Wednesday, December 31, 2008
In Italy people believe that if you wear red underwear [or green if you are in Sardinia] on New Year's Eve it will bring you luck. So this morning I took me shopping!
By the time I got to the shop where I bought the bra - one I hadn't been into before - the bancomat / link system was down all over town. I didn't have enough on me to pay for the bra and its companion [which I'm not showing you!] in cash and it never occurs to me to carry my chequebook around these days, so I offered to go back this afternoon when hopefully the machines would be working again or I could have withdrawn some money over the counter in the bank. But they wouldn't hear of it, wrapped the goods, asked me to pay them when next I'm passing and wished me a Happy New Year - all this without even asking for my name or phone number! That is a shop which will definitely get my trade again.
You must eat lentils this evening if you want some money in 2009. Don't forget, now!
Lastly, you should make love tonight if you want your affairs of the heart to go smoothly in the New Year. As I said, I'm leaving nothing to chance....
HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Above you see the results of a morning spent making apple chutney, with Rosa as the willing "gofer". Even with 2 of us plus food processor the whole operation took 4 hours. I use a Jennifer Paterson recipe from a book called Feast Days, published long before her incarnation as one of the Two Fat Ladies. I like this recipe because it includes fresh dates and I found some lovely, plump ones in the supermarket a few days ago.
All was going well until it was time to ladle the mixture into the jars, when we realised we were going to be a jar short. [Yes, I do usually prepare and sterilise more jars than I think I will need but I miscalculated this time - or the Sicilian apples give a better yield.] I hastily found the preserving jar on the right and sterilised it but the trouble is now it is time to seal the jars and I have run out of rubber preserving rings.
About half an hour ago I remembered I had an unopened jar of Foie Gras in the fridge and that it is a similar type of jar; therefore I thought I would be clever and use the ring from it. [Yes again, I know you should use a new one each time but I would have sterilised it and replaced it on Friday as I have better things to do tomorrow than go rubber-ring-hunting!] But can I get the goddam jar open?! No, I just can't and I have tried every trick I know and every Lakeland gadget [Lakeland is a UK kitchen shop famous for inventing problem-solving devices] at my disposal. So please, before I get myself into a "Mr Bean" situation of smashing the wretched jar and binning the contents in order to get the ring, does anyone know how I can open the thing?!
Rosa was very interested in the whole process and went home with a [ringless] jar of chutney onto which I popped a pretty label and a nice Christmasy "hat" before she left. Leafing through my "Preserves" cookbooks, she came across a recipe for piccalilli and was much taken with a picture of the finished product, so I translated the recipe for her and gave her dollops of the necessary spices which are difficult or impossible to find here: mustard powder [impossible], ginger [difficult] and turmeric [difficult]. I hope the recipe works for her!
Monday, December 29, 2008
Sunday, December 28, 2008
What was the last book you bought?
Estasi culinarie, about the dying days of a famous food critic. He's not a very endearing character and the story is told through the viewpoints of people he is related to or has come into contact with. It is the first novel of Muriel Barbery, a French novelist who has been translated into Italian. Her second novel, L'Eleganza del riccio, is selling well here.
Name a book you have read more than once.
I recently reread How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn. I read it for the first time when I was 16. A few weeks ago, I felt I wanted to hear some Welsh voices and , in rereading this, I could hear them in my head! Of course, it portrays a Wales that has long gone. I remember my father's favourite line from the book was, "How beautiful is sleep."
Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life?
I'm sure that many have but two that come to mind are La Peste by Albert Camus, which I first read for French A level and The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart. I remember reading the Camus just after the Aberfan disaster, when I had already begun to doubt the existence of god. The second book made me realise how important it is to fight prejudice the moment it begins - and it begins insidiously.
How do you choose a book, eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews?
Usually by reviews or personal recommendation but jacket blurb influences me if I am browsing in a bookshop.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Mainly non-fiction, especially biography. The most fascinating biography I've read this year is Daughter of the Desert - The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell. I had heard Bell's name but confess I knew nothing about her until I read this book. She was instrumental in the founding of the country we now know as Iraq and, whatever you think of imperialism, it has to be admitted that she foresaw many of the problems of today's Middle East.
