Category Archives: Food

Foraging for lunch

One thing I love about walking on Mt Etna is that even during the height of summer you can find  a walking trail all to yourself. Yet, last Sunday, it seemed that everyone had forgone the beach and headed up Etna. At this time of the year, if it rains on Etna, porcini mushrooms can be found amongst the fallen leaves, in the damp and humid earth, in the woods on the slopes of Etna. I, however, had thought it was too early in the season for there to be many mushrooms but then I can be a bit clueless about these things. As a result, after an early start with no-one in sight, we soon found ourselves surrounded by people looking for mushrooms. The sight of mushroom hunters resembled something of a search party. They were spread out equally in a line with their baskets and sticks, searching through the undergrowth, moving slowly. I had earlier found a mushroom but as I had only found one by chance and as it was small, I had left it where I found it. I am also not too hot on my mushroom knowledge so I often leave mushrooms where I find them unless I have someone who knows their mushrooms with me. Anyway, there were way too many people for me so we headed off to find a less busy woods to walk our dog.

One of the best things about Etna is the amount and range of ‘free’ food to be found at different times of the year. I would say that this is true for many parts of Sicily. On Etna you can find chestnuts, hazelnuts, cherries, mulberries, blackberries, strawberries, mushrooms, apples (but be sure these aren’t on private land), pears (again take note that they are not on private land) and herbs. In the rest of Sicily, look out for all of the above and wild rocket, capers, wild fennel, asparagus, strawberries, prickly pear, carruba, almonds, figs, thyme, wild mint and borage. Know what borage is? I didn’t either until my partner’s late uncle stopped to collect some he had seen growing next to the roadside when we were out getting water one day. It is a herb of which the flowers can be used to garnish desserts and whose leaves are often boiled and eaten with garlic and oil or used in soups. These are some of the foods that you will find in the wild but there are a whole load more that are ‘free’ if you are lucky enough. For example, branches that overhang onto the road or come through the farmer’s fence are deemed ‘free for all’ and you will often see people stop their cars to claim this fruit. Natural reserves which were once agricultural terraces and have been left to nature are often good places to forage but be warned,for some wild fruit trees, such as orange trees, produce inedible fruit!

Just don’t eat cheese for a month

I was in hospital the other day waiting patiently with everyone else for the slow receptionist to call my partner’s number.  I am not exaggerating when I say slow either, this lady took an hour to check that two people had appointments. On her third outpatient she suddenly upped and left,  not saying a word to the guy who was being booked in and accompanied a tearful woman to a room next to where I was sitting. She gave the lady a ticket for the car park and proceeded to give her the following advice: “Don’t eat cheese for a month and you’ll be fine”. Now, this lady had obviously just come from the cardiac ward. The receptionist trivialised her problem and sent her on her way. The lady was upset. The receptionist dismissive. The lady stood there for a moment, repeated what the receptionist had said and shed another tear. The receptionist went back to making sure that no-one would be on time for their appointments.

I wonder how the lady is getting on with no cheese. She might be thinking “But how can this be so? I live in the Mediterranean, everyone knows that they follow the healthiest diet on the planet, right? and cheese is part of that diet”. She has probably decided that the ricotta she puts on her Pasta alla Norma doesn’t count, nor the parmesan for that matter. One thing is for certain, she will have got advice from everyone she knows, solicited or not.

I have piled on the pounds since coming here. I too have thought “but how can this be so? I am living in the Mediterranean, everyone knows that they follow the healthiest diet on the planet, right?” I, too, have been advised to stay off the cheese and somehow I have managed it but I am not convinced that this is the problem. The truth is, Italians consume vast amounts of pasta and white bread. Most of them have a sweet tooth. The sweets that they have here are amazing. If you have a drink, you get given all sort of mini pizzas, salted peanuts and small arancini to go with it. The ice-cream here is the best ever. Lots of tavola calda is consumed. Tavola calda translates as ‘hot tables’, they are essentially savoury snacks, usually made of bread or pastry or deep fried. There is temptation at every corner. Cheese is only part of the problem.

As I am trying to lose the weight that I have gained, I am avoiding temptation. This means not entering bars and averting my eyes when I walk past them. It means, not eating out. I am walking more to work but as everyone drives here I am breathing in fumes the whole way. I stare at skinny people stuffing their faces. I drool if someone puts a cake in front of me as I explain that I just can’t have any, not even a tiny mouthful. I’ve sat and watched my partner and our dog eat a pizza together.

And you know what? It’s working!

I’m still a little, robust, shall we say, but last week I had to buy a new belt.Pulling your jeans up every two seconds is not a good look. I ventured into a little shop and a kind lady helped me choose one before putting it around my waist to work out where her husband should punch the holes. She squeezed it a little tighter than I had and asked if that would be better. I replied that it would as I hope to lose more weight. At that moment, her husband chortled and said “hope is the last  to die”. He obviously had no faith in me but when I go back in another few weeks to get more holes punched because I am already on the last one, it’ll be me who is chortling.

