Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Make couscous, not war!

When food acts as a powerful mean of cultural integration the outcome is an explosive mixture of food, music, live shows, wine tasting, artists, local people and people from everywhere all joining together to "make couscous, not war".
The chosen place for this colorful and tasty melting pot was San Vito lo Capo, Western Sicily, close to Trapani and Erice area, a seafaring village with blue and crystal clear sea waters and a beautiful white beach, an ideal place to extend your holiday and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of an early fall vacation.
Five days entirely devoted to King Couscous, a dish rich in history and open to the future, synthesis of cultures, symbol of opening, broadmindedness and cross-culture contaminations.
Chefs from Ivory Coast, France, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Senegal and Italy challenged each other to prepare the best couscous of all, no matter if fish-based or meat based or with vegetables, no matter if traditional, exotic or with a haute-cuisine touch. Italy won, but this is of minor importance.

What was really striking was the atmosphere of real feast and joy you felt everywhere, anytime.
At the Gastronomic Village where you could chose among four different couscous houses: the San Vitese one, to taste the local version; the trapanese and Maghreb one, to taste couscous from Trapani; the Mediterranean one to be delighted by couscous made by countries overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the worldwide one to enjoy exotic versions from all over the world. You ate, you drank, and ate and drank and never had enough. It's always like this every year, since the first edition of the event, and every year is always better.

At the Couscous Lab, true culinary workshops led by Sicilian Master Chefs. We was particularly amazed by the one focusing on Alaska couscous made with salmon. It was introduced in Sicily by returning Trapanese emigrants who sought their fortunes far away from home in the cold Alaska lands. We really learnt a lot. Master Chefs were Pino Cuttaia, Ciccio Sultano and my very good friend Carmelo Chiaramonte, a spotlight chaser and a great chef. We enjoyed workshops very much.
At the Expo Village, a colored market, a lively souk, a good chance to discover the identity of the eight countries entering the competition through their handicrafts and people.At the Al Waha, the lounge area nearby the sea, its name meaning "desert oasis", a chic and trendy place where contaminations among music, tastings and relax take places.

At the Live Shows where music prevails with a different artist every night for contaminations of sounds, tunes and visions from all over the world.

Despite the weather was not that indulgent for most of the time, people were not intimidated and participated heavily especially during the weekend. From 12.00 am to 24.00 people coming widely from Sicily, Italy and even abroad shifted here and there trying not to miss anything: a dip into the crystal sea, strolling around the booths trying to discover that unique ethnic gadget, tasting wines and food, enjoying meeting friends sipping a glass of whatsoever and listening to the artist on stage that night.

That's what we did. The seven of us all together or each on his or her own, distracted by everything on our way along the weekend, holding forth on culinary questions, on that unusual ingredient, on how we liked or not this or that couscous, on our personal version of the dish, all of us being pretty good cooks with a sane sense of friendly rivalry. We had a good laugh.

We met people from UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Spain as well as representatives of the 8 official countries.
George and Liz, from Richmond, south-west London (I lived in Richmond during my teens!) were truly amazed by the huge quantity of people, food and were impressed by the common sense of sharing and participation.
We all sensed how integration was naturally felt and not forced; food was only a very good and tasty excuse.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Isola delle Correnti, south Sicily, southern than Tunis

September 13th. 30°C in Sicily. Still hot and sunny. The perfect day for a last September swim. Lazy as we usually are on Sunday mornings, we decide to drive south Sicily, to the very southern beach in Europe, southern than Tunis.

Left Catania area, we drive towards Syracuse first. The landscape starts changing and limestone of Syracuse area slowly takes the place of the dark lava stone of Catania area. We drive immersed in a countryside where carobs, olive-trees and vineyards are all around. We pass by the town of Pachino, famous for its homonym cherry tomatoes. Here, the landscape is shaped as an unbroken plastic wave, for the greenhouses so largely diffused to cultivate this tasty vegetable.
An attentive eye immediately realizes the panorama is different from the rest of Sicily. Pretty similar to north Africa. From a geological point of view, here the plate is the African one.

The road to Isola delle Correnti now runs along the coastline. We can see the old massive tuna-fishing building, still charming but closed to the public, and in the distance the natural wildlife reserve of Capo Passero island.

