Thursday, November 29, 2007


The condominio's water supply ran out once more early this morning. "Oh, no!" I thought. "They'll all blame me again." But actually I had remembered to phone on Friday to request a refill and had been hoping that it would arrive yesterday. I decided I was going to have to call the comune office before lunchtime and beg them to come today, but at midday I was out with Simi and, from the far end of the main road, saw the water lorry turn into our side-street. I knew no one else was in at the condominio and the lorry obviously can't get in until someone opens the barrier across our courtyard, so Simi and I dashed back [she wasn't very impressed as she was in mid-poo and here was her mummy yelling, "Hurry up! Haven't got time now!" - I do pick it up, by the way, so there was that to be done too] but she entered into the spirit of the occasion once we got into our street: imagine, reader, the madwoman and her dog running up the street, me shouting "Signore! Aspetti! - Wait!" as the lorry prepared its escape and Simi barking joyfully. Anyway, we arrived at the barrier, opened it and forestalled the getaway so now we have water for another 10 days. The thing I hate most about these waterless mornings is the waste of perfume: I never go anywhere - indeed I never stay in - without drenching myself in Paris [a scent which lasts on me] and of course I'm straight into the shower once the water is back on. I resent that waste of the first spraying - do you think I could get perfume compensation payments from the comune?

Now, gentlemen look away for a moment: Girls, it is time to revisit the intimi shop! One of my Italian black number bras has given up the ghost- you know that moment when everything seems to be defying gravity to your satisfaction and all of a sudden - boyng....!! .. and there is part of the underwiring inelegantly protruding where your cleavage is meant to be? You push it back down but it boyngs again and you fear it will sock you in the eye before long. Well, that's what happened to me today so it's yet another trip to one of those stores tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


The trattoria in the little square has changed hands and become a pizzeria-trattoria so Irma and I have just been around there to check it out. Irma had the porcini mushroom pizza whilst I chose the bresaola, rocket and grana cheese one. For dessert, lemon gel was on offer and this one was very prettily presented. Gel is one of my favourite Sicilian desserts and I posted a recipe for it here. I think this pizzeria passes muster!


A Milanese prostitute who was unable to explain her affluent lifestyle [she owned six large apartments and two expensive cars] to the satisfaction of the Italian tax authorities has been ordered to pay tax on her income: this sets a precedent and now, in theory, all prostitutes in Italy will have to do so. You can read the whole story here.

Prostitution is tolerated in Italy but exploitation of it is not. In this most Catholic of countires, drive along any major road and you will see the ladies sitting provocatively at the roadside quite openly. As numbers of prostitutes in Italy have increased since the most recent expansion of the EU, the State is now considering fining their clients. Many of the women, from both within and outside the EU, have been “trafficked” into Italy, having been convinced that they were going to bona fide jobs. Then they found themselves having to pay for their journey by working as prostitutes. This law, at least, is an enlightened attempt at a partial solution.

In Britain prostitutes’ organisations have long been campaigning for legalisation, so that their activities would be recognised as “work” and they would therefore pay taxes. Both Ellee and Steven Bainbridge have posted on it , and, like Steven, I find it an issue fraught with difficulties and am not sure where I stand.

The first difficulty is, surely, what exactly is prostitution? What do we call it when someone allows a man or woman to set them up and keep them when there is no love? What is a mistress who accepts material comforts from her lover because she knows he will never offer her marriage? What do we call it when a woman remains in a loveless marriage for economic reasons? Yes, in a marriage there are likely to be other considerations but even so, the line is thin:
For the colonel’s lady an' Judy O'Grady
Are sisters under their skins"
wrote Kipling.

Now, I can see the arguments for legalisation and regulation, with health and hygiene issues, protecting the women and getting prostitutes off the streets of residential areas being three of these. But still they have to go somewhere and where would that be? Illegal activity would continue for where there is a business there are surely always those who would try to undercut it. And I’m uneasy with the “People will do it anyway so let’s legalise it” school of thought because that could be applied to anything.
The nineteenth century reformer Josephine Butler’s main objection to regulation was inequality, with the law recognising no fault in the male client; however, she also objected in principle to what, in her eyes, amounted to State sponsorship of immorality. Butler was largely responsible for the repeal of the Contagious Disease Acts in Britain: under these Acts the women were humiliated, subjected to brutal “health” checks and generally treated inhumanely. If there were regulation today, I’m not suggesting that it would be handled so insensitively but I doubt whether all the implications have been thought through.

And yet..… as so often in life, a situation you know of personally can change your thinking or cause you to question it. I have a friend who has a brain-damaged son. Now an adult, he has sexual desires like everybody else. These have sometimes been manifested in disturbing ways. “I’d pay for him to visit a prostitute if there was a way of finding a clean one!” my friend cried to me in desperation after one of these incidents. This, I believe, is an aspect of the matter which few legislators have considered.

One thing I am sure about: I get angry when prostitution is called a “profession” and, although I am more sympathetic than not towards women who feel they have no choice but to ply this trade, they are not feminists and they are not liberated women. For the trafficked women or for those otherwise forced into this way of life, I feel nothing but sorrow and the situation makes me wonder how much has really changed since Josephine Butler’s day.

So: fine the clients / punish those who profit from the activity / punish the prostitutes themselves / legalise and regulate – what do you think?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Raffaele the hairdresser's salon is on the first floor of the via Sacro Cuore's palazzo di vetro or "glass building". As I entered this morning, I could hear the raised voices upstairs from the ground floor. When I walked into the salon, Raffaele was standing in the middle of it, gesticulating wildly and shouting, whilst his staff gesticulated back and spoke loudly at the same time. If you weren't used to Italians, you'd have thought they were all really angry but they were just having a discussion about the shortcomings of the salon's cleaner. All of a sudden Raffaele yelled, "I'll show you!" leapt onto a chair, ran his fingers over the top of a mirror and triumphantly displayed the dust on them. Now, he is a short man, so how he knew of the existence of this dust on the high mirror I cannot imagine, unless he was born with "dust antennae" like my friend Gina, who can spot a speck from three miles away.

I also know of a woman here who has managed to minimalise minimalism: she will have nothing in her house beyond the bare necessities in case the extra items should gather dust and at home she is never without a duster in her hand, springing into action to remove minute particles the second she espies them. This hardly makes for a relaxing visit should you pay her a call. I should invite her around, reader, for wouldn't she have the whale of a time among my 5700 + books and 912+ ornaments?!

When Raffaele finally turned to the matter of my hair, I breathed a sigh of relief - he is lovely but you do need your pazienza in the salon sometimes - and he fiddled with my locks for a few minutes, then used both dryer and brush to point at some other spot which the unfortunate cleaner had missed, thus beginning the informal "staff meeting" all over again, with other clients chiming in and tutting at the inadequate cleaning too. The fourth time this happened, he glanced at me and understood my cynical smile and he has probably guessed that I am telling you all about it now. I'm glad he doesn't come to my apartment to inspect my housework!

My hair is a little redder today.

If you want a really good laugh, do have a look at this on pinkacorn's site - it has made my day!

Monday, November 26, 2007


The words on the postcard are: "Je vois, bien souvent, ma maman pleurer. Je sèche ses pleurs avec un baiser - I often see my mother crying and I dry her tears with a kiss."
The certificate in the second photo hangs in my sitting room: it is the honourable discharge certificate issued to my paternal grandfather, one of many signed by King George V and handed out to the maimed of World War 1. Blinded at the Battle of Jutland, my grandfather never saw his son, my father. A career naval officer, he had travelled far and wide; I remember , as a child, our house being filled with silks and artefacts he had brought from China, until they just wore away or got broken over time. I like to think that he visited Sicily and felt the sun on his face before the darkness engulfed him. Before moving here, I considered giving the certificate to the Maritime Museum in Swansea – they had expressed some interest in having it – but I just couldn’t let it go.

