Montalbano, Sicily and Food Inspiration

I am not much of a TV viewer on the whole but I can become obsessed with the odd TV series.  One such obsession turns out to be the Sicilian sleuth “Commissario Montalbano” series, set in Sicily.  My husband and I even bought DVDs of the programme.  Recently, the Italian state television was showing a few re-runs and we concurred that the older episodes were a lot better than the recent ones.  Every Montalbano story features some kind of Sicilian food to drool over and I was inspired to try out a few dishes – beginnig with the Pasta Ncasciata that takes forever-and-a-day to make.  But then, with the lockdown, there is very little excuse as regards availability of time on our hands. (https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/pasta-ncasciata-a-sicilian-medley-of-marvellous-mixture/)

In July of 2014, our mother treated the whole family (three daughters, their husbands and grandchildren) to a memorable holiday in South-East Sicily, renting a va va voom property with a swimming pool very close to the town of Scicli.

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The above photo is a view of Scicli from the rental villa.  It was holiday we still rave about … I fell in love with Sicily and would love to go back.  In the  meantime, I have memories.  Here, I’d like to share a post from my older blog about a day spent in Punta Secca, where a lot of the Montalbano filming took place.

Montalbano Land and “Enzo a Mare”

 

During the Autumn of 2002, I signed up for a course of cooking classes that were held on a Tuesday evening and happened to coincide with the TV showing of the popular Inspector Montalbano series.  I took a look just now and apparently it was already in its Fourth Edition by then –  but that was the first I had ever heard of the TV series and of course missed it all.  Shame on me for never having read Camilleri’s books on which the series was based.  I was grateful it was showing, however, because my husband and two children seemed to enjoy it a lot and didn’t mind my absence (I hasten to add that I always cooked dinner for them before going).  Years later, I got to view and enjoy some of these episodes myself on DVD … and now, somehow, they hold a special symbolic meaning for me, reminding me of a very happy, energetic and lighthearted phase in our nuclear family’s life.

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More recently, just last month in fact, an extended-family holiday in Sicily saw us residing within driving distance of Punta Secca, in the province of Ragusa.  Our daughter who is a great fan of the Montalbano series said that there was no way she was going to give  ‘Marinella’ a miss.  Punta Secca is the real name for the fictional Marinella, the small town with Montalbano’s house and large terrace overlooking the sea.  The town with the big white lighthouse.  Our daughter got quite excited at the prospect of seeing them ‘in real life’.  I am apt to turn up my nose at touristy tours that rely on indulging the voyeur in us but this time I was game. And besides, I just love the sea.

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And I also love me a long hot summer … it makes swimming all the more enjoyable.  This year the Italian summer has been more like monsoon downpour territory and unseasonably cold to boot.  What is the point of a wet, cold Italian summer?  We were fortunately spared the worst down in Sicily but it wasn’t exactly hot … the temperature on average being in the region of 28°C.  Picture my joy then as the day we chose to visit Punta Secca was gloriously sunny and even, almost, ‘hot’ (i.e. over 30°C) ! Clear blue skies! Bliss.

3This is the bay where Montalbano likes to take a swim.4Nothing trendy about it.  Here I am, taking a shot veering to the right of the bay.5And here am I, looking to the left of the bay.  And there in the distance … is ‘the’ terrace that so entrances Inspector Montalbano and his viewers, sporting a white beach umbrella. If you enjoy a spot of visual play, you will notice that the beach umbrella looks a bit like a ‘moustache’, set against the grey building whose windows look like ‘eyes’ !6A closer shot of the terrace – or is it a balcony? never mind.  A man sitting there under the beach umbrella.  Wonder who he is …7Beyond the balcony and in the distance is the … white lighthouse.  ‘The’ lighthouse that appears at the programme’s signature trailer at the beginning of each episode:

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9M0re views of Montalbano’s house.10I can’t explain it but the atmosphere was just so energising and restful at the same time.   There was direct synergy at work between the physical and the emotional.  The intensity of the blue of the sky and two-tones of the sea were mesmerising.  The air too tasted of ‘salt’ … iodine. On days such as these, you feel you want to live forever. 11It was coming up to lunch time and I was already looking forward to having a swim afterwards …1213And then … just beyond the lighthouse ….14What should we espy in the distance but ‘the’ beach-hut restaurant where Montalbano likes to eat!15Enzo a Mare!1617Is that a sight for sore eyes or what?1819We were just all so relaxed and happy and looking forward to our lunch … Normally I snap photos left, right and centre of the food being served but this time, somehow, I was so ‘in the now’ that I didn’t !

Which is a shame because it was all delicious.  I ordered a plate of linguine with a swordfish ragout sauce.  I am not a great lover of swordfish but I thought I would be adventurous and try something new.  I am so glad I did … it was possibly the best dish I ate throughout our whole week’s stay in Sicily.

