The parents of my father were born in a small town in Sicilia. Over the years I have visited the island, really another country, because I wanted to know where my DNA came from. Ironically, it was because of my mother, of German descent, that I ended up at a Sicilian wedding in winter.
It seems like the wrong time to go somewhere-winter-unless you want to ski. I have lost all concept of a real winter, as I now live in Los Angeles where summer truly is endless. I left Los Angeles on a day when the temperature was over 20°C, and about 12 hours later, I was circling over a snow white countryside before landing at the airport in Munich.
Although I expected it to be warmer in Sicilia, I could not have imagined that so many local products would be in season at the end of January. For sure, we would not starve, I had thought, but I did not expect the local bounty to be so productive then. In retrospect, I was going to Sicilia-true experts in agriculture, cooking, and eating for centuries-I should have remembered. It is blatantly obvious when you visit the market in Siracusa (the birthplace of Archimedes). After my experience, I concluded that every season is a good season for eating in Sicilia.
Once you arrive in Sicilia, you are in for the whole deal, regardless of any promises that you made yourself beforehand-antipasto, il primo piatto, il secondo piatto, and of course dessert. I am not much of a dessert person, other than chocolate, fresh fruit, and of course gelato, but Sicilians are the masters of baking desserts in Italia. Just ask my sister-in-law of Japanese descent about the cannoli.
Our first night in a small town in winter, we were not exactly sure where we could eat other than at the hotel. We tried to go into a rosticceria/pasticceria, serving prepared food, but at the end of the day, not so many choices remained. We had to move on. We continued walking and came upon a restaurant, perhaps THE restaurant in the town, and our stomachs decided for us-reservations at 20:00 for three. Even in winter with so few people out, the restaurant opened only at 20:00.
It looked like nothing from the outside, situated on a narrow street a few steps from the town square (everything is close to the town square in Sicilia). But once we stepped inside, it was immediately apparent that we were in the right place. It was a restaurant built on the theme of a tunnel through the city so there were cozy rooms all about and a wine cellar built into the wall of the tunnel. It was a large restaurant in fact, but it was in essence open only for three.
It is a fear perhaps of a traveler that you will not understand the locals. That is changing as more and more people are learning English around the world. It makes it tough for those of us who want to try to speak Italian, and yet the proprietor and the waitress seemed so eager to practice English that we could not deny them this opportunity, especially in winter with so few tourists.
It was explained to us that this was a so-called slow food restaurant, which as far as I understood was the kind of restaurant that focused on preparing dishes with local, seasonal products. Lucky for us, it was winter in Sicilia. Coming from California, my expectations are high for fresh ingredients of any sort. Having said that, I have of course experienced the difference of eating fresh, just fallen mangoes on small islands or different varieties of bananas ripened on the tree.
I left California at the peak season for citrus fruit. And yet California citrus is nothing like citrus in Sicilia in winter. It is the season of the orange-“Il tarocco,” a mutation of the more widely known blood orange. I had seen signs for il tarocco in the markets in Firenze and could not wait until I arrived in Sicilia to find out what it was. It was so clear that it was the season of the orange because even the tables at restaurants were using an orange instead of a flower as decoration. And the fruit was often just rolling around on the streets and main highways as if the trees themselves were actively projecting the fruit to land directly in our path.
Maybe not so surprising then, was the primo piatto that my brother ordered-fettucine with tuna and orange! Local ingredients and after tasting it, my brother and I pondered exactly which type of California citrus could be paired with tuna in order to create a similar result. Dripping down your arms juicy, with a few red speckles, and a tangy taste-the closest we could suggest is the Page mandarin. My mother and I ordered orecchiete with freshly pureed fennel (or as I grew up knowing it, finocchio).
My brother ordered tail of goat while my mother savored black pig (suino nero) sausage and filet for il secondo. A type of land snails were also offered on the menu, but sadly I did not try them. The list almost sounds like special flavors created for a Harry Potter mix of jelly beans. No, just local agricultural products. The last item on the menu that had caught my eye, was a dessert called Etna Bianco.
While Sicilia might not be consciously on the mind of many in the USA, you have probably heard of Mt. Etna. It is the mother of the island, the volcano, and its contents still spill forth today providing the basis for the spectacular agricultural success of the island. I was compelled to eat dessert, even after antipasto, primo piatto, and il secondo. It was a combination of ingredients that I had never tried before, starting with a form of ricotta cheese that has the consistency of yogurt. It had a hint of orange flavor and a bit of sugar and was topped with chunks of biscotti and a stream of chocolate, like a lava flow. At the top were two pieces of orange peel simulating an eruption. Etna Bianco was a true homage to the volcano, and it was nothing like anything I had ever eaten before and yet so simple.
