Coeur a la Crème made with Labneh

Sometimes, when I do not have much time to make a dessert I prepare something very simple…below, savoiardi with rose liqueur and whipped ricotta (ricotta , honey, vanilla  and cream).

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for example something layered and made with savoiardi soaked in liqueur and crème anglaise or whipped ricotta (the real thing or a take on Zuppa Inglese and Cassata, like the deconstructed cassata below).

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Most times, I like something wet, like  poached fruit (nearly always poached with some sort alcohol) and present it with homemade mascarpone.( Stuffed peaches with amaretti with homemade mascarpone).

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These may be easy desserts but they are always enjoyed. (See links below for  some recipes)

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Another easy dessert is Coeur a la Crème (French for heart of cream) either made with cream cheese or with Labneh, an ingredient which over time has become a staple in my fridge. Labneh is a fresh cheese with the consistency of a cream cheese popular in the Middle East made by straining yoghurt.

Ten years ago I would have said that Italians would not have known about Labneh, but food culture evolves and some Italians are familiar with it. However, the Italian recipes that I have seen primarily suggest using Labneh as a savory dish dressed with extra virgin olive oil and herbs or spices such as fennel seeds, parsley, mint or paprika. In Australia because of our multi-cultural population we are more familiar with Labneh and with the spices we use.

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To make Labneh I use Greek yoghurt and the tubs of yoghurt I buy are sold in 1k containers.
I always buy what I consider to be good quality yoghurt without flavouring or added sugar and with descriptors such as: pot set, no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, live and active cultures, biodynamic, organic…. the more of these the better the yoghurt.

1 tub full-fat Greek-style yoghurt and a colander with one layer of muslin.

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Line a colander with one layer of muslin and place the colander on top of a bowl so that the whey of the yogurt can drain. Empty the carton of yogurt into the lined colander and leave to drain 6-8 hours or longer. I usually place mine (covered) to drain in the fridge. You can use the drained yoghurt then or you can store the yoghurt in the muslin in a container in the fridge – it will keep for about 1 week and you may be surprised that wrapped in the muslin it will keep on draining.

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Different types of yoghurt will drain more liquid than others depending on their water content.  I weighed my last batch of Labneh and 1 kilo was reduced to 820g.

Coeur a la crème

Labneh 700g
250 gm cream cheese or ricotta or 200 ml double cream.
100 gm pure icing sugar or honey (to taste)
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped or pure vanilla essence or concentrate
grated lemon rind from 1lemon

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Coeur a la crème is made in a heart shaped special mold with a perforated bottom that allows the mixture to drain and compact properly.

A heart shaped baking tin lined with muslin will also keep draining but you will need to remove the liquid more often.

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Place all of the above ingredients in a bowl, incorporate the ingredients by hand before using an electric mixer to blend it till smooth (it will not take long). Taste it to see if you prefer it sweeter and adjust accordingly.
Line heart shaped mold with muslin and spoon the creamy mixture into the mold.  Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and place the mold into a container – it will drain some more. I usually place my mold in a large container with a lid so that I do not need to use plastic wrap.
Chill at least 4 hours and up to 1 day.
Unwrap mold, invert onto a serving plate.
Surround it fruit of your choice and serve (fresh and macerated with a liqueur or poached fruit).
On this occasion I presented it with blood oranges (they have been in season)

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4 blood oranges
3 tbs honey
2- 4 tbs orange liqueur (I used Cointreau)
Fresh mint sprigs, for garnish (optional)
Work over a bowl to reserve any juice,  use a sharp knife to remove peel and as much pith as possible. Cut the top and bottom of the orange, slide your knife between the membrane and the segment, and then cut the segment out. Repeat with each segment and each orange.
In a saucepan, combine honey with 1tbsp of water and boil it vigorously till it looks caramelized.
Add oranges and reserved juice and cook (low heat for about 4-5 minutes). Add orange liqueur, and cool/ chill.

Garnish with mint sprigs (optional).

Other recipes:

CASSATA DECONSTRUCTED

ZUPPA INGLESE, a Famous Italian dessert

LABNEH and Watermelon salad

HOME MADE MASCARPONE

FISH BALLS with Sicilian flavours

My last post was about marinaded white anchovies – a great crowd pleaser.  This is easy finger food that can be presented on crostini (oven toasted or fried bread) or on small, cup shaped  salad leaves.

