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Saturday, May 31, 2008

A mouthful of memory

Yesterday, I interviewed a farmer in his Ferrari for a story about the Sicilian melon market. Taking notes in a car with a suspension-adjusting switch marked “RACE” is not unlike trying to do the same in a 4x4 bumping through an olive grove.

Meeting a couple of melon farmers yesterday, Mr. F430 included, I kept getting distracted by their tomatoes. Odd bedfellows, melons and tomatoes love the soil and hot climate around the southern Sicilian town of Pachino and have become the town’s financial backbone and its claim to fame.

Standing in a giant tomato greenhouse filled with the wonderful green smell of the vines themselves, Bruno Cicciarella (who drives a more modest ride pulls a fat thumb-shaped tomato he calls a ‘pixel’ from a cluster and hands it to me.

The taste isn’t perfect, but compared to what we’ve grown accustomed to from the grocery store, it’s mind blowing. It’s plenty enough to put me out on the back deck with my family, eating salted chunks of dad’s tomatoes straight from the garden.

I also try some tomatoes sold by Sebastiano Fortunato (a.k.a. Mr. Ferrari) and understand why he’s got such a fancy pair of wheels. His cherry tomatoes are so sweet, it’s easy to understand again why tomatoes are fruit.

Later, Francesco and I have a great glass or two of Sicily’s signature Nero d’Avola wine in my kitchen. It’s good reminder of why he and I spent a lot of time with our noses in glasses and turning our tongues purple a year ago trying to learn the flavor characteristics that make it such a good pour.

“Why do we have to be so technical when we try to describe a wine?” he wonders to no one in particular. It’s a fun question and a debate for which he knows and appreciates the arguments of both sides. “Why can’t we say this wine tastes like…The Police?” he asks, clearly thinking back to a good moment where he had the British trio on in the background.

In the end, what better compliment could you give than associating good food with a good memory?

I end the night with one of Cicciarella’s tiny melons. It’s a mouthful of summertime, past and present.

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

The Little World of Don Guido

This afternoon, I hitched a ride with Guido to his cabin where I figured I could work unconnected while he puttered around in the garden. He picked me up in his 1970s Renault R4 and headed back through Ispica for an impromptu tour of the old part of town.

“That’s my church,” he said, rounding a corner, cresting a hill and pointing out the window all at once. “Now, neutral!” he said, batting the old car’s dash-mounted stick shift back and forth with his hand and letting the car coast. Next, he passed through streets so narrow, I had previously thought it was a pedestrian area. “Modern cars don’t fit.”

Five minutes out of town at the cabin he uses both as an artist’s studio (he’s a well-known artist, with an affinity for mail art) and a base for his gardening, his mulberry tree has a carpet of fallen berries below it. A week after I was here last, the berries on the tree are now a little bigger, a little riper and a lot tastier. With high wire comic panache, Guido again brings out the umbrella and fills up a plate of berries for me to nibble on while I write.

Later, I help him sweep and shovel up the berries on the ground and return them to the earth as compost for his olive trees. Near a stack of firewood, he identifies four kinds of wood just by looking at the cross sections: carob, fig, almond and olive. I ask which type is the best for cooking.

“For baking bread?” he replies, “Olive. You take a few branches and throw it into the oven and it smokes, giving flavor to the bread.

“In the forties and fifties, when the olive trees were pruned, the farmers would put the bunched-up trimmings in bushels around the tree to dry. Later, they would load the bushels on a back of a cart and sell them in the countryside. At home, you would put a few bushels in the oven and let them burn,” he says. “When the tile in front of the oven was warm, you’d scoop out most of the cinders and put your bread dough in.

“Now, it’s different. Things are…” he trails off, whipping his hands around in the air looking for the word, “…globalized.”

There’s no malice in the word, he just uses it like the name of a country he’s never been to; he hasn’t reinventing the bread making process, he’s just sharing what he knows.

“Here, it’s peaceful,” he says. “Here, I’m good.”

“Here, have a glass of wine.”

This is Joe Ray reporting (hic!) from the Motherland.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hello, old friends

One of the nicest pleasures about being back in the Motherland is seeing everyone and everything again, picking up almost exactly a year to the day after I was here last. There are things to catch up on, there’s a slight seasonal shift, but an overall feeling of being home.

Francesco’s aunt Pinuccia, knowing I’m a sucker for good cheese, left a big hunk of a crumbly truffle-infused artisanal formaggio she’d picked up on a trip to northern Italy in my fridge. Usually, truffle-infused anything sets off little warning signals in my mind that read: “overpriced bunk”. Not here.