It was still winter, rainy and cool, which did not bode well for the wedding of two young friends, one who is a distant cousin. But on the day of her wedding, the weather broke, and we awoke to sunshine and a temperature of 17°C. The bride perhaps had the best of both worlds, as in such a region, rain is a blessing and is thought to bring luck to the marrying couple.
It was like out of a movie. The church is old and significantly dirtied up, as my Norwegian painting teacher would say. Beautiful women with thick dark hair and dark skin, with Sophia Loren-like bodies began emerging from the small cars typical in Sicilia. I was for a moment questioning the origin of my DNA… It is amazing the beauty magic that Italian women are capable of, even in a small town in Sicilia without immediate access to Prada and Gucci (although Dolce and Gabbana are from Sicilia). My second observation of these women was that they were all dressed in black. It is an unusual color to dominate at a wedding in the USA, but it was as if they collectively knew their role on this day-to be the backdrop to showcase the radiant bride in white.
There are few places in the world, it seems, where a native English speaker must rely on second language speaking skills. A Sicilian wedding is one of them. As far as I knew, the only one speaking English fluently without the use of Google Translate was the bride, and well, she was very preoccupied, so we were on our own.
It is easy in many respects to engage Italians in conversation even with so few words of Italian. No question is beneath them to answer, and Italians are generally pretty imaginative when speaking with foreigners. My neighbor, an older man, played the game brilliantly answering my simple questions regarding the wedding ceremony (why do they all wear black? because it is a winter color), but I also found myself discussing diverse topics such as how ricotta is made.
I was preoccupied with the yogurt-like version of ricotta, the basis of my Etna Bianco. I had guessed that milk from sheep was used to produce the local version of ricotta, but I did not know the word for sheep. I struggled for a way to ask a question that would get the response I was looking for. When I asked if it was lamb’s milk, my Italian neighbor laughed, and said, no, not the lamb but the mother of the lamb-pecora. It was a moment when you could feel utterly stupid, or it was a great moment, because of a gracious local with a sense of humor. It is how you learn a language.
The wedding meal was over after seven courses of food, each of which was entirely delicious, and included another spectacular dessert, the basis of which was fittingly, ricotta. It was a showcase of Sicilian products-pistacchio, aubergine, squash, radicchio, artichokes…(I have to cut myself off here). We spent the next couple of days driving around the area visiting the beach, an agriturismo where olive oil is made, Catania, and the old town of Modica where a special type of chocolate is produced. At the end of each day, the important discussion of where to eat dinner would come up.
The view of Mt. Etna from the airplane had been spectacularly beautiful upon arrival into the airport in Catania. Snow covered the volcano to a low altitude, but we were unable to see it until the last hours of our trip due to an effective manipulation of clouds. In fact, to such an extent as it was no longer possible to orient yourself while driving based on the location of the volcano. Cloaking of a primitive sort.
But the volcano revealed itself to us in another way. Mt. Etna is active on and off. As we were driving to a restaurant on our last evening, I noticed “light” on the side of the mountain. It was orange like modern city lights so I could think of a number of reasons for the light-a small village, a late night ski run. Not the real reason, which my brother insisted was an eruption. I thought I was imagining it, but once he had sufficiently teased me about my other ridiculous proposals, I could see that the so-called light was indeed moving.
Once we arrived at the restaurant, where there is an excellent, but distant view of the volcano, a group of young men and the proprietors confirmed that the volcano was active; the lava flow had started earlier that day. Three young men, one of whom sported a haircut that I would swear was identical to that of my father as a young boy in the USA, were now playing the language game. They asked some questions, sporting their English prowess, but more importantly their gracious behavior as hosts of Sicilia in coercing answers from me with some Italian, hand signals, and a bit of English.
Our last day was sunny, and we drove around to find a perfect spot to take a photo of Mt. Etna. It was no longer obvious whether lava was flowing from the volcano, but we could see the snow and most of the mountain. We drove down to the sea for a last look. From Agnone Bagni close to where my grandparents were born, you are able to see the south side of Mt. Etna while standing on the beach.
The volcano sits in front of the airport in Catania, and the architects acknowledged this fact by building a wall of glass so that Mt. Etna can be viewed while waiting for your flight. And it was my last unhindered view of Sicilia as we rolled down the runway and the wheels of the plane left this fertile ground which made my DNA.
©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com