Tuesday, January 11, 2022

A HAPPY NEW YEAR (I THINK)

In Catania at the end of November


Every now and then, in this seemingly never-ending Covid situation, I get stopped in my tracks with fear and that is what happened in December when Omicron blared out its presence to the world. We were so near, we thought, so very near, to having a "normal" Christmas and to living in a way that resembled pre-Covid times. But it was not to be and, although triple-vaccinated, I'm still scared, especially with positive test results rising exponentially in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy - 947 in my town of 53,000 inhabitants today. Although we are not locked down or restricted as we were a year ago, masks are compulsory outside as well as inside again, we are supposed to be social distancing wherever possible, unnecessary mixing is discouraged and school reopening has been postponed from today until at least Thursday. It is not yet known whether teaching will be via distance learning or on school premises. In addition to these measures, you will have read about the Italian government's decision to bring in what amounts to compulsory vaccinations for the over 50s. We watch, we try to be careful and we hope, like the rest of the world.

At Christmas, I am glad to say, we were not required to fill in the hated self-certification documents in order to go anywhere at all or prevented from seeing friends and family and I spent a lovely Christmas Day with three friends who love books and dogs. Yes, I did consider staying at home but we are all vaccinated and at nearly 72 and with the virus raging, I wondered, and still wonder, if I will see another Christmas and whether we will at some point be barred from even small household mixing again, although the Italian government is doing everything it can to avoid having to take such a measure and Prime Minister Draghi has assured the nation this evening that he is not intending to take the country into lockdowns again. 

Having decided to accept the kind invitation, however, things did not exactly go to plan in the run-up and on Christmas Eve I nearly went into full hysterical mode as I was in the middle of making a cake to take to my friends' house when a domestic disaster struck. The recipe was for the wonderful Dame Mary Berry's Chocolate Cappuccino Tart, a cake I have made many times before and which has always been a success here. (I don't use instant coffee granules, though, because I don't buy them; I make myself an espresso and use a teaspoon of it in the cake and I use mascarpone in the filling.) If you look at the recipe, you will see that you have to make the base first, then refrigerate it while you make the filling. Well, I had just popped the base in the fridge and had the chocolate and coffee in a bowl ready to put over the saucepan of simmering water when I happened to look at the floor and beheld disaster in the form of a flood. The water, I ascertained, was coming from under the sink and at 1pm on Christmas Eve I estimated my chances of finding a plumber willing to come out as nil. While controlling my breathing, I did summon enough common sense to switch the hob off and then I went downstairs to warn the neighbour in the flat below. Luckily - phew! - her son was there and informed me that he was a plumber and would come. (I'd had no idea, either that he was home from the North or that he was a plumber.)  He fixed it but it took a while, not least because we had to wait a few hours for the shops to reopen for parts. Thank you, thank you, whoever is up there and to the kind man who happened to be down there!

I finished making the cake at midnight but didn't think the filling looked as smooth or as inviting as it had before (probably because I'd had to put that in the fridge too - I didn't have enough chocolate left to start again) but decided there was nothing I could do till it was set and I could inspect it in daylight. In the morning I came to the same conclusion though, and wondered whether to give up on it and just take some shortbread biscuits I had bought a couple of weeks before in Catania for Burns Night (the first time I had been there or anywhere outside Modica since my birthday in February 2020 - no need to tell you why!) I discussed it on the phone with a friend and his opinion was "cake, cake, every time" but I decided I had to check the taste. If it was OK, I would take the cake and just explain why a small slice was missing and that is what I did, but not before decorating it with some grated chocolate. Then later, at my friends' house, I added some candied orange peel to the top. Now, chef Carlo Cracco of Masterchef Italia fame says you should never garnish a dish with an ingredient it doesn't contain and I'm sorry, chef, but what else could I do? My friends thought it was all rather comical, by the way - which they wouldn't have if they'd seen the kitchen floor - and they enjoyed the cake.



