When should a cook make the food pilgrimage to Sicily?

John Harris – food, knowledge, experience

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Photo Credit Nick Dawe

Sicily is not just the island of food, says John Harris, but a culture preserving traditional values towards food and food production. See what you’ve been missing, and perhaps why all young chefs should go there, in this latest blog

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Rugoso sweet lemons originally a wild cross Mandarin /lemon


Marko my friend at Illy cafe sat opposite me looking rather shocked when I said, no I’d never been to Sicily. “John you’ve got to go, if for nothing else you’ve got to taste the tomatoes. Put one in your mouth, it’s like you’ve eaten a million tomatoes, but then, you’ve never eaten anything like this. Then there’s the gelato – it’s the best in all of Italy.” He had me at tomatoes. I was intrigued enough to go that summer to see what he was on about.

I found a warm friendly island fiercely proud of its food heritage, it was like nothing I had come across before. Also their approach to food and its provenance is the total opposite of ours in the UK.

When we arrived at the villa we were to stay in, the holiday company had advised us to give them a shopping list and that the owners would get everything for us as our arrival coincided with a Saints day, and everything would be closed.

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Baked local bream

These great people had bought everything we asked for. It was all there, from the local ham to ricotta, pecorino, fruit, vegetables, at the standard that Selfridges’s Food Hall would kill for if they could get it. The only thing missing were some strawberries. I don’t think we would have noticed but they said sorry, we couldn’t get any. I asked, just out of curiosity, were they not growing in Sicily? Oh yes, they replied, in other areas but not here. Food miles were a complete anathema to them, you ate what grew around you and if it wasn’t being grown, you didn’t eat it.

It’s at the other end of the food chain to the UK where everything is available all year round. Strawberries are growing this month in Mexico, we can fly them in, so we do, and they taste pretty much like you might after a similar flight: jet lagged and without any discernable flavour.

That first summer in Sicily was truly amazing, finding everything from the melons (sometimes in a pile left at a farm gate with a box to drop the money in), to the stunning food served in local restaurants that you’d expect to be good, but not mind blowing which so much of it is and always indicative of the local area. Each part of the island seems to have something slightly different from the rest and all are so proud of that difference.

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Tomatoes at Syracuse market

Everyone takes so much care in the quality of what they make. Going for a gelato brioche sandwich, my daughter’s favourite breakfast, to be told at a local Gelatoria “nothing extra special, come back in five minutes as the brioche weren’t out of the oven yet”. Can you imagine the equivalent on Brighton sea front? I wish you could. But then that’s what makes Sicily so different.

This is somewhere all cooks should come to learn about a very sophisticated food culture, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the UK for a couple of centuries.

A Venetian nobleman who visited England at the turn of the sixteenth century described what he found of how we ate as thus:

“Beside which the English being great epicures, and very avaricious by nature indulge in the most delicate fare themselves.”

How did we slip from this to frozen nasty burgers, pop tarts and extruded fried potato products?

So at what stage in a cook’s life should he/she visit this highly tuned food culture?

As my wife Ronke puts it “after the ginger mash stage” (she of course vehemently denies ever having come to this point in her cooking career. I’ve got to believe her, if only for a peaceful household). For me at one point it was the discovery of green cardamons. If you unfortunately ate any of my food at that time, sweet or savoury, I was so in love with them and thought it so cool to use them in everything… I cringe to think of some of the food those little perfumed nuggets went in. Luckily as a cook when you make something within a very short time it’s consumed (or ends up sometimes where it belongs: in the bin). Unlike a sculptor that dish you made all those years ago, the thought of which now makes you cringe with embarrassment, is not staring at you accusingly from a dusty shelf, one day to be discovered – you made that!

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Giant sweet Cippoline salad onions,
so sweet you could bite into them like an apple

Another example of this unfortunate state happened when I was helping a young chef who’d just taken on his first kitchen as head. I’d been asked to go and support him but let him take the lead. It was at that time when fusion cooking was the buzz word. Peter Gordon you know not what horrors you spurned under that banner.

