Monday, December 14, 2015

More Sicily

From Antiquity: The Landscape of Ancient Greece in Modern Taormina

     To Modernity: Modern Times Sicilia 

Tile and Mosaics,
Monreale Cathedral
Above are some headlines from La Sicilia, the newspaper I can't read. My parents were bilinqual but thought we should only speak English. Some guy left it on an empty seat at the Catania airport. I picked it up and browsed through it out of curiosity. At least I recognized the format, which is like the format of most newspapers everywhere: front page banner headlines, a large political section, sports, culture and shows, the economy, and ads.  Lots of ads. "That's a good thing," I said to my sister Andy.  

"Geez you like the ads?" my sister Andy asked, incredulous. 
"Yeah, I know, not like me, but it shows all kinds of businesses in Sicily. This is modern Sicily."  The above collage includes an ad for IKEA, promoting a new collection (nuovo collezione).  Yep, there's an IKEA in Sicily, in Catania. The ad is colorful and upbeat. Ads for cars, retail stores, industrial companies and tech companies also fill the pages. Just like in our newspapers, and online. Sicily is no backwater.

I definitely caught our Gate 1 tour guide Flavia's enthusiasm, and that of our local city guides for all things Sicilian. That includes exploring and celebrating its ancient past, its history and culture, and its present and future. From BC to AD.  From antiquity to modernity.

Some Sicily souvenirs,
ceramics and glass.
It all started in Palermo, with panoramic views of the hills and the sea, historic cathedrals, fountains and plazas surrounded by multicultural architecture and art, and some of the best cuisine, wine and restaurants in Italy. Like the sweep of its landscape, Palermo is breathtaking in the sweep of  its history, which encompasses successive conquests by the Romans, Normans, Byzantines, Arabs and others over the centuries.  A side-trip to Monreale, just outside of Palermo, was our spectacular opening to Sicily. Together, these cities are the heartbeat of its historic and modern culture.
Palermo's famed Cathdral and old city city center, showing eons of architecture and art, incredible overlapping cultures.The domes on top of the Norman Church of San Giovanni (lower right), for example, were added by Islamic craftsmen. These addiions and changes are so typical of Sicily.

Monreale, the hilltop town outside of Palermo, with its lavish Cathedral, a masterpiece of Norman architecture(built 1174) embellished with Arab, Byzantine,Romanic and Sicilian baroque art, all coming together to create an incredible melting pot of cultures. The interior tiles and mosaics embedded in classic columns, walls, floors, everywhere, are amazing.  

Maybe the only thing that is not as central to Palermo as to other parts of the island is the Greek influence.  For the rest of our tour, however, with Flavia leading, we were steeped in Greek Sicily, the ancient heritage that remains a vibrant core of Sicilian identity to this day.  

I think of beautiful Taormina, nestled in the hillsides winding up to towering Mt. Etna and down to the blue Mediterranean. From the Teatro Greco to the lovely alleyways, winding streets, and artfully decorated stairways, to the shops and cafes, spectacular views (and photo opportunities) greet you at every turn.

How lovely to walk, talk and linger over wine or beer in
Taormina, as we did with our new friends. We were lucky to have a friendly, well-travelled group, as enthusiastic and enthralled as we were. Several fellow travellers were exploring their Sicilian roots, like Andy and me. Some of us wished we had had a more in-depth guided tour of Taormina's hidden byways and treasures.  Taormina is more than just shopping, Andy and I thought.

Same with Siracusa, a once-flourishing Greek city state that still glistens and beckons. Amazingly, some of the most illustrious names of the ancient world--Livius, Plutarch, Pindar, Cicero, Virgil and Thucydides--described it with enthusiam in their writings. I probably read about Siricusa in my 4th year Latin class at Harley School in Rochester, New York, when I read Cicero and Virgil with Mrs. Bulloch, although the implications didn't register.

Today, Siracusa is an elegant archeological gem, glistening with white limestone buildings from different ages.  It's described in Sicily: Art History and Nature (2010), each chapter written by different scholars, as "a harmonious and interesting mixture of remains from the ancient past, medieval essentiality, and baroque exuberance." For a while it looked like petrochemical plants and power stations would take over the beauty of its coastline. Today, thank goodness, efforts are being made to preserve the historic sites and the coastline.

Sicily is trying. It's had to deal with its economy, with social setbacks, with those damned stereotypes. But today's Sicily is full of hope and energy.  It is one of the most ancient and most beautiful places on earth. The tourism potential of Sicily is not yet fully realized, even though this land has been visited for centuries by famous travellers, all of whom have extolled it's beauty.  I'm discovering them online-- artists, writers, playwrights, scholars, all enthralled by Sicily.

"The Sicilians have inherited from the Greeks a sacred sense of hospitality," my guidebook put it. It was evident everywhere we went. The people, the built environment, the breathtaking natural beauty combine to make Sicily one of the best places to experience.

