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Tuesday, 9 October 2012

words and (food) pictures

A photo of meatballs
And so, as if I didn't need reminding that I'm no longer gorging myself silly in Sicily, it's just started raining again. We now find ourselves unmistakably and unequivocally in Autumn- one of my favourite seasons food-wise, most definitely not weather-wise. Whilst the rapidly shortening days and plummeting mercury herald the arrival of some pretty indulgent, tasty comfort foods, for the time being I'm going to stick my head in the sand and fondly reminisce about the glut of pasta, seafood and litre carafes of wine (litre! Italians sell wine by the litre!)  that helped contribute to the extra half a stone that's stubbornly hanging around.

Since my last post reached almost epic proportions, I'm going to allow the pictures to do most of the talking for this one. It would be a shame to let them go unseen, seeing as they were the cause of several marital disputes abroad (Husband: 'Seriously? It's a meatball. Stop taking photos of a meatball and talk to me. You look like a tourist.') Well, readers, I was a tourist, and unashamedly papped a few hundred photos of my favourite meals and markets. And cats too, but I'll spare you those...  

Grilled mystery fish. It could have been bream. Who knows.
These didn't last long...
Now if our glowing white pallor didn't immediately give us away as Brits, then my blustering attempts at Italian certainly did. Needless to say, we did eventually end up with an assortment of traditional Sicilian anitpasti at our first restaurant that went down rather well. Caponata, found in abundance across Sicily, would most aptly be described as an aubergine, caper and celery relish- that is if if you want to be very British about things and completely strip it of any allure. It's generally a given that most things sound infintely more tempting in Italian. We guzzled that down alongside some arancinette (deep-fried risotto balls flavoured with saffron) and polpette di sarde. Now it took my exhausted, Ryanair-flight frazzled brain a while to translate this into sardine meatball, when intitally I had been convincing myself it was something to do with octopus ('polpo', if anyone cares...). But sardine meatball it was, and 'delicious' doesn't quite do it justice. Paired with mint, pinenuts and just the tiniest hint of aniseed, it's a far more summery alternative to the standard pork or lamb variety.

Sicillian culture has been subject to
countless influences over the centuries, owing largely to its indefensible position bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. However, it seems being conquered time and time again by hordes of knife-wielding men from boats can do funny things to a country, and in the case of Sardinia- Italy's largest island- it's resulted in quite an inherent mistrust of anything that comes from the sea. Like fish. Luckily, Sicilians are far more laid back, and embrace anything they can catch. Sicillian sea urchins are harvested in 'cooler' weather, so I was a bit late (or early, I suppose) for linguine di riccio. Needless to say, there was an abundance of seafood around, and the Sicilians adore a simply grilled fish (see above left- but don't ask me what fish it was, since to this day I can't tell you). And then there's the shellfish: mussels are everywhere. A packed-out backstreet trattoria served me an amazing  zuppa di cozze- a glass bowl of huge mussels in a translucent broth. Unlike the richer Belgian or French moules frites, this was an incredibly simple starter dish- just fish stock, lemon, more pepper than you would ever dare to use yourself, and the tiniest sniff of garlic. Perfect for when you're planning on a marathon six course dinner.

Despite not being native to Italy, tomatoes
have done a darn good job of cementing
 themselves firmly in Italian cuisine.

Letting me loose in Ballaro Market, Palermo's biggest outdoor food market, proved very much akin to allowing a child free reign in Hamleys at Christmas- I demonstrated a complete lack of regard for money, practicality or personal welfare, and had to be reminded on several occasions that marrows were unlikely to survive Ryanair's draconian excess baggage policy, and a lot of the spices on offer would look incredibly suspicious under x-ray scrutiny. Regardless, I still saw fit to purchase a kilo of ripe nectarines, and ate them all more out of spite than hunger. But when you experience a market like this- where everything is so fresh, cheap and seasonal, you can see why Tesco are yet to try extending their reach into mainland Europe. The idea of polypropene containers, Peruvian asparagus and Birdseye fish fingers is quite laughable when you see the local fare on offer.

It was like Christmas had come early...
A vivid display of some seasonal Sicillian veg-
and I didn't even  need to use Instagram.

Now I would be remiss in waxing lyrical about the wonders of Italian produce if I failed to mention street food. Sadly, we live in a country where street food is synonymous with overpriced, cremated sausages bought in a state of utter inebriation, somewhere along Oxford street at 3am, or else scraps of indefinable grey-coloured meat that does little justice to the middle-eastern kebab. But in Sicily, street food is a way of life; at around 9pm, families come out into squares in their hordes, and mill around food stands and plastic tables with arancini, panelle (deep-fried chickpea fritters) and guasteddi. Now, I'm fairly brazen with my eating, and am yet to come across a food I won't sample. That said, I was a little dubious about devouring what is essentially a role filled with calf spleen, lungs and lard. But I did, and it was good, if a rather interesting texture.

Guasteddi- tastes good,
 looks... well... not good.
Genovesi Ericine

I suppose the reason I get so giddy in Italy is because I feel very safe in the knowledge that I can be reckless with my food choices- you know that chances are, you're going to get something damn good, even if it does come under the dubious heading of 'chef's meat special.' A restaurant that looks as ropey as hell from the outside is just as (or perhaps even more) likely to serve you the best meal of your life as the one with the linen napkins and 120EU bill. Good coffee is ubiquitous (no skinny decaff soya lattes or Nescafe here, thank you very much), and one of the best things I put into my mouth came from a dodgy-looking food stand in a train station. Genovesi Ericine- sugar dusted, lemon custard filled Sicillian pastries-served up warm with a cup of strong espresso, made our three-train, two-bus trip to the airport bearable.

But now, back to reality. It's still cold, it's still raining, and I'm definitely in need of some comfort food. So I'm off to make some pumpkin soup, and dream of the sunshine....

mrs hunt.x

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