It's a bright day, colors are vivid.

Before arriving, a quick stop to the small fishermen village of Portopalo for another black and strong wake-up espresso. A village with no highlight, except for its surrounding nature, fresh fish and strong red wine. Local people are sunburnt, slackened by the long summer, chilling out at bars for a cool corner and a drink. It's midday, no shade.

A couple of minutes later we reach Isola delle Correnti, ready to enjoy our last Sunday at the beach. Houses are here and there, nasty ones, and some shacks, side by side to greenhouses. It looks like a battlefield.
Isola delle Correnti is the extreme tip south of Sicily, namely the Island of Stream, dividing the Ionian Sea from the Mediterranean one.

A small fortress dominates the whole island and soon my mind flies back to ancient times. Who lived there? Walking on a stretch and here you are to visit and imagine.

It's a suggestive place. If the Mediterranean Sea is rough, just turn the corner and the Ionian Sea is unexpectedly calm. Winds reign unopposed. You can only obey and follow the stream.
It's the paradise for wind-surfers and the paradise for sandy beach lovers.

The beach is still wild, one of the fewest in Sicily. Golden sand dunes offering wild fragrant herbs, pine-needle are all over and so seaweed remains.
The sea is transparent, light blue and still warm. Caribbean style. Caribbean Sicily.
It's silent, you can only hear the sound of the nature, the sea, the wind, the waves.
Few people around us, summer survivors, tireless fellows.

Time goes slows. Problems are far enough for today. It's September, last close of summer.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sicily or how to survive when travelling The Godfather’s land and experience the best of it

If your are taking this title seriously and what you expect is to have a serious survey on how to survive on what you expect to be the mafia land, I’m sorry you will be disappointed.
If you are taking this title seriously and what you expect are useful tips and tricks for discerning travelers in Sicily, you’re on the right way.

Prejudices about Sicily are still alive and die hard. If you think yourself as a traveler, Sicily is the perfect destination to get a challenged about. Mafia? Yes, it’s true, it’s our major problem and no, you will never meet a true mafioso on your way, real life in Sicily is not Michael Corleone’s . Don’t mistake mafia with ordinary delinquency, the same you will find everywhere else in the world.

Culture and places
Sicily, the world in an island? "… A landscape in which it is possible to find what on earth seems to be made to seduce eyes, mind, imagination…". Guy de Maupassant was very impressed by Sicily during one of his Grand Tour in Europe.
A culture shaped by centuries of dominations. We had the Greek, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Barbarians, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the Angevins, the Spanish and their Bourbons. Each of them left in Sicily their heritage, their way of living, food, architecture skills, and each of them contributed Sicily to be the place where the world met and till meets. A holiday in Sicily is a journey to the roots of the world, a journey to a rich source of nature, history and culture, melted into a small triangle of land in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. Greek archaeological parks and open-air theatres located in impervious and strategic positions, Imperial age villas widely decorated with precious mosaics, Arab gardens, Norman castles and cathedrals with gorgeous byzantine decorations, opulent Baroque-style historical centers and noble palazzos: thanks to its cultural and architectural Babel Sicily is the view of time.

People and  folklore
Mourning-dressed women and short moustache men? Ah, that’s one of my favorite bias! Sicilians are blond, red, black, brown-hair, short, tall, dark and blue-eyes, beautiful women, handsome men, fashion-addict or shabby youth. If you travel inland and visit remote villages it may happen you to meet old mourning-dressed and wrinkled women with a black head scarf or old moustache men lolling out at the main square reserving you a piercing and questioning glance or a frank smile. Sincere local folklore waiting for a shot. Sicilians are daring and wits like the Muslims were, elegant and knowledgeable like the French, resolute like the Spanish. A bit of every civilization still lives in us.

Thanks to this heavy past of dominations, Sicilians are open, generous and nice people. They are skeptical, surly, sometimes rude, definitely parochial people, certainly not well disposed to queue and respect rules of any kind, truly disorganized by nature and, at the same time, able to voice a smart cleverness, adaptability and a talent to solve the most tangled problems. As we are lazy bones, we seldom turn this talent to everyday life, unless we are really fed up with something and our private life is somehow strongly involved. Sicilians are people of strong contradictions in the land of contradictions.

