Edged in sideways – Sicily, Part II

Look how long this took.

A few weeks ago, on the Sicily post, I promised you Part Two. Between that promise and this post, life edged in sideways, the sneaky thing. But here it is. Part Two, slow-roasted like little Sicilian tomatoes. Tell me if you can taste it.

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Sicily – a photo journal

I’ll let the photographs do most of the talking this time, and I hope they’ll tell you little secrets, show you little nooks, take you away for a while. Happy weekend, my friends!

The House

A cottage out of a fairytale, hidden in the wild Madonie mountains, in Northern Sicily. We spent weeks searching for the perfect place – away from everything, without a frill, rustic and simple. We wanted birdsong and walks in the woods, and not much else. That was what Casa Bianca was in a nutshell.

For more information on Casa Bianca, you can get in touch with the lovely Pamela here.

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The Places

We loved the contrasts Northern Sicily threw up at every turn. I’m going to show you three places we loved. The old, cobbled alleys of Cefalu, a town tumbling into the Mediterranean. The fishing village of Scopello, with its glittering hamlet. Castelbuono, a beautiful commune hugging a medieval cathedral. And Palermo, a city I thought I wouldn’t like, but which I loved. We went to Palermo on a Monday morning when many of its shops are shut; it gave us a chance to see a different side of the city. Unhurried; with daily lives being led, crumbling balconies holding the sun, couples sitting under giant banyan trees.

{Cefalu}

 

 {Scopello}

{Castelbuono}

{Palermo}

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The Food

Nothing I say about Sicilian food can do it justice, but there are a few things that you can’t leave the island without tasting.
Cannolo – a crisp tube of fried dough filled with sweet ricotta.
A no-fuss, grilled swordfish.
Spaghetti alle vongole – spaghetti with a simple tumble of clams.
Pasta alla norma – pasta with fried eggplant, ricotta salata, pine nuts, basil and garlic.
Pasta con le sarde – pasta with sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins and saffron.
Swordfish involtini.
Arancini.
The fish couscous, which made its way to Sicily from Northern Africa, and is a specialty in the Trapani area.
When in season, a pizza with artichokes, which I love.
And in between your meals: a cool, crunchy granita and glasses of fresh orange juice.

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Cooking in Sicily

What can I say, I could go on with the food. So, before I go, I’ll leave you with a meal we cooked at home, with fresh ingredients from the market, and ate sitting at the table outside our cottage, in the midst of magic Sicilian mountains.

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Can’t blow it wrong – Sicily, Part I

Just as I sit down to write this post, Chotto-ma starts playing the harmonica: blowing in, sucking out. The harmonica takes the air from her lungs, with all its haphazardness, and turns it into the music of a hundred breezes. And it makes me think that if Sicily were to be an instrument, this is what it would be. A harmonica. You can’t blow it wrong.

It sits in the cupped palm of the Mediterranean, its notes rising from low to high in one long breath. If you let your eyes travel to the very end, to the curved line of the horizon where the sea spoons the sky, everything is an unimaginable blue. As your sight travels closer, the colour lightens in calm strips – from aquamarine to turquoise to emerald to a pale jade, and finally swishing around your ankles as clear as truth.

Walk out of the shifting sand under the sea, onto the warm beach, and the land starts to rise. A wild, earthy road appears, overgrown with sun-crackled greens. The road begins to bend around, hugging the lift of the land. It curves and rises, curves and rises. Sand changes to mountains. The green changes too; deepens. Yellow houses appear, peeking through a shock of bougainvillea. Magenta bougainvillea, with that turquoise sea dropping behind it: it makes you shake your head, this impossible beauty.

As your car winds up farther, forests grow. Walls of wildflowers – yellow, pink, purple and white – begin to tunnel your way. Clouds appear. They come down, touch. Without warning, you come to a turn in the road. This is the turn you’re supposed to take. It leads to a tiny commune called Gibilmanna, high in the Madonie mountains. But this turn, as it turns out, is not really a turn at all. It is an almighty drop. Sheer. Nearly straight down. In the fading light, it is much like Alice’s rabbit hole. D inches the car in, Chotto-ma and I hang by our seatbelts – three perpendicular people. The road hurtles down and down, until it finally stops at a huge iron gate. Casa Bianca, the sign says.

That was our home for eight days. A cottage set in acres of land, which we had all to ourselves. The house sat in the middle of a woodland in the throes of its Sicilian spring – louder than any springtime I’ve ever seen – with an orchard in front and a stream running through. It had a wisteria-covered porch under which a bread-oven nestled in the wall. Around the house, bees buzzed drunk on purple snapdragons. Wild fennel grew. Shiny green lizards darted about the courtyard. Wherever we walked, the grass was smothered in little purple flowers. Not an inch empty. All living, breathing. Birds singing. Things blooming, bursting. Unfurling, curling you around its little finger.

There’s nothing quite like Sicily in May.

It gave us all it had – days of scorching sun, of mist and fog, a day of mountain-rain and a day that hovered in between. In the mornings, we ate outside, with the sun in our eyes and wine in our glasses. Pasta muddled on our plates, bowls of cherries the darkest red, cold melon wrapped in slivers of ham, swordfish fresh off the sea.

In the evening, D would chop wood, Chotto-ma would carry them in and we would light a fire. Our neighbours – a lovely German lady and her Italian husband – lent us two warm jumpers for the evenings. They also brought us fresh, warm eggs from their chickens when we woke up that first morning.

And for me, this is what set Sicily apart: its people. Over the years, we’ve come to know Italy well; I can now piece together some words in Italian for the most basic communication (almost all food-related). Yet, we’ve never been drenched with the kind of human warmth that Sicilians bring to even the smallest conversations. Gruff men with big hearts and a booming voice. Women who peeked from behind clotheslines to wave. People who stopped their chores to ruffle Chotto-ma’s hair – ciao bambini! We made friends – in eight short days; with people who stopped short of English, but not much else.

There was a lone restaurant (cum alimentari) in Gibilmanna called Spaccio Colombo run by three lovely old men and a dog called Margo. We would go there for coffee and cakes every evening, pizza on Sunday night. Chotto-ma would play with Margo, D and I would chat with the men (neither of whom knew English, so you can imagine our conversations). On the day before we left, they unlocked the restaurant just for us, even though they’re closed on Wednesdays. They invited us in for coffees, and refused to let us pay.

So many little things we won’t forget. So many things we will have to go back for. This was the first time, Chotto-ma cried when packing her suitcase – large, soundless tears; plop plop plop. Apart from her friend Margo, what she said she was sad to leave were the flowers that grew on the mountainside. So she brought back a flower pressed in the pages of her story book to remind us all of this island which we couldn’t fit into our suitcase.

[In the next post: I’ll show you the town and villages in Sicily that we visited and loved. And the food, the food, the food that we ate and ate and ate. Arrivederci!]