SICILY TODAY: Here are some recipes, links, and a neat article about what makes Sicily so special today.  First food!
Pasta alla Norma (recipe in Sicily Times, July 2015)
Andy and I had this in Palermo, with linquini, or maybe it was a version of it, because it had some fish in the sauce. It was delicious.
500 gr. Peeled tomatoes or 4 cups of tomato sauce
400 gr pasta of your choice (spaghetti, pennette, rigatoni, etc.)
2 medium-sized aubergines (eggplants)
2 cloves garlic
Basil leaves
Salted ricotta cheese (not sure what to do with this?)
Olive oil and salt
Slice the aubergines, lightly salt them then place in a strainer for at least 30 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the sauce, sauteeing the peeled garlic cloves in 4 Tbs olive oil. When the garlic becomes golden, add the peeled tomatoes or sauce. Add half a teaspoon of salt and cook at a low temperature. Fry the aubergine slices in olive oil. Cook the pasta al dente, strain and mix with the tomato sauce. Add grated cheese, basil leaves, the aubergines and serve.
The question now may be what wine to match with such a delicious plate, with aroma, flavor and sweet tendencies? Sicily offers a great variety of wines but it is best to choose within the territory of the dish. Why not an Etna Doc, either Red or Rosè, a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grape varieties? What’s important is the serving temperature of the wine, let’s say 16 – 18° C.Buon Appetito!
Recipes: from  THIS IS A GREAT BLOG FOR RECIPIES and all things Sicilian. I copied and pasted these recipes, so the format came through in various styles and fonts, but the recipes sound delicious! 

– 1 large or 2 small eggplants, sliced, grilled and cut in small pieces (…I used my famous ol’ trusty stove top grill pan…love the thing!) Just brush the pan with a bit of olive oil before you lay down the slices on the pan and turn them over for a few minutes on each side. 
 2 large garlic pieces, grated (…I use a hand held small cheese grater)
– 5 to 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
– 3 large basil leaves, chopped
– 5 to 6 mint leaves, chopped
– 1 Tsp dry oregano
– 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
– Olive oil
-Salt, to taste
In a salad bowl, place the eggplant, tomatoes, and herbs. Add the vinegar, olive oil and salt. Toss well and let sit for at least 1\2 hour for the flavors to infuse. That’s it! Serve alongside fresh baked Italian bread.

CRUSTED BREAD (the kind my grandma Curro made!)
-500 grams of flour (In Italy, I use an organic type of “semola rimacinata” flour)
– 1 tablespoon of olive oil
– 1 pkg of instant yeast
– 1\2 cup of yogurt (I use low fat)
– Salt, to taste
breadIn a bowl, place your flour, and salt, Mix. Add olive oil, yeast, yogurt and 1 cup of warm water. Mix. Add more water until everything is well incorporated and STICKY. Yes, you want it sticky. Let rise for 1 hour. Then, using a wooden spoon, dump the entire mix onto the baking tray (forming a log with your hands or the spoon). Sprinkle some flour on top and bake at 200°C \ 400°F until nice and golden. 

For the dough:
-500 grams (1 pound) of organic whole wheat flour….read your flour label carefully for mixed flours or fillers!
-1 pkg of instant yeast
-WARM water
-2 tbsps of olive oil
-Salt, to taste
Mix by hand until you get an almost liquidy consistency. Cover and let rise for about 2 hours.
For the pizza:
-1 medium jar of tomato sauce (or you can make your own here) If you want plain tomato sauce, just omit all the additional ingredients I listed in that recipe.
– 8 to 10 fresh basil leaves
– 4 pieces of garlic, sliced.
– Fresh mozzarella cheese  (quartered, sliced, or however you like)
– Olive oil
– Salt, to taste
pizza margheritaNow here is how we do it…..
Using a spoon, place huge dollops  of the dough all over a baking tray covered with oven paper. Spread the dough using the back end of the spoon so that it evenly covers the tray (not too thick, though). Mix a bit of olive oil in the tomato sauce and spread it oven the dough. Add the cheese and fresh basil. Drizzle some more olive oil all over the pizza and bake in a preheated oven at 200°C \ 400°F for 15-25 minutes (depending on your oven). 

Some interesting articles I found while browsing the internet looking for Sicily news today: About revitalizing the once-substantial Jewish community in Sicily, and in particular Siricusa. Fascinating., a very nice article, which really resonates after my visit.

            "God would not have chosen Palestine if he had seen my kingdom of Sicily."
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen
Perhaps every country has a dark horse - a region whose praises are sung by few, so that almost all who go there come away pleasantly surprised. To our minds, Italy's dark horse is unquestionably Sicily, cursed by an unfair stereotype that vanishes almost the minute your plane sets down or your boat touches the shore. It's the kind of place where, when you ask for driving directions in a crowded, frenetic city, the person you stopped on the street will walk alongside your car until he thinks you're past any intersections that might confuse you. Speak to anyone about anything and you will be met with a smile that manages to be shy and dazzling at the same time.
Then take a look around you, at some of the most spectacular nature Italy has to offer: miles and miles of vineyards rivaling any in Tuscany or Piedmont, endless olive groves sprouting from emerald-green carpets of grass, veritable forests of shiny citrus and fruit trees, rugged silver mountains, all against a backdrop of the deep blue sea. Sicily has a massive amount of world-class art, ranging from Greek to Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, French, and Spanish, and some of it enjoys the most astonishing setting, abandoned on a hillside or nestled into a deserted cove where you can come upon it so naturally that you almost think you've stepped into a time machine.
es, there is something very ancient about Sicily, more than in Rome or Ravenna or Pompeii, and the thing we like the most about it is its unpretentiousness, the matter of fact, day-to-day atmosphere that turns all this history into a landscape as natural as a prickly pear blooming alongside a country road. If you had discarded the idea of visiting this fascinating region up to now, we hope our stories and unique lodgings will provide some very good reasons to change your mind. The only warning we have for you is please don't plan to whip over there for a two-day stop. You'll need at least a week to make the trip worthwhile, and even then you'll wish you'd been able to stay longer!

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