I thought about telling this story on November 11th but did not, [a] because there is no commemoration here on that day and [b] because although I of course respect and feel deeply for my fallen or wounded countrymen in any war, I have issues with the current war and so felt it best to remain silent. I am not, I would like to point out, a pacifist; I should be but I am not. I will now break that silence in view of what happened at the weekend:

Many of my fellow-Blogpowerers were incensed at this and I understand their anger. Daily Referendum, James, Cllr Tony Sharp and Lord Nazh all posted on it immediately [I apologise if I have left anyone out] and I agree with much of what they have to say. James said, “I would dearly love to see some sort of post, some sort of comment from the womenfolk to assure me we haven’t gone stark, raving mad.” I commented on his site; now here is the post, though I’m not sure you are going to like it, James.

According to the report, a woman, or two women, behaved abusively towards badly injured servicemen using an area of her/their local swimming pool as part of their rehabilitation. That is, of course, appalling and I am not in any way excusing the women. Indeed, I hope that, had I been there, I would have had the courage to challenge them. But I would not have asked them “What have you ever done for your country?” Instead, I would have tried to find out what exactly their reasons were and would have tried to remonstrate with them. I am not for a moment suggesting that I would have done this totally calmly as I would have been angry, too. I would probably have got myself beaten up or worse, in today’s Britain. Much has been written about the fact that it was women who behaved in this way: yet I can imagine, because I have witnessed similar behaviour, that it could have come from young men, too. The most likely reason for their behaviour is, I believe, sheer ignorance. I would be willing to bet that they would have made similar remarks to any group of disabled people, and I would have been just as incensed: I hope my fellow-Blogpowerers would have been, too.

I have read that in the USA, the women would have been immediately taken to task in no uncertain terms and there are three possible reasons why this apparently did not happen in Britain: [1] maybe there just weren’t many people about [2] those who were about feared for their jobs or violent consequences [both of which suggest sad truths about our society] and [3] we just do not have the unquestioning patriotism of Americans. We do not put our hands on our hearts the minute the chords of our National Anthem strike up and I, for one, will stand for Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau but will not rise for God Save the Queen [ or at least, there are very few occasions when I would]. I think this questioning society is, on the whole, a good development and one of the quotes I liked to leave my A level students with was this, from Winifred Holtby’s South Riding:
“Question everything – even what I’m saying now. Especially, perhaps, what I say. Question everyone in authority, and see that you get sensible answers to your questions.”
I never read them the next part, because it would not have been appropriate, but I think it is worth quoting here:
“Vow as much love to your country as you like; serve to the death if that is necessary… But, I implore you, do not forget to question.”
Without questioning, there would have been no resistance at all to tyrants through the ages.

Let us not confuse questioning, however, with lack of deference, which is probably a good thing, and lack of respect, which is not. Yet I cannot agree with James that our troops deserve, at all times, unquestioning respect: for if that is so, I would be required to respect those who had done this. General Montgomery, I read, regarded rape as a mere by-product of war; how can I respect that or “teach” others to do so?

James also asks, in the comments, whether women could just say “Thank you to our brave men who fought to protect us" without bringing feminism into it: I’ll leave aside the feminist issue but would point out that women have always been both the victims and complicit in war: wives and mothers of sons waited in dread for the telegrams in both World Wars, just as they dread the appearance at the door of the officer in a suit today, whilst in WW1 some women were as fooled by the propaganda as their menfolk, and, in giving out white feathers to non-combatants and generally egging the men on, were as responsible as their government for encouraging the whole bloody mess. In both wars, there were unsung heroines and today women are also front line soldiers. So it is no longer possible to conjure up an image of the “little woman at home who couldn’t defend herself”.

When the shelling on the western front stopped on Xmas Eve, 1914, and both sides saw sense and played football instead of slaughtering each other, I suspect that the reaction of many women was, “If they can lay down arms for an hour or two, why can’t they stop the entire war?” and I don’t think this thought was far from the minds of many combatants either. Or, as John Lennon and others were later to put it, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” If only!

I do not believe, you see, that going to war always makes your country – or, god forbid, someone else’s – a “safer place”. Wars have been and are being fought over language, territory, the colour of people’s skin, slavery, oil, an abstract noun and, most often, the ambitions of unscrupulous politicians who never get near the firing line. Remember the reactions of the politicians in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Michael Moore suggests they sign their own sons and daughters into the military? “No way!” their faces said.

Only very rarely is war really fought for “freedom” and when it is, it seems to me, those in power and their supporters do not seem very keen upon upholding the freedom to dissent, or to abhor war: I have been criticised in Britain, in November, our season of remembrance, for wearing a white peace poppy along with the red remembrance one. Yet I often think of the blind sailor who never saw his son and my way of respecting and remembering him and those like him is to campaign for peace.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


In the film Big Night, a clip from which I posted last night, the two struggling Italian restaurateur brothers, Primo and Secondo, decide to put on a fantastic feast for the singer Louis Prima. "Oh, no, Primo - not timpano!" exclaims Secondo, for timpano or timballo is notoriously complicated to make and rather heavy on pan use, I must say. [The two words are interchangeable, both referring to a drum shape.] Primo goes ahead and makes a glorious one and it has become a famous image from the film. The version that Primo makes is covered in pastry, but more often timballo is a dish of a filling enclosed in rice. In the film everyone enjoys the party, but sadly Louis Prima does not come - the brothers have been duped by a business rival and they are ruined.

Last night your intrepid blogger decided it was high time she made a timballo and very relieved - nay, ecstatic - she was when it [literally] turned out well. I don't have a proper timballo mould so it hasn't got a nice, domed top but, reader, if I say so myself, it was delicious. Here's what you do:

1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
2-3 fresh sage leaves, chopped
2 oz unsalted butter
4 tablesp olive oil
2 slices pancetta or coppata, cut into strips
4 oz chicken escalopes, cut into strips [In Italy the escalopes are sold very thin, but in Britain you might have to ask your butcher to beat them out for you, or do this yourself by wrapping them in clingfilm and bashing with a rolling pin]
a little flour
1 tablesp brandy
5 tablesp white wine
5 fl. oz milk
pinch grated nutmeg
handful flat-leaved parsley, chopped
3 artichokes
1.5 pints good, preferably home-made chicken stock
12 oz arborio or other risotto rice
pinch powdered saffron

Fry a third of the onion, half the garlic and the sage in 1 oz of the butter and 1 tablesp olive oil.

Dust the chicken strips with flour and add to the pan with the pancetta/coppata. Fry for a few minutes, without browning the onion, then add the brandy and 4 tablesp of the wine. Pour on the milk and let it all reduce slowly.

In another pan, fry another third of the onion, the rest of the garlic and the parsley slowly in 3 tablesp olive oil. Again, you don't want to brown the onion. Prepare the artichokes* and add them with the stock and 1 tablesp of the wine. Stir and cook for about 20 mins until the artichokes are tender. Drain them and keep the stock.

Preheat the oven to 200 C.

Now you need a risotto or wide pan about 2'' deep for the rice component is basically a risotto: Fry the rest of the onion in 1 oz butter in this pan, then add the rice and saffron. Stir it for a minute or two, then add about a third of the chicken and artichoke stocks. There is a lot of talk about risotto being "difficult" but it won't be if you follow the Welshcakes Limoncello method! Bring the stock to the boil, stir the rice, then let it simmer while you have a drink. When you have finished your drink the rice will have absorbed the stock. Stir it and add another third, have another drink, then repeat this step.

