Thursday, August 17, 2017


My friend Carol King, who has recently returned to Sicily, and I decided to celebrate Ferragosto a day late this year, so I kind of cooked her a little meal:

The antipasti included olives, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh datterini tomatoes, mini sausages, bresaola and Parma ham topped with Grana cheese shavings, marinated mushrooms and - I must tell you about this - watermelon with salted cucumber. My original intention was to chuck the cucumber - peeled, deseeded, chopped, salted, left then rinsed, drained and chilled - into the salad but at the last minute I thought it would be a nice addition to the dish of watermelon. Turns out I was right!  The seemingly small apples around the antipasti dishes are actually azzaroli or Neapolitan medlars, which are related to hawthorn. There are mini-pears as well and they are a fine partner for the cheese.

The main course was grilled chicken salad with grilled nectarines. (Yes, I have a thing for grilled nectarines!)   I marinated the chicken in culinary rosewater before grilling and seasoned it with sumac afterwards. I used the dressing I invented for this recipe. The other ingredients were grilled peppers and rocket leaves.

For dessert, I made strawberry tiramisù and Carol brought along the delicious sweet treats on the right.

Everything on this menu can be made in advance and all you have to do is make the antipasti look pretty and assemble the salad.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Top, left to right:  Duomo, Cefalù; looking up from Modica Bassa
Bottom, left to right:  The Madonie; Princess Grace of Monaco depicted in flower petals at Noto Infiorata, 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017


This is the night when Italians look for shooting stars. If you see one, don't forget to make a wish! But don't worry if they don't appear for you tonight - they should be around for a few nights more. Have a happy St Lawrence's night, everyone!

Eros Ramazzotti e Patsy Kensit - La luce buona delle stelle
City of Stars from La La Land

Wednesday, August 02, 2017


Regular readers will know that, at this time of year, I love experimenting with salads and a few years ago I invented a tagliata and cherry version. This week, I decided I wanted something lighter still and I came up with a chicken and cherry salad.  I wanted to use my favourite spice, sumac, and took the wonderful Nadiya Hussain's advice about sprinkling it on the meat after cooking to keep the red colour. Then I added to the red by playing with pink peppercorns. It all turned out rather well but here is my usual warning to Sicilian purists: I never said it was Sicilian; it's just what I do with the ingredients and cuts of meat available to me here and I like including the Middle Eastern ingredients I learnt to use in Britain.  And yes, the dish contains meat and fruit and I'm not apologising!

Chicken and cherry salad

1 chicken breast, cut into escalopes  (That's two chicken breasts, as sold in Britain, where they are sold in halves, and one as sold in Italy. An Italian butcher will auomatically cut them very thin. In Britain you may need to pound them.)
about 30 fat, dark cherries, stoned
half a large cucumber or 1 small one
500 gr bag rocket leaves
5 tablesp culinary rosewater
olive oil
1 tablesp runny honey
Himalayan pink seasalt
1 dessertsp pink peppercorns, crushed
1 teasp ground ginger
1 teasp ground sumac
1 teasp dried herbes de Provence

First, marinate the chicken pieces for 2 hours in 3 tablesp of the rosewater (or marinate overnight).
Peel the cucumber, deseed and chop it as small as you can. Sprinkle with (ordinary] fine seasalt and leave at least 30 mins. (This is a trick I learned from an early Jennifer Paterson book and I always prepare my salad cucumbers like this.) After 30 mins, rinse, drain and let dry on kitchen paper.
Drain the chicken pieces and pat dry with kitchen paper. Cook them over low heat on a lightly oiled ridged griddle pan - about 2 mins per side. Put them on kitchen paper and let them cool.
In a small bowl, mix well with a fork 6 tablesp olive oil, 2 tablesp rosewater, the honey, ground ginger, pink salt if you have it, half the pink peppercorns and the herbes de Provence. Leave in the fridge.
When the chicken has cooled, cut it into bite-sized pieces - I do this with a kitchen scissors - and place them in a bowl.  Sprinkle the sumac over it and add the cucumber, cherries  and rocket. (At this stage you can leave the salad in the fridge till serving time.] When you are ready, add the dressing and toss well.  Finally, sprinkle the rest of the peppercorns over the salad.

Serves four.

Buon appetito

Note:  Sumac does, in theory, grow in Sicily but I have yet to meet anyone who has heard of it here!