Everthing about Enzo a Mare is great … even the lamps made out of baskets!

2122And here is Nuniza, the chef.  I asked her for the recipe and if memory serves me well it goes something like this.

LINGUINIE WITH SWORDFISH

Pan fry a little garlic in some olive oil, to which you must also add: a small amount of lemon zest, salt-dried capers, olives and fresh mint leaves.  Add the swordfish, diced.  Cook for the briefest of time (1 minute say) and then splash a little balsamic vinegar in the mix. Turn up the heat and toss the pan.  Add tomato sauce and cook for about 10 minutes.  When serving the linguine sprinkle some Sicilian oregano around the rim of the dish.  Truly more-ish!

20We said arrivederci to this corner of paradise and went to lie down on the sand … Some time later I ventured back to Montalbano’s bay and waded in as far as my thighs.  The water was freezing and I was too much of a wuss to manage to dive in, as I would have liked, and enjoy a swim à la Montalbano.  Ah well … next time.


24On our way back to the car, later in the evening, I espied this lady reading decorously on her terrace within spitting distance of Montalbano’s house.  I was very much intrigued by her … and by her flowers on the terrace and the greenery climbing all over the facade of her house.25Another lady of ‘a certain age’ and beautifully dressed walked up to the front door and rang the bell.  The lady who was reading heard it and got up and peeped over the rails of the terrace.  Her face broke into a lovely smile as she recognised her friend.  “Ciao cara,” she said.  She beckoned for her to come up, to join her.  “Passa di qua,” she told her.  And her friend made her way into the house not by the front door, no, but by a large open French window (or whatever these things are called) on the ground floor.  I felt as if I were trespassing so I didn’t take any photos.  It was an amazing vignette of Sicilian life to ‘catch’ … so pleasant, so unhurried, so civilised.  I wonder who these lovely ladies are …

Punta Secca (Santa Croce Camerina) and Enzo a Mare.  Good company, glorious food, the sea … what more could I have asked for?

A Searing Saga – Part 1

This is a Part 1 of a Part 2 Story Searing Meat story.  The technique mentioned in this part relies on searning the meat first and foremost.

Cousin Arthur on my husband’s side of the family (not a first cousin but that’s all I am able to explain since I can never figure out how many steps are removed, meaning that the ‘removing’ mechanism of kinship completely baffles me) runs an Italian restaurant in the Highlands in North Carolina called Paoletti’s (http://paolettis.com/).  It serves a regional Italian-food menu and boasts one of the ‘deepest wine cellars in the Southeast’. It has been in business for 32 years so that must surely say something about its quality.

We first met Arthur and his wife Meg about eight years ago and were very much looking forward to seeing them again last month.  They were on a road trip that began in northern Italy, visiting various wine estates in Piedmont and Tuscany on their way to Rome. And with them were three members of the kitchen staff.   I met with the boys in Rome and gave them a whirlwind unlikely tour of the city which went something like this.  We ‘did’ the church of Santa Sabina, the Orange Garden (Parco Savelli), the peeking through the key-hole, driving around the Aventine a little (well, we were able to see the Circus Maximus, the back end of the Roman Forum, the fleetest of glimpses of the Arch of Constantine, blink-and-you-miss-it Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, the Church of S. Saba and Rome’s only pyramid).  It was now time to visit the market at Testaccio and take a look at some food. And eat some food too, naturally.

And as we planned our menu for the next evening, Arthur developed a yen for Chianina. We went to the Sartor butcher’s who told us that unfortunately they were out of Chianina that day but that there was a lovely cut of fassona meat from Piedmont that would  make a marvellous substitute.

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I think it’s that big cut of meat on the left of this photo, in the background.

Anyway, we bought a good sized steak and all kinds of vegetables and even some fresh anchovies to round off tomorrow’s meal.  And got on with the rest of the tour.

0.JPGHere are the boys, in order from the left: Julio, Vijay, Arthur and Danny.  We went to see the Via Appia Antica, we walked through the Ghetto, and onto Campo de’ Fiori, and stopped for coffee and ice cream and shopping and, at my insistence, a sampling of the supplì in Via del Pellegrino.  Aperitivo hour was upon us and we chose to enjoy one sitting outside in Piazza Farnese.  Ciao ciao! see you tomorrow.

I managed to find some Chianina here in Frascati the next morning and all was well in our world.  Now began the fun. Ha!  1Danny got the job of shelling the broadbeans/fava beans.  I had pre-prepared (does that word exist? – the concept makes sense to me) a duck ragu that required further chopping. Only there wasn’t any room in the kitchen and so the boys had to make do with the balcony.  Vijay was somewhat bemused that I should hand him some scissors in order to chop it up the duck ragu, instead of a knife, but it was just like water off a duck’s back to him.