When the rice has absorbed all the stock and you are feeling nice and mellow, give it a good stir then use two thirds of it to line an oiled ovenproof mould or dish. Then add the chicken mixture and cover with the rest of the rice. It will need, at most, 10 minutes in the oven to firm up.

Remove it from the oven, loosen the sides with a round-bladed knife, put a serving plate on top, [pray] then flip the whole thing over - fast! Remove the mould and garnish the timballo with the artichokes.

* Note on preparing artichokes: I used to find this a pain but have come to the conclusion that you have to be ruthless with the things and you need to use young, elongated artichokes. If you use the tough "old" artichokes often sold in in Britain, you will end up with nothing left, unless you are a lot more dextrous than I am. It is essential to rub all cut surfaces with half a lemon to prevent discolouration when preparing artichokes. I find Marcella Hazan's instructions on the process the easiest to follow.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Look what I've got! Yes, I finally stopped dithering and used my supermarket points to get an MP3 player. No, I don't know how to use it yet! All I want to do is listen to The Archers on the thing.

Christmas is coming but there is little sign of it in the stores here. Only one or two smaller shops have decorated their windows. Come on, shopkeepers - the place needs brightening up now! [Most families don't decorate their homes until the Immacolata Concezione holiday on 8th December. They will all display a crib and some will have a tree as well.] This morning I bought my first panettone of the season - well, it's a chocolate cake baked by the slow rising panettone method - because I wanted the pretty container it came in.

I also spent a fair bit at the perfumery, replenishing my skin care supplies. [Why does everything run out at the same time?] Yet again, I thought of how much I miss department stores. In the perfumery, the ladies will rummage through their cupboards to find you a few samples but you miss out on the "gifts" you would obtain in a department store when a particular beauty company is running a promotion. I always end up with a drawer full of samples of makes I don't use and I need the promotional goody bags for the practical, travel-sized items they usually contain! I suppose I could go to Catania, where there is a Rinascente store, for my make-up and I will consider it, though I 've gone off that shop since the "g and t incident", a story I'll retell here as only the five or so people who have followed the blog from the very beginning will know it: I had had lunch, preceded by two gin and tonics, in their restaurant and asked at the cash desk for directions to a taxi rank. As I walked away, I heard a cashier say, "Ha! She's had two gin and tonics and now she needs a taxi." I've never forgiven them for that and I wish I had turned round and told them what I thought of them, but I didn't. [I'd only been here three months and wasn't as assertive as I would be now.]

When I left full-time secondary teaching, I toyed with the idea of becoming a make-up lady in a large store. Now, I lack the retail gene and would have been quite hopeless at selling anything to anyone, but I fancied the idea of standing there in one of those nice uniforms that a company like Lancôme would give you and spraying perfume on passers-by. Then a friend pointed out that I'd probably want to hit most of the rich, leisured women who would use the store during office hours and I realised that she was right.

The last photo is one of Milan Cathedral that I took some years ago from the restaurant at the top of the Rinascente store in Milan. Now that's what I call a store!

Thursday, November 22, 2007


- A fair yield of quince liqueur. I'm quite pleased with the final colour, as well. I'm running out of cupboard space for all these liqueurs! Now to start the Christmas Pudding vodka....

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


A student I taught this afternoon is preparing for a university level oral exam in which she has to describe a picture. “What sort of picture?” I asked. “I don’t know” she replied. The exam is on Monday, there has been no practice of this sort of task and she has no idea what to expect. Now I have been teaching children and adults for long enough to know that you can give some groups of students important information over and over again and they will swear that you have never broached the subject, but this is not the case here. Next I discovered that she had no idea how to go about describing any scene and would have found it difficult even in Italian. This is not uncommon in students: how are they to know if you, as the teacher, don’t tell them? How can you concentrate on content [and not even that has been done here] and completely ignore technique? For goodness sake, give the poor dears some guidelines! The student’s mind – it was a fascinating process for me to watch – just zoomed in on the objects in the first photo we looked at and she was not lacking in vocabulary. But she had no knowledge of how to order her thoughts or how to make her description interesting. “Just a minute, slow down” I counselled. “Now tell me where we are – it doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly – just town / countryside / Britain / Italy”. Then, “OK, when is it happening? What season do you think it is? Why? What time of day? Why?” If there are people: “Now, who is there? What are they doing? What are they wearing?” or if there are no people, “What can you see?” Again – whoa! “Take the picture section by section”: and of course, she had no stock of phrases like “in the foreground / in the background / on the left-hand side” etc. This is not the first time I have come across a student who is just told, “The exam’s next week – this is what you have to do [in the vaguest terms ] -get on with it.” It is easy to criticise a teacher I have not met – I realise that – but I’ve seen so much of this now that I think there must be a general lack of guidance here in how to approach the required tasks. To be fair, I have observed this in the UK too.

On a similar theme, I do not know how any teacher can expect students to debate in an oral exam or write discursive essays without giving them a list of the expressions they will need to do so, regardless of topic. The lists I have devised for Italian and English teaching are divided into sections such as: agreeing / disagreeing / conceding / concluding. [French has more commercial material available on this.]

My advice to students is always, “Do anything [legal] that you can to give yourself an edge”. And , with higher level exams, that usually means observing and studying the culture of the target language and doing a lot of reading. I remember begging an A level French group I was teaching to go and see the films, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, which had just been released in Britain at the time. [These were 18-year-olds, remember: you shouldn’t have to always organise a school trip to a film that is showing in a cinema down the road from where they live.] Only one young man from that group heeded my advice. And when the aural exam came upon us what was the main part of it about? - An interview with Pagnol, the author of the books on which the films were based. Apart from the fact that, if they’d gone to see the films, the other students would have experienced a psychological boost – “Hey! I know about this!” – and believe me, that can help on exam day – one question used the French word sources. Only the young man who had seen the films realised that in this context it meant “springs”; the others misinterpreted it. I rest my case.

When it comes to reading in the foreign language, I tell students to resist the urge to look words up when tackling a book: otherwise it slows the whole process down, they get fed up and the book ends up back on the shelf. “Persevere and get the gist”, I tell them. And they are often surprised at how quickly their fluency improves. In the days when a literature paper was obligatory in A level modern language exams, I would tell them to read the book in English translation first. After all, they were going to do that anyway, so you might as well be honest about it and make the thing an asset. “At least if you do that”, I would point out “you have read the book as it was meant to be read – in its entirety, without worrying about meaning and without stopping to analyse”. Then we would go to the original version and get down to the nitty-gritty. Another way that students can help themselves when learning a foreign language is to read a news story – one of international interest – in their own langauge. Then, when they at least know the basics of what has happened, they can go and find a version of the story in the target language[ so easy with the internet!]

With regard to listening, I tell students to have the radio on as much as possible in the foreign language: they don’t have to understand all, or even most, of what is said but if you have it on while you are doing the ironing or something you are, subconsciously, absorbing some of the rhythm of that language. Czech, for instance, is a monotone language and if you are a learner you need to listen to it to get to grips with that: in English, on the other hand, tonic stress and sentence stress patterns are vital: [Consider how tonic stress can alter meaning in English, eg., perfect - adjective / perfect - verb and the way we use our voices for emphasis where French and Italian use extra words, eg., I think that / Moi, je crois que…] One of the reasons why someone like me puts cushions over her ears when the Queen or Blair makes a speech in French is that, although it will be grammatically correct, they use exactly the same intonation as they do in English.

