Friday, 2 March 2012

A taste of Montalbano

Follow in the footsteps of Italy’s most famous fictional foodie and discover the dishes that make Sicily a gastronomic paradise.

Do you regard a delicious meal as an almost spiritual experience, see talented cooks as the recipients of divine inspiration, and consume good food in reverential silence? If you do, you have a lot in common with Salvo Montalbano, hero of Andrea Camilleri’s best-selling novels. Camilleri came late to writing, having spent his career in film and stage direction, and his first forays into historical fiction went largely unheralded. It was only with the publication of La forma dell'Acqua (The Shape of Water) in 1994 that Camilleri, Montalbano and the fictional town of Vigàta shot to fame. The novels have since sold in their tens of millions, both in Italy and abroad, and the television adaptation was broadcast on BBC4 in 2011, with a second series currently on air.

Although he now lives in Rome, Camilleri was born in Porto Empedocle, a coastal town in southern Sicily, which provided the inspiration for Vigatà – indeed, the town has taken the extraordinary step of renaming itself Porto Empedocle Vigatà as a tribute to its fictional counterpart and from an understandable desire to cash in on the popularity of the series. Montalbano himself was named in homage to the the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose fictional private detective Pepe Carvalho shares with Camilleri’s character a deep and abiding passion for food.

Sicilian chocolatesMontalbano’s next meal is never far from his mind. Even in the heat of a case, he will sample ricotta and chocolate-filled cannoli from a box left on the desk of his pathologist colleague; eagerly open his refrigerator to discover what fresh delights have been left for him by his housekeeper Adelina; wrangle an invitation to dinner at the home of his commissioner, whose wife Signore Elisa can work miracles in the kitchen; or drop in at the Trattoria San Calogero, which will open its doors to the detective regardless of the lateness of the hour. It is easy to understand the inspector’s obsession with Sicilian food: the region’s cuisine is all about the freshest ingredients, simply prepared and perfectly presented.

Take pasta ’ncasciata, which Montalbano describes as “a dish worthy of Olympus”. It’s a simple combination of macaroni with minced beef in tomato sauce, with hard-boiled eggs, pecorino cheese, fried aubergine and garlic, formed into a dome and baked until the outside is crisp. Simple, rustic cooking, yet imbued with the kind of stick-to-the-ribs comfort that elevates a dish to cult status. Or there’s cold pasta with tomatoes basil and olives – what could be simpler, yet according to Montalbano the dish has “an aroma to wake the dead”. Many of Camilleri’s descriptions of food are almost cursory – pasta with garlic and oil followed by shrimp with oil and lemon – yet the flavours sing from the page.

Vigàta is a seaside town, and so fish and shellfish feature prominently in Montalbano’s diet. Striped mullet – which we know as grey mullet in the UK – is served fried or as a casserole with potatoes by the chef at Trattoria San Calogero. Fresh anchovies are simply accompanied by onions and vinegar, or used to make a sauce for hake. Turbot is served with roast with oregano and caramelised lemon; bass is stuffed and accompanied by a saffron sauce; sardines prepared alla beccafico – stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic and parmesan and deep-fried.

Not all the dishes described by Camilleri read quite as mouthwateringly. No doubt native Sicilians delight in spaghetti with sea urchin pulp, dense black squid sauce with a hint of oregano, attuppateddri – little snails that secrete a substance which seals the shell, or boiled lamb entrails sprinkled with caciocavallo cheese, but they aren’t exactly the sort of things most visitors to the region will be eager to taste.

Fortunately Monalvano has a sweet tooth, and if you are eager to sample his favourite desserts you can treat yourself to bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce, the pistachio and almond nougat known as torroncini, spicy chocolate mostaccioli biscuits served with mulled wine, or Adelina’s lemon ice, made to a strict formula of one part leon juice, two parts sugar, four parts water. That sounds like the perfect way to cleanse your palate before you set off on the trail of the mafia!

To follow in Montalbano's footsteps and delight in Sicilian dishes, why not join Flavours on a Cooking Holiday in Sicily this year?

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