Cathy Boylan goes on a gastronomic journey to Sicily and discovers food is a way oflife.
‘ln Sicily. one‘s existence is spent in gorging food. never sleeping alone at night and all the practices which accompany this mode of living.‘ Sounds like a recommendation. but this was Plato complaining about Sicilian excesses a few hundred years
BC. He wasn't impressed by his visits .
(though he kept going back) and he probably wouldn't be impressed to hear that, on the food front anyway. not much has changed.
In Sicily. some of the freshest fish. ripest fruits. spiciest sauces and most spectacular confectionery to be had anywhere around the Mediterranean all encourage liberal attitudes towards food. And after a typical Sicilian meal. including the time-honoured practice ofsinking a quantity of local wine. sleeping. alone or not. comes naturally.
This is one of the most varied cuisines in Europe — ranging from the simplest peasant dishes to wildly extravagant concoctions and confections. The Sicilian tradition of cooking has changed and adapted over 2500 years with the influences that resulted from its position between Europe and Africa — between Greek, Roman and Moorish society — and its experience of invasion by other peoples.
Arabic inﬂuence is most apparent on the Western coast and tiny Egasdi islands which lie nearer to Africa than to mainland Italy. Cuscus. a variation of couscous served with fish instead of the mutton stew
common in North Africa. is served everywhere here. Restaurant owners each boast that they have the best recipe and insist you try it.
And it was the Arabs who first grew rice in Sicily from where it found its way into the rest of Europe. Today rice is used in arancine. small rice croquettes spiked with ham. spinach. onion or mozzarella and found in bars all over Sicily and the islands— a snack infinitely better than Scotch eggs or meat pies. . .
Another traditional dish using rice is tummala. timbale, a rice casserole served most often at Christmas and packed with meat, cheese and eggs. If you have a sweet tooth you should try instead crispelle. the honey cakes most popular in Catania. These. like aracine. originated in the kitchens of the local monastery ofSan Nicola, an unusual development as Sicily's nuns have historically had the great privilege and duty of producing the island's best sweets and cakes.
The introduction ofsugarcane by the Arabs led to the production of extravagant pastries and confectionery — candied fruits. marzipan. nougat. pan di Spagna. cassata glazed with great snow drifts of icing and splashed with colour by crystallised fruits. Sicilians still use sugared almonds. tied in coloured bags. to mark important social events — pink or blue for baptism. white for first communion. green for engagement. red for graduation. silver fora 25th wedding anniversary.
If you don‘t eat meat. you can still eat really well in Sicily. Once a status symbol for those who could afford it. meat is no longer so important. supplanted on a lot of menus by fish. Ifyou don‘t eat fish. you‘re a lot more restricted. Tuna. for one, plays as large a part in Sicilian diets as it has in the economy. since salted tuna was a vital export for centuries. The Arabs. again, developed the method of fishing for tuna — setting nets in their path — which is in use today. But next time you buy tinned tuna in oil at Safeway think of Ignazio Florio, a Palermitan merchant who first had the brainwave. a hundred years ago. ofchopping the great fish up, preserving it in salt. canning it and selling it abroad.
The soft. flaky tuna we buy here is not the real thing ofcourse. Each Spring. after mating. shoals oftuna migrate through the straits between the tiny Egadi islands off Sicily‘s west coast and are trapped and brought into Favignana harbour to be harpooned in a bloody ritual called the mattanza— the slaughter. Tuna needs to be eaten fresh — at Da Matteo or £1 Pescador. restaurants nearby. you can eat tonno al ragu, thick steaks from the day’s catch, prepared with mint leaves and garlic and a sauce of tomato. onion, cinnamon and pepper. Or simply grilled with lemon and oil.
You can buy smaller fish and seafood straight from the nets on the harbour side. We saw red mullet and live squid offered to a discerning group of local shoppers. the fisherman displaying the squids‘
suckers to show how fresh they were.
I Anton Mosimann- Naturally Fridays. 8.30—9pm. Channel 4. Every week from 6 Sept. master of European haute cuisine and TV chef Anton Mosimann will be making mouths water in sitting rooms all over the country as he demonstrates spectacular recipes in spectacular locations. lie reﬂects current food trends in that he uses little fat. no red meat. Far Eastern ideas. and emphasises simplicity and freshness — well they all do. don't they? For a taste of things to come. the first programme.
entitled 'I'eu takes Mosimann to a traditional London hotel where he will sample pastries and meringues. and make leek and onion scones. crabmcat samosas and muesli pancakes. and to a patisscric in Budapest. scene for the creation of cottage cheese and prune strudel. amongst other things. Poor devil.
I Laines 31 Ashton Lane. 337 3-147. The restaurant above the Grosvenor Cafe has recently been taken over and refurbished in an olde worlde cottage style. Whereas it used to offer a
broadly continental menu.
the fare is now stalwartly ltalian — a selection of pizzas and pasta dishes. meal salads and meat courses. There are also chef‘s specials which change daily. The new management has also
acquired the cafe. but intend to keep it exactly the way we know and love.
I Viva Mexico 50 liast l-‘ountainbridge. 228 4005. Noon—2.30pm. (s l lpm.
last orders 10.30pm. As far as possible this recently established restaurant is a replica of its popular Cock bu rn Street namesake. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed and the food is tasty and very filling— variations on a theme of flour or corn tortilla with an abundance offillings. salsas. salads. oodles of melted cheese. This is also the place to try legendary Marghcritas. Prices are around the £7 mark. In late September early October. additional specialty dishes will be worth looking out for.
l Chest. Heart and Stroke 42 (irassmarket. 225
5002. You may well wonder what is implied in the name ofthis new coffee shop/snack bar— intimacies not seen heretofore? In fact it is all very worthwhile ~ the profits go to the Chest. Heart and Stroke Association. who also run [)rJekyll's restaurant in Castle Street. lwondered ifthe food waslow cholesterol. since diet has such an impact on the diseases in question. but it seems there are the usual cakes. rolls filled with cheese. tuna and mayonnaise. biscuits —l just hope they are not creating more work for themselves.
The List 30 Augtist — 12 September 190173