I am in Alsace and I have bought some Pain d’épices.
Apart from the Natural or original Pain d’épices , the Rum and Raisins, Figs and Orange and Cointreau varieties appealed to me.
My first choice was the one with Orange and Cointreau but it was too sweet. As you can see there were a few different flavoured Pain d’épices to choose from.
I finally settled for the one with figues – figs. Superbe!
Pain d’épices or pain d’épice is French for “spice bread” and it has been around for a very long time. According to Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1694) it is made with rye flour, honey and spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, black pepper and aniseed. The perfume of the spices and the honey was pleasantly overwhelming.
It is sold by the slice and although this looks thin it is a fairly thick slice (otherwise the Pain d’épices would crumble).
We ate it with a runny French cheese. Say no more!
Pain d’épices is a specialty of Alsace and and I bought mine in Strasbourg. I saw other specialty vendors in Gertwiller, Roppenheim, Kaysersberg, Riquewihr and Colmar (were I am writing this post).
Wasn’t at all bad accompanied by some of the excellent white wines from Alsace.
There are many recipes I found on the web for Pain d’épices – honey seems to provide the moisture but I am pretty sure that the one I bought also has butter. The range of spices vary and some add coffee. I shall search for a recipe and make some Pain d’épices when I get back home – it does not appear to be difficult.
I do like New Zealand and every time I visit I praise and enjoy its extraordinary food culture. Not to mention the amazing scenery.
There is so much fresh and flavoursome produce in shops, farmers markets and roadside stalls – ‘gate to the plate’, so as to speak.
Kumera (Sweet Potato ) baked in local Waiheke honey and thyme.
Restaurants and eateries where the owners or chefs grow or source their produce locally are not scarce.
Fish too is local and staff in shops or in restaurants seem ready and eager to answer questions about their suppliers.
…that is if the produce is not already labelled or written about in the menu i.e. line caught tuna supplied by a trusted small fishery.
Menus highlight the production of New Zealand’s local and wide-ranging supply of produce and fine wines.
We have friends on Waiheke Island so Auckland and Waiheke are always a must on each visit.
On this occasion we were able to view the amazing sculptures on Waiheke Island (Headland Sculpture on the Gulf). Above, artist=Paora Toi-Te Rangiuaia.
Below , artist=Robert Jahnke Kaokao
Who needs the Venice Biennale…they have their own!
Below , artist= Virginia King
On this trip we hired a campervan and travelled to the Bay of Islands. Ever since my first trip to NZ I have been impressed by the apparent and increasing awareness and appreciation of organics and of locally-produced produce.
Of course great and diverse produce is more apparent in places like Waiheke but as we travelled around we found satisfactory local produce in the 4Squre stores and in supermarkets….local sweetcorn or avocados were 5 for $5.00.
Below New Zealand Spinach (also known as Warrigal Greens) growing on Waiheke in our friend’s garden.
We even bought local fresh produce from the local garage, opportunity shop or news agent in country locations.
On beaches around Opononi I found some samphire and some wild fennel near Rawene.
We bought some local fish, picked some blackberries and I used all those ingredients that night for a meal.
I picked some blackberries and we ate them with some fresh cream.
Pity the prickly pears weren’t ripe! We could have pretended to be in Sicily!
It is amazing how in limiting circumstances, how little one needs to make food flavourful and healthy.
I cooked the above fish (very simply…what else can you do in a campervan!
Fish sautéed in red wine
I pan fried in a light amount of extra virgin olive oil, fish turned once – it will only need about one minute on each side, add salt, pepper, a few herbs. Remove fish and then add about 3 tablespoons of red wine and evaporate. Return the fish to the pan, add a few more herbs if necessary. If I had some butter I may have whisked a little into the sauce.
Below, simple lunch at the New Zealand Gallery… a bed of spinach leaves, cured meat, soya beans, raw beetroot, radishes, and a Japanese soy/sesame sauce. Light, fresh and simple.
I very much enjoyed all of the food I ate during my first and recent trip to Japan – I went to Kyoto and Tokyo. Like Italian Cuisine, Japanese cuisine has a huge diversity of regional and seasonal dishes and the Japanese people seem just as passionate about their food.
Below is an oden dish, in a special oden restaurant -it is mainly daikon, I could also taste turnip, boiled eggs served in stock made from dried bonito, konbu and soy sauce. Of course there were pickles and rice.
We accompanied the oden dish with bean curd prepared in different ways… and I do like beancurd. Below is a photo of another beancurd dish I had in another restaurant -silken tofu (Agedashi) in a flavorful tentsuyu broth of dashi, mirin and soy. This one had some other ingredients as well as tofu and broth. The red on top was a mild chili paste.
