Tuesday, April 30, 2013

BENVENUTI A POLLICA?

If Thursday night, until a few weeks ago, was "sexy chef night" on Italian television, Tuesday night now promises my "treat of the media week" in the form of the return of the two fictional chefs from the north and south of Italy respectively, Carlo Conforti [Fabrizio Bentivoglio] and Paolo Perrone [Giorgio Tirabassi] in the second series of Benvenuti a Tavola.

By the end of the first series, the rival chefs' wives had become friends, constantly exasperated by the antics of their husbands and forever trying to keep the uneasy peace between them.  The beautiful Pilar has left the Conforti restaurant but another [alas] beautiful Hispanic cook-cum-waitress has joined the Perrone establishment. High-school lovers Alessia and Federico have gone their separate ways in order to continue their studies and the romantic focus is now on Perrone's younger daughter. Popular Sicilian comic Teresa Mannino, presumably busy on Zelig Circus, has also left the cast for now. Renato, Conforti's sous-chef and fellow-conspirator, has been grieving for Mannino's character Lucia but has become the reluctant carer of a very cute dog. He becomes less reluctant when he realises there is money in the offing as a reward for his trouble but wait, Renato! Your boss wants some of that money and last week proposed a merger of the two restaurants to Paolo Perrone. "Mai" ["Never"], said Perrone but later, due to another Conforti plot, he is persuaded. Perrone makes it a condition of the merger that the two families travel to Pollica [in Salerno Province, Campania] to sign the agreement, as the only notary he trusts lives there and this is where some real-life controversy began the day after the episode was aired last week:

As I watched the episode, I was enchanted by the scenes of Pollica and decided to add the little town to my list of places I have yet to visit in Italy. I was also amused by the Perrone family's elderly relatives, who, declaring that they had had little forewarning of the visit, apologised for the modest food they were about to put before their guests. They then, of course, unveiled a feast fit for several kings and I had to smile as that is exactly what would happen in Sicily. Having gone to all this trouble, the elderly lady cooks sagely nodded and said they hadn't liked Conforti all along when it was revealed that he was trying to trick Perrone.

But what's this? In the next day's news, there was the Mayor of Pollica, Stefano Pisani, lamenting the fact that the "Pollica" scenes were not shot in Pollica at all.  Mr Pisani was careful to say that he does not want to cause any argument - he just wishes to point out that he thinks the production team had lost an opportunity and he would like to invite them, with all the actors, to spend some time in the "real" Pollica and get to know its beauty, its nearby blue-flag beaches and, most importantly, the local food. He assures the TV team that the Pollichesi would accord them a fantastic welcome.

Never mind, Mr Pisani - Pollica is still on my list!

Note:  I can't find any videos from the second series on youtube but there are some clips on this page of the programme's website.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

AUSTERITY FOIL?

Does anyone else remember when what we used to call "silver paper" was difficult to remove from a Kit Kat bar? It used to stick to the chocolate and you'd get a metallic taste in your mouth.

Well, I'm beginning to think that Italian manufacturers of kitchen foil have used the old-style silver paper as their inspiration, as their product has become noticeably thinner and sometimes sticks to the food - "austerity foil", perhaps?

Cling film [plastic wrap] went the way of all flesh years ago but I'd be interested to know if anyone else has noticed a deterioration in the quality of kitchen foil, either in Italy or elsewhere.

Some of you may remember that I've had an issue with kitchen foil before and no doubt the hapless Mr Letta, charged with the task of forming a new government for Italy yesterday, has other matters on his mind, just as Mr Monti did before him.  On the other hand, I'm sure that Mr Letta, like his compatriots, will wish to continue to eat well, crisis or no crisis, so what could be more important than turning his attention to the problem of l'alluminio della sobrietà?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

AN UNEXSPECKTED PLEASURE

It's all right - I haven't gone completely off my Conad trolley or lost my English teacher credentials. I was just thinking about Speck [the prosciutto kind], a meat which, at one time, I failed to appreciate. Over the years, I have come to quite like it and I must say it was especially yummy in this pizza of Speck and datterini tomatoes which I enjoyed with friends the other evening:

Monday, April 22, 2013

ASKING THE WAY IN SCICLI

Balcony in Scicli



Tonight the Baroque town of Scicli and other locations known to many outside Italy because of their connections with a certain Inspector Montalbano on television feature in this photo gallery in La Stampa.  I would like to thank my friends at Siliquia for pointing this out to me.