Thursday, July 27, 2017


A day in Catania is always a welcome change but when it's 40°C, my first port of call is not my favourite bookshop but the first bar selling yummy-looking gelato (not that it ever looks anything but delicious). The one below, with stracciatella, pineapple and gelsi (mulberry) flavours was particularly so.  I liked the idea of the mini-cones on top, too. Later, when a friend suggested a break in order to partake of a little cassata and iced tea, who was I to refuse?

Friday, July 21, 2017


Palermo has been selected as Italian Capital of Culture 2018 so here, in no particular order, are 18 facts - some quirky, others not so - that you may not know about the city:

1.  Its Palazzo dei Normanni was, from 1130 , the seat of the Sicilian Parliament, one of the oldest in the world. (I've met a lot of Sicilians who claim that it is, in fact, the oldest.] It now houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly.

2.  In 2016 Palermo was declared the worst city in Italy for traffic congestion.

3.  Frutti di Martorana, the marzipan "fruits" you will see everywhere in Sicily in autumn, were, according to legend, first made in The Martorana Convent in Palermo.

4.  The city's most important Arab and Norman buildings, along with the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, were collectively named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo

5.  Palermo street food is legendary. Eat it first, then ask what's in it!

6.  The Palermo football team's badge has been ranked (by the British Daily Mail) as among the best in the world.

7.  The city has wide boulevards reminiscent of towns in France.

8.  The word for traditional Sicilian rice balls, arancini, is used in its feminine form, arancine there.

9.  The Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Capuchin Catacombs) are a very macabre, and often upsetting, sight but must be seen. I once decided to leave them till last on a school trip but my students, having been shown the Parliament, Cathedral and other beautiful buildings, were impatiently demanding, "Can we go and see the dead people now?" by mid-morning.

Me with students in Palermo, 1995

10. The city is second only to Naples for the number of coffee manufacturers that call it home (47 in 2011).

11. During the reign of Ruggero (Roger) II, Palermo was a city in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side in harmony. This was to come to an end, however, under Frederick II, who expelled the Muslims in 1224.

12.  In 1185 Roger's daughter and Frederick's mother Costanza d'Altavilla (Constance d'Hauteville) travelled to Germany to be married with the greatest dowry the world had ever seen. She gave birth to her son in the market square in Ancona on her way back to Sicily. You can read more about this extraordinary journey in a book I reviewed here. Costanza is buried in Palermo Cathedral.

13.  Palermo has a museum of traditional puppets  (opera dei pupi) where you can also see puppet shows at certain times of the year.  You can find out more about opera dei pupi in my post here.

Some of my own Sicilian puppets

14.  Traditional Sicilian carts vary, from province to province, in their design and size. Those from Palermo were squarer and wider than many of the others and were originally used for transporting grapes. This is a link to an article on Sicilian carts that I wrote for Italy Magazine in 2010.

15. Not strictly in the City of Palermo but in Palermo Province and a short bus ride away is Monreale, whose cathedral, begun in 1174, is one of the best preserved examples of Norman architecture anywhere. It contains Byzantine mosaics throughout. There are stunning views of Palermo from Monreale.

16. In 2014 the priests of Palermo Cathedral were much criticised for displaying a prominent WC sign in a side chapel there. I don't know about you, but when being a tourist I've often desperately needed the loo by the time I got to a city's cathedral!

17.  Palermo was named Panormus ("complete port" or possibly "well-protected bay") by the Greeks, This became Balarme under Arabic rule.

18.  To end on a sombre note, Palermo Airport, formerly known as Punta Raisi, was renamed in 1995 in honour of the anti-Mafia judges Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone who were both murdered in 1992, the latter along with his wife. The airport's full name is now L''aeroporto Internazionale Falcone e Borsellino di Palermo-Punta Raisi but it is usually referred to as aeroporto Falcone e BorsellinoItaly has been remembering the two judges in this, the 25th anniversary year of the stragi (massacres) of Capaci and via D'Amelio. We must not forget that all but one of their bodyguards died with them on those terrible days.

The candidates for Italian Capital of Culture 2020 are Agrigento, Catania, Messina, Noto, Ragusa and Siracusa. Guess which two I'll be rooting for!