3aArthur, meanwhile, supervised the pouring of wine (they brought along some marvellous Felsina bottles, oh lucky us!, including their bubbly metodo classico) and here he is making the dressing for the puntarelle salad as he contemplates the meat.  I made sure that the meat was at room temperature.

2The evening was getting very jolly by now, our other guests had arrived, and here we are at the point where the batter is ready and Vijay is stuffing the courgette/zucchine blossoms.

aliceEnrico, my brother-in-law, butterflied the anchovies and fried them ‘alla romana’, with just beaten egg and flour.

3And here, dear Reader, you may get an idea of just how ‘big’ my kitchen is! As you can see, it will accommodate no more than two people comfortably.  But sometimes comfort has to be forfeited when it comes to cooking.  That’s why any poor home cook requires copious refills of their wine glass and seeks comfort in philosophy.  How else can one micro-manage or cope? This is Enrico at the stove.

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Enrico is an expert griller and we discussed how we were going to deal with grilling the meat without a grill !  I don’t have one.  And here is how we did it.  We seared the two steaks as much as we could on a cast-iron thingummy jig (what IS the name of that cooking utensil in the photo?) and realised that we would have to finish them off for a few minutes in the oven.  At 150°C I seem to remember.

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5The only distracting irritation was the smoke … the steaks released a lot of fat and so we used some of that as condiment over slices of bread.  It used to be called ‘panuntella’ here in Frascati, except the meat in question was pork and not beef.6All things considered, the meat turned out remarkably well … and all I can say is that there wasn’t any left over.

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And here are the empty bottles of wine the following day.  I want to take this opportunity to once more thank Arthur, his trio of chefs and Enrico for making it such fun for all of us that evening.  We were quite the motley crew and there was much jest and rejoicing. I think I should get kudos too for not being too flustered about cooking with five chefs (Enrico just recently re-opened the Cantina Colonna restaurant in Marino).

And so all is well that ends well … we managed to sear and then cook the steaks on the stove top and then in the oven (i.e. without a grill), end of story.

Until, a few days later, I come across an article about a technique called “reverse sear”.

I will tell you all about it in the Part 2 of this searing saga.

“Sora Maria e Arcangelo” and “Casale Sonnino”

Friend Claire from New York makes regular visits to help brother George run their Casale, a beautiful country house at the foot of Monte Porzio Catone, with breathtaking views of the Roman countryside and the Tiburtini, Lucretilli and Prenestini mountain chain.  The estate has vineyards and olive groves and is built over an ancient Roman Villa (take a look at their website for more eye-brow raising details: www.casalesonnino.com ). If you think running a normal house is hard work (as I do), you can imagine how much more complicated running a rental home can be, the work is never ‘done’, there is always some Damocles-sword repair work requiring sensitive attention (you wouldn’t believe how often a tractor can break down), appliances needing renewal or furnishings begging for refreshment; come October, freshly picked olives are rushed to the mill (and the milling can go on till midnight!) to make their award-winning olive oil.

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Claire and George go to great lengths to make sure their guests are not only comfortable but cosseted too.  Rome is the Eternal City and nothing can compare with it, that’s a given.  Having said this, however, the proximity to Rome means that their Casale can offer the discerning tourist a very different ‘take’ on a stay in this part of the world, including day trips to historically and scenically attractive hill towns or seaside towns, and all kinds of activities for the more energetically inclined  (including painting, biking and hiking).  There is so much more to  Lazio than meets the eye, and I often say that it is one of the most underrated Regions of Italy.  I’m a Lazio Lady, I am, through and through.

Anyway, I am in love with the Casale and have very fond memories of a fantastic, 40 people strong, live-band New Year’s Eve party there a couple of years ago, up on the terrace watching all the fireworks over Rome.

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And during a very hot day last Summer, I did a wine-tasting and cooking class there with a small group who were loath to leave the shady headiness of the arbor.

George, who lives permanently at the Casale, is a great cook, by the way.  He was making chocolate treats the other day, you know, as one does, just because … I don’t think I could be friends with people who do not appreciate good food, sorry, there I’ve said it.  Claire is always on the look-out for interesting places for their guests to enjoy a meal and when she quizzed me the other day, I suggested we go to “Sora Maria and Arcangelo” in Olevano Romano.  I had been wanting to go for a while now and this gastronomic jaunt was a perfect excuse for both of us to catch up.

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The drive there was pretty enough, the autumnal trees beginning to change the colour of their leaves.  I took the wrong turning at one point, driving past a town called Paliano, and that can happen with me sometimes; I get carried away by conversation and end up on the road less travelled.