What's more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?
I think the quality of the writing just has the edge! For instance, I can't normally stand detective fiction, but can happily read a Sherlock Holmes story or a Camilleri. I'm not very keen on descriptive writing.
Most loved / memorable character
I can't name just one!
Jo in Little Women; Miss Wilberforce in South Wind; Sarah Burton in South Riding; Jess in A Long Way Down. Oh, dear, that's all women! Professor Bhaer in Little Women; Bertie Wooster because he is such a chump that you can't help liking him; Mr Micawber because his attitude to money is like my Dad's [and my own]; Bertie, the 6-year-old with the awful mother in Alexander McCall Smith. But I think my favourite character of all time is Aunt Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. [Another woman - sorry, James!] If ever I want cheering up, I just turn to the passage where David tries to introduce himself: "Go along! No boys here!"
Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?
Dickens - The cricket on the Hearth
Márquez - Living to Tell the Tale [the first volume of his autobiography, which I am finding it difficult to get into.]
O. Cappellani - Sicilian Tragedi [a Sicilian "black comedy" which I can't wait to start!]
Estasi Culinarie [see above].
The Raymond Briggs Father Christmas books - because their gentle humour sends me to sleep happily.
What was the last book you read and when was it?
The Return, a very well-researched novel about the Spanish Civil War, by Victoria Hislop. I couldn't put it down and I finished it last week.
Have you ever given up on a book half way through?
Very rarely. Last year I did give up on The Pale Horseman, the second volume in Bernard Cornwell's Alfred series. I'd enjoyed the first one, but this sequel was just too "masculine" for me!
I cannot finish this without mentioning the whackiest book I have read all year. It is To Noto by Duncan Fallowell, the story of the author's drive from London to Noto, in Sicily, in the eighties. It is full of name-dropping [only I don't know any of the names], very funny in places and decidedly odd. And it ends in Palermo!
Saturday, December 27, 2008
On Christmas Eve I was again invited to celebrate with friends and what a feast we had, reader: many people do not eat meat on 24th December so the pasta was seved with scampi. [I cannot eat fish so had plain pasta.] Also on offer were Linda's famous aita [chard] pies, olive bread fresh from the oven and ricotta baked in pastry [the latter not shown]. Next there was dentice fish which had been baked in salt and I took along a chicken dish which I have shown you before, pollo alla Irma. After this, a fresh fruit salad in the biggest container I have ever seen arrived, followed by a Christmas tree cake baked by Linda and Chiara and traditional biscuits: the honey biscuits at the back are called nucatoli and the S-shaped ones, which are filled with fig jam, are mustazzole. There was also cobaita or giuggiulena in dialect, made with sesame seeds and then came the panettone and liqueurs.
We finally opened our presents at 2 am and, just to show you that I really am alive and kicking, here I am, draped in my finery!
My Christmas Day was rather different this year as I was delighted to be invited to Christmas lunch with Rosa and her family. They are, originally, from Albania so the food mixed the two cultures: you can just see bollito on the left, behind the salad, and there was the tenderest veal cooked with garlic and herbs [on the right of the table]. There were focacce filled with broccoli, tomato and onion and cheese plus a wonderful ham and salame pizza made by Rosa's daughter. Then the freshest mandarins to finish along with more panettone!
As we were chatting, I learnt more of the family's story and, as it it is a heartwarming one, I will share it with you now: some years ago, Rosa's husband came to Sicily, perfectly legally, in search of work, which he found. He learnt Italian quickly and, once he was settled, wanted to send for Rosa and his three children. However, he could not quite fulfill the financial requirements for bringing the whole family into Italy at that time, so found himself having to make an agonising decision: which child would have to wait? Finally he decided to send for Rosa and his eldest child, a girl at a vulnerable age, plus the youngest child, a boy. The middle child, a girl, was left with a relative but when this relative became ill, she was taken in by a family she didn't know well. Rosa and her husband of course grieved for their second daughter and after a few months Rosa was so upset that she ended up in hospital. Eventually officialdom heard of the family's plight and for once officialdom showed that it had a heart: the Comune, realising that this was a hard-working family who wanted only a chance to give their children a better life, made up the financial shortfall and, after a separation of nine months the middle child was able to join her parents. I watched a video of a welcome ceremony for her held by her school and there the whole family are, crying for joy at being reunited and surrounded by friends and those who had helped them.