Talking of grammar, one thing I never do is say, “It is ALWAYS like this” when giving a grammatical rule. You might be able to get away with this with children but advanced and mature students are more likely to come across stylistic variations and this can be quite stressful for them. They [understandably] blame you, too: “But you said….!”

In preparing students for English IELTS [a horrible exam which I would not like to have to sit myself] I analysed the type of questions asked, particularly in the listening test, probably the most difficult component. There was nearly always an address given, very quickly, which students would have to write down. Now, just as a lot of Italian street names are those of historical dates – every Italian town will have a via XXV aprile, for instance – so British street names are themed: names of famous people, names of battles, names of flowers, etc. I ‘d advise students that it might be worth their while to buy themselves a ticket for the City Circle bus, take the round trip through the city and notice the street names. Those particular street names may not have come up, though sometimes they did, but the activity gave students confidence – and confidence, provided it is not misplaced, can be an edge in an exam situation.

Now it’s gone 9 pm and the schoolmarm has rambled on in a way that she would never encourage her students to do, so I’ll end by saying this: I am not the perfect teacher and I don’t know anyone who is. My “tricks of the trade” have taken a lifetime in education to acquire and I have given some crap lessons in my time! I have off days, like everyone else, and sometimes the most meticulously planned lesson just goes wrong. But I have learnt this: you often do not know what effect you have had on your students. You can be in despair because a lesson didn’t seem to work and years later you find out a student remembers it as one of your best; the converse, of course, is also true. You can’t always predict the exam questions but you can give students as much confidence as it is possible for them to have by discussing approach and technique with them. Do not send them “naked into the examinations hall”.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Kind friends invited me to lunch on Sunday and I thought I'd give them a rest from me whipping out my camera every time they placed a dish on the table - though they would never stop me photographing the produce of their kitchen. Instead, here are the goodies they insisted I bring back with me: lemons and a grapefruit from their trees - if a lemon straight from a tree is a wondrous thing, a grapefruit thus offered is sublime, as there is hardly any bitter taste at all; loti [kaki in dialect], again from the garden; eaten ripe, these do not make your mouth go dry; and the beautiful, crunchy almond biscuits which my friends make from freshly gathered and ground almonds. Taste sensations like these remind me why I came to Sicily!

Monday, November 19, 2007


I love Italians. I really do. I am happiest when I am among them and their kindness has been saving me from despair since I was 19 years old. But here are 4 of their foibles that I will never understand:

1. In Modica we’ve been legally able to have the heating on since last Thursday. Yet Sicilians will sit around in their own homes muffled up in several jumpers, scarves and even a jacket rather than put the heating on. Why turn the winter into an endurance test?
2. Food which is meant to be hot is sometimes served stone cold here and everybody finds this perfectly normal. A lot of dishes are made hours in advance so that is one reason and the other is that ovens are a relatively recent addition to most Italian domestic kitchens so it doesn’t occur to many cooks to use them to heat dishes up. Look around any Italian kitchen and, whilst it may be spacious by British standards and there will be a table that pasta can be made on, you will see little counter space. There is certainly no room for a kettle or microwave. Italians just don’t go in for “recipe” concoctions in the way that Brits do and most preparation is quick, takes little space and then the food is usually cooked on the hob.
3. A student has just left here bearing one of those tiny, grid-ruled exercise books that Italians use as children to practise their spindly handwriting and later as adults for all notetaking. When I give this lady printouts, she just folds them and stuffs them into this exercise book. The schoolmarm in me so wants to advise her to purchase – or even purchase for her – a nice A4 file with polypockets. I grit my teeth and remind myself I am dealing with an adult.
4. The way some Italians behave around pets! I have 2 friends who are really jumpy around Simi. “Can’t you tie her up?” asked one as he entered the apartment the other day. I’m not tying up my baby!! She only wants to greet them and receive an acknowledgement of her presence. – What’s the matter with them?! This is Simi’s home as well as mine and if you can’t accept that, don’t come! Kate Fox, in Watching the English , writes: “You see, the English really are quite capable of Latin-Mediterranean warmth, enthusiasm and hospitality; we can be just as direct and approachable and emotive and tactile as any of the so-called ‘contact cultures’. It is just that these qualities are only consistently expressed in our interactions with our animals……People who object to being jumped on, climbed over, kicked, scratched and generally mauled by English animals who are ‘just being friendly’ also clearly have something wrong with them.” Quite.

It is only fair now to cite some British charcteristics that are disturbing to Italians:

1. Ever since the sad McCann affair began in May, I have found myself defending my countrymen and women and trying to convince Italians that we do not, as a matter of course, abandon our children when we go out to dinner. Admittedly, if they are very young we do not often take them with us , but we do normally employ babysitters! No one believes me on this, so convinced are they by the media criticism.
2. On a lighter note, every Italian I have ever met who has visited Britain has commented on the fact that, when washing the dishes, the British do not rinse them. The journalist Beppe Severgnini bears me out here: “No one has been able to explain to me why you insist on flavouring your meals with washing up liquid. I often rinse my plate myself before dinner with friends but I can feel the hostility around me. I wonder when it will occur to you that washing a dish without rinsing it afterwards is bizarre and actually not very good for you.” [I , on the other hand, have often concluded that Italians are “rinsing mad”.]
3. Then there is our plumbing, on which Severgnini has this to say: “No one has explained convincingly why the British persist in installing sinks with 2 widely spaced taps, one for hot water, one for cold, placed at the very edge of the sink, so that when you want to wash your hands, you either scald them or freeze them but you never manage to wash them.” And on bidets: "A more likely explanation for why the bidet has been ignored is that if the British installed them, they would have to use them.”
4. Severgnini also has an opinion on pets: “It seems that no other country in Europe consumes as much water between 7am and 9am as Britain. Now, apart from the fact that people might simply enjoy the sound of running water, remember that half of British families have pets. My theory? In the morning, they run water and bathe them.”
[All Severgnini quotes from An Italian in Britain, 1990.]

Quid pro quo.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Back to one of my all-time favourite Italian cookery books, Marcella Cucina, last night: I decided to make this dish of rabbit with peppers and I must say it turned out very well. For this you peel the peppers without grilling or roasting them first, so you need unknobbly ones, and they should melt into the sauce. I'm not convinced they all did, but it's definitely a dish I'll be making again. You are supposed to put a very small chilli pepper in but I used this chilli pepper spray [because I wanted to try it out] instead and I think it was successful. Here's my latest cookery motto: "Half is accuracy, half slapdash and you can serve it with panache". Yes, well - better stop for tonight!


The condominio was without water for a couple of hours this morning and this time, it was my fault, as on Friday, what with falling over and the consequences, I forgot to ring the Comune to request a cistern refill. How did this become my responsibility? A few weeks ago, the capocondominio [tenant in charge of administrative matters] asked me if I would do the phoning as she is often away these days for family reasons. I'd been making the requests all summer anyway, as she wasn't here, so I said I would go on doing so. Usually a refill will last about 10 days but it varies as to how many people are actually using their apartments [Sicilians are always off to the sea or the countryside] in a given period.
Early this morning this lady rang my doorbell to ask if I'd phoned and I apologised for having forgotten. She said she would pop over to the water office [as no one will answer the phone on a Sunday] which she did and then she came back to tell me the lorry would arrive later. "But this is the second time! " she exclaimed, as if I'd been really remiss, as we were waterless for a couple of hours a week ago last Wednesday, too. I explained that I had, in fact, phoned on the Friday that time but the lorry had not appeared until the following Wednesday. Now, being without water is probably more irritating to me than it is to Sicilians, as I am certainly not used to it but even I can cope for an hour or two!

