Grissini, Granita and Grandmothers: A Food Foray through Gela, Sicily
24 April, 2018
The trip begins with wheat, a grissini feast gnawed as we rumble past fields the colour of bread crusts. I am with my photographer-friend Elena Heatherwick on board a bus from Catania airport, and the grissini - once in shapes ranging from fat batons to deftly folded strips, but now battered by air travel - fill the late-morning hunger gap between an early start and a much-anticipated lunch. They have come, like us, to Sicily from Turin.
I've been told to text Vincenzo when we see Gela's petroleum plant. Sheltered millennial that I am, I wonder how I will recognise a petroleum plant, but as we approach its two vast refining towers painted red and white - one stripey, the other like a chessboard - I see that there's no way I could have missed it. I am reminded of the Ikea buildings near my parent's house in Croydon, and bite into a broken grissini, hoping that Gela turns out to be better than Croydon.
We are headed to visit the food writer Rachel Roddy, a columnist at Guardian Cook, in her Sicilian outpost. Although she is based in Rome, Rachel is spending more and more time in Sicily in a house inherited from her partner Vincenzo's family in the southern city of Gela - a fact that the title of her latest book, Two Kitchens, alludes to. I've heard a lot about this unlikely setting for a second home, a place where time seems to stand still. I know about the hawkers who stand on street corners selling only one or two things - yellow plums, blushing pears, waxy potatoes or cucuzza, a peculiar local squash that looks like a pale-green lightsaber. I know about the laundry hung from on high, lining the streets like banners for a carnival. And I know about the women in housecoats who spend the mornings cleaning their doorsteps, then sit on them before the midday sun chases them into their dark, cool terrazzo-floored homes.
"Gela is a city of chairs and curtains," Rachel has explained, "my morning walk is about rubbish, washing and bread." She loves it here, and captures it with a kind of glorious honesty. Sicilians, however, find this reverence for Gela bemusing. Despite being an ancient place full of brilliant people - it was the first place colonised by the Greeks in 645BC, and the Gelese went on to build much of "noted" Sicily, including the city of Agrigento - when we say to people that we are Gela-bound, they tend to look confused. "It is somewhere that you never go," one person says.
Today we have travelled from Piemonte to Sicily. Between Italy's north and south things change in obvious and dramatic ways. Grissini become hunks of yellow-ish bread, hazelnuts give way to almonds, the coffee becomes even more bitter and the heat intensifies. However, the story that we have heard in Turin about the recent emigration of Fiat, and its social impact, is a familiar one here in Gela, where the Eni petroleum plant, built in 1961, was deactivated six years ago. This story of Italy industrialised, then that process undone, is one with personal resonance for Vincenzo, who is waiting to meet us at the bus station with a broad smile and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, sagging with ash that refuses to topple.
"Whenever I smell petrol I think, 'I'm home'," he says, swinging the steering wheel around a corner. The Eni plant gave his parents jobs in the Sixties, his mother in accountancy and his father in recruitment. It was eventually their ticket out of this otherwise agrarian town - they moved to Rome when Vincenzo was a teenager. Rome, where he met Rachel soon after she arrived 12 years ago, has become his adult home. However, as we pull up outside his grandparents' old house on Via Mazzini, the one in which he was born, for which he and Rachel have now assumed responsibility, I see that he is a thoroughbred Gelese. He points to a rust-red building at the top of the road: "That's my primary school," then to the building next door, "and that's the prison." He says that the house opposite is "where I used to buy milk, the man kept his goats inside," then he pats a bruised, teal-coloured Fiat Panda as though it is a family member, saying: "This is my cousin's car." I quickly realise that "Rachel's Sicily" has roots that pre-date her arrival in Italy by several generations.
Rachel meets us at the door with Luca, her five-year-old son. She's set a table laden with potato and caper salad, a pile of halved datterini tomatoes, a plastic basket of fresh ricotta, and more bread. Rachel explains that Sara and Orazio d'Aleo, Vincenzo's maternal grandparents, were farmers who grew wheat and tomatoes. "There's a nice symmetry to that," says Roddy. "Wheat was the first thing to arrive here with the Greeks, and tomatoes, which came after the Spanish Armada, were one of the last - but they go so well together."
Bread underscores life here. Rachel describes the dawn delivery as "like a call to prayer", and explains that it is as important as pasta across southern Sicily, made with grano duro (the hard wheat responsible for its yellow-ish hue) and covered with sesame seeds, a legacy from the Arabs. It bakes into a tough crusted loaf with a delicate inner life and, I admit, tastes far more inspiring than it looks. Orazio would have eaten a kilogram of this a day, says Vincenzo, made with the wheat that he'd grown and milled, then baked by Sara in a communal oven. His diet was made up of meals much like the one we are eating now - but he never drank water, only red wine.
That afternoon we make caponata, Sicily's signature stew of sweet and sour aubergine, while Luca watches The Secret Life of Pets next door. The aubergines are the fat and round kind, little purple Buddhas with stems like badly knitted hats. I watch the way that Rachel patiently fries them in batches, and boils the sinewy celery separately before combining it with the rest, then adds only half a small bottle of pureed tomato and a few black olives. She cooks with restraint and gets bold and balanced results. Is this what makes a good Italian home cook? Later, when we are eating the caponata alongside a curl of grilled sausage on the roof and Elena asks Vincenzo if Rachel cooks like his grandmother, he replies: "More and more."