Bear in mind that “let’s meet at noon” does not necessarily mean noon "sharp”: we do have a wide-ranging concept of time, so we tend to be never on time. Sicilian mind is flexible.

Heavy traffic? Remember, when driving the rule seems to have no rule. So, unless you would like to turn on you travel into a real surviving camp along Sicilian roads, be careful about the idea of renting a car to drive on your own. Road signs are optional so, get ready to make a GPS your very best friend for the rest of your journey. Don’t be upset if double parking or park on sidewalks is so common: we like to challenge people’s patience and get them fit with a daily gymkhana (local folklore or civil chaos?).

But if walking or driving your car you simply ask about directions or you are in trouble, be sure you’ll find generous people ready to help you one way or another. Speaking no English (most of the people still don’t) is not that important, they know the way to let you understand the point. Sicilians are theatrical people.

Be open, flexible and generous and you’ll make the most of them.

Food and Wine
Be on a diet? What a fool you are thinking to watch your weight while in Sicily! Here, food is serious topic. If you are a foodie-kind of traveler you’ll risk an overdose.

Blessed with a fertile land, a mild climate and a shining sun, Sicily produces a large variety of top quality raw materials and staples which give rise to an incredible range of delicious dishes, unique specialties and savory table delicacies. Sicilian cuisine is the perfect resume of centuries of culinary traditions and cultures. The Arabs left us the fish-based couscous you should taste only in Trapani area and as well as a large use of honey in confectionery, the sweet and sour, saffron, spices and raisins. The French gave us sauces, gateaux and their refined elaborations. The Spanish, their sumptuous presentations, salads and frittata (tortilla).

Then, the Monsu came, the French chefs cooking for the Bourbons and the local noble families who elaborated their Sicilian haute-cuisine style.

You can eat everywhere, anytime.

Bars serve a lot: typical pastry items for your breakfast out are the ravioli (a sweet pastry filled with ricotta cheese and drops of chocolate), cornetti filled with nutella, white or chocolate cream or jam, fried iris filled with cream or soft graffe with sugar dusting on the top. From spring to fall, you cannot miss the queen for breakfast, the frivolous granita (a kind of creamy sorbet made of several tastes such as almond, pistachio, coffee, mulberry, peach, lemon, chocolate) served rigorously in a transparent glass con panna (cream) e brioche. Catania offers the best throughout the island.

Not to mention the terrific tavola calda, our quality fast-food, a large selection of snacks like arancini, pizzette, cartocciate and scaccie which are a useful alternative to a proper meal. A world to discover.

Street-food is quite common especially in Palermo area where you can meet folks selling suspicious local dishes such as pane ‘ca meusa (bread filled with spleen) or stigghiola (entrails). Leave out your prejudices, street-food is safe and tasty.

Dining out at typical trattorie is a joy for food beginners and refined connoisseurs. Whether you like it or not, you will be thrilled by hundreds of appetizers and starters, dozens of different types of pasta, fish dishes and sea-food, meat tasty morsels. No matter where your personal taste leads you, caponata and parmigiana are absolutely the Sicilian cooking -must.

Desserts deserve a chapter apart; you cannot be your way back home without experiencing cannoli and cassata.

Sip a glass of wine from our quality native grapes such as a Nero d’Avola, Inzolia, Cataratto, Nerello Mascalese, or wash your meal with a Sicilian Chardonnay or a Merlot.

When in Catania, stops at a chiosco and order a seltz, limone e sale, a mandarino al limone or a chinotto and deal with a new soft-drink experience.

Stroll about local markets: polychrome and rowdy - that’s our Arab attitude, but don’t think to bargain – you’ll be right in the pulsing heart of the town, plain people immersed into their everyday life. Just mind your wallet and never forget your camera!

Going out at weekends? Sicilians enjoy life and local movida is intense and vibrant.

Catania is the nightlife queen. Catanesi people think there is always a good reason to chill out, seven days a week, twelve months a year. No agenda, they usually improvise. No matter if you are single, gay or who your fellow traveler is, get a Lapis and see what’s on.

Palermo is fine, too, but Palermitani tend to have that snobbish attitude to live a close party friendship with respect to the Catanesi who love receiving new friends with open arms.

Ease off, you're in Sicily! Buon divertimento!