At 11 am the lorry appeared and the driver told me that the office has now decided they need 3 days' notice if we need a refill so that accounts for the delay last time. Of course, no one has bothered to inform citizens of this ruling and I don't know why it has suddenly been applied: there were terrible problems with the water supply during the first year I was here but in the earlier part of this year the office got very efficient and the lorry came every week without anyone needing to phone. These arrangements were abandoned, like so many others, in the summer.

As I was going out with Simi at 9 am the lady on the ground floor called to me and I told her that a delivery had been promised for today. "This morning?" she asked. "Speriamo - let's hope so", said I, for how was I to know?! Could it be, reader, that I have acquired pazienza and the Sicilians have less of it than I these days?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

7 x 8

I do memes if I haven’t done the particular one before, if I think I can make a decent post out of it and – yes – sometimes if I’m stuck for an idea. This one from Lady Mac made me think:

8 things I’m passionate about:
1. My dog
2. Italy
3. Books
4. Cooking
5. Language learning and teaching
6. Any form of bullying – in schools, at work, on the internet, anywhere – angers me.
7. I hate narrow-mindedness.
8. Unkindness is so unnecessary.

8 things to do before I die:
I’ve done the big one – I moved to Italy!
1. Publish a book
2. Buy a Sicilian villa on the proceeds
3. Visit Mendocino – because of that song by Kate & Anna McGarrigle [no room for it on list below]. Along with Carrickfergus, I think it expresses homesickness perfectly.
4. Fly long-haul first class but only if I can take ALL my make-up on board!
5. Meet James, Ellee, Lady Mac, Winchester Whisperer and jmb! [Be warned: I eventually manage to do most things I set out to do!]
6. Fall madly, irresponsibly in love one more time – with an uncomplicated, straight, solvent, single man. [Well, all right, I suppose he can be a bit complicated!]
7. So many more books to read!
8. So many more recipes to try!

8 things I say often:
1. All to my dog: “Good girl/Pretty girl//I’m only putting on lippy – it’s not time to go out/Simi day today” [on a day when I’m staying in].
2. A lot of unprintable Anglo-Saxon swearwords.
3. “Shit! I can’t see to find my glasses.”
4. “Pazienza” .
5. “Buona giornata /serata” [“Have a good day / evening”].
6. “He /she’s on his / her way out, then”, whenever a British Prime Minister gives a minister his “unreserved backing”.
7. “Con ghiaccio e limone, per favore” [“Ice & lemon, please”].
8. Cincin!

8 books I’ve read recently:
1. Hot Mettle – Brenda Dean
2. As a Dodo
3. Shakespeare’s Wife – Germaine Greer
4. Delizia! – John Dickie
5. The World According to Bertie – Alexander McCall Smith
6. Love in a Torn Land – Jean Sasson
7. Dear Olivia – Mary Contini
8. L’Amore molesto – Elena Ferrante

8 songs I could listen to over and over:
1. Va, Pensiero – Pavarotti or a Welsh male voice choir
2. Nella FantasiaKatherine Jenkins / Summer /Paul Potts
3. Sapore di Sale – Gino Paoli [every Italian’s favourite summer song]
4. À Quoi Ça Sert l’Amour?Edith Piaf & Theo Sarapo. In this song the young man asks the experienced, older woman what’s the use of love because he’s heard it brings only pain. She replies that it does bring pain but also much joy. “C’est triste et merveilleux – It’s sad but it’s wonderful”. I like to think that Sarapo really loved Piaf. I have no reason to believe that he didn’t.
5. Always on my Mind – Presley / Patrizio Buanne
6. Waltz Across Texas – Ernest Tubb. I just can’t sit still when I play this. It reminds me of my line-dancing days and Simi thinks I’ve gone mad!
7. Last Man in My Life – Shirley Bassey
8. The Prisoner’s Song – Brenda Lee
And my ringtone is Je ne regrette rien.

8 qualities I look for in a best friend:
1. Be trustworthy.
2. Be kind, above all else.
3. Understand it’s not always easy to be single.
4. Humour, humour, humour!
5. Don’t be narrow-minded .
6. Stay in touch – you don’t have to live in my pocket, but don’t let me make all the effort in the friendship. An email saying, “Sorry, I’m busy – speak next week / month” is nearly always possible .
7. Don’t call me when I’m listening to The Archers – unless, of course, you are in trouble, in which case you can call me any time of day or night.
8. Love my dog.

8 people I’m passing this on to:
Anyone who feels like doing it. [I don’t tag.]

Edith Piaf- A quoi ça sert l'amour/RTF studios 2 July 1962

This song says it all about love. The way she looks at Theo just breaks my heart. More about it soon.

Paul Potts - Nella Fantasia

You'll see why I am featuring this in a post coming up. This is a voice that could only have come out of Wales!

Friday, November 16, 2007


On my way back just now with Simi, I met the lady who lives on the top floor. I don't see her very often, but she is always pleasant. I told her about my fall this morning and she said, "Oh, yes, it really shakes you up when you're on your own. A lot of people don't understand". So the day has ended with my feeling that I have found a little empathy in that quarter. It's comforting.

Raffaele always knows when I'm down and I think they do in the Altro Posto too: today's fresh fruit / ice cream concoction is even prettier than Tuesday's I think, and they insisted I take away with me a bar of the latest flavour that the clever chocolatiers of Modica have thought up - Nero d'Avola wine. As Liz commented on Tuesday's post, it would be impolite to refuse!


I've been writing a promotional leaflet, in both languages [as it is fashionable to advertise in English] for Raffaele the hairdresser. He asked me to approach it from a personal point of view and this is what I've come up with:


Two countries but only one hairdresser for me!

It was during a visit to Modica in 1994 that a friend took me to Raffaele Falco’s Yellow salon in the via Sacro Cuore. Raffaele took one look at me and knew exactly how to style my hair and I knew, at that moment, that I had found a maestro who understands that a woman’s hair has to suit her face, her clothes, perhaps a particular occasion and, above all, her personality. I went back to Raffaele every time I came to Modica and for many years I tried to persuade him to open a branch in Britain. Finally, in 2005, realising that the hairdresser was not going to move to Britain, the British lady decided to move to Modica!

Raffaele decided to become a lady’s hairdresser at the age of 20 and served his apprenticeship locally. After attending various training sessions run by l'Oréal [Turin] he opened a salon in the Sorda district of Modica, transferring to larger premises in 1994. Housed in the via Sacro Cuore’s elegant “glass building” , the spacious and equally elegant salon is the essential meeting place for women who know that to “feel good you have to look good” and that looking good starts with your hair.

Never content to stand still, Raffaele has always continued to attend courses on new techniques, first at the International School of Paris, then at Aldo Coppola’s A.c. Quality [Milan] [diploma] and, more recently, at Toni & Guy. Raffaele has also styled models’ hair during Fashion Weeks.

Raffaele has a young and enthusiastic team who contribute much to the vibrant, happy atmosphere of the salon and who hope to follow in the footsteps of their talented maestro.

The British lady, like her modicane fellow-clients, always feels more relaxed, elegant and confident after a visit to Yellow di Raffaele Falco.

Raffaele looks forward to welcoming you all at Yellow soon.


Due Paesi ma un solo parrucchiere per me!