Another small fishy bite which never fails to get gobbled up are fish balls poached in a tomato salsa. I took these to a friend’s birthday celebration recently.

The fish is Rockling.   At other times I have made them with other Australian wild caught fish for example Snapper and Flathead,  Blue-eye and Mahi Mahi.

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Here are some photos of the ones I made recently.

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Cut the fish into chunks and mince it in a food processor.

You can see the ingredients I use to make these fish balls, mainly currants, pine nuts, parsley and fresh bread crumbs . There is also some garlic and grated lemon rind, cinnamon….. and on this occasion I added nutmeg too.

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These ingredients are common in Sicilian cuisine but also in Middle Eastern food. This is not surprising when you look at Sicily’s legacy.

For a variation use other Mediterranean flavours: preserved lemon peel instead of grated lemon, fresh coriander instead of parsley, omit the cheese, add cumin.

Combine the mixture and add some grated Pecorino  and salt and pepper to taste.

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Eggs will bind the mixture.

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The mixture should be quite firm and hold together. You may need to add more eggs – the number of  eggs you will need  will vary because it will depend on the texture of the fish and the bread.  I always use 2-3 day old sourdough bread.

On this occasion I added 2 extra eggs,(4 small eggs altogether)  however I used 1 k of fish.

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In the meantime make a tomato salsa.  I added a stick of cinnamon.

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Shape the mixture into small balls and poach them gently in the salsa.

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This  is the link to the recipe  that is also in my second book, Small Fishy Bites.

FISH BALLS IN SALSA – POLPETTE DI PESCE (PURPETTI in Sicilian)

I presented the fish balls in Chinese soup spoons – easy to put into one’s mouth. You can see that there were only very few fish balls left over on the festive table. There are also only five anchovies in witlof leaves left over.

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Of course  these fish balls are not just limited to party food. They make a great antipasto or main course.

Spaghetti and fish balls? Why not?

A NEW LIFE for shop bought MARINADED WHITE ANCHOVIES

Out with the old marinade of vinegar, sunflower oil, tired sliced garlic and herbs.

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And in with the new marinade – extra virgin olive oil, fresh parsley, garlic and a little dry oregano (optional).

Sounds better already. New life, fresh taste!

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These are handy to have in the fridge to dip into at anytime, or to present as an antipasto on fresh bread or crostini , or inside a leaf from the centre of a small cos lettuce or radicchio or witlof – in fact any salad green that has cone shaped head and cup shaped leaves that can hold a few marinaded anchovies.

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The pictures tell the story. Simple to make, good to eat.

Leave in marinade at least one day but as long as you keep them under oil they will last for a couple of weeks in the fridge.

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I used :

500g of white marinaded anchovies ( alici fresche marinate  are usually packed in Sicily or Liguria… and the Spaniards call them boquerones),
2-3 cloves of garlic ½ cup chopped parsley, both finely chopped.
extra virgin olive oil to cover – the amount will depend of the container you use. I always  use glass.

Drain the anchovies and discard the old marinade and the solids.

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Layer the anchovies with the herbs and the garlic and top with the oil.

Store in the fridge until ready to use. If you are taking some  anchovies out,  make sure to once again cover them with oil.

If you are presenting the anchovies inside leaves use a colander to drain the anchovies and then place 1-3 inside each leaf- this will depend on the size of the leaf and how much you (or your guests) like anchovies.

If you are presenting them on bread, there is no need to drain them with a colander – the oil tastes good too.

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As you can see, finding small suitable leaves and keeping them whole can be time consuming.

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I first wrote about Marinaded Anchovies in 2011.

They have remained as  one of my favourite things to do for a large gathering. The recipe is also in my second book  Small Fishy Bites as Zucchini and Mint Fritters with Marinaded Anchovies.

AND THEN THERE WAS PERFECTION – Making bread

“Put very simply, sourdough is made by mixing flour milled from the whole grain – dark rye or wholemeal, say – with water and leaving it for a few days until you see the first pinhead-sized bubble of life, as the yeast cells and bacteria exhale and start to puff tiny pockets of carbon dioxide into the mixture.” (Dan Lepard, baker, food writer and more)

This potent wild yeast mixture is sometimes known as  the “mother”… otherwise plainly called the “starter”.  The starter is what imparts the flavour and bubbles that go to making sour dough bread.

And this is the beginning.

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Inspired by a visit to a friend, Randy, who lives in Nottingham, England, my partner Bob decided to try his hand at making sour dough bread. And so he started with the starter, which bubbled away quietly but was  fed regularly.