On New Year's Eve I did stay at home, as I have for many years, because I like being at home with Bertie and because I would not risk leaving her on a night when there will almost certainly be fireworks outside. There were not many but when Italians decide they are going to have them they do not hold back! It didn't go on for long after midnight, to be fair, and there was only one episode that I heard of fireworks being let off in the street earlier. On New Year's Eve in Italy you are supposed to eat lentils, which it is believed will bring you money and my philosophy is why take chances and not do it? For years, to honour the Italian tradition while in Britain, I made a lamb dish with lentils, then lentil loaf, and here I have made Mary Berry's Cottage Pie with Lentils  (minus the swede, which I dislike and can't get here anyway and I only ever mash potatoes with butter) and lately Nigella's Bulgur Wheat and Lentil Salad, all of which I can recommend. But this time I wanted to make something different, so I prepared Claudia Roden's Rice, Lentil and Date Salad from her new book Med and I will certainly be making it again. To go with it, I made chicken escalopes with Parma ham and sage (from a very old Sunday Times cookbook I have) and for dessert a mini-semifreddo with candied orange peel. Well, to be honest I made the full quantity - I just put it in mini-tins! I don't believe in not spoiling yourself on special days just because you are on your own.



Then came Twelfth Night last week and Italy's good witch the befana brought treats to good children (that's all of them on that night!) On Thursday I carried out the sad task of taking the decorations down. Sad, for me at least, because I love that period of sitting at home with a book and reading it by the flickering lights of a Christmas tree and because we do not know what will happen in another year. (And it's just as well we didn't on New Year's Eve 2019-20!)  

Speriamo bene - "Let's hope all will be well", as Italians say and Bertie and I wish you all a belated but very Happy New Year

Buon anno a tutti!







Friday, December 03, 2021

MEDIA MENTIONS

 It's been a while since I mentioned my book, A Place Called Siracusa, and I have just realised that we are approaching the end of the year, so I thought I would tell you about a mention of it in the daily newspaper La Sicilia back in May. For those of you who read Italian, here is the link to the story online.



I am still working on the file to put the book on Amazon (I'm sorry it is taking longer than I anticipated) and I hope I'll be able to do this by the end of the year. I will keep you posted.

This week I received another media mention, this time about this blog and it appears in issue 92 of the British magazine for women who write, Mslexia. I always look forward to reading Mslexia, as it encourages me to keep going and it was in fact this magazine which inspired me to begin blogging, back in 2006. Therefore it is a great pleasure to see my blog featured in it. 



I'm going to get back to that file now!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

BOUNTY FROM ETNA

What a lovely surprise today when a friend brought me these fruits from the Etna area, where she had been over the weekend.




I knew that the small Etna apples are special, as there is something in the soil that makes them very sweet, and the clementines are delightful too. But the chestnuts - ah, the chestnuts, for therein lies a tale:

My friend told me that on the eastern slope of Mount Etna, a very special chestnut tree can be found. It is called the Castagno dei Cento Cavalli  - "The Hundred Horse Chestnut Tree" and it derives its name from the legend that a certain queen, travelling with her ladies and one hundred knights, took shelter from a storm under the tree's ample branches. (Oh, dear - I hope it wasn't a thunderstorm!) The tree must have provided excellent camouflage, for it is said that the storm lasted all night and the queen was able to lie with several of her lovers among the knights. Who was this queen? For a long time it was thought that she was Giovanna I of Anjou, Queen of Naples, but history proved a bad sport and revealed that she had never visited Sicily. Never mind, then - perhaps it was another queen conveniently named Giovanna, Giovanna of Aragon, also Queen of Naples. But others say it was Isabella of England, third wife of King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Well, it was a medieval queen, anyhow.

Apart from (possibly) sheltering amorous queens, the tree, first documented in the 16th century, is the oldest in Europe. It has multiple trunks, which is perhaps why there is some dispute over its age, but it seems it is at least 2,500 years old. Both its circumference and height are 22 metres and its crown spreads for over 100 metres, making it also the largest chestnut tree in the world.

The tree is protected as an Italian Heritage Green Site and is in the Etna Regional Park, parts of which, along with Mount Etna itself, enjoy various levels of protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The tree is, of necessity, surrounded by a fence which you cannot go beyond, but my friend assures me the chestnuts come from nearby and have a very distinctive taste.


