With a couple of days left on the island our plan was to drive around Etna, cross the Nebrodi Mountains and head north up the coast to Termini Inglese where we had a reservation for the ferry back to Civitavecchia. Approaching Etna we realized she was acting up. The volcano was spewing black lava dust everywhere, closing Catania’s airport and making headlines all over the world. This was her largest eruption in 18 months. The accumulated dust was swept into huge piles along the roadsides and parked vehicles were covered with sheets to protect them. We watched as fire and brimstone shot out of various fissures on the mountain but sadly we weren’t equipped to get a decent picture. You can get a sense of it here.
Before we’d known Etna would be erupting that evening we’d made dinner reservations in Milo, one of the closest villages to the summit with a good restaurant. As we drove up the mountain looking for the Osteria 4 Archi we debated the wisdom of our choice. Given its proximity to the volcano we suspected the place might have closed for the night but we decided to find out. If it was open, we’d stop in for a quick bite and then retreat to lower ground. Arriving early we secured a table close to the window so we could keep an eye on things while we ate. Shortly after we sat down, the place filled up with a friendly crowd of locals who seemed completely oblivious to Etna and her disturbance. Helped along by a delicious bottle of Etna rosso we relaxed and began to enjoy the spectacular performance. We’d found front row seats for our last night in Sicily. The 4Archi has been awarded a “snail of approval’ by the Slow Food Guide to Italy’s Osterie and over the course of the meal we sampled black nebrodi pork, provola cheese, pistachios from Bronte, and the best almonds I’ve ever tasted from Noto, all belonging to Slow Food’s Italian Presidia. After dinner we stepped outside to watch the glowing red lava streaming down Etna’s black slopes. It was a surreal experience and one we will probably never relive. By the next morning Etna had settled down.
We set out for the Nebrodi Mountains on the lookout for their famous black pigs that had fed us so well the night before. Like the Cinta Senese we raise at Petraia, these pigs live in the forest in a semi-wild state.
Heading up the coast to catch our ferry I had a chance to reflect on our trip. For one thing, I was sad to be leaving, I felt we had only scratched the surface of Italy’s largest island and I wished we had more time to spend there. I wanted to reconcile the overwhelming feeling I had that, for better or worse, Sicily seemed to have changed so little in 17 years. Real change is hard for a traveler to judge, but sometimes first impressions are important. So much seemed just as we’d left it years ago. While this was comforting, it was also perplexing.
Palermo, it appeared, had still not managed to recover from the devastation of WW2. I wondered how that was possible in 2013 in Western Europe. Had the bombed-out heart of this city become its lure rather than its shame? Perhaps, like Rome’s ruins, these will continue to stand as witness to a time the rest of Europe has mostly covered up.
We were surprised to see the same telltale signs of corruption we’d seen here before. There were rotting piles of garbage dumped on roadsides and highway pullovers outside of Palermo and Catania, and in those areas we counted many dead stray dogs and cats. These animals (along with others I’m sure) appeared to live off the garbage and often to have met their maker in search of it along busy highways. The island was still littered with unfinished and seemingly abandoned construction and road work projects. These problems must deter investment here, but ironically, they appear to have also prevented the thoughtless development of strip malls and box stores that we’ve seen proliferate in Western Europe over the last two decades.
In the larger towns there were supermarkets, but fresh produce was often limited. Instead we found farmers everywhere selling their harvest of citrus, potatoes, broccoli, fennel, carrots and onions on the roadsides. It seemed people still preferred the grower-direct approach, and I suspect that had much to do with the fact that everything we ate there tasted so unbelievably good. In many of the smaller villages, especially in remote areas, the only place to buy anything was frequently the back of a truck. If you could find a grocer, it was often a small shop with lots of dry goods but next to no fresh fruits or vegetables. These places were like general stores. It was easy for me to find a 5 kilogram bag of flour, something I’ve rarely seen in a Tuscan supermarket, but a head of lettuce, a carrot or a piece of fruit was hard to come by. One might have concluded these areas were poor, but I sensed another possibility. People here grow much of their own food. And those big bags of flour suggested they make their own bread and pasta too.
As a serious bread snob I like to think one can tell a lot about the state of a region’s food by the quality of its bread. In Sicily 17 years ago, sesame seed covered, yellow crumbed semolina loaves were the only bread we remembered. This time those loaves weren’t so easy to find and when we did they didn’t seem quite as yellow, or as fragrant. Frequently, in bakeries, loaves were covered in sesame seeds and shaped like traditional Sicilian semolina bread but inside the crumb was white with the texture of cotton candy. This bread was a fraud; bland, tasteless and stale the moment you cut into it. On the other hand, that 5 kilo bag of semolina flour I picked up has produced some of the finest bread and fresh pasta I’ve ever made. Considering how difficult it is to find decent flour here in Tuscany, this is an encouraging sign and suggests to me that the people of Sicily are eating very well.
Between the landscape, history, food, architecture and the friendliness of its people, Sicily has a wealth of splendor to offer the traveler. The weather in December was mostly sunny and ranged from 18 to 25 degrees each day. It rained only once in ten days.
Would we go back? In a heartbeat. We’re not done with Sicily yet and I hope it doesn’t take us another 17 years to get there. There is still a lot we’d like to do. This trip we steered clear of fine dining restaurants, preferring to experience the authentic fare found in simple osterie. But there are some world-class chefs at work in Sicily today and I mean to go back to see what they are up to. And, for the second time, we missed Ragusa. We drank some interesting red wines from the area around Etna and we’d like to meet some of the people making them. And the Sicilian manna eluded us completely. “Come back next summer,” they said.
The bread I’m baking with the semolina flour I brought back will be in my next and final Sicily post. Meanwhile I’ll leave you with that delicious chick pea dish we enjoyed so much in Siracusa…
Chick Peas and Semolina Bread From Siracusa
- 1 cup dried chick peas, soaked overnight in water
- 1 small onion
- 1 small carrot, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
- 1 peeled garlic clove
- a bay leaf
- a sage leaf or two
- Several slices of golden semolina bread
- Extra virgin olive oil
Drain the chick peas and place them in a saucepan with the onion, garlic and herbs. Add enough water to cover by several inches and simmer until the chick-peas are tender. Check from time to time and add more water if necessary. If you own a pressure cooker, this is an excellent job for it.
When tender, remove half the chick-peas and reserve. Discard the herbs and use a hand blender to process the remaining chick-peas with the onion and carrot in their cooking liquid to a rough puree. Add back the reserved whole chick-peas and season to taste with salt.
To finish, add a drizzle of olive oil to a hot skillet and fry a couple of slices of semolina bread in it then cut them into cubes.
Serve the chickpeas immediately with the toasted bread, a drizzle of the olive oil.