It was mixed with good quality organic flour, left, fed and fed again. From this a “sponge” was made by mixing the starter with flour and water. The sponge is also known as the leaven.

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Add more flour to the sponge and then there is sticky dough.

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And more sticky dough.

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And more dough. Perhaps it was too sticky?

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So there was more dough proving.

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And there was more bread.

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There were breads of different shapes. There was even bread in our freezer.

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Some loaves lacked salt. Others were too dense. Some looked like cake.

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The smells of bread proving and bread baking wafted through our apartment. This must have made our neighbours very jealous.

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This dough looked right!

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Given enough time, it was worked into a shape that could be pulled into a loaf .

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The loaf was placed into a basket to prove.

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It  rested, and then rose and rose again.

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Bob placed the dough on a heated pizza stone and made a couple of slashes on top of the dough: this is also called “scoring”. Breaking the surface of the dough  creates a weak spot in the bread as it expands and prevents the bread from splitting. It also helps to make the bread attractive.

The loaf looked great in our oven.

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SUCCESS….and it was just right.

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Bob’s passion for bread making began in a kitchen in  Nottingham.

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Randy has adapted recipes from Dan Lepard’s book, The Handmade Loaf.

He uses a basket with a liner to prove his bread. It is heavily coated with flour.

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Randy is no ordinary bread maker.

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He is Randy of the Bagel Boys who once baked great bread in North Adelaide.

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This is before he went to live in Nottingham.  Now he bakes good bread for himself, his household and his house guests in his kitchen.

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While  the bread making demonstration went on, one of the dogs slept. She’s used to this baking.

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Randy uses a Le Creuset cast iron saucepan to bake the bread. It starts off  with a lid. The lid is removed towards the end of baking so that the top of the bread can brown. Here is the bread in the oven. It is nearly ready.

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As you would expect, Randy has perfection every time.

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Thank you Randy  for the demonstration in your kitchen and all of the  tutorials and  the bread-making advice you provided to Bob by email from Nottingham to our apartment in Melbourne.

And you are correct Randy, bread making  is just practice, persistence and patience.

No doubt,  Bob will make more bread  in our kitchen.

Bob says:
In baking my loaves, I have adapted the recipes and techniques of my friend and long-time baker, Randy Barber the former Bagel Boy, with that of sourdough virtuoso Dan Lepard, followed by some further advice from a book by Yoke Mardewi, particularly in relation to creating and maintaining the starter, and topping it all off by watching a Youtube video published by Danny McCubbin which showed off the techniques of his baking buddy, Hugo Harrison.
After all that, I’ve got to say my baking is still a work-in-progress, every loaf I’ve turned out so far is something of a surprise, mostly pleasant.
My latest effort was closest to what I’ve seen Randy do in his Nottingham (UK) kitchen.
First, I created a “sponge” made from:
200g of starter
250g of quality white flour
325g of natural spring water
I left the sponge to mature overnight.
The next morning, I added:
330g of flour [ultimately, I think I could have added a little more]
2 teaspoons of salt
I mixed this by hand and let it rest in the bowl for 10 minutes.
I next went through a sequence of mixing, by pulling the dough over itself (here the McCubbin/Harrison Youtube video was instructive) and resting it for 10 minutes another two times.
Then, I turned, pulled and slapped the dough together on an oiled surface for several minutes before letting it rest for 30 minutes.
I repeated the turning, slapping and pulling process, before letting it rest for another hour.
Next step, I turned the dough out onto a floured work-surface, where I did the traditional folding into thirds and turning process, until using the technique demonstrated by Harrison, I worked the dough into a loaf shape which I gently placed in a floured proving basket.
I left that to double in size. When it had risen, I preheated the oven and a pizza stone to about 230°C. Other times, I’ve used a Le Creuset casserole dish. I gently up-ended the proving basket to tip the loaf on to the heated pizza stone and returned it to the oven to bake for about 35-40 minutes above some water in tray for steam.

Once cooked, I left the loaf to cool on an oven rack.

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There is much information from Dan Lepard about bread making on the web.
Dan Lepard’s book, The Handmade Loaf, contains many illustrations and step by step recipes.
This link  for making sourdough bread is from The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/nov/27/sourdough-recipe-dan-lepard

 

COSTOLETTE DI VITELLO (Veal chops – baked)

I really like the gristly bits around bones, for example I like to chew around the ends of Chicken bones, shins and I particularly like pork hocks. Rather than gristle, perhaps it is collagen – the bit that connects muscle tissue together and breaks down with cooking and turns semi-transparent and tender. I think it is flavourful, but many do not.