I like Scicli and it deserves the coverage but recently I found that that old adage about people taking longer to tell you they don't know the way to somewhere than to give you instructions when they do was particularly true there:

Some friends and I were trying to find a particular address in the town and I should explain that the friend who was driving has a truck, does not have satnav and even if he did, he would probably be reluctant to use it;  yes, I did print out the Google Maps instructions, but he doesn't trust those, either.  Like a lot of people here, he prefers to ask the way as he goes along and he doesn't see the logic in asking policemen or other folk who might actually know. "Pazienza."

By 7 pm on this misty, drizzly February night, he had asked several pedestrians for directions and we had kept going round in circles, always ending up near the same mobile butcher's store. The fourth time we saw the mobile butcher's, our driver friend relented enough to go into a shop to ask for more directions and was followed out by an elderly gentleman who said he knew where the address was and would come with us. Walking stick notwithstanding, he leapt into the truck and began enthusiastically telling my friend which streets to take. We still seemed to be going round in circles but eventually ended up in a hilly street which we had not passed through before. Then our sprightly navigator told us to stop and I had a sneaking suspicion that he was now lost, too. We didn't have much time to think about it, though, as, with another sprightly leap, he bounded out of the car and into a grocer's shop. Inside, he held a long conversation with the lady owner and then came out with her and two other customers, who all started pointing in different directions and telling us to take this or that street at the top of their voices.

Finally, our energetic guide - by now carrying a sack of potatoes as well as his stick - said he would lead the way on foot and the car should follow him. This we did, with our map-spurning driver manoeuvering the truck through some incredibly narrow streets; it was getting so misty that all we could see was the outline of the crook of the gentleman's walking stick and we were all losing the will to live. Suddenly, our leader stopped at a deserted crossroads and, waving his stick frantically in the direction of a balcony in the narrowest of the streets leading off it, yelled, "Siamo arrivati!"  With that, before we could thank him properly or offer him a lift to wherever he was going, he disappeared into the mist, walking at the speed of light.

The moral of this tale is that, if you visit Scicli on a misty evening, you might need Inspector Montalbano to show you the way!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Friday, April 19, 2013

STINCO WITH HARISSA



The Moro Cookbook has a recipe for roast chicken which has been marinated in harissa and the other day, it occurred to me that this should work with stinco of pork.  Stinco is the shin cut and it is much beloved of Italians for Sunday lunch. Some of my friends just marinate it in red wine - preferably a Nero d'Avola, they all say - and herbs, then cook it slowly in the oven.  I decided to liven it up a bit and this is what I did:

Rub about 1 tablesp harissa all over a stinco. Put it in a bowl, season, and sprinkle a little dried oregano over it.  Leave in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

Line a small roasting tin with foil and put the stinco in the centre. Slice 3 largeish, unpeeled potatoes and 2 carrots. Cut a red pepper into strips. Put the vegetables around the stinco and add about 6 unpeeled garlic cloves.  Season the vegetables and add some sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme.  Pour 3 tablesp olive oil over the vegetables and drizzle a little over the stinco.  Pour the juice of 2 - 3 lemons over the vegetables, too.

Cover the tin with foil and put it in the oven at 170 C for 1.5 hours, turning the vegetables over half way through the cooking. Then take the foil off, add a little more oil and cook for another 20 - 30 mins.  Watch it carefully during this time.

Slice the stinco and serve with the vegetables.

This will serve 3 people. If you want to serve more hungry folk, you can always add another stinco!

Buon appetito.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

LETTER TO A FATHER

My Dad as a young man, with the ladies.


My dearest Dad,

As the fortieth anniversary of the day I lost you draws to a close, I can hardly believe that I have got through all these years without you, that I am already ten years older than you were when you died, or that I have been unable to discuss with you so many events, both personal and of worldwide importance:  you knew nothing of the political excesses of the woman whose funeral took place in our country earlier today and, whilst you would have admired her resolve, you would have been horrified at her rigidity and hardness. The fall of the Berlin Wall; the Mandela release; the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales; the death of the Queen Mother, for whom, though you were no royalist, you felt the affection of your generation of Brits; climate change, the euro, New Labour;  9/11, 7/7, the Arab Spring....  all these you have missed and I have held imagined conversations with you about every one of them.

You'd have pronounced the mobile phone a miracle, marvelled equally at the internet and "played" with the latter as you probably did with your train set as a boy. Post-it notes would have irritated you, the Rubik's Cube perplexed you and downloadable music delighted you. I'm  not sure what you would have made of e-books as I'm not certain what I think of them myself but I suspect that you, like me, would have held on to your library and been glad that you belonged to a generation that grew up with "real" books.

