Sicliy, Part 2 July 1999
“They [the Sicilians] built as if they would live forever, and ate as if they would die tomorrow.”
To Pozzallo, another of the beach towns reached by driving through the khaki countryside in the khaki Renault. This road, like most in the area, is barely two small vehicles in width. The road is squeezed between stone walls, rounded at the top, finely
chiseled by hand from the area’s quarried stones, built without mortar. These walls delineate not only the roads but the fields as
well. With a fine, long view you can see these walls climb up hills, straight as an arrow and over the top.
The fields are filled with olive trees, vineyards and orchards. Peaches, apricots, figs, black pepper trees (one just outside the gate
to the villa), and ‘fichi d’India’ (literally ‘figs of India’, ‘prickly pear’ in English), beans, wheat. My Sicilian grandfather, Giuseppe, extolled the virtues of the prickly pear. The big cactus grows everywhere in this area. I guess that they are very good when
ripe. I have never had a good one. They are not yet ripe here but will be soon.
The beach is typical of those in the area. The sand is white, the waves gentle most of the time, and there is plenty of room. Most of the coast in this area is perfect for swimming. There are many secluded spots and there is lots of fresh air. I have not seen a life guard, nor any warnings about undertow. People of all ages come to the beaches, often whole families from babies to grandparents. Some of them own beach houses in the tiny beach towns. They use them for a month or so and the rest of the year they are vacant. They come back year after year to the same town, same beaches, same next door neighbors, same surf, same food, same khaki, desert landscape. Nonetheless, the young teenagers enjoy meeting old friends, making new ones, experimenting with romance. This experimentation is often conducted on the beach, on the benches, in the cars, for all to see.
Pozallo has a port and a marina. From the former a catamaran takes passengers only to Malta in about and hour and a half. A ferry also makes the run, in three and one half hours. We drove to see the port, but you cannot get close as this is an immigration check point and access to the boat quay is only for ticketed customers. The pleasure port is next door. Large and humble boats share the quiet waters. We ask at the harbor master’s for a price list, but he is gone and no one knows where anything is.
To get back to Modica, we took route 194, which takes us to Modica in half the time the local roads take. Route 194 crosses Modica Bassa on a trestle that towers above the canyon, affording a spectacular view of the town.
Figs everywhere, and all to eat.
You do not getting much exercise living here. I feel like we are back in the U.S., obliged to use the car, nor our legs, to go everywhere. However, we got some exercise today climbing the steps to the baroque San Giorgio in Modica Bassa. The vertical lift is approximately 50 meters (150 feet). It looks immensely tall from down below.
Afterwards we drove out of the lower part of town to the cliff overlooking Modica Bassa to take pictures. As we were about to leave, I dropped my sunglasses over the side. Fortunately I could climb over the wall and push my way through some branches to where the glasses landed. This is when we noticed that the tree was a fig tree and it was bearing black figs. We tried one and it was delicious. We picked all the ones we could reach and shared them with our hosts for desert. Over the next week we stopped several times to pick figs from fig trees growing free on the roadside.
Later Diana sautéed some small fish. We ate outside, just beyond the kitchen. The moon was bright, a few stars were out, and the evening breeze made everyone comfortable.
On the 29th it was breaded veal and excellently prepared and home cooked fries for lunch. She said the veal was ‘alla Palermitana,’ I think I have that spelled right. It means ‘Palermo style.’ For dinner we ate steamed veggies, at our request. There is lots of fresh mozzarella in the diet, and Parmesan, eaten whole as well as grated.
The weather continues to surprise. The morning sun is bright and hot, but we feel cool in the shade. Late in the afternoon the temperature reaches about 32 C (90 F). Evenings cool to about 22 (72F). Most nights we sleep with the windows closed and the ceiling fan on. If you don’t close the windows, a mosquito will surely wake you. We have
had one living with us since we got here. His name is Adolph. I bought him a collar but he won’t wear it.
There are few street markets, but fruit and vegetable stands dot the area. A large melon is in season. It appears to be a kind of honeydew. Watermelons, peaches, apricot and plums are also in.
Because Diana speaks little English, our Italian is progressing. She is patient, pronounces clearly, and speaks standard Italian. She insists on having no help at mealtime. We put an end to that. I made a pizza, Peg made some stuffed zucchini, on the 28th I made stuffed shells.