Veal chop bones are great for chewing so when I saw veal chops at the Queen Victoria Market I bought them.

Living in Australia when I say ‘veal’ I do not mean the ‘white veal’ as in Europe, i.e. calves 18-20 weeks old, reared in small pens indoors and fed only milk. This Australian veal was quite pink – evidence that as in accordance with Australian regulations it should have been reared in open pens and fed a diet of milk and grass or grain and produced from dairy calves weighing less than 70kg or beef calves weighing up to 150kg.

Veal can be bland so the most usual way to cook veal with bone is to make a spezzatino –a braise or stew. Veal benefits from the added liquid (could be from stock/ wine/ tomatoes) and herbs for flavour.

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I chose to bake my veal chops but unlike lamb or goat (kid), veal has little or no fat so it needs oil if you choose to bake them.

I marinated the chops overnight in a bowl and baked them the next day.

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Meat and Marinade

For 4 people:

1.5k veal chops (there is little meat on them)
2 garlic cloves, sliced
½ cup dry Marsala or white wine
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
rosemary sprigs and bay leaves

Marinate the meat with the above ingredients for at least 2+ hours (can be done overnight). Drain the meat and solids from the marinade when you are ready to cook it. Reserve the liquid.

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For Cooking

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into large slices
salt
pepper
4 large potatoes
more rosemary (or sage )

Prepare the potatoes and cut into large pieces. Put them in a bowl and dress with half the oil, add seasoning and more rosemary.

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Heat the oven at 180C.

Place a little more oil in a baking dish. Position the meat in the tray, arrange the slices of onions and between the meat. Add seasoning and drizzle the rest of the oil on top of the meat.

Bake the meat for 15 minutes. Turn the meat and add the potatoes (with the oil). Cook for about 40 minutes then add the drained marinade – try to pour it over the meat rather than the potatoes. Bake for another 15-20 minutes till the potatoes are cooked and the meat is coloured.

If you are wondering what the green blobs are on top of the baked veal in the main photo, they are spoons of chopped parsley which I keep in the fridge topped with extra virgin olive oil…… more for decoration, but it is also flavourful.

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I guess everyone liked them.

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See recipe:  VITELLO ARROSTO (Roast Veal)

A Tale about QUINCES

There is nothing like baked quinces.

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When cooked slowly (4-5 hours) with sugar or /and honey they they transform from an indeterminate dirty cream, pale green colour to a deep coral. They look beautiful, smell good and taste great.

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Resting in their raw state on a bench or in a fruit bowl, they will also deodorize the environment.

In spite of being cooked for such a long time they retain some of their firmness and hold their shape and do not turn squashy like apples or pears.

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It is an autumnal fruit and although we are nearing the end of winter in Melbourne I bought some recently.  Usually when I buy quinces I buy them loose but each one of these  was individually wrapped in paper and packed firmly in a box. They were labelled as Australian. We are a big country and I would imagine that they would still be found in an other part of Australia. I also imagine that because we can store apples and pears successfully, we would be able to keep quinces in cold storage too.

My yearning for quinces this year began in Nottingham. I was there in early May which is not quince season, but as you may know  anything can be bought out of season in the UK from anywhere in the world.

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These quinces came from Morocco and my friend slowly baked them. These were smoother than any quince I had ever seen and much more round. My friend, Pat, is an Australian living in Nottingham and she agreed with me.

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It is easy to see how Pat prepared her quinces – she cut the quinces horizontally and made neat regular hollows removing the core. Then she placed them upright in a ceramic baking dish she had buttered beforehand. She placed honey and small pieces of butter in the hollowed cores and added a little more butter around the quinces.

Cloves, bay leaves, a little sugar and water and surrounded the quinces. She covered them with foil and baked them at about 150C for about 3hours. The foil came off for the last hour. And the quinces in Nottingham were superb!

While we enjoyed an array of British produce and ate warm quinces  with excellent rich  British cream and drinking Italian liqueurs and Scotch, another happening was going on in her front garden, so you can see what season we were heading into in Nottingham.

Poppies @ Pat's

And very close to their house this was going on in the  small river.