Late note: Tonight I learned that the Castagno dei Cento Cavalli has won Italy's "Tree of the Year" competition and will be representing Italy in the European competition in February. Well deserved.

Friday, November 12, 2021

AN ACCESSIBLE SAINT

As I mentioned in my hurricane pasta post last week, Sicily has suffered some very bad weather lately. Just one week after the almost total devasation of Catania, floods hit the province again last night, affecting Agrigento and Siracusa provinces as well. Even Ragusa did not escape this time. So there was no "St Martin's summer" ("Indian summer") for us this year.

I have written about this favourite saint of mine before and long-term readers may remember that I explained that the term "St Martin's summer" is used for good weather which lasts into November because of the legend of St Martin's cloak:  In the fourth century, Martin met a beggar at the gates of Amiens on a very cold day and cut his cloak in two with his sword to give half to the poor man. It is said that the sun came out and began to shine brilliantly at that very moment, hence the term estate di San Martino, a phenomenon which I have enjoyed many times in Sicily.

The Feast of St Martin is celebrated on 11th November, the anniversary of his funeral in 397 ( he had died on 8th November) and, because this is also Remembrance or Armistice Day in Britain and my mind yesterday was on my paternal grandfather who was blinded in action in 1918, I'm afraid I had forgotten about St Martin until I was offered fritelle in his honour in my local bar. Fritelle are often served on feast days but are particularly appropriate for St Martin's Day because they can be fried  using the season's new olive oil and go beautifully with the vino novello which is opened on this day. Fritelle are akin to doughnuts but are much smaller and lighter and can be sweet or savoury. They can contain ricotta, walnuts, sultanas and / or fennel seeds, among other ingredients and I must say they are just what you need on a blustery, rainy day like yesterday.

Fritelle



I think St Martin is a very accessible saint for several reasons: we know quite a lot about him and he is a multicultural saint, having been born in what is now Hungary, brought up in Pavia, joined the Roman army and been posted to the Amiens area. He eventually became Bishop of Tours and founded the monastery of Ligugé, the first monastic community in Gaul. As Bishop of Tours he kissed a leper and cured him ( hundreds of years before St Francis did so) and he is credited with encouraging wine-making in the Tours area and introducing the Chenin blanc grape there. I discovered by accident yesterday that the Capetian dynasty of French kings probably owe this name to St Martin because the early kings were lay abbots of the Basilica of St Martin of Tours where part of the cappa (cloak) was kept and it is likely that the name Capet comes from this.

Going back to the weather, I like the the line in Carducci's poem about St Martin's Day in which he describes a miserable, cold day on which the aroma of wine  - presumably the vino novello - manages to "touch the soul with glee." This is what the story of this very human, accessible saint always does for me. I hope it warms your hearts too.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

DONA NOBIS PACEM


 BLOG FOR PEACE 2021


#blog4peace

 

HURRICANE PASTA

 At the end of last week, we were all very worried and frightened in Sicily because a Medicane (a blend of the English words "Mediterranean" and "hurricane") was coming in. In Modica it just passed us by and we were fortunate but the effects were devastating in Catania and the Province of Siracusa, as many of you will have seen in the news. We were told to stay at home on Thursday evening and all day on Friday, if possible and the silence in the streets brought back uneasy memories of lockdown for many of us. The early hours of Thursday were particularly scary.

I did venture to my local greengrocer's late on Thursday afternoon, thinking I might be at home until Sunday, and on Friday evening it was my intention to make an amatriciana, one of my favourite pasta dishes. Then I discovered I had forgotten to buy tomatoes and I didn't have a tin of them to improvise with. I did, however, have pancetta, if not the guanciale (pork cheek) you should really use with an amatriciana. (I remember a Masterchef Italia judge groaning because a contestant was using pancetta cubes, but they weren't in an imminent hurricane situation!) I also had passata and - a favourite store cupboard ingredient of mine - a tin of grilled peppers. Therefore it was with these that I created a comforting pasta dish and I named it "Hurricane pasta":

Hurricane pasta

These quantities will serve two people very generously:

200 gr spaghetti or spaghettoni (which are a bit thicker)

2 tablesp olive oil

100 gr smoked pancetta cubes

1 white onion, chopped

200 gr small mushrooms, sliced

330 ml bottle passata

380 gr tin or jar grilled peppers in oil, drained 

seasalt and freshly ground black pepper

chilli flakes to taste

fresh basil leaves if liked




First, get the pasta water on with a little coarse salt in it and, while it is coming to the boil, heat the oil in a wide pan.