As a starter, as far as I remember, the young chef wanted to do a hot avocado stuffed with white crab meat, drenched in lime juice, with a touch of parmesan. I bit my tongue and made the thing for him, as instructed. When it came out of the oven I noticed this odd but strangely familiar smell, then I realised with wonder what it was: old fashioned fly spray. We had created solid fly spray. I went round the whole kitchen team to verify it: yep that’s what it was. I’m sure if Heston had been around he would have served it up accompanied by an iPod with the sound of buzzing round a rose bush. Anyway most cooks go through a period like this, some never come out of it, but most wake up one day to realise that although their ideas may be original and different, they just don’t taste very nice.

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Swordfish and tuna on the Syracuse market

The expression ‘it’s a Salad Nicoise with a twist, it’s my take on it’, leaps to mind. My view is: take a trip to the South of France and taste a real one first before you decide you’re better than thousands of cooks before you, who have been content to attempt to produce the original to the best of their ability and not play with a classic… that’s kind of why it’s a classic in the first place. It works, leave well alone, and just see if you can make it with some sort of integrity.

Anyway after this stage in a cook’s career, having made a few blunders, once he/she has realised there is more to food than a foam with a streak of highly reduced balsamic, and maybe that Fergus Henderson’s stuff is more a reflection of Great British food than whatever the latest tweaked, overblown picture on a plate is being produced to glowing accolades, “how different, how original. I never tasted the like before!”, lucky you.

So about now is when you can be left feeling, is this really all there is to my food? Then this should be the time for your first trip to the island of food.

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Fish stall, one of many, at Syracuse market

Gregorio was doing a bit of driving for us this year (love the island, loved the food but I don’t get how they drive, scares the proverbial’s out of me). Anyway when Ronke asked were there any restaurants that he would recommend, we had a bit of an awkward silence and eventually he quietly said, “no”. When pushed a bit he qualified this comment with, “we on this island are very fussy eaters. We know how a dish should be and no restaurant can do this, so we always eat at home. It’s a bit like you English and your beer. That’s what you know a lot about and you know you’re equally as fussy about what beer you’ll drink.”

So it’s not all about the restaurants although, unlike Gregorio, I do feel there a lot of good-to-fantastic ones worth trying. You do need to go with some access to a kitchen to really get the best out of your time there, so you can go buy from the shops and markets and try out some of it in a kitchen.

Everyone takes so much care in the quality of what they make. Going You soon realise that all the tomatoes really need is some salt, maybe a bit of good oil, but really that’s it. But this is the way with so much of the produce. Why make some elaborate sweet dish to finish the meal when you could have a bowl of perfect peaches? You’re never going to taste anything like them in the UK so make the best of it while you can!

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Three guys flipping sea-urchin roe to be sold in
little plastic water cups

This year we were near Syracuse, a very historic beautiful seaside town with it’s own Greek ruin, which is the main reason my nine year old son likes Sicily. He has a love of all things Greek; temples, myths, language and any ruins are a must for him, as long as there’s some good food nearby, I’m more than happy to oblige. With Syracuse it’s the daily food market which has amazing fish fruit and vegetables, but you’ll also see a bunch of guys standing round a table flipping sea urchins out of there prickly shells into little plastic water cups. These are sold to make a local dish of pasta with sea-urchin and white wine or a risotto made with the sea urchin roe, which is all you really use along with some fish stock, good oil, thyme and lemon rind, and not an awful lot of anything else.

The Fretelli Burgro store which has some of the best wine, olives, Bresola, salami – lots of different food – the most amazing almonds and local jams all of which they are rightly famous for. They make what has officially been nominated out of 600 contenders the best caponata in all Italy. The shop next to it is the Andrea Borderi shop run by dad Andrea, his daughter, her husband, momma and I think a couple of aunties help out when it gets really busy.

It’s constantly buzzing. There are made to order sandwiches one side (cheese, especially baked ricotta which is a speciality) and oil, olives, spec and Proscuitto on the other. The big difference with this shop to any similar in the UK is they make nearly everything themselves, including the ricotta and mozzarella each morning, and most of the charcuterie is made by them too.