Before dinner we do as the Gelese do and walk la passeggiata. It is 6PM, and as the heat eases up freshly showered men with tucked-in polo shirts emerge from their homes to play cards, smoke and gesticulate with one another. Every street and square is a sea of stubble and testosterone - I can't help but hope that all the women are together somewhere else, guffawing and being a bit outrageous. We stop for a lemon granita - part sorbet, part tasteful slush puppy - and notice all the posters for this weekend's celebrations for Santa Maria delle Grazie, the most venerated saint in Gela. On Saturday 1 July there will be a nine-hour procession, reworks, a sheep auction and a model of the Madonna, suspended in a gold Fiat Punto so that newborn babies can be held up to her and blessed.
Unlike most Italian towns, Gela doesn't have a central market. People trade from their doorways or on the street corner - Rosa sells from her garage, but some sell off the back of three-wheeled vans and others from stacks of wooden pallets. The industrial city's economy was based on exchange. The d'Aleos would trade their flour or tomatoes with other farmers. We head off to do a round of some of the local suppliers, watching Gisella and Rodolfo Placenti at the bakery patting chubby slabs of dough into the oven. We visit the surly butcher whose sausage filling (fennel seed and peperoncino) Rachel likes best, then head over to the even surlier egg man. I notice that Rachel has a habit of saying "in fact" during conversations with shopkeepers, from the Italian "infatti" - her own pidgin language. It tickles me every time.
We walk down towards the beach, passing its shell-shaped dance hall - one of the venues where the d'Aleos courted - now just a vaguely conch-shaped structure stripped of its walls and roof. On the sand teenagers flirt, playing with wooden bats and tennis balls, women strut into bars wearing colourful T-shirts with words such as 'Fashion' and 'Chic' written in diamante script across the bust, and families contemplate packing up their parasols and heading back into town. Music plays loudly from a Brazilian bar on the beach road, there's a siren, the smell of caponata wafting out from many hobs. It's all here. As Rachel says: "Police, balcony, high heels, the sloshing out of water, motorbike, plums for sale...life here is played out publicly and expressed theatrically all the time."
This sensitivity to the performance of life - the curtains and the open air, the seen and the not seen - hints at Roddy's previous life as an actor, but actually it's her ability to sit, watch and listen that, I sense, has helped her get on so well in Italy. Every Italian has a story attached to traditional food, and cooking has been a way of observing and understanding her adopted home.
Food is the family stage, over which dynamics are formed, relationships are cemented and love is confirmed. Vincenzo describes the first time that he saw ready-made tomato sauce for sale in a supermarket in Rome: "I thought, 'They don't have a grandma?'" Indeed, having Luca has confirmed some of the romantic notions that Rachel had about having an Italian childhood. "I had all sorts of ideas about growing up in Italy - pizza bianca, pasta with tomato sauce," she says. "And I'm watching Luca do it all." Luca, it is true, is very Italian. He holds his index finger and thumb together and waves it at you to hammer home a point, he knows pasta by its shape name, won't have just any cheese (he wants parmigiano) and is fascinated by my upcoming nuptials, wanting all the details of what we'll eat, drink, dance to. He is five and a half. He is going to break hearts.
I am reminded of how young he is when we get up at 5AM on our last day. It is still the middle of the night for him - he wants his mum and reassurance that the sword that he was given at the beach yesterday is safely in the car, before falling back to sleep. The car grumbles back to Catania and we watch the sun rise over bread-crust fields. We have two final missions. First up is a breakfast of granita di mandorle (almond granita) with brioche. Rachel says that she dreams of this in Rome, and I am still pining for it now - granita so sweet and creamy, with fluffy brioche flavoured with what tastes like a drop of orange blossom water.
Secondly we have come for Catania's Saturday fish market, which, true to the theatricality that Rachel pointed to in Gela, is a spectator sport. The market is like an amphitheatre, an audience of men in blue denim lining the railings and watching the market below. I am mesmerised, but also not sure if it's beautiful or disgusting. Tuna and sword fish the size of us are hauled around and hacked at like timber, I see an octopus being whacked against a brick wall, a langoustine that dares to escape its polystyrene box is crunched beneath a rubber sole. I have eaten well on Sicilian seafood, but I think it's time for a pause.
Which is how I wind up ending the trip eating the second of Vincenzo's grandparents' crops - tomatoes. They combine with wheat, aubergines, and salted ricotta on my plate of rigatoni alla norma, a dish from Catania named after the opera by Bellini, a native Catanese. I ask if it's curious that all these ingredients, which are so intrinsic to Sicily, actually originate from outside of the island. Resting her fork on the side of her plate, Rachel cocks her head towards the ceiling, frowns slightly, purses her mouth and says: "What has become the identity of Sicily is, in fact, everything other." Including you, I think, scribbling down the words of this very English woman, who cooks like Vincenzo's nonna, and has made the impenetrable city of Gela a home.