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First we met an egret poised to fish on the water’s edge. Then we saw a swan  sitting on a nest … the companion was floating nearby.  Shortly after we left Nottingham, cygnets hatched and made their parents proud.

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Back to quinces in Melbourne Australia.

Here is what ingredients I used and what I did.

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I wiped the fuzz off the quinces and preheated my oven to 140C (fan-forced).

You can basically flavour quinces with whatever takes your fancy.

I wanted to eat the quinces cold and therefore used no butter.

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INGREDIENTS

3 quinces, star anise, cinnamon quills, cloves, black peppercorns, bay leaves.
1 lemon, zest (grated), peel from 3/4 of an  orange – I used a potato peeler.
About 200g sugar, 100g honey.
1 cup of white wine and 1  cup of water.

I put the spices  and peel and the liquid in a baking dish.

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I cut the quinces in half lengthways and lay them in a baking dish, cut side down, skin side  up. I cored them but did not peel them.

Mine didn’t look as good but they too tasted great.

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I then drizzled them with honey and scattered sugar over them. I them made sure that there was sufficient liquid around the sides of the quinces, but not enough to cover them.  I then  used foil to cover them and I baked them for two hours.

I finished off the cooking for another two hours without the foil.  And it is during this time that magic happens and the colour changes .

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I presented my quinces with some homemade  Mascarpone.

And shortly after we left Nottingham and were on our way to Sicily, the Peonies joined the numerous poppies in the front garden. The good weather had arrived.

Pat's poppy?

Pan fried radicchio with pickled pears, walnuts, beetroot and gorgonzola

You must admit the combination above sounds pretty good – the contrasts of flavours, differences in textures, the bitter taste with the sweet.

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You probably have eaten grilled radicchio. I was mentioning to friends that my mother was cooking grilled radicchio back in the 80’s and was presenting it with a tomato salsa and polenta. And now in 2016, I have been seeing it and eating it once again, both in Australia and in Italy.

The photo below was taken in a restaurant in Rome in June. I ate it as a contorno (a vegetable side dish).

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Instead of grilling the radicchio I pan fried it – easier and less smelly.

I wanted a variety of ingredients so I poached some Rosella pears in red wine, pepper corns, a dash or red vinegar and a tablespoon of sugar.

Next beetroot. I really enjoy the sweetness of beetroot with radicchio in a salad at any time, so why not ad it to a lightly sautéed radicchio.

I love Gorgonzola dolce. Cheese pairs well with walnuts and so I added these components as well.

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It did not take long to prepare. I poached the pears early in the day so as to leave them steeping in the poaching liquid and the rest was prepared in about 30 minutes.  I cooked the beetroot the day before and kept it in the fridge. My type of cooking these days….. especially if this was the entrée and I had three more courses to prepare.

For 4 people

Quantities for gorgonzola and walnuts to taste.

Cubed gorgonzola dolce – creamier, less sharp than straight Gorgonzola.
Walnuts, and make sure that they are not rancid.
Cooked beetroot…at least one per person.

2 pears – not soft – I ended up only using 1 – a quarter on each plate
2 cups dry red wine
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 heaped tablespoon of sugar
5 cloves
about 10 black pepper corns
1 pinch of salt

Combine the wine, vinegar and spices in a small saucepan which will hold the pears and almost- if not entirely- cover them. Cook pears cut into quarters in the liquid, lid on and poach on low heat. I still wanted some crunch and cooked them for about 30 min.
Leave pears in poaching liquid to cool and until you wish to use them.

1 large round head of radicchio, quartered, so that each quarter has a bit of the stem end holding it together. I also used satay skewer to ensure that it stayed together. If using the Treviso vaviety of radicchio ( long shape) you may need 2 heads and cut it in half.

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¼ cup olive oil
salt and black pepper

Lightly sauté the radicchio in the oil over moderate heat uncovered. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn once. I did not want the radicchio cooked- I wanted a warm salad with radicchio that was softened on the outer.
Remove the radicchio. Distribute onto separate plates.
Drain/ strain the pears and use that wine/liquid to add to the pan. Discard the spices. Add the beetroot (to warm and to glaze). Turn up the heat and reduce the liquid to about half the quantity.

To serve distribute pears and beetroot . Dribble liquid on the radicchio. Scatter gorgonzola and walnuts on top.

Done. Compliments all round.