Durante una visita a Modica nel 1994 un’amica mi ha accompagnata dalla sala Yellow di Raffaele Falco in via Sacro Cuore. Raffaele mi ha dato un’occhiata e ha saputo esattamente come acconciarmi i capelli. Io, invece, ho saputo in quel momento che avevo trovato un maestro che capisce che i capelli di una donna dovrebbero abbellire la faccia e i vestiti , essere, a volte, adatti ad un avvenimento particolare e, soprattutto, alla sua personalità. Durante tutte le mie altre visite a Modica, tornavo da Raffale e, per molti anni, ho provato a convincerlo ad aprire un succursale in Gran Bretagna. Finalmente, avendo capito che il parrucchiere non era in grado di trasferirsi in Gran Bretagna, la signora inglese ha deciso di spostarsi a Modica!

Raffaele ha deciso di diventare parrucchiere all’ago di 20 anni e ha fatto il suo apprendistato da un maestro locale. Dopo aver frequentato vari corsi di formazione presso l’Oréal di Torino ha aperto una sala nella zona della Sorda a Modica, trasfirendosi in un salone più grande nel 1994. Situata nel “palazzo di vetro” in via Sacro Cuore, la sala spaziosa e elegantissima è il punto di riferimento per tutte le donne che conoscono l’importanza di “vedersi bene per sentirsi meglio” e che “vedersi bene” comincia con l’acconciatura.

Mai contento di fermarsi, Raffaele ha sempre frequentato corsi tecnico-artistici, prima dall’ International School of Paris, poi ha conseguito diplomi di A.c. Quality presso l’Accademia milanese di Aldo Coppola, e ultimamente ha partecipato ai meeting presso Toni & Guy. Raffaele ha anche preso parte ai back-stage durante le collezioni.

Raffaele è collaborato da un team di giovani che contribuiscono molto all’atmosfera vibrante e felice della sala e che sperano seguire il loro maestro pieno di talento.

La signora inglese, come tutte le clienti modicane, si sente sempre più rilassata, elegante e sicura di sé dopo una visita da Yellow di Raffaele Falco.

Vieni a scoprire tutto ciò....


After a disturbed night of thunder and lightning, I fell down outside my favourite place - the Post Office - on my way out this morning. As you can see, part of the pavement is broken and it had got very slippery in the rain. I was down before I realised what was happening and was so momentarily stunned that I forgot to swear! I think I knocked my head [it's hard to tell when you are going dotty anyway] and I certainly bumped my bum! Usually the street is full of people but, because of the weather, there was nobody around, so I could have done with Mutley to literally haul me out of the gutter! Thank goodness I wasn't with Simi [my dog]. You feel such a fool when you fall as an adult - it's so inelegant, for one thing.

A friend of mine had a much nastier fall on a pedestrian crossing here in February: presumably because the sun fades the paint, the Comune have started laying crossings which are made of plastic sheeting. The trouble with these is that after a while they start to crumple up. They, too, get very slippery.

The worst fall I've had in recent years was in 2002 back in Cardiff: I had not long got home from a meeting at work, and was rushing to vacuum the carpet on the spiral stairs as I was expecting visitors [why else would I vacuum the stairs?!] In my hurry, I got my foot caught in the wire whilst carrying the machine down and ended up in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. It was a while before I came to and when I did get up I was shaking. It was 9pm and the man in my life at the time and I were splitting up. I didn't feel I could call him. The only person I thought I could call was my next-door neighbour, Liz, who is a nurse, but her phone was engaged. I banged on the wall with a book but, she told me later, she thought I was hammering a nail into the wall! "But this is impractical me!" I exclaimed: "Why would I do that, especially at 9pm?" Then my visitors, whom I didn't know well, turned up and, although I told them what had happened, they just sat there and I couldn't wait for them to go - I was in pain by this time - so that I could get around to Liz's for some advice and sympathy. Actually I'd have quite liked it if the woman visitor had offered to make me a hot drink; I wasn't up to doing it for myself. Eventually they left and I got myself around to Liz's, who was horrified by my bruises. In Casualty the next day I found out I'd cracked my shoulder and broken the little finger of my left hand.

I am telling you this, I suppose, to try and explain what it's like, sometimes, on your own: I have friends here who would come running if I were to ask but I wouldn't bother them just because I'm achey and feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes all you want is for someone, without your asking them, to put their arm around you and make you a cup of tea. That's all I wanted that night back in 2002; it's all I want now.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Then The Battle of the Villa Fiorita [1965] is for you. How any woman could walk away from Rossano Brazzi is beyond me, but that's what Maureen O'Hara's character does in this film. She plays a married woman who leaves her kind, decent, British husband and two children for the charms of Rossano and his Italian villa. The children, rather improbably, go to Italy to find her and bring her back. After staging a "hunger strike" they make their mother see that she must come home with them. I suppose it was rather a daring film for its time, as even now, women who leave their children are pilloried whilst men get away with it all the time.

My favourite Rossano Brazzi film is Summer Madness, [Summertime - US] with Katharine Hepburn [the one in which she falls into the lagoon]. She, too, manages to leave him at the end.

I was in Italy when Brazzi died in 1994 and cried buckets.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita

See next post for my take on this film.


I am always on the lookout for new antipasto ideas: if you are entertaining on your own and are therefore cook, hostess and bartender, your guests will forgive you your many dashes into the kitchen if they have a variety of dishes to nibble at, I find.

This morning I found a caper pâté and thought it looked interesting, but couldn't quite work out how to use it. However, with my lunchtime g & t came inspiration, as always, and I decided to use it to fill cherry tomatoes: to do this you need cherry tomatoes which are not too small and some pazienza. Put on a nice CD, sit down, then halve the tomatoes and scoop out the seeds and pulp from the centres. [You can use a teaspoon but I find it easier to use a very small knife.] Salt the cavities then put the tomatoes upside-down on kitchen paper to drain for about an hour. After that, rinse them well and put on fresh kitchen paper to dry - again, leave them about an hour. Now you can fill them with the pâté and garnish as you wish. [I just put pinenuts on the top, as you see.] Refrigerate till needed.

I have also filled cherry tomatoes prepared in this way with guacamole and with cream cheese which I have flavoured with chopped basil and lemon juice.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


The funeral of the young man who has become known all over Italy as Gabriele or Gabbo took place in Rome today: Gabriele Sandri, a Lazio fan [admiteddly an ultrà, but that does not necessarily mean violent] was travelling to the Lazio - Inter match in Milan on Sunday with friends when they stopped at a service station near Arezzo. Another car containing Juventus fans drew up and a scuffle broke out. A policeman watching from across the road allegedly fired first into the air and then a second shot was, he claims, fired by accident, killing Gabriele.

"Why, why?" I want to ask. "It's meant to be a game. Why is it necessary to so much as argue about it, let alone fight?" By Sunday evening violence had broken out all over Italy, with police stations being attacked and scenes of unbelieveable destruction around the Olimpico Stadium in Rome. I can understand fans wanting to vent their anger but is that going to bring him back? Is it going to make anybody listen? Of course not. What good anyone thinks further violence will do is beyond me . What gets into perfectly reasonable citizens when they put on their football scarves and acquire this "team" mentality? What happens to them when they join an angry crowd? Perhaps Crushed can explain it to me.

Things are likely to turn even uglier as graffiti demanding "Justice for Gabriele " have appeared near the church where his funeral was held and there was anti-police chanting today. Worse, graffiti saying, "We want another Raciti" have now appeared.