It was you, of course, who taught me to revere books, along with music, art and languages. You imparted to me your passion for Wales, the West Country and London;  you introduced me to Vichyssoise, Chop Suey and Welsh salted butter; you taught me to love dogs, yellowhammers and sparrows.  "Ah, he thinks it's there for him to dig", you would say as our various dogs, rather successfully, attempted to dig up our garden.  "If they were rare, people would travel miles to see them", you would say of the sparrows.

You could be impetuous, maddening, quick-tempered and outrageous but you were never unkind. Like me, you had probably absented yourself from the queue when patience was being handed out but I may just be getting better at this after eight years in Sicily!  

Italy is a country you never visited and sometimes I imagine what would have happened had you lived and been able to come with me. You adored sunshine and, though you were as fair-skinned as I am, the sun never dared to burn you. I like to think that you, too, would have enjoyed some "seasons in the sun" and appreciated the good aspects of what is still a wonderful country. And here we come to that other dimension of grieving, for it is not only when great events happen that I miss you. I miss you on beautiful days and on rainy ones, through all my "triumphs and disasters" and in so many daily, seemingly insignificant, moments of my life. Right now, I'm going through one of the most difficult periods I have ever experienced and I miss your sheer physical presence and the warmth of your hug - your hug that always made me feel safe.

Yet, as I write, I become aware that you gave me the mental tools to survive even this and that you also taught me forgiveness, tolerance and compassion.

My dear kind, imperfect, wonderful Dad, thank you for it all - especially the love.

For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

- Shakespeare
   Sonnet XX1X


Monday, April 15, 2013

BUON COMPLEANNO, CLAUDIA!



Today the actress Claudia Cardinale is 75 and I'm sure you'll all join me in wishing her a happy day.

Talking of ageing, as we were on Saturday, you will see from this BBC interview and from photographs on her website that Miss Cardinale knows how to do it elegantly.

For me, Claudia Cardinale, whose maternal grandparents and father were Sicilian, will always be associated with the island in her role as Angelica in Luchino Visconti's film version of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's  Il Gattopardo:

Il Gattopardo - American trailer

Saturday, April 13, 2013

SABATO MUSICALE - ON AGEING

I am lucky enough to count among my friends many young people who are patient, considerate and compassionate and I am truly grateful to them for remaining a part of my life.

When I look back at my own behaviour as a young woman, I am sometimes ashamed but, where I didn't have patience, I hope I always had compassion.  Of course, when you are young you cannot imagine that your elders were ever the same age as you or that, having lived longer, they might actually know more than you do.

Recently I was on the receiving end of some unkind behaviour by a young person and believe me, it wasn't a pleasant experience!  Sadly, this person, too, will eventually realise that age has a habit of creeping up on us and one day you look in the mirror and there it is.

An author I discovered last year is Elizabeth Strout who writes well about ageing in her novel Olive Kitteridge :

"What young people didn't know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again."


Here is Asaf Avidan's show-stopping Sanremo performance of One Day:


Friday, April 12, 2013

MANGIARI DI CAVALERI

Tumazzo, pani e pira, è mangiari di cavaleri. 
Mellow cheese, bread and pears are food for knights.
- Sicilian proverb

My thanks go today to a student who works in the food industry and was thoughtful enough to bring me two lovely books about cheese:

  

The one on the left, about Ragusano cheese, has fascinating stories and insights about how this product was and is made, as well as beautiful black and white pictures of the cheese itself, the production process and the Ragusan countryside:  




The book on the right, which is in English, is a comprehensive study of three Sicilian cheeses - Pecorino Siciliano, Piacentinu Ennese and Provola dei Nebrodi. As well as scientific information about the cheeses, the volume contains recipes, serving suggestions, flowcharts of the production processes and a list of historical references to each cheese. I was interested to learn that both Pecorino Siciliano and Piacentinu Ennese are mentioned by Pliny the Elder, whilst the first historical reference to Provola dei Nebrodi was in 1886.

Grazie, studente mio!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

NUTTERFINGERS?



If there is one Italian passion I do not share, it is the enthusiasm of the citizens of my adopted country for the hazelnut and chocolate spread, Nutella.  I am therefore perplexed as to why anyone would want to steal some, let alone 5.5 tonnes of the stuff but that is what happened at the weekend when thieves took the jars, valued at €16,000, from a parked lorry in the city of Bad Hersfeld in the German state of Hesse.

