Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pasta and basta!

We can’t live for three months in Italy and not talk about pasta. Italy has an abundance of pasta varieties, perhaps only comparable to the number of cheese types available in France.

Italians like to match particular pasta types with the appropriate sauces, which means that they always have more than just an odd pack of spaghetti in their pantry. The pasta types tend to have amusing and descriptive names, for example “farfalle” meaning “butterfly” and “orechiette” meaning “small ears”. Even in the smallest super market you will find at least 20 different kinds of pasta, both dried and fresh. And because pasta is taken so seriously here, every Sicilian mama is certain about which brand is the best, even if they don’t all agree.


Unlike in Sweden and other European countries, pasta is considered only a small first course and is seldom accompanied by meat or fish on the same plate. The Sicilians (and Italians we guess) like their pasta cooked “al dente” (meaning “to the tooth”, so it should offer resistance on chewing) with a simple sauce and possibly some grated parmesan. No fancy combinations; just pasta and sauce. Meat, fish and even vegetables are almost always served separately as a different dish.


We have come to love the simplicity and variety of Sicilian pasta dishes. We often try to replicate our favourite dishes from our travels when we’re at home. Since we eat vegetarian food most of the time and because no Sicilians are around to complain at our blasphemy, we sometimes go off the beaten track and grill some sheep’s cheese (ricotta salata) with our pasta. Shhh…we trust you’ll keep our little secret.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sunday night fever

Sundays are special in Sicily. As we have mentioned before, the day is normally spent with family, having a nice, long and often boisterous lunch full of laughter and good food. The late afternoons are usually taken up with walks by the sea, which seem to be more about meeting and greeting acquaintances and showing off the kids.

The evenings have their own tradition, which almost always includes going out for pizza. Where we live, the tradition is not only the pizza but also dancing afterwards. In a beautiful setting, close to the sea, there is a restaurant/pool/festivity hall where people from all over the region gather for an evening’s entertainment. There is an elegantly decorated room that’s the perfect place to rent for a big Sicilian wedding, and the romantic setting offers a beautiful view over the sea, from the archways covered in jasmine flowers.

However, most people spend their evenings in the other, larger room where a young man at an electronic piano and a local singer entertain the crowd the whole evening. Although some families rent some of the tables in this room for birthday, communion or baptism celebrations (yes, the Italians bring even small children along to celebrate late into the night), most are just there for the pizza and dancing. And they take the latter very seriously. For the slower numbers couples take to the floor, sometimes even women with women, and try their best to make it look like a waltz, tango or cha-cha.

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For faster numbers, they all line up like in an aerobics class and everyone performs the same slow twirls and claps, like “The Macarena” gone terribly wrong. The music is a mix of Sicilian and Italian songs, with the occasional Bavarian number. On several occasions we have tried to get the DJ’s to play more modern songs but without success, since the floor empties as soon as a song written in the last five decades is played.

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So in the end, we always end up joining along or making our own moves to the original versions of “Volare…ohoo” or “Tu voi fai l’americano”. Then we feel very much a part of the Italian community and their “Sunday night fever”.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Non solo...

In Sicily, shopping requires patience, time and most of all knowledge of the opening hours of the stores. For the untrained (read foreign) eye it can sometimes seem like shops are more closed than they’re open, due to the mid day siesta, the regular religious holidays or for other reasons we are yet to understand. However, after a while it becomes clear that the shops just follow the Sicilian lifestyle, which includes that nobody leaves the house during the three hour lunch break. Everyone instead prefers to do all the shopping, chatting and hanging out in the mornings or the evenings.


In Sicily, unlike in Sweden, you can still find small private specialised shops on every street corner. There are a few larger chains, but they are certainly in the minority.

When it comes to food shopping, Italians seem to go to their local store for their milk, pasta and canned goods, but for the rest they prefer the butcher, the vegetable man and of course the baker. This means that shopping can take quite some time, with the need to pop into several stores to find all the items on your list. However, Sicilians seem to see it as an excuse to socialise with their neighbours.


Since not all villages have specialised stores, there are plenty of mobile sellers who drive from village to village and park in the square, to sell fresh vegetables, fish or meat. Their schedule seems even more random than the shop opening times so it’s difficult to catch one on purpose, but we’re always happy to buy some fresh produce if we happen to come across one in our village.






Another peculiarity when it comes to Sicilian shops is their names. Instead of naming the shop after what they sell, they like to inform potential customers of what the shop doesn’t only sell. In our local village the little food store is called “Non solo carne” or “Not just meat” and in Ribera the tool shop is called “Non solo ferrmente” or “Not just iron”.


We wonder if the Mafia should perhaps follow this trend and rename themselves “Not just extortion”?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Afternoons at the beach

As the weather has gotten much warmer during the last week, we have started spending more time at the beach and less in the car. We still take the odd trips to nearby cities to do some shopping, wander around or have some lunch, but not like before. We’ve settled into something of a daily routine; a morning walk into the village to buy bread from the bakery, lunch-time spent in the cool shade of our home or with our friends at the pasticceria and afternoons at the beach.