City of Palermo
Coat of Arms

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Here is Gianluca from Il Volo to cheer us all up:

Il Volo - soloist: Gianluca Ginoble - La Danza (Rossini)

Friday, July 14, 2017


Recently I've been reminded how much France and her freedoms have meant to me by reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café, a history of existentialist philosophy told in an effervescent, innovative style which is hinted at in the book's subtitle,  Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I felt as if I were "meeting" all the French authors who had so influenced my youth all over again and it brought back the excitement of encountering their thought for the first time.

A detail I'd forgotten but was reminded of in the book is that the lyrics of the song below were penned by none other than "Mr Existentialism" himself, Jean-Paul Sartre. Its subject matter, with its references to executions, is hardly cheery but I remember having great fun with it celebrating Bastille Day in 1989 (the bicentenary of the French Revolution) at the school where I was then head of modern languages. I don't think my noisy teenage students' renderings of it, interspersed by my playing of all nine verses of the Marseillaise, brought my colleagues in neighbouring classrooms much joy but I have fond memories of the day, even though at the end of it I was so tired that I was rather glad there was a century to go till the next such celebration. Vive la France!

Juliette Gréco -  La rue des Blancs-Manteaux

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Well, here we are, more than half way through 2017 and I find I have not posted a single recipe this year! So, although other matters, such as health and keeping up with Brexit developments (which will affect me very directly, as they will all expats), mean that I am not currently blogging as often as I'd like, let's at least put the culinary matter to rights.

My pollo allo za'atar is my take on a recipe in the June edition of the Italian magazine Vero cucina. This recipe is for bone-in chicken thighs cooked in very litle oil with lemon slices, then sprinkled with a sauce of lemon juice, garlic and mint. I tried it and found it excellent, but this week I decided I wanted to spice it up a little. There is very little za'atar in my version, actually, but I was so delighted to find some in Catania a few weeks ago that I decided it had to feature in the name of my dish.  Here we go:

Heat the oven to 180° C (fan).
Lightly oil a roasting tin and put in 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs.
Cut 1 lemon into wedges and add these to the pan.
Add 3 grilled peppers, preferably yellow, orange and red, cut up. (In Italy we can buy fresh, ready-grilled peppers in supermarkets but you could use well-drained grilled peppers in oil or, of course, grill them yourself.)
Sprinkle over some coarse seasalt, black pepper, a little sumac and some fresh lemon thyme leaves and drizzle over a little more olive oil.
Cook for 30 mins.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix 2 tablesp Chinese plum sauce,  juice of 1 lemon, 1 teasp sumac and half teasp za'atar.

Check the chicken and if necessary give it 10 mins more in the oven. When you take it out, pour the sauce over it and serve.  Garnish with more lemon thyme leaves if you wish.

Sunday, July 02, 2017


Time for a little fun with the number three song in the Italian charts (not the Volare you may be thinking of!)

Fabio Rovazzi e Gianni Morandi - Volare

Thursday, June 29, 2017


For those of you who have been following the short story A Bench for Vecchietta on the Tales from Centochiese blog, the last two installments are up on the blog:

Part 5

Part 6

I'm told that another story is coming soon!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Casa natale di Luigi Pirandello

As a French and Italian undergraduate back in the late sixties and early seventies, one of the authors whose work was to have a lasting effect on me was Luigi Pirandello, born 150 years ago today. Although or perhaps because his works were complex and posed questions rather than answering them, they immediately appealed to me. A recurring theme in the works of Pirandello is the nature of truth, probably most famously explored, for British and American audiences, in the play Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) but my favourite has always been Enrico IV (Henry IV). The title refers to Henry IV of Germany, Holy Roman Emperor and the plot centres around an actor who believes himself to be Henry in “real” life – or does he?

It is always difficult to justify a liking for authors whose political views you abhor and Pirandello, although declaring himself apolitical,  initially supported fascism.  However,  in 1927 he tore up his party membership card in front of fascist leaders and was thereafter watched closely by the régime’s police.

I knew that Pirandello had been born in the Agrigento or Girgenti countryside, but I never thought I would visit his birthplace or dreamt that Agrigento would become one of my favourite cities.

