Tuesday, November 16, 2021


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


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.


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






 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!


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