There is no word as to whether or not the thieves have been caught but, unless they are from that lucky group of individuals who can eat chocolate-covered lard all day without feeling sick or putting on an ounce, they shouldn't be hard to find.

Now, 5.5 tonnes of gelato I could understand.....

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

WHAT PRICE CULTURE?

Dante Alighieri, attrib. Giotto
Image:  Wikimedia Commons


Dante Alighieri, in a cold Cardiff lecture hall, caused me much misery and not a few nightmares almost half a century ago. However, his poetry came alive for me the first time I visited Florence and its beauty amazes me all over again when I hear the verses recited by the great Roberto Benigni.

Benigni's ambitious Tutto Dante project, in which the actor-director explains and then recites selected canti from Dante's masterpiece, began in Greece in 2006. The project was then taken to Florence. Since then, the one-man shows have toured Italy, completed an international tour and returned to Florence in 2012, when more canti from the Inferno were added to the repertoire.

Rai 2 is currently showing the recorded 2012 shows and in this house Wednesday night has become "Dante night". Not everyone in Italy appreciates the shows, though, and one of the criticisms has been that what works in the magnificent setting of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence does not work on the small screen.  Another criticism is that the programmes are too long and in addition there is controversy over Benigni's reported fee. A package comprising the Tutto Dante 2012 shows and a programme about the Italian Constitution which Benigni presented in December is rumoured to have cost over 6 million euros, including production costs. Audience share for Tutto Dante is down and it has been suggested that Rai is about to pull the programme from its prime-time slot.

Can you put a price on culture and, if so, can it be justified in a time of recession?  Well, let us imagine, for a moment, a world without culture, in which the lines of Dante, through a genius like Benigni, do not come to us down the ages; in which such lines do not uplift someone, somewhere, or cause  listeners to turn again to their copy of the Divina Commedia and find comfort in the revelation that human passion and suffering are universal and that Dante, as Benigni reminds us, is sympathetic to these emotions. When I hear Dante recited like this, I know what my answer would be. Please bring us the Vita Nuova next, Roberto!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

LA SIGNORA DI FERRO

When I first saw the news on my twitter feed just before lunchtime yesterday, I decided not to retweet it or comment before I was sure it was true, as hoax tweets on this subject had been posted before. [Apparently some people who do not have a life find it amusing to spread rumours of the death of others.]  It was only when Alex Crawford of Sky News tweeted the announcement that I realised it must be true and just afterwards online newspapers reported it and the news went around the world.

How, then, is it being reported in Italy? Yesterday it was, here as elsewhere, the top story and most papers used Margaret Hilda Thatcher's most famous nickname and emphasised the fact that she was Britain's "first and only" female Prime Minister. Much coverage was given to David Cameron's statement and soon collections of the lady's most famous quotes were appearing in Italian sources. Several women's pages have given space to her dress sense and the online edition of Io Donna, Corriere della Sera's women's magazine, has an article entitled Addio al tailleur più temuto del mondo - Farewell to the most feared suit in the world. I rather liked that one.  [I don't remember Winston Churchill's or Ted Heath's fashion choices making the headlines when they died but those of other male world leaders might - you never know.]

Most online editions here made the funeral arrangements their top story for a few hours today but political turmoil at home has knocked Thatcher news off Italian front pages tonight and you actually have to search quite hard for it. When you do find it, you encounter Italian correspondents' puzzlement at the different grades of VIP funerals that can be held in Britain and genuine dismay that the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales was "only" what is known in Britain as a "ceremonial" one [that is, with full military honours but not a full state funeral]. Baroness Thatcher is to be accorded this type of funeral.

The other element of this story which is being reported here with puzzlement and shock is the fact that some of my compatriots are celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher. Corriere della Sera calls this type of rejoicing "macabre". The Italian press are also picking up on the fact that the "Iron Lady", though admired for her strength around the world, was, at home, a deeply divisive figure and remains so in death. The striking differences in the way newspapers in Britain have chosen to remember her are being reported with surprise and wonderment.

Meanwhile, film maker Ken Loach's caustic comment that the funeral "should be privatised because she'd have wanted it" is receiving more coverage here than it has at home.

People I have spoken to today seem to be under the impression that Britain is plunged into national mourning on a Diana-esque scale, which is not true, and do not understand why it takes ten days to organise a funeral.  I have told them that it doesn't because the funeral will have been planned years ago but that the time is probably needed to put in place the massive security that will be required.