Add the pancetta and, as soon as the fat begins to release, add the onion and cook, stirring until softened but not browned.

Add the mushrooms and stir.

Add the passata and stir, lowering the heat.

Add the drained peppers, having cut any very large pieces in half.

By this time, the pasta water should be boiling, so add the pasta to it and cook for the time stated on the pack (probably 10 - 12 mins.)

Add the seasoning and chilli flakes to the pepper mixture and, at this stage, if liked, you can add a few torn fresh basil leaves.

Drain the pasta once it is al dente and add it to the pan containing the sauce. Stir on low heat for just a few minutes.

Serve and enjoy your "hurricane pasta", hopefully in better weather than we had in Sicily last week!



Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A WATCHMAKER AHEAD OF HIS TIME

 I interviewed young Modican watchmaker Gabriele Aprile for this blog in April 2019 and I thought we should visit him again to see how his EKWATCH project is going and find out what has happened since the pandemic began:



Hi, Gabriele. The world has changed since April 2019 so can you tell us what has changed for you?

Despite the pandemic, I've been happy with the small steps I have been able to take since 2019: I began with five models for my EKWATCH and now there are seventeen. There are new straps and I have also launched a women's line, featuring smaller models.

Has it been difficult to keep your business going during the pandemic?

Lockdown actually allowed me to take a break from the frantic rhythm of the traditional working day and think about new models and ideas for the EKWATCH. I improved the look of the product and increased my presence on social media with regard to the watch. I also got organised and, as soon as it became possible, I participated in trade fairs, where I made new contacts. This, in turn, helped me to sell my products in other sales points.

Is your inspiration still an eclipse?

Yes, from the Greek EK = “eclipse / to eclipse”; the brand will continue to be inspired by this natural phenomenon which has, through the ages, given rise to scientific research, as did the 1919 eclipse which supported Einstein's Theory of Relativity. This was the greatest scientific discovery of the last century and my first model was called EK – 1919 as a tribute to it. I was able to do this thanks to Eddington's eclipse photos, which proved the validity of Einstein's theory and inspired the many studies of it during the twentieth century.




EKWATCH came into being because of a wish to rediscover the innovative and scientific spirit that has characterised eclipses since ancient times. Although the 1919 eclipse is among the most famous ones, eclipses have always been admired as sensational events. They have provided research opportunities for scientific, philosophical and religious studies in every culture and every century.

Coming back to the present day, can you tell us more about your new models?

Certainly: I have restyled the original 39 mm. EK – 1919 model, reducing the crown thickness to make it much more comfortable on the wrist. I have also changed the shiny finish on the hands to opaque, added BGW9 SUPERLUMINOVA luminescence to improve night-time visibility and designed a leather strap for the model. In response to the many requests I have received, I have produced a petite version with a 33 mm. case for smaller wrists. This has a new stylistic configuration and minimalist design details such as the crown becoming hidden inside the case and the logo appearing on the dial.





Last time we met I asked you how you saw your future and I'd like to ask you the same question again today.

I'm hoping to increase shop sales in different outlets in addition to the three we already have, beginning with Southern Italy. With the right models, I'd like to get people talking about EKWATCH in other places.The news for 2022 is that I would like to organise a new crowdfunding campign on Kickstarter for a new model with an automatic mechanism, in order to improve the quality and prestige of the brand.

Are you able to sell abroad?

Yes, indeed. Thanks to my new website www.ek-watch.it I am able to offer a 10% discount to first-time purchasers of the product with free shipping all over the world. In fact in the next few days, and with great pleasure, I'll be sending one of my EK-LADY models to the USA.

What do you think the impact of the pandemic has been on watch retail in general?

It has been difficult for the entire watch trade because when people have to concentrate on their health they don't think of watches as necessary items. People couldn't even leave their houses and all celebrations were prohibited so it hasn't been easy to cope with these circumstances during my first year of marketing my EKWATCH.

