If this year has taught me one thing it is that at every corner of the earth, you will find Italian food. The food travellers saviour, it offers brief respite for the palate from whatever local cuisine you have been habitually enjoying for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sure you could track down a ropey Indian. Or sneak in for a sly McDonald’s (look it was just the once ok?). But it is the ‘generic’ Italian, with its homely middle-class environment and canon of recognised dishes that warms the traveller’s soul. Plus it’s almost impossible to mess up a pizza right? Even the bad ones are edible and admit it, you enjoyed it really.
Prior to my arrival in this world my parents spent the best part of ten years in Italy. Son of two Italiophiles, it was perhaps inevitable I developed a fondness of all things Italian. The good news? Through them I acquired the nation’s unrivalled passion for all things foodish. The bad news? That passion came with a heavy dose of criticism. So when the odd plate of pasta showed up on my travels it was most certainly welcome but I couldn’t help but think “this is not how they do it in Italy” (especially in the case of a ragu sauce in China consisting of crumbled up bits of burger with ketchup squirted on top). By the time I returned from India, I was in need of a serious Italian food fix. I was ready for the real deal. Sicily called…
Within moments of arriving in Palermo, I felt like I had returned to a second home. After 3 months in Asia, Europe can feel very comforting. But despite the familiarity offered by my surroundings this would be a week like no other, as the fate of finding kitchen work lay in the hands of my host Michaela, a local fireman and true Sicilian gent. Any attempt to exert control over my destiny and I was told, “Alex, tranquillo, tranquillo” and after every question came the same response, “hey, Alex, Alex! Non ti preoccupare!” Clearly I had to just sit back, relax and let Sicily come to me.
The first morning in Palermo we darted in and around the downtown traffic stopping to meet a parade of Michaela’s acquaintances, with each meeting involving a little something to eat or drink. After a morning coffee and a few local pastries, it was on to the nearby bar where old Sicilian signori took pleasure in offering me some morning prosecco and some of the local Nero d’Avola red wine.
Already at this early stage I had a suspicion I was unlikely to put in any hours today at a kitchen as Micheala beamed with pride in feeding me the food of his land. A trip to the market to sample the local produce: Sfincione (a Sicilian style deep pan pizza) by the sea front, a long lunch with ample beers, yet more coffee and of course cannoli. The only respite came later that afternoon when full to the brim and slightly tipsy I had an afternoon nap. And even then I was woken for a huge family dinner followed by a night on the tiles with Micheala’s sister Dani, which involved yet more beers and street food in the Vucciria including frittula (deep-fried battered tripe) and panella (chickpea fritters).
The following day, still full and a little hungover, it became immediately clear our adventures around town were to find me some work. Unbeknown to me, I had not one but three trattorias to work in over the coming days, each of which began the same way – I would walk into the kitchen to be greeted by a confused band of chefs. Michaela would explain I was a friend of [insert tenuous link here] and after a few strange looks that seemed to express “how on earth can an Englishman cook Italian food”, I was put to work.
Such little time in a kitchen would not normally allow me to get to grips with the demands of the job. Thankfully this was mitigated as I was not only familiar with Italian food but the three trattorias shared the majority of the menu repertoire. My short stints were also helped by the fact that Italian food is relatively easy on the chef. But that’s what I love. Nowhere else in the world have people such a mastery in expressing the produce of their land in such a simple way. Perhaps they have history to thank? Pizza, for example, has evolved to perfection from chef to chef over 12,000 years. That’s almost 25 times longer than Mexican cuisine has existed.
You may wonder why, in contrast to most jobs, I chose somewhere in my comfort zone. But Palermo offered one of the rare moments on this trip where I could make tweaks to my pre-existing knowledge, such as the Sicilian way of making pasta with no eggs, rather than learning something from scratch. I also came across some dishes unique to Sicily that were truly mouthwatering such as spaghetti con ricci, a sauce made from fresh sea urchins, and spaghetti con la sarde, the beautiful marriage of fresh sicilian sardines and wild fennel. And let us not forget some of better known dishes – arancini (deep-fried rissotto balls), caponata (known as the King of Sicily and often made used battered swordfish pieces), and my personal favourite pani ca meusa (calf spleen simmered in lard and served in bread with a squeeze of lemon).
For all the amazing food in Palermo there was one last ingredient missing that completes every meal: family. In between the kitchen shifts and mad biking around, I was welcomed in Michaela’s home as one of the Randisi family. After 10 months on the road, this was my first return to family life. There I sat, 12 of us around the table. Michaela tops up my glass of wine, a huge spread lies in front of me and ‘mama’ brings me a plate of steaming hot pasta. There is a brief silence as everyone tucks in before a gradual crescendo to a loud and passionate debate. You can probably guess the subject…food.