Grissini, Granita and Grandmothers: A Food Foray through Gela, Sicily

This article appears in SUITCASE
Volume 20: Homelands

trip begins with wheat, a grissini feast gnawed as we rumble
past fields the colour of bread crusts. I am with my
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
Rachel is spending more and more time in
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.

Discover More
Earthly Pleasures: A Journey Through the Stomach of Sicily with Chef Emilia Strazzanti