Do you think people will go back to, and continue, buying luxury goods?

Yes, as an investment and as a safeguard, even when they feel exasperated, because sometimes people don't buy an item of jewellery to wear it, but in the hope that its value will increase. They don't enjoy the item in the same way, though. I've seen from my family's jewellery business that many people still wish to own a precious jewel for its intrinsic value or buy it as a gift for a special occasion so that it becomes a reminder of that event for their whole lives.

What do people mainly look for in a watch?

I think the design is what first attracts them but they also look for original features. They don't just want an ugly copy of a high-end item.They want a watch that speaks for itself and tells its own story, a watch that makes you feel emotional whenever you check the time.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?

My passion for watch-making spurs me to participate in all its processes, from repairing watches in my workshop to the creation of my own micro-brand. Every second of my day, I feel inspired to think about what I can do tomorrow which will be better than what I did today. I believe in my project more than I can say here and I believe that tomorrow can offer a new emotional experience to those who choose to wear my timepiece.

Thank you, Gabriele and good luck with all your future projects.

Thank you.

If you find yourself in Modica, Gabriele will be very happy to welcome you to his shop at

Via Resistenza Partigiana 42,  97015, Modica (RG)

Tel:  +39 328 7109 579


Friday, October 08, 2021

GORDON'S IN THE SOUP

Oh dear, oh dear! Yes, I just checked and he really did say it: Chef Gordon Ramsay, during episode 1 of his roadtrip cookery programme Gordon, Gino and Fred Go Greek, first commented that Greek cooks are as good as their French and Italian counterparts and then said that actually, Greek cooking is better than Italian. This, as you can imagine, has not gone down exactly well in Italy and it stupefied Ramsay's travel companion Gino D'Acampo too, whilst French maître d'hôtel Fred Siriex appeared to agree with Ramsay, citing the longevity of the Greeks. (Has he ever been to Ispica, I wonder?)

There are plenty of amusing comments in the outraged newspaper articles this event has inspired and some of the comments on social media make good reading too, referring to Ramsay's rather unconventional -  and therefore scandalous to Italians - interpretations of traditional Italian dishes.

Me? I love both Greek and Italian cuisine but I have never been lucky enough to eat Greek food in Greece. Therefore I would say I have a slight bias towards the country I live in but other than that I'm keeping out of it!

It was the Greeks who brought grapes, figs, olive trees and pomegranates to Sicily, among other culinary plants and of course they planted vineyards. Some say that even pasta may have originated in Greece but nobody knows for sure.

I did think of adding a poll to this post but then remembered that such ventures sometimes end in the resignation of Prime Ministers and the withdrawal of a country from a trading bloc so perhaps it is best to leave well alone. I would love to read your preferences in the comments, though.

Meanwhile it doesn't seem as if Gordon is going to eat humble pie so he might just have cooked his goose in Italy.





Monday, September 27, 2021

A GOOD YEAR FOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

Italy, as you may have noticed, is having a very good year for championships but you may not have heard about one that has nothing to do with sport, namely the World Pastrycook Championship - La Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie, which the country won, for the third time, in Lyon on Saturday.

Chefs Massimo Pica, a chocolate specialist, Lorenzo Puca, who specialises in sugarwork and Andrea Restuccia, a gelato specialist, were given ten hours to produce a chocolate dessert for sharing, an ice cream cake and a restaurant dessert plus a chocolate sculpture and a sugar sculpture, both 165 cm high. The team executed all these tasks impeccably and I am delighted to say that the chocolate sharing dessert contained the Sicilian ingredient of Tarocco oranges. 

"Nothing to do with sport", I said - except that I imagine the training and preparation must have been just as rigorous for, as a cook, I am exhausted just thinking about having to produce all that in the time allotted! Anyone who watches Bakeoff programmes will have some idea of how difficut it is. Many congratulations, then, to the Italian team and also to their trainer Alessandro Dalmasso. 

The runners-up were Japan, France was placed third and the UK a respectable fourth.

I cannot reproduce the pictures but you can view some here.