Everyone who emigrates leaves something behind: a house full of memories, a place with which you are familiar or even your aspirations but sometimes it is necessary to leave a loved one behind and I cannot imagine what this feels like. In Britain I taught many women from war-torn countries who did not even know whether their loved one at home was alive or dead. So it was heartening, especially at Christmas, to learn of this immigration story which has a happy ending.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
I'm always pleased when I make a new food discovery [new to me, that is] even if it is not a Sicilian product and yesterday in our deli I discovered lard d'Arnad, a salume produced to an age-old method in Arnad, Valle d'Aosta. It may not look much but after its long brining in herbs it tastes wonderful - ideal antipasto food on bruschette or rye bread.
Yesterday I was also pleased with myself because I managed to walk as far as Raffaele the hairdresser's for the first time since becoming ill and I am now a redder blonde. It was great to be out and about under my own steam in the Via Sacro Cuore, not least because I was beginning to wonder how I was going to do my Christmas shopping without the recipients of my presies knowing exactly what I was purchasing for them, as my friends were kindly taking me whenever I needed to go there [and very grateful I am].
Today has been a day of unexpected gifts and kindnesses, beginning with this pretty "angel" plaque from Rosa [the miracle cleaning lady] and her family. I need all the guardian angels I can get so I was both touched and delighted to receive this. Then Cathy my boss turned up with a most welcome bottle of gin and she also brought along the white torrone, a gift from the manager of the Altro Posto who had apparently been asking after me. Isn't that fantastic? It seems so long since I visited my favourite bar but I can't quite make it that far yet. I'll be there soon, though, Giorgio - don't go bankrupt in the meantime!
At 5pm the door bell rang and it was the kind neighbour who visited me in hospital and brought me some of her marmellata when I came home. I'd left an English Christmas card for her and her family and she was so glad to have it that she came round bearing a bag of mandarins and lemons from her trees plus a plate of her home-made goodies; I couldn't resist showing you a close-up of these and they are, anti-clockwise from the front: cobaita [a bit like torrone but covered with sesame seeds], Modican chocolate [made without dairy products], honey biscuits and [centre] almond torrone. I very much appreciate the time, trouble and love that goes into preparing such a gift.
Nothing could really blight such a day when we have had glorious sunshine as well but the Post Office nearly managed it: in I went to post just two packages for delivery within Italy and, ever the optimist, I thought I'd be quick as I'd got ticket 171 for the postal counter and noticed that the customer with number 168 was already being served. In my Christmas cheeriness I had not bargained for the inevitable three customers who queue-jump to ask for "a little piece of information" which takes as much time to explain as the splitting of the atom, what with the clerk not knowing the answer and going off to have a conference with his colleagues about it, then the customer wanting more and more details... After three and a half years, why these customers are attended to out of order still mystifies me. I also saw that a new notice has appeared on the postal counter, informing customers that now the clerk is only allowed to deal with five transactions per customer at any one time. After that, you have to get another ticket and wait all over again! [Thank goodness I posted my 30 or so items of varying weights to the UK last week!] It makes no sense, as if someone has one heavy parcel that they want to send by registered post, that alone takes about half an hour. And there are plenty of these! A lot of them are elderly gentlemen and they all post enormous boxes of uniform size and shape to the mainland. What can be in them, I wonder? Sicilian food for the folks up north?? Anyway, after "only" about 20 minutes or so, my tasks there were completed and I limped off [rather jauntily, I thought] to enjoy the seasonal atmosphere of Sacro Cuore once again.
Finally tonight, behold, reader, how beautifully the shops gift-wrap for you; in this case you don't even have to find a label!
Monday, December 22, 2008
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Hairdresser no. 2 has cleverly "grown" these sparkly leaves among the other plants in this container.