Whether it be in my home town or elsewhere, I always place great effort in selecting the ‘right’ places to eat. I look closely at menus (in Japan, glossy pictures and the plastic replicas of food helped). I suss out the ambience and then take a plunge, and practically all of the time my senses do not fail me.
Japanese food is as much about the preparation and presentation as it is the food itself.
One place in Kyoto particularly stands out – no menus with pictures or models of food here – a tiny place with fabulous décor, a flamboyant, entertaining and creative chef (Mr. Fujita) and his courteous assistant who had a tiny sprinkling of English. We (my partner and I) got by, participated mainly with sign language, much laughter with the other eight guests and we ate extremely well. We pointed to particular ingredients that he had available – duck, fish, eel, eggs, mushrooms (what other guests were eating and via photos in an album) and left it up to him to come up with the food. We watched him slice and prepare top quality and seasonal ingredients and proudly come up with a variety of delicious offerings. Watching the chef prepare the food was as much fun as eating it.
This was a strongly flavoured stock with eel, spinach and egg. We were given bowls and spoons.
A form of Yakiniku? – duck cooked on a hot stone. We could have had tongue as well.
I am particularly fond of good tableware and the food was presented with as much care of good quality crockery and lacquerware – with a variety of shapes, textures, colorful patterns, and colors.
And the chef came to see us off.
I will not go on about all the food I tried in Japan – there were far too many of the traditional popular Japanese dishes – the steamed, simmered or grilled dishes, sliced raw, the sushi, tempura, yakitori, ramen etc, but I would like to mention a couple of things I particularly enjoyed or was less familiar with.
I particularly enjoyed the very fresh fish prepared in various ways.
In a different eatery in the backstreets of Kyoto I particularly liked the tomato tempura – small explosions of sweet and acid flavour.
I also had burdock tempura – a distinctive and slightly bitter, crunchy and chewy( fibrous) root vegetable that also reminded me of the texture of meat.
At the same restaurant I also ate pickled sardines. These were lightly floured first and fried and then pickled in a sweet and sour marinade which strangely enough reminded me very much of the varieties of Italian pickled sardines like the Sicilian Soused Fish recipesor the Sarde al Saor popular in Trieste and Venice. One large difference of course, was the grated fresh ginger, not a common ingredient in Italian cuisine.
I am not a great lover of sweets but in Tokyo I watched two people prepare street food – waffles shaped like a fish called Taiyaki. The pancake batter forms the fish shaped outer shell. The filling was sweet red bean paste or sweet potato.
I like persimmons – both the vanilla type and the squashy ones, both fresh and dried. I found quantities of Mochi in the Food halls in basements of famous and grand Department Stores. I particularly like the texture of the outer layers of Mochi that are made with sticky rice: the rice is pounded into a smooth paste and molded around a filling of usually sweet red bean paste .The outer layer is chewy and soft and sometimes flavoured with green tea.
I also liked the pumpkin ice cream, and the one made with spinach.
For the first time I ate Kamameshi – rice is cooked in an iron pot, with different flavourings such as soy sauce, mirin, stock and other ingredients. Ours also had minced chicken, a few vegetables . I liked it – homely.
The burnt rice around the pot of Kamameshi is particularly flavourful.
I tried different types of sake and Japanese beer (I am a wine drinker so both were new experiences for me). I also drank good wine (grapes) made in Japan.!!!
I did come cooking at home too – I like my vegetables and I never get enough when I am away from home and I especially purchased different types of mushrooms – it is autumn after all and they came in many colours, shapes, textures and flavours.
In a Tokyo market I did try some street food – takoyaki (a dough-like wheat flour dumpling, with small pieces of octopus mixed in the batter, smothered with a brown sweet sticky sauce and topped with bonito fish flakes) The batter is poured into a special hotplate with small half-circle molds and when the bottom half is cooked, the half-circle dumplings are turned over and become full spherical dumplings in the end.
I had eaten these in Melbourne and they did not appeal to me then. They did not appeal to me now, but I always like the taste of bonitofish flakes and I like to watch them dance.
I very much liked all the countless varieties of seaweed and pickles. Pickles are called tsukemono. Japanese food would not be the same without pickles that frequently accompany all meals in Japan providing flavours and pro-biotic cultures that promote digestion. They also provide a variety of colors, aromas and textures.
Food markets are full of unpackaged pickles in vats of fish, fruit and vegetables. I particularly like the common umeboshi (pickled plums). Common vegetables that are pickled are: daikon, ginger, Japanese cucumbers, carrots, bamboo, turnips, Chinese cabbage, gobo (burdock root) and Japanese eggplant.
