I fell out, flipped out of my life in London one miserable Sunday morning in March 2005. An hour later I found myself at Heathrow airport knowing only that I was going somewhere. After an oversized, overmilked coffee and a very odd tasting flapjack (I don’t even like flapjack) in a depressing airport eatery, I established the somewhere, by grabbing, as one would pull a name out of a hat, the nearest Lonely planet guide from the shelf in the bookshop. I stared at the book for some time not quite sure what to think, I had no designs on Italy, no romantic longings or yearnings, no distant relatives and barely a word of the language. Then I remembered that wasn’t the point and went to the ticket desk. I didn’t tell anyone I was going.
I remember very little about my arrival and the first week in Naples except walking and that the raucous, unruly, anarchic beauty of the city felt appropriate. I remember I didn’t lose my luggage because I didn’t have any, and that my room in the hostel ‘6 small rooms’ on the 6th floor of a venerable old building on Via Diodata, was, as my lonely planet promised, cheerful, clean, and as its name promised, small.
There are no stories about delicious meals in quaint trattoria, the authentic Ragù, perfect pizza, Sartù, baked anchovies, the polpo affogati and sublime buffalo mozzarella, not now, not this time, they all came later when I returned to Naples. That first week I was too busy walking, pounding the streets from early to late each day.
The dark, heady, intense espresso, I do remember that, tiny cup after tiny cup, maybe some of the best I have ever tasted and the babbà al rum, balls of sweet yeast dough studded with sultanas, baked then soaked in rum, both of which punctuated my days and fueled my pounding. I remember almost nothing of my day at Pompeii except that I felt comfortable in the ruins and in the company of strangers.
By the third day I ‘d managed to turn my phone on and tell my family and friends at least which country I was in, but no more, not yet, they might have come to scoop me up from my demented grand tour.
My first lucid memory is taking the boat from the glittering bay of Naples to Palermo late on the seventh day. The boat pulled into Palermo harbour at about six thirty the following morning, There were only handful of passengers and apparently no other foot passengers. If there were, then they’d all hidden in their cabins and disembarked from an exit that alluded me. I managed to get lost in the bowels of the boat, ending up on the growling, oily, car deck and making my escape by dodging lorries and running down the vast ramp to a chorus of bemused then angry shouts and energetic gesticulations from the boat and the quay side.
If Naples had felt appropriate, the dignified and decrepit beauty of Palermo at the beginning of spring felt right. I found a hotel just near Piazza Verdi and collapsed on the bed. I slept for 24 hours.
The following day I woke late, confused and ravenous and set off in search of food. Willful and hungry and with little sense of direction, I found myself near the, bustling, shrieking, Vucirria street market, a boisterous and crude place quite unlike the charming Sicilian markets I might have imagined. I avoided the extraordinarily noisy fish market and wandered between the vegetables stalls, many of which were selling just one or two things. It was chaotic, dark green blur, both exhilarating and a bit savage. I remember vast, unruly heaps of violet tinted artichokes, what seemed to be an entire lorry load of potatoes sitting in a vast mound with a boy sitting on top, wonderfully sinister looking fave (broad beans) like green fingers with black nails, piles of peas, gaudy gold zucchini flowers, clear sharp green lettuces, crates of forest green leaves with unruly roots I imagine were chicory, that strange vegetable that looks like coarse hairy celery, the one I still don’t know the name of.
I ate pane e panelle from a crowded stall for breakfast. Panelle are deep-fried chickpea flour fritters, which taste a little like particularly delicious, nutty, fat pancakes. The way I understand it, chickpea flour is cooked rather like polenta, with water, slowly until it is a thick paste. Coarsely chopped parsley is added, then the paste is spread thin, cut into pieces and deep-fried. You eat the golden fritters sandwiched between slices of bread, seasoned with a squeeze of lemon juice. Looking back, wandering around those streets alone, devouring breakfast hungrily, in that particular and notorious market, with barely a word of Italian was a bit reckless, careless and foolish. I suppose they were days that reflected how I felt.
I’ve written about my first proper meal in Palermo before, it was in a rough and tumble trattoria in a crumbling building in one of the shabby labyrinthine streets near Vucirria. The owners weren’t very friendly and the woman split water on my jacket, but I didn’t care, which isn’t like me at all. I was well guided by my guidebook, I ate caponata, the agrodolce (sweet and sour) Sicilian antipasti, which is rather like a loose chutney; cubes of deep-fried aubergine, fennel, onion, courgette and celery mixed with sultanas and pine-nuts and marinated in a palate startlingly agrodolce of oil, vinegar and a touch of sugar. I ate a very salty pasta con le sarde (I had a superb plateful the following day in another trattoria) and far too much wine for lunchtime.
To finish, I had the spring vegetable stew Frittedda, which is amongst one of the most delicious and evocative things I have eaten in the last few years.
