It was the middle of November, and my Masters class from the University of Gastronomic Sciences were visiting the east coast of Sicily. Based mainly in Catania, we enjoyed wine from Mt. Etna, seafood from Syracusa, and travelled inward to Buscemi. I had imagined a sort of warm weather vacation in going to Sicily, from our comparatively more chilly northern homes in Piedmont. The stories from my time there reflected a dichotomous time in Italy and its image on the world stage. One story is a reflection of the Italy that we all know and love, a gastronomic epicenter, replete with hospitality and cinematic landscapes. The other is of the tenuous economic situation that had already emerged and was continuing in 2012, creating a situation which Italians dubbed, “No country for young men”.
What you might expect out on a night in Sicily
It felt as though we were transported out of modern Sicily and into another time and place, as we drove from Sant'Alfio to Buscemi. The drive took us through fog coated hills and into the clouds themselves, the hills were a velveteen emerald green interspersed with stone fences and matching cottages, rocky outcroppings and the types of trees you find in impressionist paintings. The fog turned to rain, taking us further back in time as we arrived in the village of Buscemi. It was only six PM but the storm had closed the place up and darkened the sky, making the cars stand out as strange and futuristic absurdities against the Rococo architecture and the glistening street lamps. Some of the roads were even closed, the shops boarded up, and the people shuttered safely into their houses. So, we wandered the streets in eerie silence, the howling wind and the teasing and taunting of one another with the ghost stories as we walked down the cobblestoned streets to our dinner.
Dinner that night was at a restored monastery, where plates came out in steaming, gleaming rushes. We popped mouthfuls of fried vegetables, cheeses and chickpeas, before noticing the arrival of heaping platters of different types of focaccia, then arancine. The varying shades of only deep-fried brown did not dissuade us. From the lightest beige to warmest caramel, we know those colours mean flavour. Fried chickpeas, for example, had transformed from one note in texture; soft and dense, to crispy-skinned and creamy-filled. Dessert was a whole home-made cassata; a sponge cake soaked in Marsala wine and layered in a sweet ricotta filling, coated with a simple icing sugar glaze. The exterior of the cassata is dressed with red and green glacé cherries, sprinkled with green pistachio shavings. It is the loveliest Christmas house and the sweetest treat, sponge cake sopping with sweet wine and dense, ricotta filling. There are shortbread cookies, little 's' shaped biscuits the flavour of burnt gingerbread, what I would call an imitation Russian tea-cake, sesame snaps, and two types of Passito; a dessert wine, to fill any space we had left in our stomachs.
On the way back to the bus, we happened upon the only people out in the town, a few boys playing soccer in front of one of the churches. Some of my classmates decided to join in, and a heated match began in the drizzily, wet night. And while it felt so unusual; in the course of our trip, and therefore wonderful, it was also quite common, and therefore comforting. Sometimes in the course of travel, it is easy to consume a place as a commodity. In that moment, we all found ourselves taking each other for what we are.
Atop hill in Sicily, just above the pale, parched arches of silvery green olive trees expanding and embracing our vista, we are eating another five course lunch. The olive oil company N… has been hosting our morning tour of their groves, providing a tour that could have come out of a fairy tale; endless fields scattered with trees, 18th century stone houses, gnome like old men raking and picking the olives with traditional wooden tools, sunshine dappling, leaves breezing, stony paths, stray kittens! Even the regularly jarring factory trip has been made fuzzier by the earth tones of the olives; muted green and hazelnut brown, rolling and bouncing through the sorting machines and extractors, and then a jettison of bright, liquid green olive oil, the color of grass in spring, the color of flower stems, rather than the singular modern sting of gleaming metal machines. After we’ve toured their premises, now slightly dreamily, we’re offered lunch.
They’ve set us up in what could be described as a Saudi prince’s vacation home, a mile long, futuristic looking building that stretches with a vastness I’ve yet to encounter in Europe. Inside and up several flights of stairs we can marvel at the whole of the olive property from ... On the top floor, a long table seats the whole of our group, and we reminisce about our lives before and the days ahead. It is exactly two o’clock and several flat screen televisions are playing the news. It is November, 2012. The story changes to Italian protestors in Milan, or maybe it is Rome. The people are demanding an end to unemployment, underemployment, the inability to buy homes. The cameras pan to their bloodied and beaten faces. I realize, now, who look, my age. Someone turns off the television now, saying something about it not being polite.
Being in Sicily was a sort of dreamlike experience. It was easy to be mesmerized by the beauty, the history, the charm, and the landscapes. The ephemeral Italian fantasy, formed in part by tourism boards and food marketing campaigns, and unknowingly, I had held in my head. Awakening to the Italian Reality only came through interaction and learning from real people. But rather than that being a bad thing, I much preferred this version of Italy, multidimensional and solid. Because when there were real people and their stories, I felt that I had something to relate to. Better still, I had something to think about when I left.