No one, then, was more surprised than me when, on a hot October day during my first visit to Sicily in 1992, I found myself standing outside the 
Casa Natale di Luigi Pirandello (Pirandello Birthplace) at 12.55 pm., five minutes before it was due to close. I had left Modica at 5 am in order to catch a bus to Gela, where I had despaired of the connecting bus to Agrigento ever arriving, let alone leaving. Once I arrived (late) in Agrigento, it had taken the rest of the morning to find the stop for the local bus that would take me, via a circuitous route on which it seemed to call in on every housing estate in the city's suburbs, to Luigi. I explained what had happened to the custodian and she kindly let me in and went out of her way to explain the exhibits. Then I walked down to the author’s grave under a pine tree, from which you can see the sea and, on a clear day, the coast of Africa.  Pirandello had written,

Take my urn to Sicily and place it under a stone in the Girgenti (Agrigento) countryside, where I was born." 

I, less eloquently, said, 

Luigi, I’ve come to see you. It’s taken me a long time and you weren’t always easy to study, nor were you easy to find today. But you taught me to look at life from many different angles and, although at times I've cursed you for it, today I'm here to thank you."

A page from my postcard album

Luigi Pirandello:  Agrigento, 28 June 1867 - Rome, 10 December 1936

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


The weekend again saw the festival of the Sacred Heart or Sacro Cuore and, although I wouldn't describe myself as a religious person, there is something that I find very uplifting and restful about watching groups of people gathering together to celebrate their religion in a joyful, peaceful  way without causing any harm or disurbance to anyone.  It may be a small festival and it may not be very sophisticated but it is, quite simply, "good" in the Christian sense of the word.

I was invited to watch the procession from a friend's balcony and we had a great time chatting out there, intermittently watching the proceedings, listening to the music coming from the church courtyard, exclaiming at the fireworks and finally, eating.

For yes, there has to be food and this year the programme proudly announced the Sagra (food festival) of ricotta-filled ravioli in sauce - not any old sauce, you understand, but a rich tomato sauce that is lovingly cooked for a long time with 'strattu and pork.  The cook serving the trays of ravioli told my friend's husband that she had earlier made no less than 1,000 ravioli by hand! Well, faced with that information, I'm sure you would agree that it would have been churlish to leave any of the tempting offerings on the individual trays on which they were served. Everyone who bought a tray got ricotta ravioli with not just sauce, but a generous portion of the pork used to flavour it, a sausage, bread and cheese and some sweet ravioli to finish.  Of course, it wouldn't have been an Italian summer festival without ice cream and I had made and taken along some of  that old stand-by of mine which I call "chocolate thingies".

Keep gathering in peace, cari modicani, and I hope the "ravioli lady", once she has recovered from Sunday, gets to make many more!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

SUMMER TIDES, 2017 - 2

Yesterday the UN and people around the world marked World Refugee Day. It followed a weekend during which 2,500 desperate souls were saved in the Mediterranean and fell the day after 1,096 of those rescued had been brought to Palermo and 495 to Pozzallo. These numbers are in no way unusual these days.

Among the migrants who disembarked at Palermo on Monday were the only four survivors of a dinghy which left Libya for Italy last Thursday with 126 - 130 people on board. Before long a group of people traffickers approached the dinghy and took the engine. Sudden movement among the migrants in the dinghy probably caused it to sink and the survivors were found clinging to the wreckage by Libyan fishermen, who deposited them on yet another migrant boat in the area. They were then rescued, for the second time, by the Italian Coast Guard.  The four survivors said that many women and children were among those who drowned.

Speaking on World Refugee Day, President Mattarella called for cooperation in finding long-term, rather than emergency, solutions to what he called a human tragedy to which Italy cannot be indifferent because migrant arrivals in the country are a daily, not an occasional, occurence.  He said that this would involve a commitment to preventing conflict in the regions most at risk, combatting climate change (which leads to "environmental migration") and making choices regarding the causes of conflict.  He emphasised that such action must involve the whole international community as the effects of migration are being experienced not only in the countries most involved but worldwide and because migration flows need to be managed on a global level.

UNHCR estimates that 2,000 lives have been lost on the Mediterranean migrant route since the beginning of this year. Of the 77,000 who have attempted this dangerous journey in 2017, 60,000 have reached Italy.

"This is not about sharing a burden. It is about sharing a global responsibility, based not only the broad idea of our common humanity but also on the very specific obligations of international law. The root problems are war and hatred, not people who flee; refugees are among the first victims of terrorism." 

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres


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