My guess is that, rather like the situation in Britain after 7/7 and 21/7, the police force is very jumpy since the murder of ispettore Raciti in football violence in February [although the shooting of an innocent man in Britain was almost certainly partly due to bungling at a very high level, whilst this appears to be an individual policeman's tragic mistake]. I feel, of course, for Gabriele's family for no amount of apologising by police or State is going to help them. And the other person in my thoughts today is ispettore Raciti's widow, who has said that no one has learnt anything from her husband's death and has called for the closure of the stadiums.

So many lives have been affected by this one moment of mindlessness, which led, it seems, to another of carelessness: one young life lost, the lives of his poor family altered forever and the life of the officer involved ruined, too, as he has said himself. And a woman who, in the midst of her own grief at least hoped that football "fans" would come to their senses, is faced tonight with the thought that her beloved husband may have died in vain. Once again, in Italy, what a waste - for the sake of a game.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Tiny chiodini mushrooms are in the shops at the moment so I decided to preserve some in oil: funghi sott'olio are a favourite preserve in southern Italy and they are good as part of a selection of antipasti. Wash the mushrooms and then simmer them in 2 parts water to 1 part white wine vinegar, with coarse seasalt to taste, for about 10 minutes. Drain them and let them dry on kitchen paper - about 30 minutes. Put them in a sterilised jar and add garlic slices* , a chilli pepper if you like and herbs such as bay leaves, thyme and oregano. Fill the jar with olive oil. A trick I learned some years ago for keeping the vegetables down in the oil is to cut 2 cocktail sticks to fit inside the top of the jar exactly and lay them crosswise on top of the vegetables.

* As my commenter Ludlingtonian rightly points out, there are some concerns about the safety of adding garlic to vegetables preserved in oil. See his comment on this post and also this article. Because of this, I simmered the garlic slices with the mushrooms for this preserve.


"Oh, do let us put some ice cream on the top", they said when I ordered fresh fruit in the Altro Posto today. I didn't argue. Strawberries have mysteriously reappeared in the shops this week.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Today I added the sugar [which will dissolve further with a daily whisk and a shake] to the mixture for the quince liqueur which, I must tell you, reader, already smells divine. Just 10 days to straining time...

Some of you know that I have a subscription to UK Good Housekeeping [though I pay no attention whatsoever to the housekeeping articles, unless they are entitled "How to avoid ironing"] and in this month's issue there are instructions for making Christmas Pudding vodka so that's my next project here at the Welshcakes-Simone distillery. I can get all the ingredients except currants and raisins but I am going to substitute these with some dried cranberries that I brought back with me in October. They might even improve the colour, don't you think?

Cranberries are unavailable in Sicily but they must be sold in parts of Italy as I have seen recipes featuring them in cookery magazines here. A friend in Britain is going to send me some fresh ones in December: I am wondering how she will pack them? I could be faced with a very cross postman if they burst!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I will tell you the most famous legend associated with St Martin again because I like it: In the 4th century, the saint met a starving, freezing beggar at the gates of the city of Amiens. He cut his cloak in two with his sword and gave half to the man. For that reason, Martin is a saint associated with the poor. It is also said that at the moment he tore his cloak, the sun came out and that is why an Indian summer here is known as an estate di san Martino.

The 11th November is the festa of this favourite saint of mine and traditionally the day when the novello [new] wine is opened, so it was off to Maria and Luca's home for the celebration: A gorgeous aroma greeted us, as Luca was already barbecuing sausages and pancetta in the garden, whilst inside the women were gathered around Maria, who was happily making fritelle [ akin to doughnuts but much lighter] of three different types: savoury ones containing anchovies, which we were offered as an antipasto, some containing ricotta and others containing walnuts, sultanas and fennel seeds [the last two were served as dessert]. Fritelle are made for this day as in times gone by they were a delicacy that could be made by rich and poor alike, for they contain few ingredients and can be fried using the new oil of the season.

The pictures show:
1. My own contribution: I again made the chick-pea flour patties, filled with a mixture of cooked pepper and aubergine, basil, pinenuts, lemon juice and oregano. I spent hours wondering how to garnish them without getting the lids soggy, then at around 3 am the inspiration of using basil and almonds came to me!
2 - 4: Fritelle preparation: I was glad to see that the batter is quite messy. I find that idea comforting as I create such chaos in the kitchen myself. Maria handles it determinedly and roughly, fearlessly throwing the shapes she has formed into the hot oil.
5 - 6: Finished fritelle.
7: Novello wine from 2 different batches.
8: Pappardelle pasta with a sauce of cream, zucchini and speck especially brought from the Alto Adige.
9 - 10: Barbecued sausage and pancetta.
The children present decided that it is already Christmas, for, having first dressed up as St Martin, they then appeared as La Befana and finally as Babbo Natale. Perhaps they are right.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Here, cari lettori, is my effort at the chilli oil. I've put in garlic and a dried chilli as well, plus different coloured peppercorns and a sprig of dried oregano to pretty it up.

Friday, November 09, 2007


I've mentioned before that Italians never come to see you without bringing a gift, even if they are only going to visit for a few minutes, as my dear friends Marco and Giovanna did this evening.

Marco seems to live in constant fear that I will run out of breakfast biscuits, so he brought me some more, whilst Giovanna had been making quince jam. The bottle contains oil from the first pressing of their own olives and I poured some into a glass so that you may behold its glorious colour. It smells and tastes sublime and will be the perfect oil for drizzling onto freshly baked bread. Should you do this, reader, you will want nothing more, for you will think yourself already in heaven. No gifts could please me more than these.


I haven't seen the original Mr Gorgeous for a few months now. However, there is a beautiful, thirty-something man who frequents one of my favourite bars and he fascinates me not just because of his looks: This Adonis only ever orders a dessert, and it is always the same dessert, an extraordinary concoction of spongecake topped with cream, chocolate sauce and those cigar-shaped biscuits with which Italians like to adorn ice cream. Today, I noticed, he asked for a plate of extra biscuits on the side.

From my nearby table I gaze at him, admiring his dark, glossy curly hair and perfect clothes and I wonder about him: it can't be that he just has a sweet tooth as he is too slim; perhaps he is one of those energetic young things who has turned a floor of his house into a gym and his super-fit wife won't let him eat dessert? But hasn't the poor dear got a mamma to make dessert for him? Aah, it makes me want to mother him myself! Of course, it could simply be that he works very hard and this is his daily "fix" but I prefer to imagine a cruel, diet-obsesssed wife!


... which is very much in the "Welshcakes" style. I don't know how long that strap would last, though. Why don't I just wear a blindfold when I have to pass these shops? Please convince me, dear readers, that [a] I don't need it and [b] it is utterly impractical as the strap would break quickly.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


The funeral of the journalist Enzo Biagi [9.8.20 - 6.11.07] took place in his home village today. A WW2 Resistance hero who later became a TV anchorman and columnist for Corriere della Sera, Biagi so infuriated Berlusconi during the 2001 election campaign that the latter issued what became known as the editto bulgaro [Bulgarian edict] during a press conference in Sofia: Berlusconi accused Biagi and two other journalists of making "criminal use of public service TV" and of course Rai caved in and dismissed all three. Biagi was reinstated under the Prodi government and continued writing his Corriere column until the onset of his last illness.

A brave, kind and tolerant man who was also a tireless unveiler of hypocrisy, Biagi combined all those qualities which are best in Italians. This Italophile, like so many of his countrymen, will miss him.

Here are some of my favourite Biagi quotes:

On fur-trade protesters [and I am one, by the way, but I take his point here]:

"No one that I know goes without [leather] shoes."

On God:

"The best description of Our Lord that I have ever heard came from a child. 'God', he said, 'arrives with the wind.' "

On hell:

Biagi liked this from the theologian Urs von Balthasar:

"Hell exists but it could be empty."