I found this at Cherie's Place:
1.What is your favourite Christmas carol/song?
Hark the Herald Angels Sing: I find it uplifting and, as everybody sings it loudly, no one notices if you are off-key.
3. Do you have a cut tree, live tree or an artificial tree?
Artificial and, as I am rather sentimental about it, I brought it with me from the UK.
4. Eggnog, mulled cider, or hot chocolate?
None of those - I'm a g&t lady.
5. Do you decorate your house with lights?
Just my tree and in a crystal bowl I have I put baubles topped with flickering lights - quite effective.
6. Do you write a Christmas letter?
This year I did and sent it electronically to most people. My handwriting is terrible now!
Yes , and I get really miffed with those who don't send them!
8. What is your favorite Christmas story/movie?
I reread A Christmas Carol and A Child's Christmas In Wales every year: the line, "There are always Uncles at Christmas " in the latter takes me right back to childhood. The movie has to be Little Women - the version with Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarondon as the mother. I cry every time!
9. Have you ever made a gingerbread house?
No, I'm not sufficiently dextrous.
10. Poinsettias or holly?
Poinsettias - we get enormous ones here! I like the cream ones as well.
11. Do you display a nativity scene?
Yes, one you can light with tealights that I got from Lakeland [a UK kitchen shop]. Here nearly every household displays a crib and often the figurines are family heirlooms.
13. Ham or turkey?
Turkey but I used to hate eating it for days afterwards in Britain! I'd love to do a baked ham for friends here but the hams are cured in a different way and are not suitable.
14. In what languages can you wish someone a Merry Christmas (without cheating)?
English, French, Italian, Spanish, Welsh and Czech.
15. Do you know all the words to Jingle Bells?
Yes - Italians are always asking me to teach them the words! They persist in singing it as "jingle bell" / jingles bells", though.
16. Do you put presents under the tree?
No, I've no pazienza, so I open them all as soon as I get them!
17. How do you eat a candy cane?
I've never eaten one.
18. What is your biggest holidays pet peeve?
British women's magazines going on ad infinitum about "How to survive your family at Christmas" or "How to cater for 50, 000". It never occurs to them that there are people who would give anything to have a family to host and cater for or that Christmas is a difficult or sad time for some.
19. What is your favourite Christmas tradition?
Carols from King's on Christmas Eve. I used to listen to it on radio 4 but now I watch it late on BBC World. Here in Modica, the "city of 100 churches", my favourite tradition is listening to all the church bells ringing at midnight.
20. What was the best present you ever got for Christmas?
"Fluffy" the teddybear. I still have him!
Saturday, December 20, 2008
I'm very pleased with the way this dish, another one from the Cucina del Sole book, turned out: simply chicken braised with onion, wine vinegar and capers, it is very easy to prepare. I added some just browned zucchini for the last 20 minutes but you could add other vegetables suggested in the book or none at all. If you like the aroma of capers, as I do, then you will conclude that your kitchen smells lovely whilst this dish is cooking!
Friday, December 19, 2008
To the large butcher's shop this morning to order duck. I have not tasted duck since I left Britain as you never see it on sale here but this butcher had told Irma that he will be stocking it next week. And behold, the butcher had had the bright idea of using a real, antique carretto siciliano as the centrepiece of his decorations. With his permission, I photographed it as best I could.
The Ancient Greeks brought the concept of a cart shaped in this way to the island but the painting of the vehicles did not begin until the second half of the nineteenth century, the purpose being to protect the wood from the sun and rain. The tradition continued into the early twentieth century and the painting became more and more ornate so that even when the carts were used by farm labourers, they showed off the wealth of the landowner. Scenes from folklore and legend were most often depicted and the red and yellow colours of Palermo's flag were frequently used. The cart in the butcher's shop was from Catania.
Sadly, nowadays the carts are found only in museums and, sadder still, the last traditional cart painter may very soon be forced to give up his trade. The various parts of the carts are now collectors' pieces, especially the plaque underneath the cart bearing the painter's name.