Hannibal Lecter Eats Ricotta – no added salt!

It was a beautiful day when we left our apartment but by the time we reached the Hyblean Mountains the sky had already started to turn grey and a fine drizzle had started to fall. Not to be put off and despite not having the right clothes on for getting drenched we decided that we would stick to our plan and visit the ‘Sagra della Ricotta’ – a ricotta festival in Vizzini that had already been taking place for two days. Now, I don’t mind a little bit of rain but it would seem that for everyone else this was too much and we arrived to an almost deserted centre with a lot of closed stalls or, if not closed,  in the process of closing. Also when I say almost deserted there was, in fact, a crowd of old men gathered under the canopy of the nearest bar, staring at the obvious foreigner who had come to their town in summer attire and who by now had rather wet feet. Maybe it is me and food festivals, maybe someone is trying to tell me that I should be doing a little less celebrating of food and more time hitting the gym, but this was not the first time a food festival that I have been too has been a complete wash-out. The last time was at the Pistachio Festival in Bronte when it rained buckets.

So, there were only a handful of stalls open but they were, and had started the process, of making  ricotta. Therefore, we stuck around. There were at least 6 caldrons on the go heating up the sheep’s milk for the first stage of the ricotta making process but only one of these groups were at the stage of slicing up the newly formed cheese so that they could recook it again hence why it is called ricotta – recooked. This meant that we had quite a wait until we were able to try the freshly made warm cheese with a bread roll (as standard). This was also confirmed when on asking when the ricotta would be ready we were told ‘at midday we can talk about when the ricotta will be ready’. With time on our hands and drizzle turning to rain we decided to  check out Vizzini.

Once home to Giovanni Verga for part of his life and a setting for one of his short stories which was later turned into a play, Vizzini is littered with brown UNESCO signs, I expect all related to Verga but then there are also some fine examples of baroque architecture. However, this was not the day to be looking down alleyways for his family house, so we instead headed to the church we had seen earlier. Churches always have their doors open, right? Wrong! Turns out it would not offer us shelter after all. Looking rather worse for wear and like the whole town, with weeds and plants growing in its cracks and from its spire, it didn’t look like it had opened its doors for ages; although I am sure that this can’t be the case. So we headed back up the hill towards the main square again, passing tractors parked outside houses and climbing up overgrown stairways, we even spotted cacti plants growing out of one person’s roof.

Now thoroughly soaked through (and a little out of breath) we hung around one of the few stalls that were open. It offered us some shelter and it wasn’t long before the stall holder was passing around bits of salami for us to try too. Except, I don’t eat salami. On refusing said salami with ‘Sono vegetariana’ and a slight shrug I was met with a flabbergasted response from one of the customers ( note – not the stallholder). With a stern face, as if I had mortally offended him, he said ‘What do you mean a vegetarian? What, like the cow?’. Then to top it off and with that same stern, serious stare  ‘Then I should eat you as you would surely taste good’. So in his opinion because I was vegetarian like cows and sheep are, I am ripe for eating. If he had had a bottle of Chianti with him I would have scarpered but instead I watched in disbelief as he finished buying his cheese and salami and then fortunately left without seeing if I did indeed taste good!

Anyway, it was at this point that we decided to buy fresh ricotta from the previous day and leave the increasingly  deserted Vizzini. It was just too wet and we were beginning to feel damp and cold and I was worried I had come across a town of cannibals. We bought some fresh garlic to ensure a good aroma for the journey (at least it cancelled out our damp smelling clothes) and switched on the sat-nav which promptly took us the wrong way. Finally on the right road we passed the most gorgeous cluster of poppies  and discovered some wild fennel and artichokes growing nearby, After collecting some fennel (as the artichokes weren’t ready) and taking some photographs we headed back to Catania discussing what we could make from the ricotta.

In the end we gave the ricotta to the mother-in-law who promptly gave us a long list of what she could possibly make (Sicilian ‘mammas’ are the best cooks). The next night everyone came round to our place to make ‘Frittelle di Ricotta’. Everyone got involved under the direction and strict supervision of ‘mamma’, except ‘mamma’ didn’t supervise too closely when her son ground down the sugar to dust over the ricotta parcels. Instead of picking up the sugar my beloved partner had picked up the salt. He didn’t lightly dust the parcels either. His, slightly ravenous by this stage, brother was the one to discover the mistake. As he bit into the supposed sweet his face turned to disbelief and he uttered ‘No, e sale?’ (No -it’s salt?) Now I would have instantly removed the offending dessert from my mouth and would have made a big spectacle of doing so but he didn’t. He carried on looking confused, shocked, disappointed even but continued to eat the now savoury, sweet dessert whilst the rest of us did our best to brush of the salt and save the other ricotta parcels.That is how hungry he was. However, this mistake led to so much laughter and they still tasted good so although I am not sure I will go back to the ‘Sagra delle Ricotta’ next year, I am definitely glad we made the effort this time (and I have since labelled the salt in the cupboard to avert future disaster).