Monday, August 23, 2021

ONLY IN ITALY

The European Green Pass, available to EU citizens or legal residents who have completed their Covid vaccination cycle, tested negative to a molecular or antigen test or been cured of Covid, seems to me an excellent idea and I am very grateful to have mine. It can be carried in a paper version or simply downloaded to our phones, with a QR code which has to be scanned for entry into bars and restaurants (except for having a quick coffee at the bar counter) and public venues such as museums and theatres.

However, like all good ideas, it is only good insofar as it works and many bar owners and restaurateurs have been pointing out possible problems, the first being, who is going to do the scanning? Some small bars or restaurants might have to employ an extra person to do it. Secondly, it was initially thought that the person scanning the code would also have to ask the client for proof of identity, which the  restaurateurs objected to vehemently because, they understandably claimed, they are not police. The government quickly clarified that this measure would not be necessary but would remain an option.

However, now another problem has emerged, for the green pass is required only to eat or drink inside the bar or restaurant, not outside, but where, in the height of summer, do most clients, especially tourists wishing to experience the Italian lifestyle, wish to eat? Exactly - outside. Fearing that all the outside tables at their establishments would quickly be taken, thus driving away business from clients not wishing to eat inside, some proprietors are asking clients who have the green pass to eat inside, whether this is their wish or not. I can understand the restaurateurs' position, because their sector has been very heavily hit since March 2020, but the green pass holders are saying, with some justification, that they are now being penalised for being vaccinated.

A few weeks ago, before the advent of the green pass and when Sicily was in a yellow zone with light Covid restrictions, all clients wishing to sit down had to do so outside. Now this is a problem for me because I am asthmatic and cannot tolerate smoking, so I feared that, after so long, I would not be able to visit my local bar. However, they have a veranda ( which we would call a conservatory) area, which is classed as outside but smoking is not allowed, so that solved the problem for me and I still sit there now that we are in a white zone (very few restrictions). 

Cases, however, are increasing, which was probably inevitable with tourism, general opening up and a reluctance among elderly people to have the vaccine, but nobody wants to cancel the white zone in the tourist season. Instead, a system has been created whereby not only the number of cases and the number of intensive care beds occupied in a given location are looked at weekly by both regional and national government, but also the number of people vaccinated in that location. Modica has thereby escaped further restrictions this week, but 55 Sicilian comuni have been placed under these, many in nearby Siracusa Province and five here in Ragusa Province. We are already holding our breath for next week. Meanwhile, there are a lot of very frustrated bar and restaurant clients and proprietors of those establishments who are at their wits' end. They are only, after all, trying to save their businesses, even if upsetting vaccinated clients may not be the wisest way of doing so!

Typical Sicilian summer bar breakfast
of granita and brioche


Monday, August 16, 2021

A VERY LARGE DROP IN THE OCEAN

As most of the world watches, seemingly helplessly, events in Afghanistan today, Italy mourns the loss of a very rare man, someone who, seeing suffering and seeing need, was determined and able to do something about it - the humanitarian and surgeon Gino Strada, who died on 13th August at the age of 73.

After becoming a heart-lung transplant surgeon, Gino Strada worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross before founding, with his wife and colleagues, the medical humanitarian organisation Emergency in 1994. He wanted to help not only direct victims of war, but also those who, because of war, had no access to healthcare and therefore became medically vulnerable. He saw access to free healthcare as a human right. His first project with Emergency was in Rwanda during the genocide and he spent seven years in Afghanistan, opening a much-needed maternity centre there which was recognised by the Afghan Ministry of Health. He also opened a cardiac surgery centre in Khartoum (Sudan) and worked on many other projects in numerous countries. 

Gino Strada continued to speak out and demonstrate against fascism even in his last years and the people of Afghanistan were in his thoughts until the end. Of war he said,



In his book Pappagalli Verdi, Gino Strada wrote,

Quel che facciamo per loro, noi e altri, quel che possiamo fare con le nostre forze, è forse meno di una gocciolina nell’oceano. Ma resto dell’idea che è meglio che ci sia, quella gocciolina, perché se non ci fosse sarebbe peggio per tutti.

