilst putting up cards and these photos, by the way, it struck me that this is a "Blu Tack"-less country. It must be the teacher in me that can't imagine life without "Blu Tack" and I am sad enough to have friends send it from Britain! [It's a putty-like, re-usable sort of adhesive that doesn't leave any marks, for readers who don't know it.]
Above you may behold my Modican Santa. I think he's got to be Sicilian as he's rather bronzed, don't you?
In the lovely church of Santa Maria di Betlemmein Modica Bassa there is an exquisite terracotta presepe [crib] made in 1882. It has 66 statuettes and the onlookers at the nativity scene are depicted as Sicilian countrymen and women. It is an absolutely stunning sight. I went down to look at it for the first time in many years this week and the craftsmanship took my breath away, as it did the first time I saw it.
You will see a crib in nearly every Sicilian home at this time of year and some of the figurines will be family heirlooms. The custom of filling the crib with statuettes dressed in Sicilian costume continues and I think this must make it easier for children to identify with the characters. One friend, though, is buying one or two figurines for her five-year-old every week and, having been told that this week they will buy the "baby Jesus", little Francesca has got it into her head that her parents can buy her a baby brother at the same time! At least children here will remember what the Christmas story is really about.
Cribs also appear in shop windows, as in the second photo.
Here is the famous Florentine cut of steak, as served at the Altro Posto. It is simply cooked in oil and garlic and is served rare. The garnish you can see there is of prosciutto and peas. Sorry it's more meat, Ellee, but I am allergic to fish!
I just wanted to show you how the colour of my gin ai mirtilli has improved since I added some of the dark myrtle berries to the mixture. It will be ready for straining at the end of February, by my calculations. I was interested to read yesterday that in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy they make a similar concoction using grappa. You don't know grappa? It is a spirit made from grape residue and different regions, towns or even villages are all very proud of their own variety. In my opinion it is strong enough to blow your head off but I used to bring it back from Italy for my grandad who thought it was the best thing since sliced bread - well, better than that, really!
The hideously and inappropriately named "happy slapping" has arrived in Italy. There has been a conference about it in Modica and there was a TV debate on the subject on Sunday. In Catania a 16-year-old girl attempted suicide because of mobile phone pictures her former boyfriend had circulated. Opinion here is divided, as I guess it is elsewhere, between those who blame modern technological devices and those who think this is an inevitably updated version of the kind of cruelty that has always existed among young people. What do you think? And what can be done about it?
I gradually lost the will to live in the post office this morning as I waited 30 minutes to be able to post my Christmas cards and packets to non-Italian destinations. Yet again, there was only one prodotti postali and one bancoposta counter open, and this at the beginning of the month when the queue for the latter service snakes out of the door as people come to collect their pensions. Yet again, also, the whole slow process nearly ground to a complete halt because of the number of customers interrupting the clerks to ask for information or forms. This just makes me want to scream. You may imagine how the clerk and the people behind me absolutely loved me when I got to the counter with my post for the USA, Australia, New Zealand, France and 35 packages for Britain!
Then I walked back up and felt my spirits lift as I reached the traffic island and stopped to gaze at the palm trees in the sun. A city woman through and through, I feel a strange affinity for traffic islands - the sort where you can sit, listen to the roar of the vehicles around you and imagine where everyone is going. That is far more likely to restore my good humour than any amount of countryside and birdsong! And the colours and sheer exuberance of the produce on sale from the lorry opposite made my heart sing.
It's a pity that this oasis in the mad Italian traffic is spoiled by the graffiti on the seats. These are appearing everywhere of late, whereas there were hardly any to be seen when I first came here 14 years ago. Teenagers who buy cans of spray paint here now have to provide the shopkeepers with their names and addresses.
As someone who likes to call herself a cook, I am always interested in how two people can make the same dish, even to the same recipe, and yet there will be subtle differences in the result. With regard to pastry, this can depend on ambient temperature, how cool your hands are or even how stressed you are feeling on that particular day. Anyway, just as I am doing well for Sunday lunch invitations, I am doing well for donations of cotognata and I have quite a stash now. Here is the "McGina" version; it is slightly sweeter and, as you see, darker than Chiara's, but oh, both are lovely!
Cuts of meat and the size of them can also alter the outcome of a recipe. In Britain if I asked for beef to be cubed I would usually get pieces about 1 inch square. Here, even if I ask for the cubes to be small, this is what I end up with [second picture]. I just go with it now: Italian butchers like to put in un po' di muscolo, which they think adds to the flavour, and they are right; they know what they are doing. So the beef dish in the third picture - my "Prague Casserole" because I found the recipe and first tried it out in that beautiful city - has evolved in taste from when I made it there, then in Britain and now here. It has proved popular with my Sicilian friends and I think the larger cubes of meat improve it. The wonderful origano and strattù [tomato paste] available here help it along!