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Radicchio Recipes:

BIGOLI NOBILI (Bigoli pasta with red radicchio, borlotti and pork sausages)

RADICCHIO (Treviso) with polenta and tomato salsa

Radicchio, celery beetroot salad – as ingredients below with a simple vinaigrette – Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, red wine vinegar. 1 part vinegar to 3 parts olive oil.

Fresh herbs if you wish.

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Sicilian Cheese and more cheese

I was in Sicily in May and spent days in Ragusa  where my father’s family still live.

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While I was there, my aunt invited the extended family to go to a masseria – a farm where they make local cheese.

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We ate warm ricotta, sampled some of their other cheeses…

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…..and ate scacce with a variety of fillings – too many.

Recipes: See – SCACCE (focaccia-like stuffed bread)

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Ragusani ( people from Ragusa) are very fond of local cheeses and over my many visits to Ragusa I have eaten large quantities of cheese.

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I found an early post about Cheese and a visit to a masseria. Habits  do not change very much in Ragusa.

See: SICILIAN CHEESE MAKING. A VISIT TO A MASSARO (farmer-cheese maker) IN RAGUSA. and with a recipe for pan fried cheese with oregano, garlic, a bit of sugar and vinegar. Formaggio all’argentiera.

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In Melbourne we have La Latteria….worth a visit if you wish to eat cheese made by a  Sicilian.

See: La Latteria

 

Palermo and GoEuro competition

Here are more photos of Palermo and Mondello and details of a GoEuro Travel Inspiration Competition that  I have entered.

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Some time ago, I was contacted by a member of the marketing Team at GoEuro, a travel search engine/website that combines and compares rail, bus and air travel in one site. They are based in Berlin. GoEuro was preparing a blog feature about Sicily, with tips from well-travelled bloggers and had found my site. They asked if I’d be interested in sharing some of my recommendations within the region.

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I did so, and the result was:

18 Secrets of Sicily Revealed by Top Travel Bloggers

Recently I was contacted by GoEuro again, this time inviting me to enter a travel blog competition:

Write a post on your blog detailing how you would spend your perfect holiday in Europe: where would you go? Why? One lucky writer wins £500 towards their next European adventure.

How could I resist?

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I wrote a blog about visiting Palermo because it is the most diverse and complex city in Sicily.

Palermo and Sicily … peeling the onion

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GoEuro Travel Inspiration Competition

http://www.goeuro.co.uk/travel/travel-writing-competition

Post  Mortum….I did not win this competition but I hope that some readers may feel motivated to travel there.

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Many thanks

Marisa

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Palermo and Sicily … peeling the onion

“Sicily is the pearl of this century for its qualities and its beauty, for the uniqueness of its towns and its people […] because it brings together the best aspects of every other country.”

This was written almost a thousand years ago by an Arabian geographer, Muhammed Al-Idrisi, in his book of “pleasant journeys into faraway lands” for the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II.

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As Al-Idrisi discovered, Sicily may be small, but it has the best of everything and although I may visit some places again and again, I always manage to discover something new. And this is what brings me back to Sicily again and again. I grew up in the far north of Italy in Trieste but each summer as a child, I would travel to Sicily for our summer holidays – both of my parents have relatives in Sicily. For me Sicily was an exotic place of sunshine, colour and warmth, the outdoors and the sea. Wherever I go in Europe, I always visit Sicily as well.

On my latest trip I concentrated on Southeastern Sicily and went to little towns and villages that I had not been to before as well as familiar places where I’m always interested to see what’s changed and what has stayed the same.

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Next time I visit I plan to spend more time in the city that is the essence of Sicily – Palermo.  While Al-Adrisi called Sicily a “pearl” Roberto Alajmo, a journalist and blogger born and raised in Palermo compared his home town to an onion, una cipolla – its multiple layers have to be peeled to be appreciated.

Once you start peeling back the layers of Palermo what you find is a city where history meets infamy and splendor encounters squalor, antiquities stand beside modernity. All of it evidence of a fantastic overlay of cultures from Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish. This cultural fusion shows up in the food and drink, the art and architecture, the palaces, the temples and churches and the entire Sicilian way of life.

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Last time I visited Palermo was three years ago, but each time I go I’m always happy to revisit the historic quarter with its Arabo-Norman monuments.

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Among my favourites are the Palazzo dei Normanni and its Cappella Palatina with their dazzling Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. There’s also King Roger II’s La Martorana, where the spectacular mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator overlooks Olivio Sozzi’s baroque Glory of the Virgin Mary, painted six centuries later. I enjoy admiring the simple, geometric shapes of the Norman palaces, La Cuba and La Zisa, built entirely by Arabic craftsmen and the distinctive Arabo-Norman red domes on San Cataldo and San Giovanni degli Ermiti.