Back at the condominio, the water had run out again and the service is sospeso, says the Comune. [How can they suspend the public water system just before Christmas?!] So once again I, being the only person at home this afternoon, paid for a private water carrier to refill the cistern. The first co-tenant I saw after this event was my very own bank manager, whom I promptly asked for his 7 euro contribution. It was the first time in my life that I've been able to tell a bank manager that he owed me money and I revelled in the moment, reader!
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
This is Raffaele the hairdresser's Christmas tree creation this year. I like the feathers around the bottom of the tree, too; in fact, I would rather like to wear them!
Today was "one of those days" in the salon, with every customer wanting a cut and colour and all of us having to wait about two and a half hours. However, you could sit there and relax, be the recipient of one of Raffaele's disarming smiles every few minutes, listen to the Sacro Cuore bells chiming out carols and get fed panettone into the bargain! We each received a gift, too - this neat little manicure set which I, for one, could do with. I can think of many worse ways of spending an afternoon!
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
It was Gina who first introduced me to orange salad and Gina who showed me what a good accompaniment it is to any dish containing Italian sausage. "Real" Italian sausage is sold in a spiral, like Cumberland sausage [the butcher will cut off the length you need] and it is always cut into portions after cooking.
In cold weather I get a yen for both sausages and potatoes, so I sort of made this dish up. [I can hear Italian purists querying, "How can you make a stew with sausage?" now!] Here we go:
In a deep, wide pan [I used a wok] brown a long piece of Italian sausage in 3 tablesp. olive oil. Remove from the pan and add about 12 medium potatoes, cut into wedges. Keep stirring until these, too, are browned and then let them cook until tender but not falling apart. Chuck the sausage back into the pan and add a large, quartered onion, 2 roughly chopped peppers of different colours plus a few sprigs of rosemary. Cover and cook for about 15 mins. Season generously with seasalt and black pepper, then add the contents of a 14 oz. can of tomatoes and a dollop of tomato paste. Cover and let it all simmer for about 45 mins. Cut up the sausage to serve and serve the stew with ..... orange salad! [Serves an army .]
Monday, December 15, 2008
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
This is the time of year when Italian traders are seen at their best and many of them give regular customers a little present for Christmas. The first picture shows the "Christmas card" I received from my "hairdresser number 2" [the one nearby] this morning; it is, in fact, a limited edition print. I am going to frame it.
Next my steps somehow took me in the direction of our local bookshop, where I solved a few present problems. It is always a pleasure to watch Italian shopkeepers gift-wrapping your goods prettily. In fact, I have one of those long, supermarket rolls of wrapping paper you can get in Britain with me here and I have needed to wrap so few gifts myself that it has lasted through three Sicilian Christmases and is still going strong. And then there is the thoughtfulness and pride in service: "Signora, we'll carry these home for you." I thanked them but said I could manage as the books were not particularly heavy.
I was just on my way out of the shop when I espied, not where you would expect it to be, something I have wanted for a long time: an edition of Il Cucchiaio d'Argento, Italy's most famous cookbook, published to much acclaim as The Silver Spoon in Britain in 2005. Well, "I've been a good girl, I have", and it's my Christmas present to myself. Having added this substantial tome to my acquisitions, I gratefully accepted the offer of help carrying them. So now the book can be added to my 91 other Italian cookbooks [27 of which are about the Sicilian region] and I am sure it will give me as much pleasure, over the years [god willing] as my Larousse Gastronomique.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
With Rome flooded, high water in Venice and the Arno rising worryingly, there are weather alerts all over Italy tonight. A woman tragically died today in a Rome underpass as her car became submerged. Down here, we have had torrential rain and intermittent thunder all day, together with quite frightening winds. [Yesterday we had rain and a fog which refused to clear into the bargain.] Yet the daytime temperature has remained at 15C. Boat travel to the mainland and smaller islands was suspended from yesterday afternoon but crossings from Messina have resumed. “And our town councils tell us there’s no water!” was the wry comment on one internet report I have read. My sentiments exactly….