We probably should make the most of the gentler morning sun, but since we’re not all early risers, we prefer to enjoy the beach after the midday heat has passed. Mini is so fond of the beach (and especially the sea) that she jumps and jiggles with excitement every time she sees the endless blue water and the sand stretched in front of it. She loves playing with her hands and feet in the sand and very proudly gives us little presents consisting of stones, shells and algaes.


Most of all she loves it when we play the game of escaping from the foaming waves hitting the shore and she can bathe her feet in the cool water. It is really wonderful to experience the beach through the eyes of an eleven months old and we couldn’t be happier when we get to spend another afternoon at the beach.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sicilian food, part 2 – Peas

In Sicily they love their peas, especially so during pea-season when there are peas right, left and center. At every vegetable seller you find huge trays of fresh peas, still in their pods, just waiting to be picked out and prepared. There are so many ways the Sicilians love cooking their peas. They put them in frittatas (thick fried omelettes), they do pasta dishes or risottos with sweet small peas and creamy parmesan and they also throw in a few handfuls in a rich pasta sauce with tomato, sardines and fennel.

One of our favourite pea dishes is vegetarian and we have named it “Sicilian eggs”. It is a wonderful and very easily prepared dish that reminds us a lot of Romanian cooking…with a twist. We had it the first time at our Italian friends from the pasticceria and since then we have made it one of our regular, quick dishes to make at home. Before we make it, we always take a walk to our local bakery to pick-up some fresh, crusty bread as an accompaniment.


But now back to the eggs. We start by lightly frying a chopped onion with two or three cloves of garlic in a little bit of olive oil until everything is soft. Then we add a good 250 grams of peas and a cup or so of stock. After boiling for 10 minutes we pour in around 500ml of pureed tomatoes and let everything simmer for another 5-10 minutes.


A few minutes before eating we cracks four eggs in the pea and tomato stew and let everything boil until the eggs have the desired consistency (we like them soft so about 3-4 minutes is enough).


Before serving up we add some fresh ricotta salata (or some other matured, salty cheese), parsley and enjoy everything with the wonderful bread we purchased earlier. Buon appetitto

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sicilian food – part 1- Ricotta

We have said it before, Sicilian food is wonderful. It’s not the spiciest, most diverse or most adventurous food in the world, but the freshness and quality of the ingredients combined with the respectful way of preparing them, makes every dish a delightful experience.

We won’t go through all the wonderful dishes we’ve tried, but since we know that some of our friends, like us, are foodies, we want to present a few of our favourite ingredients and dishes.

First on the list is ricotta; a sweet fresh cheese made from the whey of cow’s or sheep’s milk. In Sicily, it’s the main ingredient for several pasta dishes as well as the famous cannoli, crusty pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta and dried fruits.


Ricotta actually means re-cooked, and it’s the first "cheese stage" when using cooked milk and whey, before it turns into something like mozzarella, then a saltier version of primo sale and then the ricotta salata, or the salted ricotta, a harder cheese used for grating.

Just up the road from our house lives an old sheep farmer, who we’ve been fortunate enough to get fresh deliveries of ricotta and ricotta salata from on a weekly basis. The cheese is still steaming when it arrives and has a mildness and smoothness that is incomparable to the one from the stores.


We have been experimenting with it a lot, making a number of different dishes, including Romanian papanasi. However, one of our favourites, that our friends at the pasticceria taught us, is the ricotta omelette. Just whip up three or four eggs, add about 200 grams of fresh ricotta and mash everything up with a fork.


Pour the mixture into a non-stick frying pan and add some grated parmesan if you like. The result should be a beautiful, golden brown, fluffy omelette that goes perfectly with crusty bread, some salad and a chilled ros̩ Рa perfect summer lunch.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Marsala

It had been a while since we’d been on any proper excursions and since the weather looked more promising than it had recently, we decided to take a little road trip to the city of Marsala. Marlsala is located on the western-most point of Sicily and is best known for its sweet desert wine. The city only merited a very brief mention in our guidebook, which surprised us a little as we thought it was quite famous. Undeterred, we decided that we wanted to see what was there for ourselves.


After an hour-and-a-half’s drive we reached the outskirts of the city, and we started to understand why it wasn’t given more space in the guidebook. For more than 15 minutes we saw nothing but poor neighbourhoods, dilapidated houses, boarded-up shops and no indications of any city-center. We came close to turning around and heading somewhere else, but we were suddenly directed on to a small side street, leading towards the sea, and what we later found out was the historical center.

In the old-town the atmosphere was completely different. Founded in 400BC by the Carthaginians, it was under Roman rule that the city saw its first real prosperity and took its current layout. Later, under Arab rule, the city was called “Marsa Allah” (port of Allah) and that’s where the present name can be traced to. The core of the city, earlier surrounded by a stone wall, is now accessible through an impressive gate, leading to straight, perpendicular streets and impressive churches.




After a wonderful lunch at a local trattoria where we tried the local pasta specialities (one with tuna, peas and mint, and the other with aubergines and chilli) we wandered around the old-town, admiring the architectural details and the inviting stores.






Too bad they were all (as usual) closed for their daily siesta. But we didn’t mind too much since it’s a nice reason for us to return.