Imagine the smells of these ingredients with their pungent smells of pickling ingredients like rice bran, vinegar, miso, soy sauce, sake. And seasonings like mirin, garlic, seaweeds, herbs and spices, konbu, chilies, honey and sugar.
I also enjoyed the lightly pickled vegetables. I had these only in one of the restaurants in Tokyo and on this occasion I was in the company of a local so we were able to discuss how pickles are easily made at home.
Now home in Melbourne, I did some research and found some recipes for making pickles in an old book I have about Japanese cuisine, Japanese Vegetarian Cookery, Lesley Downer, Jonathan Cape Press, 1986.
I used to use this book to make pickled plums and simple pickled vegetables…a long time ago. Although many types of tsukemono are available commercially many people make pickles at home.
Here is a recipe adapted from this book.
Vegetables are salted and the pressure that is placed upon them causes them to release their liquids – this results in brine that pickles the vegetables. Each type of vegetable is usually pickled separately to keep flavours distinct.
Downer suggests that particularly suitable are:
2 Daikon (peeled, quartered, cut into 2.5 cm lengths),
1 Chinese cabbage halved, quartered 2.5 cm chunks,
4 Small cucumbers, halved, scrape out seeds, cut into 2.5cm lengths
30g sea salt
Rub salt into vegetables, place them in a ceramic bowl (narrow is preferable).
Cover vegetables with a small plate that will fit neatly inside the bowl.
Place a weight on top- perhaps a stone or a jar of water.
Leave the bowl in a cool dark place for 3-4 days– the brine will raise (or it should) above the vegetables.
To serve, remove vegetables, gently squeeze and cut into bite size pieces…… Taste a bit before you cut them and rinse them if necessary to remove excess salt.
My Variations and suggestions:
Once there is sufficient brine covering the vegetables, add a dash of Japanese vinegar (low in acid) and a small glug of Sake for extra flavor. A little Mirin or sugar will also help to sweeten the vegetables.These ingredients also help with the fermentation. It is worth experimenting with flavours.
Making pickles can produce smells, especially if you are using cabbage or daikon. A large wide mouthed ,glass jar or ceramic pot with a tight fitting lid is useful. If you are using a jar or pot make sure that you can apply pressure with a heavy weight on top of the vegetables to produce the brine.
Other vegetables can be used– unpeeled Japanese eggplant…halved, quartered etc , peeled turnips and carrots…halved, sliced etc.
I will be travelling again and I have not even finished writing about the food and produce I experienced during my last overseas trip: Nottingham and environs- London – Oxford – Sicily – Rome – Berlin.
I have written a little about Nottingham and of the last trip to Sicily but nothing about the other cities. Time passes far too quickly.
I ate very well in several restaurants in the UK especially in London including Ottolenghi’s NOPI and surprisingly in Gee’s Restaurant and Bar in Oxford….those are artichokes with stems in the large plate and in the pan are salted Samphire – a succulent, vibrant green vegetable.
But one of the places I wanted to promote is the Borough Market in London for its range of quality produce.
Here are some photos of some of the mushrooms:
Even dried mushrooms:
The range of vegetables, fish, small goods, bread and cheese were fabulous, too many photos to include in this post, but the game really impressed me. Here are just a few photos – there were two refrigerated window display cases full of game meat and excellent produce made with game.
I could not resist. I bought some pigeon breasts and in the Airbnb I cooked them using minimalist equipment and ingredients. …and they were good.
Here they are and the accompanying photos illustrate how I cooked them.
Marinated them with bay and rosemary, extra virgin olive oil and a little good quality balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.
I bought prosciutto and softened it in a little extra virgin olive oil in a small pan.
I removed the prosciutto and used the same small pan( that is all there was…no lid either) to sauté the pigeon.
Added some white wine, bought it to the boil and cooked it for about 1 minute.
Removed the pigeon and evaporated the wine and juices to make a glaze.
Presented them on tender green beans but also had a range of side vegetables.
“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.
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.
Add more flour to the sponge and then there is sticky dough.
And more sticky dough.
And more dough. Perhaps it was too sticky?
So there was more dough proving.
And there was more bread.
There were breads of different shapes. There was even bread in our freezer.
Some loaves lacked salt. Others were too dense. Some looked like cake.
The smells of bread proving and bread baking wafted through our apartment. This must have made our neighbours very jealous.
This dough looked right!
Given enough time, it was worked into a shape that could be pulled into a loaf .
The loaf was placed into a basket to prove.