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But get there we did and goodness me! What a great meal.  Definitely going to return for more visits with darling husband.  By the way, not that it would be any business of the reader, but I do want to make one thing perfectly clear: if I write about people and places, shops and markets, wine bar, tatty trattoria or rolls Royce restaurant, it is because I want to, it is my pleasure – no one pays me for any endorsement.  Not that this restaurant needs my endorsement ! They have been slapped on their backs and feted by the likes of the Michelin Guide and Italy’s Gambero Rosso.  Eleonora Baldwin (www.aglioolioepeperoncino.com)  and Gina Tringali (www.gtfoodandtravel.com), two of Rome’s top notch food and wine connoisseurs are patrons, I know.  And by the way, getting any down-town Roman to budge two kilometers from their blessed city for the suburbs or the nearest countryside is a big thing, let me tell you (they can be such sissies that way, you wouldn’t believe!).

There was a truffle based menu … How many of us knew that there were truffles in the Aniene Valley north east of Rome?

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Roberto, our waiter, was most charming and attentive without being the least bit intrusive.  Not that I can’t knock back a string of wine glasses in the course of a meal but when it comes to lunch, and especially when I am driving afterwards, I usually abstain altogether.  This being such a great restaurant, however, I decided that I could sip leisurely just the one glass of wine, and Roberto didn’t look down snobbily at us and suggested we try the following:

14And jolly nice it was too.  Olevano Romano is known for its Cesanese wine as are the towns of Piglio and Affile (hence we have  “Cesanese del Piglio” and “Cesanese di Affile”).  Sarah May of Antiqua Tours can tell you a bit more about these wines, and the wines of Lazio in the following interview:  https://thebeehiverome.com/2014/06/13/italian-wine-for-beginners.

As Claire and I wrinkled our foreheads in deep concentration over the menu(s), Roberto hovered over us bringing some home-made bread and great olive oil (Quattrociocchi – one of my very very favourites !) to aid us in our decision making:

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It was great to see so many choices and to appreciate the origins of the foods … it was quite obvious that sourcing close by and from the best was a hallmark of this restaurant’s approach to food stuffs.  The wine list, instead, reaches out to wines from all over Italy and to France too.

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Once we had put in our orders. Roberto brought us a little – well, not quite so little – amuse bouche, by way of a rice croquette flavoured the cacio e pepe way; these croquettes are known as ‘supplì’ in Rome.  You know me, Fried Food Fanatic … deelicious!

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To start off with, Claire and I both opted for chickpea (garbanzo) soup with a fried salt cod ‘lolly’. Roberto encouraged us to dip the baccalà lolly into the soup before biting into it, and then finishing off the soup with a spoon, the proper way.   The chickpeas were sourced from Umbria, from the town of Spello.

16Next for our little tastings was a meatball made from stewed oxtail.  This was a first for Claire but not for me – I had eaten polpette di coda alla vaccinara at the Tordo Matto restaurant in Zagarolo about six years ago.  It was one of chef Adriano Baldassarre’s signature dishes.  Different in style, so much more tomato sauce chez Sora Maria and Arcangelo’s version, but very very good.

17For my main course, I went for the lamb trio.  Agnello or Abbacchio as it is called in Italy. I had a lamb chop fried in breadcrumbs and lamb roast in the most delicious gravy.

19The third part of the trio was lamb ‘coratella’ – lamb offal sautéed with onion.  This can be a little strong on occasion, but not at the hands of Chef Giovanni Milana.  It was truly a miracle that he could get it to be so truly tasty whilst curbing its over-meaty overtones. Hats off, chapeau.

18A close-up of the crunchy fried lamb chop …

18aA close-up of the roast lamb and rich rosemary infused gravy.

20Claire went for the faraona roast … the guinea hen stuffed with chestnuts and served with cabbage and potatoes.  Please don’t quote me but faraona is not usually something I would hanker after and yet … under Chef Giovanni Milana’s expert hands, this fowl brought the word delectable to mind.

21Dessert was pannacotta with chestnuts and a persimmon sauce.

22I don’t even like desserts much but this one has me wanting to imitate it very soon.  This is persimmon season after all.

23Little treats, biscuits, to accompany the coffee.

25Our waiter, the charming and efficient Roberto.

24Claire with Chef Giovanni Milana.

26And there am I, basking between the two, happy as Larry, at the end of such a civilised, gorgeous, leisurely lunch.

Good food can put you in the mood, as I like to say … but if there is no atmosphere or if the ambience is unrelaxed or unwelcoming, even the best-tasting food has to take a hammering.  Grazie Giovanni Milana, grazie Roberto and the rest of the staff at Sora Maria e Arcangelo for bringing such magic to the table.  Grazie Claire for a lovely lunch!