A week in Sicily. At any time a tonic; at the end of a London winter, a liferope. This wasn’t just any week, as will be revealed further down: one where place, company, climate, but especially food, were embarrassingly perfect; the sort of perfect you have to tone down to send back home.
What struck, especially perhaps outside tourist season and with incredible local hosts acting as guides, was how real Sicily is, or at least the part we were in. Where Tuscany feels as kempt as the Cotswolds, Sicily shows its edge. There is graffiti, and youth kicking around, and proud passeggisti in the gelato hour of early evening. It is not all beautiful: there is also horse meat, and worse.
Sicily is alive. Its buildings testify to a richer past; these are buildings that have lived. But there is a continuing civic pride that wasn’t edged out sometime in the late twentieth century. There is no reticence in the juxtaposition of new and old, as if it is not even an issue to be concerned about, and yet there is respect. Newer buildings, modern in spirit while faced in local stone, feel part of a continuum with the old. Perhaps it is the levelling effect of having been flattened in the violent earthquake of 1693, or of cowering in the shadow of a still fretful Mount Etna. Or more gently, the result of an evident respect for elders, or a culture where young hang out with old without longing to be elsewhere. In the smallest town, from early evening on, there is a buzz, not of braying English voices as in Chianti, but of the hum of contented life (admittedly mostly male while the women toil indoors stirring vats of pasta).
Out of the towns, Sicilian villas have a proudness like their people: set square atop hills not beneath, and atop their harvest like strongholds, daring anyone to steal. Visited only a month or two a year to survey the harvest (held on the ground floor below), furniture travelled with them, like the produce.
The villa I stayed in was not any villa, but originally accessed across a causeway, nine vaulted cellars supporting nine vaulted rooms above, and three more a loggia. There was a pool, found through an arch under the causeway wall, an unexpected mirror to the sky. The tennis court was set amongst a lemon grove and the scent of its fruit, where my stray shots were mixed into the lemon harvest.
And so it was perhaps apt that we were there to taste all that Sicily’s harvests offered. Carmine red prawns eaten live at the seafront fishmongers, artichokes drawn and quartered, gentle zucchini flowers neutered, battered and devoured, lemons throttled of their life.
Our chef and guide was, incredibly, Skye Gyngell, latterly of Petersham Nurseries (where she told of cooking under three coats for warmth), and lately of Spring by Waterloo Bridge, for a whole week, with, impossibly, her beautiful head and pastry chefs Rose and Sarah. Just for us. And with the unenviable task of teaching us (well, me at least; others knew what they were doing) to cook. More impossibility: they were lighthearted, funny, sweet, with an infectious camaraderie. Chefs are supposed to be truculent, ill-disposed towards fellow man. It was disconcerting.
Outside my comfort-zone, there was an itinerary to be followed, a group to join. Given beautiful enough surroundings, leopards can change. Though beauty can cause us to smother the things we love. Even as I admired Catania’s authenticity I dreamt of setting up a hotel in a vacant building that filled a whole city block.
I am one to make architectural analogies. Here it was with authenticity; the importance of locality. Of letting ingredients, flavours, people, spaces, materials be themselves. Of interiors that hold out cold, and hold in conversation, allow for generosity and friendship, permit relaxation and provide visual calm.
I fear friends await Skye- and Sicilian- inspired meals, which I’m working on. But I think the trip’s effect will be more evident in other, non-edible ways. I’m off to lunch.