Here in Modica there is so much water on some of the main roads that it is virtually impossible for pedestrians to cross them. [I can’t tell you how many good pairs of shoes I have ruined trying to do so in weather like this in previous years.] And there aren’t even any Christmas lights to cheer us up! Why? Because the Comune has no money, of course, not even for improving the roads!
The new hairdresser nearby had put a cheerful Santa, who sings Jingle Bells in English, outside his salon at the weekend. The singing is triggered as people walk by. Simi, who knows exactly where to put her paw to start these jollifications off, was most disappointed today as the Santa had been taken inside to protect it from the elements. “Maltempo monello!” [“naughty bad weather”] I sympathised as we strolled [or rather were blown] along.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
This is one of Gina's specialities and here is her recipe:
First, boil your broccoli florets and stems. When you drain it, drain the cooking water straight back into the pan and cook your pasta in it. [This is the secret of the flavour.] While the pasta is cooking, fry a little onion in a tablespoon of olive oil until soft and transparent but not browned. Add the broccoli with a tablespoon or so of tomato paste [not purée] and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring. Drain the pasta and mix the broccoli with it. Serve sprinkled with parmesan and, if you like, some chilli pepper flakes.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
"Come and have lunch!" commanded friend Marco on the phone at 11 am yesterday so of course I did. I was thrilled to be shown a photo of his eldest son, whom I remember as the "little gentleman" who helped his parents show me around Modica on my first visit in 1992, modelling clothes in Ireland where he is studying. He had walked into a menswear department, tried some of the range on and looked so stylish and - well, Italian - in them that the manager immediately offered to pay him to appear in an advert for the local paper! Second son is away at the moment but third son, with whom Giovanna was pregnant when I first arrived, is now a very arty-looking budding artist. Meanwhile fourth son continues to pester Giovanna to provide him with a baby sister and she tells me that she is not feeling at all cooperative about that!
We had a feast of tortellini al ragù, cotolette di pollo coi funghi [ chicken escalopes with mushrooms which had been fried in olive oil and breadcrumbs] and finally these magnificent dolci appeared. Then, as always with Marco and Giovanna, we spent the afternoon sharing memories of their boys and nodding sagely to each other as we agreed that "Gli anni passano" ["the years go by"].
Monday, December 08, 2008
It's been a long time since I showed you any of Gino's paintings but I am glad to say that my artist friend is as inspired and prolific as ever. Here are four new ones for you to enjoy: San Francesco, the wild cyclamen that grow in Sicily and boats at the Marina. Which do you like best?
Sunday, December 07, 2008
With the holiday tomorrow, everyone is now getting festive in Sicily and I am feeling rather smug because I have already decorated. In glorious sunshine, off I went for lunch with Linda, Chiara, Gino and relatives and what a feast we had, with 2 pasta dishes and 2 main courses being served: first, "auntie" Maria had made fresh cappelletti ["little hats"] pasta in vegetable brodo [the pasta being filled with a beef and parmesan mixture]; then there was Linda's pasta al forno; next came that classic of Sicilian cooking, pollo ripieno [boned chicken stuffed with a veal, pancetta and cheese mixture] in this case made by Maria. I was really thinking that I couldn't eat any more but then Linda's dish of sausages and polpette appeared and it looked much too good to miss out on! For dessert we partook of the sweetest citrus fruit you ever smelt or tasted and to accompany the Moscato and coffee there were almond biscuits made by Linda and Chiara. They dispatch parcels of these on a regular basis to lucky relatives in lands near and far and here is their recipe:
400 gr sugar
400 gr [preferably fresh] blanched, ground almonds
3 egg whites
grated rind 1 unwaxed lemon
coffee beans / candied peel / rindy bits of marmalade to decorate
Mix the almonds, sugar and lemon rind together. Add the egg whites and mix to a dough. If you are using fresh almonds which you have blanched and ground yourself you will probably find that the oil from them is enough to bind the dough. If you are using bought ground almonds you may have to add some lemon juice. Leave the mixture in the fridge overnight. Form the mixture into little balls with your fingers and place them on oven trays lined with baking parchment, then decorate. Bake for 5 - 10 minutes in a 200 C oven / 180 C fan oven. [Watch them carefully.]