Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Welcome To Winter In Sicily

Imagine a starry night painted on a cloudless after La Prima Neve. Your breath mists the air and joins the smoke from various street food vendors swirling on a Sicilian street. Welcome to winter in Sicily.

What a beautiful island! Rich in culinary history, as one of its many accomplishments, it’s also sometimes known as God’s Kitchen. Certainly if you wander round the streets it is likely you too will draw the same conclusion and marvel at the variety and ingenuity of the snacks on offer.

Wherever you walk in Sicily, you will come across a speciality. In Palermo it’s Cassata; in Ragusu enjoy Arancine fried rice balls usually filled with rag├╣ (meat sauce), tomato sauce, mozzarella, and/or peas, and then coated in bread crumbs. But around every street corner there will always be another delicacy to savour, fusing deeply held tradition with spontaneity and a twist of modernity.

Who needs a swanky urban restaurant when each course can be eaten in the open air and you can actually see what is being offered before you make a tempting choice? Take a culinary journey through Sicilian streets and if you have a sweet tooth, alas my downfall (well, amongst others!) and you will revel in the confections peppered with almonds, apricots, citrus and masses of sugar in its varied forms.

Arab influence abounds; some habits die hard it seems, as the Arabs dominated Sicily a whole 10 centuries ago! Still, if something works why change it?

These eastern influences can be seen in the use of rice, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper and pine nuts of course. It’s a paradise for anyone who has an addiction to spice, nuts and fruit and these are all evident as you meander through the maze of small streets.

Of course, if you are health conscious then Sicily is also known for its use of healthy ingredients and you will always find a rainbow of vegetable colours and fibre present in the various pulses used. It’s a hearty and robust cuisine which utilises the very best from soil and sea and if you like fish then Sicily will offer everything from cuttlefish to tuna, sardines to swordfish.

High quality pasta and olive oil are staples but if your fancy is Pecorino you will find this sheep’s cheese in abundance. Yes, but wouldn’t you rather eat something completely different from home?

So why not start off with Guasteddi – oh yes, fresh rolls stuffed with ribbons of calf's spleen, then layered Ricotta cheese, strands of Caciocavallo and a quick drizzle of hot lard. Ha ha! Then wander through The Vucciria alleys and experience one of the notable food markets around the Mediterranean. Even on the street there seems to be a strict order for doing things, Sicilians are seemingly in love with ritual even al fresco!

What you will find is a cuisine which shows the hallmarks of poverty but ingenuity too. Whatever the aristocracy was eating, the less wealthy would have the same, made their way and utilising the ingredients to hand. Preserving the taste and aroma of fresh fish, meat, herbs and spices is key and balancing one intense flavour with another is a skill the Sicilians have perfected in their the art of simplicity which is actually a complex procedure!

So, experience Buffitieri - as the name suggests - delicacies to be consumed on the spot, maybe Pane e pannelle or chickpea fritters, so you can reserve a sugar hit for later. Later might mean Sfincione (an oily pizza smothered in onions and caciocavallo cheese) or, wait for it, Stigghiola or goat intestines filled with parsley, onions and cheese! Bread stuffed with beef spleen is another tasty addition to the street menu. Vegetarians might need to look away.

So, if a little street exploration appeals, alongside a touch of cooking and some relaxation at a beautiful villa then it’s definitely worth considering booking a New Year break in Sicily before everyone else has the same idea and places are snapped up. I mean, how frustrating knowing you might be eating left over mince pies and the very last of that slightly desiccated turkey right into the New Year instead of wandering through a foodie heaven!

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