On Sicily:

"Sicily is an island bathed by the sea and by tears."

On old age:

"I have become old without noticing it and without any difficulty... I've underlined this sentence from Guy de Rothschild's Memoirs: 'Old age is a defeat . We must not allow ourselves to get old.' I'm trying."

- All from 'I' Come Italiani, 1993.


... Something is ready to come off the production line. I have flavoured my olives with:

juice and grated rind of 1 orange

some lemon slices

slices of garlic

sprigs of fresh thyme

sprigs of dried oregano

a dried chilli pepper

pink peppercorns

coriander and fennel seeds

a bay leaf

olive oil

Sicilians like to put some thinly sliced carrot in the jar but I don't think this adds anything to the taste.

Now to start the next batch...


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Wednesday, November 07, 2007


I am not referring to the colours of an Italian football team or to the EU flag, but to the corporate colours of the Italian Post Office, which, although I wrote that it had much improved a few weeks ago, has managed to depress me yet again!

Today it took me one hour and forty-five minutes to pay my gas bill in there. [This was the bill for part two of last winter and it was enormous, so that hardly lifted my mood either.] I had tried to get the deed done yesterday lunch time, for usually the place is quieter during that period, but gave up after one hour. Irma, who happened to be there too, walked out after ten minutes, so I don’t think I displayed a particularly un-Italian lack of pazienza when I threw in the towel !

This morning I arrived there armed with a bottle of water and a [long] book and, after taking my “ticket” [oh, how the Italians love “il ticket” and I could understand this affection if the possession of one made the slightest difference to the speed at which you are served] I settled myself down for the duration. My ticket said “C105” – ie, that you are there to pay a conto corrente [bill] and, when the next “C” number is displayed on screen, you should be able to work out how many people are ahead of you. Well, I waited and waited and “P” numbers for postal services came up, as did “H” numbers for post office account holders, numbers for business customers and numbers for “pensionati” to collect their state pensions, which are paid out by alphabetical order of surname at the beginning of each month. Today was "F &G" day, which is not as bad, here, as "A & B" day, but you know you are in for a long wait if you have to carry out a transaction on any "pension day". [The PO was closed on the 1st, for Tutti i Santi / I Morti, which has not helped the process this month.] I am truly sorry to say that the pensionati are half the trouble, though it is not their fault, as collecting their due seems to require a myriad documents, signatures and [literally] official rubber-stamping on these. But do they get annoyed? – They do not, for they seem to regard it as a chance to meet friends and as a joyous day out! Every now and then one of these old dears will mistake the letter on their ticket, amble up to the counter and say, “But I thought it was my turn” and the clerks often decide it is quicker to take pity on them than argue. Well, no “C” numbers came up for an hour and eventually what I hoped would be a rebellion began, as a group of women shouted at a clerk, “Ma perché non si mostra mai il C? Noi siamo qua da due ore – non è giusto!” [= “Why doesn’t the C ever come up? We’ve been here 2 hours – it’s not fair”] and I joined in this cry, because I’m buggered if there is going to be a revolution without me!
The poor clerk just replied that she couldn’t help what her computer did but she did seem relieved when it started showing “C” numbers. Of course, we were only on about number C 65 at this stage so I was plunged into despair anew as I realised that the belligerent women had calmed down and the revolution was for another day.

By 1pm, the building was nearly empty but still, you see, you had to await your “magic number” and as the harassed woman clerk kept pressing her computer button to bring up the digits on the display board, she started using the intervals when no one appeared to gossip to her colleague instead of pressing the button again to bring up the next number! I was at screaming point by then, and had even closed William Hague’s biography of Pitt the Younger – I was rather thinking of throwing it at a clerk or at least one of the computers – when the elderly gentleman next to me started clapping his hands and shouting at her, “Signora, non c’è! Avanti!” [= “That person is no longer here. Get on with it!"] I could have kissed him!

However, when my turn did come, reader, I got the nice male clerk with the smile and the sparkly eyes – and for that I forgive Poste Italiane everything!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Sicilian sea salt is very, well, wet and comes from the salt pans between Trapani and Marsala. Only ancient, traditional methods are used to produce the salt and it can take 100 days to yield 6 cm of the precious mineral. It has a taste that reminds me of the grey sea salt of Brittany, though it is possibly a little stronger. There is nothing like it to perk up your cooking!

Maybe you can just see, in the photo, that the crystals of the Sicilian salt, on the left, are larger and a little greyer than those of the Welsh sea salt on the right. I like to have my miniature container of Welsh salt around, as I like miniature versions of everything. [Whoa there, Mutley!!]

It is, of course, no accident that Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt - greatly valued as a preservative in those times - and that from sal we derive the word salary. British English has the expressions "worth his salt" [worth what he is paid], "salt away" [to save money] and even, in parts of Wales, "a bit salty" [a bit too expensive].
These were the thoughts that ran through my mind this morning as I was salting, for the last time, the particular batch of olives that I am processing at the moment.


I am reluctant to use this lovely, heart-shaped potato but use it I must. Such a potato would not be sold in Britain - not in a town shop, at any rate - but there it was, nestling in the middle of the string bag of potatoes I bought today.

Misshapen potatoes, uncurvy cucumbers, knobbly peppers, angular aubergines - all contribute to the joy of being here. Imperfection can be charming in humans, so why should it not be thus with regard to foodstuffs?

Monday, November 05, 2007


Set in World War 2 Sicily, Malèna [Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000] begins as the story of a young boy's infatuation with the most beautiful woman in his small town. Renato [Giuseppe Sulfaro] watches Malèna from afar, fantasises about her and dreams of her. Indeed, beguiled as I am by Ennio Morricone's haunting score, I regard the film, in some ways, as a "hymn to adolescence".

But it is much more than that: as the war progresses, Malèna [Monica Bellucci], always detested by the women of the town because of her beauty, falls upon hard times, culminating when her husband is reported dead. The women take revenge by forcing their shopkeeper husbands, who have previously admired Malèna's looks, to deny her any of the diminishing food supply. Eventually the desperate Malèna takes a German officer as a lover and protector, a decision which, with Liberation, causes her to be treated as all known female collaborators were: she is set upon violently by the townswomen, has her head shaved to mark her out and of course, no one will help her.

Note that I used the word "decision" in the above paragraph: the jury will always be out on whether becoming a collaborator in this way is a "decision" or whether the women had no choice, if they wanted to live. In times that were unimaginably difficult for everyone, it seems to me to have been easy for women who were, at least, protected by marriage to have judged the "Malènas" of the world. One of my specialist subjects at university was the literature of France and Italy during that period and I long ago concluded that, in occupied countries, there were few heroes among the non-combattant population: there is a myth that there were, but Le Chagrin et la Pitié [Ophuls, 1971] comes closer to the truth. Collaboration, you see, could happen on so many levels that it is very hard to define it: in some ways, if you just did your job and lived your daily life as best you could, that was collaborating. We would all like to think we would have been heroic but the reality is that the majority of us might just have tried to keep our heads down and get through it. That, admittedly, is a long way from the "active" collaboration of sleeping with the enemy, but who among us really knows what we would do in order to simply survive?

Whatever your thoughts on this weighty matter, if you are interested in Sicily and in this period, I urge you to seek out this film: beautifully shot, it is a reminder not only of the joy and pain of being young, but of how human beings behave in extraordinary circumstances, and in particular - perhaps sadly - of how cruel women can be to other women. You'll be pleased to learn that there is a sort of reconciliation at the end.


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