I was fortunate, for 6 weeks or so in Spring, when the fresh broad beans, peas, artichokes and spring onions are young and tender enough, you can find this simple and sublime fresh vegetable stew in Palermo (there are variations of it all over Italy in Rome it is called vignarola). Spring or mild onions are cooked in olive oil, maybe with some wild fennel, the prepared artichokes are added and then finally the shelled peas and broad beans along with a little water or wine. The vegetables are then cooked briefly and gently. It is a simple and, when carefully made, sublime dish that tastes like spring, tender and sweet, popping and bursting with fresh flavour.
I finished my lunch, mopping up the last oily juices with more bread and paid. I remember feeling very sated, but for the first time in eight days, extremely sad, very alone and with an acute and swelling sense of panic ‘What the fuck was I doing in Palermo?’ I cried for the first time. I couldn’t walk any more so I went back to the hotel. I called my family, which hardly reassured them, but they were glad to hear my voice. It hardly reassured me either but by this point the panic and tears had subsided, and tucked underneath them was a strong, unshakable sense that however bizarre, rough and grey things felt, I was doing the right thing. I slept for another 12 hours.
Five Years on, I am sitting in our flat in Rome writing this and wondering if you’re still reading. This seems like a good place to stop for now and write out the recipes. I’m sure I’ll pick up where I’ve left off another day.
Today, as you’ve probably gathered, I live with Vincenzo, who, even though he has been in Rome for many years, is dark, proud and unmistakably Sicilian – I am very tall, pale and unmistakably English which makes for much affectionate and not so affectionate teasing. Being here with him has meant that Caponata, pasta con le sarde, frittedda, panelle, those first meals in Palermo, the full flavoured, tender, evocative dishes are now – adapted and shaped to Roman produce – happily part of our daily life.
The frittedda is Vincenzo’s family recipe, his Mum Carmella makes it beautifully. Putting the frittedda and the panelle together is not very traditional but it’s very delicious, the golden fritters make wonderful companions for the green shoots, bulbs, beans and peas.
A good way to celebrate spring.
On a practical note, I wonder if any Sicilians reading will gasp at this panelle recipe and method and then offer advice! Yes please. Until then, this is the way we make panelle. Now the mixture is rather sticky and getting the rumpled squares from the tray to the pan can be tricky, I use a spatula and a fish slice. Once in the pan and the hot oil they fry into neat golden square which are altogether more manageable. As for the frittedda, fresh, tender beans and peas in their pods and the nicest artichokes you can find are worth seeking out.
Last thing, if the broad beans are very young, tender and good you don’t need to pop them out them out of their little coats, but I leave that decision to you and your beans.
- 300 g chickpea flour
- salt and pepper
- 3 tbsp coarsely chopped parsley
- olive oil for frying
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 200g of spring onions or mild sweet white onions, finely sliced
- 2 large or 3 medium artichokes
- a lemon
- 1kg broad beans in their pods which will yield about 300g of beans
- 1kg peas in their pods which will yield about 300g of peas
- a handful of finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
- A handful of wispy fennel fronds
- 100ml of water or wine
Shell the peas and broad beans and prepare the artichokes by snapping away the dark outer leaves until you get to the pale tender ones. Then using a small paring knife cut away the stringy outside of the stalk and work around the base of the artichoke trimming away the green. Trim the pointed tops of the remaining leaves and cut the artichoke in half. Using a spoon scoop out the hairy choke. Cut each half into 6 small wedges and rub them with lemon and submerge them in cold water with lemon juice to stop them discoloring.
To make the panelle, in a saucepan, whisk the chickpea flour with 500ml of water until smooth, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Really slowly bring the pan to a gentle boil, whisking all the time, and then cook, always whisking for 8-10 minutes until the mixture thickens, then stir in the parsley. Pour the thick mixture – it will be thick and sticky and you will need to help it along – onto an oiled baking sheet and using the back of a spoon spread and flatten it to a 1cm thickness using the back of a spoon dipped in hot water. Leave it to cool and set for a few hours.
Prepare the frittedda, Heat the olive oil in a large frying or saute pan and then cook the onions over a modest flame until they are soft and translucent. Add the artichoke hearts, 50ml of white wine or plain water. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle flame for 5 minutes. Then add the peas, and broad beans and another 50ml of white wine or plain water. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle flame for 10 minutes and the vegetables are soft. Stir in the parsley and fennel fronds. Taste and season accordingly. Let the frittedda settle for a few minutes which allows the flavours to emerge
Cut the chickpea mixture into rounds, square or diamonds – if it is sticky, don’t worry use a fish slice or spatula lift it from the tray – then shallow fry in olive oil until golden on each side.
Serve the panelle immediately with the frittedda and half a lemon.
Have a good week.