It rested, and then rose and rose again.
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.
SUCCESS….and it was just right.
Bob’s passion for bread making began in a kitchen in Nottingham.
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.
Randy is no ordinary bread maker.
He is Randy of the Bagel Boys who once baked great bread in North Adelaide.
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.
While the bread making demonstration went on, one of the dogs slept. She’s used to this baking.
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.
As you would expect, Randy has perfection every time.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And very close to their house this was going on in the small river.
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.
Back to quinces in Melbourne Australia.
Here is what ingredients I used and what I did.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
Here are more photos of Palermo and Mondello and details of a GoEuro Travel Inspiration Competition that I have entered.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a restaurant in London recently I ordered a plate of Spaghetti alla Chitarra – square cut spaghetti that was cooked with some very spicy pork sausage. Square cut spaghetti are especially widespread in Abruzzo, but also in Molise, Lazio and Puglia and obviously can now be found elsewhere in the world.
It reminded me how, about a year previously in one restaurant in Marin County I ordered Rustichella d’Abruzzo Chitarrawith Manila clams, Pacific squid and ‘Nduja with anchovy and breadcrumbs. The Italian square-cut spaghetti were originally rolled over a box strung with guitar strings to create its straight edges.
There is a little bit of Italian regional fusion in this dish: The pasta is from Abruzzo, ‘Nduja from Calabria, and anchovy and breadcrumbs are very Sicilian.
I do not have a recipe for Rustichella d’Abruzzo Chitarra with Manila clams, Pacific squid, ‘Nduja and anchovy and breadcrumbs, however, I have a pretty good palate and a sharp sense of smell.
I am also able to discern flavours and identify ingredients. I know about cooking methods and this is my interpretation of this recipe. Obviously there may be many differences in the way they would cook this dish, for example in my recipe for simplicity, I have cooked Part 2 and 3 separately and I have then joined the components together. This is not to say that the next time, I would cook this in the same way. I always adapt and experiment with recipes and I am pretty lucky that the majority of times the food tastes OK.
Clearly, this is on my estimation of amounts and is based on my tastes and preferences.
Recipe for 6 people
300 g spaghetti. Use good quality durum wheat spaghetti for example the recommended amount is 100 g per person. I always think that this is far too much- 50g per person is fine in my household but adapt amounts accordingly.
Part 1. Breadcrumbs, anchovies and garlic mixture (often called pangrattato in Italian) is used to sprinkle on top of the dish instead of cheese.
1 cup bread crumbs made from 1-2 day old good quality bread
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil, more if needed
12 anchovies, chopped
4-6 garlic cloves, chopped finely
In a fry pan (I use a non stick one) heat the oil. Add garlic and toss them around for about 30 seconds before adding the anchovies. Stir over medium heat until fragrant. Add breadcrumbs and continue to stir them until they are golden and toasted. Remove from the pan when they are ready otherwise they will continue to cook.
5-6 tablespoons of’ ‘Nduja per person
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1-2 red onions, sliced thinly
In a frypan sauté the onion in the olive oil. When it is soft and golden add the ‘Nduja and stir gently on low heat until it is dissolved. You may need to use a little water.
Estimate about 150g of both squid sliced into small pieces and vongole or clams (without their shell) per person – adjust to your tastes. In the restaurant version there were tiny baby squid and octopi used, just as they do in Sicily. This makes me think that in the US they must be allowed to fish for baby fish.
2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
a little salt
2-3 tablespoons of passata
Sauté the fish in the oil until it is golden. Add the passata, stir over medium-low heat until you have the consistency of a thick tomato sauce. You may need to add a little more liquid if necessary.
Complete Part 1.
Prepare the ingredients for Part 1 and 2.
Cook the pasta and while it is cooking make part 1 and part 2 using different saucepans.
To the fish mixture add the ‘Nduja mixture.
Drain the pasta and dress it with the sauce.
Dish it out into separate plates or into a large serving plate, top with the breadcrumb mixture and serve.
It is always good to visit Sicily in May 2016 and this time I spent most of my time mainly in South-eastern Sicily. But we did wander elsewhere – distances are not that great.
As usual, the relatives in Ragusa and Augusta made sure that I was well fed, but I do enjoy getting out and about and seeing the changes and trends that are evident in their food culture. I do that here in Australia as well, or for that matter any place I revisit.
Below are some photos of Sicily and links to existing recipes from the blog … more writing and more recipes soon.
A Nature Reserve near Donna Fugata
A very old church in Modica.
Inside this old church that has been a stable for many years.
Area Archeologica di Cava d’Ispica
The old stone walls, some being repaired or rebuilt.