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Daughter serving at cheese and sandwich shop Syracuse
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Tasting home made provolone at the sandwich shop Syracuse

The first time I tried walking past their shop I had some ricotta which had just been made with some dried oregano, and a slug of olive oil on top. It was thrust in my hand as, the daughter explained, it had been made and finished ten minutes ago. A taste I hope to never forget for the rest of my life. When we came back to do some proper buying inside the shop was frantic, but if you were at the front of the queue it was your turn and you had their complete attention. Samples of cheese, sandwiches, olives and wine were being handed out constantly for all to try, so you have something to keep you going till it was your turn at the front. There is a constant banter going on between all the family and local customers. Again I think it’s partly to keep everyone entertained till it’s their turn. Believe me if you have any curiosity about Italian cheese, and the rest, it’s so worth the wait + even if your spoken Italian is limited it’s a lot of fun to be in amongst it.

I’m half Italian. My grandfather left Tuscany in 1919 to try life in Scotland and never looked back. My mother never tried to teach me any of the language till I was fourteen which was way too late. I speak better Russian than Italian, oh, and I don’t speak any Russian at all.

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Ronke unsure where to start at Fretelli Burgo’s amazing shop

My wife who was born in Shepherds Bush speaks very good Italian, so I stand silently smiling idiotically as people around me talk to her. She regularly gets adopted by Sicilian mommas. Not sure what the appeal is but there’s definitely something she gives off. This year we went back to see one of her favourites at a small café in Ragusa; a place where you will see the binmen in there bright orange coveralls having a coffee at the bar with the chief of police and the mayor. It’s not flash in anyway being down the way from the Cathedral of San Giovanni Batista. When we stopped by to say hello we had to promise to come back on our way to the airport on our last day for breakfast as momma would be around. We did as we were told, momma was very pleased to see her adopted English bambino, and she said hello to me and the kids too. She’s that classic Sicilian/Italian momma – very sweet, but she runs the kitchen with the rest of the females of the family and you just know she’s tough. She may be small, bespectacled and a diminutive four foot ten, but as soon as she walks in the café from the kitchen, you know who is boss.

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The range of baking and the skill I tailed at a small café, Ragusa

Even here, a local café, everything is made by her and the rest of the family’s women folk.
We were brought samples of everything for breakfast amongst the Arancini and various baked pastries, including little turnovers with a rabbit ragou. Something I’d never seen before was a wholemeal croissant inside stuffed with a sweet pear puree, with a tiny amount of cinnamon. It was such a good match of intense flavours. The pear wasn’t weak and wishy washy, it was a thin layer of reduced puree, light, but you new you were eating pear immediately. The cinnamon was just enough to tell it was there – I’d never come across anything like it before. Even at the simplest of cafes so much care is taken in how things are prepared.

We left with the kids cruising on a sea of sugar provided by a combination of gelato, chocolate croissant, granita, canolo and anything else sugar filled in the cafe that their new found uncles could ply them with, all they had to do was smile and coyly giggle to be proffered another sweet treat.

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Hard, small pears the size of a plum, very sweet

So at the end of this year’s trip what can I say to any young cooks (or old crusty ones who just haven’t made it out there it’s still worth going, you’ll just probably cry a lot once you realise what you’ve been missing)? To me it should be a must. How can I sum up the experience? It’s kind of like squashing six months worth of ideas into a couple of weeks; new tastes, incredible finds from the tiny pears the size of a plum, but hard and sweet, and beautiful flavour Syracuse lemons, green like limes, taste like lemons with just a hint of lime without even touching on the cooking. Yes it’s about the food, but it’s the culture supporting that food as well, the colours, the smells, the people who once you’d shown some interest in them and their food, they will spend any amount of time to show you more.

Hard, small pears the size of a plum – very sweet
We haven’t even touched on things like Bucatini pasta with sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins and breadcrumb. The best one I’ve tried at a restaurant in Scopello town. They boasted 800 year old olive trees on their terrace where we ate outside. People were driving up from the capital for this traditional dish. But if you mention it a few miles down South in Ragusa they don’t know what you’re talking about. Instead you’ll get a great dish of roast rabbit and carrots fried in vinegar. It just goes on and on, which is why I think my love of the place will bring me back year after year.

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