What we, and others, do for them, what we can do with the strength that we have, is perhaps less than a small drop in the ocean. But I still believe that it is better that this small drop is there, because if it wasn't the situation would probably be worse for everyone.

- A very large drop, in my opinion, Doctor Strada.


Gino Strada

21 April 1948 - 13 August 2021

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

OF A LEVELS AND STARS

Today is A level results day in Britain and seeing the reports of joy and disappointment always reminds me of the day I got mine. (A levels are the exams students take in order to get into university.) Here is another extract from my book:

Besides, it was not all doom and gloom at those Friday night meetings* and after them we would all go to a nearby café where we drank coffee, ate cake, laughed and joked and talked about other things. I was there the night before my A level results came out and I suddenly started crying because I couldn't control my anxiety about them any longer.

* The meetings were Gamblers Anonymous for Dad and the Gam-Anon group, for family members affected by a compulsive gambler, for Mum and me (once I turned eighteen).

...

When I heard the postman the next morning, I put my head under the eiderdown and refused to open the envelope which Mum had brought into my room.

It's all right, Pat. You know we're still proud of you, whatever it says.’

But I carried on hiding and eventually she took it in to Dad, who was still in bed.

Well, if you won't open it, I'll have to!’

And a few moments later,

My darling, you've got a place in university!’

I had done it! Despite all that had happened, I had got even better grades than my first choice university, Cardiff (then The University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, to give it its full title) had required. I couldn't believe it because I really thought I had failed everything but then, I always convinced my parents that I would fail every exam I ever took. I had chosen Cardiff not only because the city was known to me through holidays and weekend trips, but because you could study Italian there and they had not required an O level in maths, which I hadn't passed. I wanted to study Italian, along with French, as a change from Spanish. I think ‘La Vida de Lazarillo De Tormes’, which every Spanish student had to study, had finished me off for that subject and now I wanted to learn the language not only of opera, but of some romantic Italian records I had bought. At Cardiff, if you already had an A level language pass, you could do a crash course in Italian which would take you to A level standard and beyond in a term, so that is what I decided to do. I was so happy and even Miss Williams told me I had ‘done very well, considering all that.’

We celebrated and told everyone we knew and soon a reading list as long as your arm arrived so Dad and I were in our element, buying books in Foyles in Charing Cross Road. Our motto was always, ‘Why borrow a book when you can buy one and have it on your shelf?’ Dad's cousin John, Auntie Ethel's son, sent the two enormous volumes of the Harraps French-English and English-French dictionary, considered the best there was and I was delighted to own them instead of having to go to the library to consult them. John, now a university professor in Australia, had visited us often in Bristol when he was at Clifton College and had always encouraged me academically. I also had to have an undergraduate academic gown and, the Hall of Residence list said, ‘a biscuit tin, a mug, instant coffee and a tin of dried milk powder.’ In that first year the friends I made in Aberdare Hall and I drank myriad mugs of coffee laced with the dried milk, which would often turn lumpy, and I have to say it was one of the most revolting beverages that has ever passed my lips.

So, dear students in Britain, I do know how you feel today and if you are disappointed, it is very unlikely to be as bad as you think so explore every avenue because there is always a way - I know this as a teacher.

Exam results at that level of course impact on our dreams and our dreams are often inspired by the stars. Today is also the feast of San Lorenzo and in Italy on the notte di San Lorenzo and on the nights surrounding it we all look for falling stars, which are said to bring luck. Having said that, on the notte di San Lorenzo in 2019 I saw, for the first time, several shooting stars in succession and look how 2020 turned out! However, when I mentioned this to a kind friend earlier today, she said,

"Hey! You wrote the book, you got through a pandemic and you and Bertie (my dog) are well. Maybe those stars worked!"

So there you are - things are rarely as bad as they may seem.

L'âme est pleine des étoiles tombantes - The soul is full of falling stars.

- Victor Hugo

Le stelle cadono senza far rumore per non svegliarci - Stars fall noiselessly in order not to wake us.

