Thursday, July 27, 2017


A day in Catania is always a welcome change but when it's 40°C, my first port of call is not my favourite bookshop but the first bar selling yummy-looking gelato (not that it ever looks anything but delicious). The one below, with stracciatella, pineapple and gelsi (mulberry) flavours was particularly so.  I liked the idea of the mini-cones on top, too. Later, when a friend suggested a break in order to partake of a little cassata and iced tea, who was I to refuse?

Friday, July 21, 2017


Palermo has been selected as Italian Capital of Culture 2018 so here, in no particular order, are 18 facts - some quirky, others not so - that you may not know about the city:

1.  Its Palazzo dei Normanni was, from 1130 , the seat of the Sicilian Parliament, one of the oldest in the world. (I've met a lot of Sicilians who claim that it is, in fact, the oldest.] It now houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly.

2.  In 2016 Palermo was declared the worst city in Italy for traffic congestion.

3.  Frutti di Martorana, the marzipan "fruits" you will see everywhere in Sicily in autumn, were, according to legend, first made in The Martorana Convent in Palermo.

4.  The city's most important Arab and Norman buildings, along with the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, were collectively named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo

5.  Palermo street food is legendary. Eat it first, then ask what's in it!

6.  The Palermo football team's badge has been ranked (by the British Daily Mail) as among the best in the world.

7.  The city has wide boulevards reminiscent of towns in France.

8.  The word for traditional Sicilian rice balls, arancini, is used in its feminine form, arancine there.

9.  The Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Capuchin Catacombs) are a very macabre, and often upsetting, sight but must be seen. I once decided to leave them till last on a school trip but my students, having been shown the Parliament, Cathedral and other beautiful buildings, were impatiently demanding, "Can we go and see the dead people now?" by mid-morning.

Me with students in Palermo, 1995

10. The city is second only to Naples for the number of coffee manufacturers that call it home (47 in 2011).

11. During the reign of Ruggero (Roger) II, Palermo was a city in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side in harmony. This was to come to an end, however, under Frederick II, who expelled the Muslims in 1224.

12.  In 1185 Roger's daughter and Frederick's mother Costanza d'Altavilla (Constance d'Hauteville) travelled to Germany to be married with the greatest dowry the world had ever seen. She gave birth to her son in the market square in Ancona on her way back to Sicily. You can read more about this extraordinary journey in a book I reviewed here. Costanza is buried in Palermo Cathedral.

13.  Palermo has a museum of traditional puppets  (opera dei pupi) where you can also see puppet shows at certain times of the year.  You can find out more about opera dei pupi in my post here.

Some of my own Sicilian puppets

14.  Traditional Sicilian carts vary, from province to province, in their design and size. Those from Palermo were squarer and wider than many of the others and were originally used for transporting grapes. This is a link to an article on Sicilian carts that I wrote for Italy Magazine in 2010.

15. Not strictly in the City of Palermo but in Palermo Province and a short bus ride away is Monreale, whose cathedral, begun in 1174, is one of the best preserved examples of Norman architecture anywhere. It contains Byzantine mosaics throughout. There are stunning views of Palermo from Monreale.

16. In 2014 the priests of Palermo Cathedral were much criticised for displaying a prominent WC sign in a side chapel there. I don't know about you, but when being a tourist I've often desperately needed the loo by the time I got to a city's cathedral!

17.  Palermo was named Panormus ("complete port" or possibly "well-protected bay") by the Greeks, This became Balarme under Arabic rule.

18.  To end on a sombre note, Palermo Airport, formerly known as Punta Raisi, was renamed in 1995 in honour of the anti-Mafia judges Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone who were both murdered in 1992, the latter along with his wife. The airport's full name is now L''aeroporto Internazionale Falcone e Borsellino di Palermo-Punta Raisi but it is usually referred to as aeroporto Falcone e BorsellinoItaly has been remembering the two judges in this, the 25th anniversary year of the stragi (massacres) of Capaci and via D'Amelio. We must not forget that all but one of their bodyguards died with them on those terrible days.

The candidates for Italian Capital of Culture 2020 are Agrigento, Catania, Messina, Noto, Ragusa and Siracusa. Guess which two I'll be rooting for!

City of Palermo
Coat of Arms

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Here is Gianluca from Il Volo to cheer us all up:

Il Volo - soloist: Gianluca Ginoble - La Danza (Rossini)

Friday, July 14, 2017


Recently I've been reminded how much France and her freedoms have meant to me by reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café, a history of existentialist philosophy told in an effervescent, innovative style which is hinted at in the book's subtitle,  Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I felt as if I were "meeting" all the French authors who had so influenced my youth all over again and it brought back the excitement of encountering their thought for the first time.

A detail I'd forgotten but was reminded of in the book is that the lyrics of the song below were penned by none other than "Mr Existentialism" himself, Jean-Paul Sartre. Its subject matter, with its references to executions, is hardly cheery but I remember having great fun with it celebrating Bastille Day in 1989 (the bicentenary of the French Revolution) at the school where I was then head of modern languages. I don't think my noisy teenage students' renderings of it, interspersed by my playing of all nine verses of the Marseillaise, brought my colleagues in neighbouring classrooms much joy but I have fond memories of the day, even though at the end of it I was so tired that I was rather glad there was a century to go till the next such celebration. Vive la France!

Juliette Gréco -  La rue des Blancs-Manteaux

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Well, here we are, more than half way through 2017 and I find I have not posted a single recipe this year! So, although other matters, such as health and keeping up with Brexit developments (which will affect me very directly, as they will all expats), mean that I am not currently blogging as often as I'd like, let's at least put the culinary matter to rights.

My pollo allo za'atar is my take on a recipe in the June edition of the Italian magazine Vero cucina. This recipe is for bone-in chicken thighs cooked in very litle oil with lemon slices, then sprinkled with a sauce of lemon juice, garlic and mint. I tried it and found it excellent, but this week I decided I wanted to spice it up a little. There is very little za'atar in my version, actually, but I was so delighted to find some in Catania a few weeks ago that I decided it had to feature in the name of my dish.  Here we go:

Heat the oven to 180° C (fan).
Lightly oil a roasting tin and put in 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs.
Cut 1 lemon into wedges and add these to the pan.
Add 3 grilled peppers, preferably yellow, orange and red, cut up. (In Italy we can buy fresh, ready-grilled peppers in supermarkets but you could use well-drained grilled peppers in oil or, of course, grill them yourself.)
Sprinkle over some coarse seasalt, black pepper, a little sumac and some fresh lemon thyme leaves and drizzle over a little more olive oil.
Cook for 30 mins.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix 2 tablesp Chinese plum sauce,  juice of 1 lemon, 1 teasp sumac and half teasp za'atar.

Check the chicken and if necessary give it 10 mins more in the oven. When you take it out, pour the sauce over it and serve.  Garnish with more lemon thyme leaves if you wish.

Sunday, July 02, 2017


Time for a little fun with the number three song in the Italian charts (not the Volare you may be thinking of!)

Fabio Rovazzi e Gianni Morandi - Volare


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