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On my not-to-miss list is the Cattedrale which is another masterpiece of overlaid period styles, begun by the Normans in the 12th Century, with 15th Century Catalan Gothic porch, capped off with a neo-classical 18th Century neo-classical dome. The timeline continues inside with tombs of Norman and Swabian kings and queens: Roger II and his daughter, Costanza d’Altavilla and their son Frederick II and his wife of Costanza of Aragon. You can admire her imperial gold crown in the cathedral’s treasury.

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Palermo also has a fountain to rival the best of Rome. La Fontana Pretoria was once prudishly called the “fountain of shame” because of the multiple nude statues. Judge for yourself!

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The baroque also makes a grand stand in the four elegant palazzo facades of the Quattro Canti, framing the intersection of Palermo’s two main boulevards.

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I know I’m at the heart of the onion that is Palermo when I enter the labyrinth of laneways in the city’s sprawling markets – especially La Vucciria and Ballarò – with their clustered stalls that remind me of an Arabic souk. I like to listen to the clamour of the traders’ shouted Sicilian dialect. Sheltered from the sun under red canvas awnings you find the fish stalls. In his book, Midnight in Sicily Peter Robb described how the diffused red light of the market “enhanced the translucent red of the big fishes’ flesh and the silver glitter of the smaller ones’ skins”.

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Wandering the old quarters of Palermo, you’ll pick up the aroma of traditional street-food fried in large vats such as panelle (chickpea flour fritters), cazzilli (potato croquettes) or meusa (spleen) which are typical dishes of the friggerie. You will smell char-grilled peppers. And if I want to eat these treats in doors I go to classic restaurants like L’Antica Foccaceria San Francesco which has been cooking the same thing for decades.

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I find it interesting to see how traditional cuisine has developed and one of my favourite things to do in Palermo (or anywhere I go in Sicily) is to find restaurants that re-invent traditional dishes and present them with contemporary twists.  And if I want to contrast the old-style dishes with contemporary versions there are still typical trattorie like La Casa del Brodo that have classic Palermo dishes like sarde a beccafico, caponata, pasta con la sarde.

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I’m also seriously interested in discovering the ever increasing new hip bars that serve glasses of Sicilian wine varieties like grillo and nero d’avola and boutique beers matched with interesting snacks that reflect modern Sicilian cuisine.

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When the time comes to escape the close-quarter hustle of the city, I can catch a bus to the north-west side of Palermo to admire the Liberty-style residences of the capital’s once-wealthy merchants. I can travel to the picturesque seaside town of Mondello, where I can dine out on the waterfront, drink in the view, scoop up a granita or gelato, eat a cannolo or a slice of cassata. It is definitely a place to eat fish and enjoy a drink or two.

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Back in town I can always book a ticket to the opera or ballet at the Teatro Massimo and eat a delicious cold treat on my way back to where I am staying.

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Palermo’s gardens are another escape. I love to wander in the greenery of the Villa Giulia or the Piazza Marina with its massive fig trees, which are spectacular. The modern art galleries are another diversion. There’s the GAM (La Galleria d’Arte Moderna), Francesco Pantaleone Arte Contemporanea, Nuvole Incontri d’Arte and Palazzo Riso which I was told about on my last visit to Palermo, when I saw an exhibition of works by Francesco Simeti.

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Palazzo Riso is a baroque neo-classical edifice built in the 1780s. It was Mussolini’s temporary headquarters in World War II and bombed by the Americans in a failed attempt to kill the Italian dictator (who had left town only days before the air-raid). For years the Palazzo stood in ruins and when it was finally restored during the late-1990s, the restorers preserved some of the damage as evidence of its history.

Although I have seen Guttoso’s painting of the Vucciria Market hanging in the Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri, I have yet to see the basement where thousands of prisoners accused of heresy through the Holy Inquisition were imprisoned. These prison walls are covered in prisoners’ simple etchings, which were plastered over in the 19th Century.

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I take great pleasure in returning to a place as rich and varied as Sicily and why revisiting a city as layered as Palermo is top of my European travel wish list. It may not have the reputation of Rome (the eternal city) or Florence (la serenissima) but it has depth and diversity.

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Sicilian food and culture