Britons, then, continue to argue about Margaret Thatcher and the world looks on in interest and bewilderment.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

SABATO MUSICALE

This cheers me up and gives me hope:

Jovanotti - Ti porto via con me


Friday, April 05, 2013

THAT TIME OF YEAR....


People are still in padded jackets with long scarves wound around their necks up to their noses despite a noon temperature of 20 C here. But fearless Mr Fargione - always the first bar owner to declare spring in the Sorda - has started making his ice creams! Bravo!

Thursday, April 04, 2013

AN AFTERNOON IN CEFALÙ



Although I've loved Sicily for over twenty years now and have lived here for eight, I had, until last Sunday, never managed to get to Cefalù. You can see Cefalù as you come down from Gibilmanna and I hadn't realised how close its main buildings are to the sea or what a compact and prettily coloured town it is.







The name Cefalù comes from a Greek word meaning "head" and refers to the massive rock beneath which the town stands. The town dates back to at least Greek times but it was the Normans who rebuilt it nearer the sea and legend has it that King Ruggero 11, having run into a dangerous storm whilst sailing to Palermo in 1131, swore that if he and his ship were spared, he would have a cathedral built where he landed. San Giorgio appeared and guided the ship to safety at Cefalù. Well, I'm going to believe it, anyway!

The narrow, winding streets reminded me of Ligurian towns like Alassio, as did the pleasant, relaxed atmosphere:



The Duomo, begun in 1131 as Ruggero had promised, was restored in 1559:





The Cristo Pantocratore above the altar reminded me of the mosaics in Monreale Cathedral, with which the building is twinned:


We'd had a very early start so decided that we now deserved lunch in the main square. A plate of antipasti  with panelle [chickpea flour fritters] at the back and fried caciotta cheese with orange on the right was just what we needed!


Polpette of beef with pinenuts and sultanas for me


and an entrecôte with more of that orange-flavoured caciotta for my friend:


Time for a wander down to the harbour:





Another view of the bay in the late afternoon light:


Finally, there had to be a stop for a slice of chocolate and coffee semifreddo and I'm happy to be able to tell you that they don't stint on helpings in Cefalù!


A MORNING IN GIBILMANNA



In Palermo Province, nestling in the Madonie at 800 metres above sea level, is the village of Gibilmanna and on Sunday a friend and I joined a trip organised by those nice people at La Terra to visit it.  

The Sanctuary of Gibilmanna is its main attraction and the original building is said to have been part of a monastery founded by Gregorio Magno [Gregory the Great] prior to his becoming Pope in 590. After the Saracen conquest of Sicily in 878 the monastery was abandoned but hermits continuued to care for the church.  Under the Normans, many churches were restored and in 1535 the Cappuccini took over the care of the church.  Brother Sebastiano Majo da Gratteri founded the convent on the site in the same year and the present church structure dates from 1623. Among the goods received by the new church from the old one was a statue of the Madonna commissioned by the Capuchin hermit Giuliano de Placia di Miselmeri in 1533.  It is thought to have been sculpted by Antonello Gagini or a member of his artistic family. The altar is a later work by Baldassarre Pampillonia and dates from around 1684.




The church also has this Assunzione, by an unknown artist, above the main altar.  It was given to the Sanctuary in 1623:


Next to the Sanctuary is a folk museum which also contains ecclesiastical objects. Looking at richly embroidered vestments is not really my thing so I concentrated on the items from everyday life and tried to imagine the people who used them:





As many of you will know, I love Sicilian carts and was glad to realise, when I looked at its sides, that the one above had had its moments of glory:


More artwork from a cart:

I like pestles and mortars too!




Oops - what's a mad Welshwoman doing here?



These instruments were used for cutting the Communion bread. They came with very precise instructions:


Local heel bar?



Gibilmanna, then, is well worth a visit.  Who can guess where we went in the afternoon?

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

"OTTOBRATA" TOMATOES

Yes, I do know it's the beginning of April but I have named this recipe for the Ottobrata festival where I bought some "balsamic honey" in October.  The other day it occurred to me that I ought to use it up so I invented this tomato recipe:



Put a rack in a roasting tin and cover the rack with baking parchment. Halve some cherry or other small tomatoes and place, cut side up, on the rack. Sprinkle over some coarse seasalt and black pepper, then add the herbs of your choice - I used rosemary and oregano.  Drizzle over some balsamic honey - if you can't get this make up your own, using 2 tablesp runny honey and 2 tablesp balsamic vinegar.  Roast the tomatoes in an oven pre-heated to 170 C for about 20 mins.  You can serve them hot or cold, as an antipasto or as an accompaniment to roast meats.

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