Cozze (mussels) and vongole (clams) are in. They are local, very fresh and inexpensive (L5000, $2.50 per kilo). We bought them at an outdoor fish market in Donnalucatta, another beach town. I made paella with some of each. Diana told me that you have to soak the clams in fresh water for about three hours so they expel the sand. Salt water shell fish die in fresh water, I was taught, but these didn’t. I added salt but I have no idea if that helped. Diana went
to get saffron for the paella. I was ready for it by the time she got back, but she could not find any. You can substitute paprika, but there wasn’t any in the house and it was too late to go get some. She told me to use curry instead. She had some. I had no clue what this was going to taste like. To my surprise it was very good. Arturo
said if I wanted to cook like this, we could stay as long as we wanted. When Diane prepared mussels one afternoon, she used a little tomato, garlic, and olive oil to make the broth, which was good enough to drink!
During our visit, we bought white wine from the gigantic metal containers (red is in barrels) at the wine store close by, L2000 per liter.
There is no sign I can perceive of organized crime in the area, but corruption and cheating the government is a problem. Arturo pointed out several large, incomplete houses. The owners were caught building without a permit and were not following code by using substandard concrete. They could not pay the fine so they abandoned the project.
More commonly you bribe the official to look the other way. Some of these officials must be so busy looking the other way they can’t see anywhere at all. This problem is not confined to Sicily, and is not particularly worse than in other parts of Italy. But it is certainly worse than in most if not all other parts of the European Union.
The towns in the area are extremely clean. Rome is not bad for a big city, but you could eat off the streets here.
The tourist bureau produces a food and wine guide for the province of Ragusa. It tells us that Epicarno Siracusano (485 B.C.) was the first to write about gastronomy. ‘Epicarno’ sounds like ‘epicurean’ but I do not have a dictionary to check the etymology. Another Siracusano, Terpsione 380 B.C.E., had a cooking school. Archestrato 320 B.C.E. is
famous for his recipes, some still in use today. The Sicilians were famous among the Greeks for the cuisine, and of the citizens of Agrigento, the Greeks said, “They built as if they would live forever, and ate as if they would die tomorrow.” (Agrigento has many fabulous remains of ancient Greek temples.” This is not to be missed! We went there five years ago).
In Sicily in the ninth century rice was cultivated for the first time in Europe. Vermicelli was invented in Trabia around 1150, macaroni around 1250. Sicilian Procopio de Coltelli invented sorbet, the forerunner to ice cream (no date given).
Each conqueror gave something to the cuisine. I bet canoli came from the Arabs, along with most anything else made with almonds. From the Spanish, paella, the Greeks many things but surely the olives and perhaps some eggplant preparations, the Americans, the mighty burger; even here McDonalds flips away. From whence came the Almighty Pizza, the tourist bureau dares not say. Kollura (Greek) was a bread offering to the gods, now called cuddura, apparently a bread shaped like a doll; the French ‘glacer’ became “agglassato,” a boned, stuffed meat roll. The Arabic “quas’at” became the sweet ricotta ‘cassata,’ which the Michelin says is an ice cream cake.
I have never seen so many ice cream cakes in my life as I have in this area. In many cafes they are on display in glass?door freezer cases. They are beautiful. We had a piece. It was fabulous. Speaking of cream, they are not bashful about adding huge dollops to cappuccino or ice cream; cream mountains clutter the cafes.
Despite all this wonderful food, the people are not fat. The young women have invariably stunning figures, and their middle age moms hold their own; I wish some of them would ask me for a little help. There are the plump ones, men and women, of course, but obviously they don’t each tons of the incredible variety of calorie rich food served everywhere.
The area also boasts significant wine production and is planning road trails so you can see, perhaps visit the wineries.
Our hosts go for coffee every morning. I don’t think they ever made coffee at home. Often Diana would have a granita mandorle, an almond flavored drink blended with crushed ice. She said it is too hot to drink coffee in the summer. This is such a common practice that many people double park in front of cafes to go in for a coffee. They are usually done in less than five minutes.
On Monday the first, I head to Malta alone for the day. The trip costs L130,000 round trip, about $72. However, for L20,000 ($11) more you get a guided tour and lunch. I went for the full monty.