We had a bite of the cheese and the truffles did what truffles are supposed to do: reach through your tongue and mouth like smoke, gradually settling into your senses like no other food can.

The next day, I ran into the farmer who sells still-warm ricotta out of the back of his truck. Two euros ($3) for raw milk bliss.

More recently, after starting the day with gelato from the nearby supermarket bar, Francesco and I stopped by Caffé Sicilia in Noto to see what Corrado Assenza – arguably Italy’s best pastry chef – has been up to.

I had a cup of ricotta and pistachio gelato, the latter being the star, with a cake-like texture and beguiling simplicity. Francesco shared exactly one bite of his ‘orange salad’ gelato, based on a typical Sicilian dish that uses oranges, olive oil ultra-fresh onions. Barely sweet, the gelato went from an orange flavor to a vegetable one. It’s one of those experiences that short-circuits your brain and leaves you with a smile on your face.

Finally, I made a quick lunch the other day – a pasta with a sauce that’s so simple it feels like cheating: chopped up tomatoes, large amounts of good olive oil, salt and a bit of crushed garlic that all bubbles away while the pasta water is coming to a boil. In a moment of inspiration, I shaved bits of Pinuccia’s cheese over the pasta, the truffle’s potency and the sweetness of the cheese magnified by the warmth of the pasta.

Simple, complex, happy.

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

An offer I couldn’t refuse

“Quoting “The Godfather” always works,” said Francesco within a few hours of my arrival in Sicily.

I’d been back in The Motherland for less than 24 hours when Francesco’s uncle Guido unintentionally convinced me to re-open my blog for the two weeks I’m here.

It was an offer I could not refuse.

I arrived at Guido and his wife Pinuccia’s Sunday barbecue laden with the groceries for my apartment. Pinuccia (pronounced “pin-noo-cha”), noted my nasty looking store-bought garlic, and handed me a small paper bag with a handful of heady-smelling aglio. “Here. Try these,” she said discreetly. “They’re from my garden. They’re more flavorful.”

Meanwhile, home-cured olives made the rounds. Served from a one-liter honey jar, they are slightly crunchy with a pleasant, lasting bitterness.

While thin steaks and sausages cooked on the grill in the fireplace, Francesco’s mother sautéed chicken cutlets covered in a mixture of egg, parsley, nutmeg, oregano and “a little red wine.” She handed me a bite on a fork – simple and perfect.

Walking over, a smirking Francesco said, “Just like KFC, right?”


At the table, it’s a loud, pretense-free Sicilian family free for all. There seem to be more conversations than people, with everyone munching, talking and reaching across the table for a little more. Presiding over all, Guido grabs the tail end of the salad and eats it straight from the bowl.

Sated, he takes me for a tour of his garden that has furnished everything from Pinuccia’s garlic to the mulberries and loquats that ended our meal. He shows off his lettuce and peppers before pulling some lemons from a tree and sticking them in a bag for me. It’s five times more than I could possibly eat in two weeks.

Then he walks up to the mulberry tree. It is bursting with the ripe fruit, known here as gelsi, and there are already hundreds that have given up the ghost and dropped to the ground.

“Here, I’ll give you some,” he says, scooting toward the house to grab a recipient. I imagine a 20-minute picking process and more fruit than I know what to do with, but my protests fall on deaf ears. He emerges moments later, grinning, umbrella in hand.

I laugh out loud. It’s perfect. Guido walks under the tree, inverts the open umbrella, pokes the handle up into the branches and gives it a vigorous shake.

Thup, thup, thup. Thupthupthupthupthup.

The berries rain into the umbrella’s bowl and he has a couple pounds’ worth within twenty seconds. He tips the whole thing sideways and empties the contents into a bag which he hands to me.

How could I refuse?

I’m home.


A non-food p.s.

This afternoon, I went to an effete yet gregarious little barber here in Ispica for a haircut and a shave with a straight-edged razor. When he’s finished trimming, he sprays herbal-smelling cologne over my face and neck, leaving me feeling spiffy and masculine. He then pulls out the local version of a styptic pencil.

“It’s like salt,” he cautions. “It will sting a little,”

He doesn’t just dab it on my tiny cuts, he wipes the broad side of the pencil across my entire chin.

I scream like a baby.

“That’s like the pain a virgin feels,” says the little man.

Clearly I’ve misunderstood.

I ask again and this time he explains by thrusting his hips into the air and using some other rather unmistakable gestures.

Welcome home, indeed.

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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