- Roberto Gervaso


Image: 
https://cliparts.zone/falling-stars-cliparts



Wednesday, August 04, 2021

ARTFUL ARANCINI


In Italy domiciliari, or house arrest, is often used for minor crimes and sometimes for prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences or are too ill to remain in a correctional facility. This punishment is very strict and over the years on this blog, I have sometimes written about the comical occasions when offenders undergoing it have run away because they can no longer stand being shut up with their family, or have even gone to the police station begging for rearrest. One wonders how they fared in lockdown.

However, the offender who takes the biscuit - or rather, the riceball - is the young man from Catania who this week evaded house arrest to buy a tray of arancini. I must admit, the arancini of Catania are very good, and anyone who has ever experienced the aroma of freshly made Sicilian arancini wafting towards them from a nearby rosticceria will feel some empathy towards this man. Apparently an offender under house arrest can obtain permission to attend an urgent medical or dental appointment and this is what the young man had done. However, it was not the first time he had told police he was going to the dentist and they had become suspicious. After checking with his dental surgery and finding that he had never been there during his house arrest, the police waited outside his home, and soon along he came, already eating one of the steaming arancini from the trayful he had just purchased.

Whether the carabinieri confiscated the whole trayful is not known.

  

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

ADVENTURES WITH ANGURIA

 ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’wrote Shakespeare but he wasn't referring to summer and Sonnet 73 is not one of his cheeriest. But I think of the line in summer and, ever since that first visit of mine to Italy in 1969, I think of summer as anguria or watermelon time. Here is another extract from my book, A Place Called Siracusa and it tells of my first encounter with a watermelon:

It was, in fact, Dott Bianchi who announced one evening that we were going out to eat anguria. I had no idea what it was and he grinned and said I would see. And so I did. At his friends’ house, people were sitting round a kitchen dining table with packs of cards ready to be dealt and an enormous green-striped object in the centre. I saw at once that it was culinary but what was it? A vegetable? A type of marrow, perhaps? Something sweet? Then the man of the house began cutting it and I saw that the inside consisted of dripping, bright red flesh with what appeared to be enormous black seeds. He served me a slice and I had never tasted anything so deliciously cooling! Anguria was watermelon and I had never seen one. I devoured slice after slice that night and after that, as I walked hand in hand with Luca, I recognised it on the stands in the street, where people were buying it by the slice along with coconut.

When it was time to leave, I told Luca I’d like to take an anguria home if I could get a small one.

‘A small one?! What do you think they’re like? What a silly English girl you are!’

That time I got in a huff and reminded him I was Welsh.

Now you can get mini angurie, but then they were all enormous.  

....

One misty morning Lucia and Luca accompanied me to the airport (leaving the house an hour after the time written on my ticket for the closure of the check-in desk).

‘Plenty of time’, they both assured me and sure enough, when we arrived at the terminal, the Alitalia check-in desk hadn’t even opened. You certainly couldn’t do that today!

And so I left the country I had come to love and three hours later I walked up the stairs at Gatwick to see Dad and Grandpa standing there. They seemed pale to me – everybody did. I was glad to be home but I was profoundly changed. I had no doubt in my mind that one day I would go back to Italy and I would stay there. For me it had become what Browning described as the ‘land of lands.’ It still is.

I hadn’t been able to get an anguria into my suitcase but I did manage to pack a bottle of grappa for Grandpa. Mum only ever touched a sherry at Christmas, Dad wasn’t interested in alcoholic drinks and grappa was too strong for me. Grandpa, however, declared it the best thing since sliced bread so that solved my Christmas present problem for him for years to come. No more shaving soap for Grandpa! When we got to Pinner, I told Dad and Grandpa about anguria and that afternoon Dad scoured North London for one. Eventually he found one in an Italian grocer’s but it didn’t taste the same. I never told him.

Now, of course, watermelons are well known in Britain but I am still convinced that nothing tastes as good as a fresh, superbly juicy Italian one on a hot summer day. Friends in Sicily are surprised when I tell them that I serve watermelon  with cucumber as an antipasto but they are not exclusively served at the end of a meal here and are always a welcome sight on my plate of stuzzichini (appetisers) in the bar:



My ultimate homage to watermelon is to have my nails painted to represent them and last week I decided it was definitely that time of year!


Let's hear it for watermelon, everyone!

Counters


View My Stats