a way round

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A section of the motorway has given up, a pylon buckling and the road dipping into depression. It has been closed for months now. This means that to travel from Palermo to Gela, a journey from one side of Sicily to the other, buses have to take a mountain detour. Luca and I had already done the detour two days before, but at the back of the bus, both of us drifting in and out of twitchy sleep that managed to be both air-conditioned and hot. Last Saturday however, Luca chose the front seat and a lunch of gelato di pistacchio sandwiched in warm, doughy brioche and espresso, several espressos, ensured we were wide awake as we swerved from the autostrada up into the mountains.

Matri mia‘ said the man across the aisle from us when the driver took a hairpin curve, the bus feeling too tall and wide for such a narrow road. Then the man chuckled. He chuckled again at the next curve – which really did feel as if we were going to fly off the mountain – when Luca shouted Mamma mia. His name was Giuseppe, but everyone called him Peppe. He had been living in Milan for 45 years, had two plastic hips and a great-grandson Luca’s age. He was making the trip he makes each September to his home town of Gela for La Festa (the celebration) which I knew to be La Festa della Madonna. ‘Was I getting off at Piazza Armerina? he asked. Piazza Armerina is a particularly charming town. He really laughed when I told him I was also going to Gela, and explained it was my partner Vincenzo’s home town too, that we had partly inherited his grandparents house and were spending the summer there. ‘I love my town, but it isn’t an easy town, and Sicily isn’t an easy island. Do you know that?’ he asked. I told him I did. ‘Not easy, but beautiful’ he said, before turning to look out of the window.

As the bus began making its way back down the other side of the mountain, Ligabue woa-oh-ohing out of the bus radio, Giuseppe plays the guide, Scillato, Parco delle Madonie, Leonforte and Enna in the distance. Back on the autostada we pass fields of wheat scorched by the sun, mountains caped by dark green forest, olive trees their twisted trunks clinging tenaciously to rocky hillsides, almond, fig and carob trees, what I imagine are some sort of broccoli, verdant stripes of vines so laden with swollen grapes we can see the bunches from the bus. Bella bella bella bella la Sicilia Giuseppe seems to sing. He is right. Thrilling too, full of drama with her summits and curves, her sheer abundance, but somehow not showoffy. ‘It is rich land, but difficult land, do you know that?’ Giuseppe asks even more insistently than before. I nod, then we all nod off to Celine Dion.

Ecco‘ (here) Giuseppe says abruptly raising both his palms upwards and waking Luca and I. We look up to see the two vast chimneys of Gela’s oil refinery, one checked like a formula one flag, the other striped like Pippi Long-stocking’s socks, in the distance, behind them the sea which stretches to Africa. He asks if I know the story of the refinery. I tell him I do, a little.’ It is an important story’ he says, before catching sight of a bank of fichi d’india, exotic cactus hands covered with terrible little spikes and peachy red fruit. ‘When I was a boy I was the fastest at picking fichi, without gloves’. I try to imagine little Giuseppe, fearless in the face of the treacherous little spines – and they are treacherous – grabbing, then gorging on the sweet, red flesh and many black seeds. In that moment, I want fichi. Before long we are driving into the bleak, parched outskirts of Gela, and glad we are about it too.

We must have pulled into Gela bus station – which is actually the old train station – at about six. ‘Matri mia’ said Guiseppe as we stepped off the bus into the oppressive, clinging heat. I later learn it was one of the hottest days of the year. While we were waiting to pull our bags from the belly of the bus, Guiseppe stamps his foot – which makes me worry about his hip – and says something I didn’t quite understand, but guessed was about being home and even the car park being beautiful. We are standing next to building half of which has simply collapsed, its rubble remains now providing a home for dozens and dozens of bags of rubbish amongst which weeds reach desperately for the sky. Giuseppe’s lift arrived. ‘Did we need one too?’My sad legs needed movement after nearly four hours on a bus with a nearly four-year old draped over them, so I thanked him, but said we would walk. As the car pulled away I felt a bit bereft and wished I had accepted the lift.

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To get to Via Mazzini from the station, you have to pass Gela’s modest football stadium, on the wall of which is painted a mural. Brash, but pleasing, the mural tells the story of this ancient city in Southeast Sicily, one of the oldest continually inhabited, a story which twists like a mountain road. There is a picture of the boats bringing the colonists from Rhodes and Crete in 688Bc under whom a newly founded city flourished. Another of the Carthaginians sacking the city into ruin. Columns reminds us of the Roman domination and the fact the Arabs called Gela the city of Columns. There is a picture of Frederick II – looking a little like Paul Newman – who refounded the city in 1233 as Terranova, beside him golden fields of wheat and vines. There are allied forces landing on beaches during Operation Husky in World War II. Next a picture of Enrico Mattei, the head of Eni who drove the industrial expansion plan which saw the building of a vast oil refinery in the plainly beautiful bay of Gela, which was meant to help the economy of the region. Which it did, very briefly, but in the long-term caused an unmanageable swelling of the population and terrible social problems. There is a picture of a soldiers and sandbags reminding of the measures needed to try and rid the area of violent mafia presence in the 80’s, something Vincenzo and his parents remember all too well. The last section of the mural are words, in English, ‘Looking to the future’.

I wonder if I should feel sheepish about mentioning a mural, superb graffiti on the side of a football stadium in a backstreet of Gela. Surely I should be writing of the scholarly things that helped me to think about the city with which I now have a connection. But it was the mural we passed most days in our Fiat Panda, in front of which three lads sell peaches out of a van, which gave me the best sense of the great sweeping story of Gela this first visit. This sense was what I needed in a city I so keenly wanted to love, but found confusing and upsetting at first. The bold pictures had me thinking about a land so desirable to colonists and industrialists, nudged us to seek out the ancient city wall in the narrow, claustrophobic heart of the old city – which is quietly beautiful and intriguing if you give it time – to explore backstreets, shops, hidden churches. It was the mural that ignited my curiosity about Frederick II (who in my mind looks exactly like Paul Newman) of the bespectacled and brilliant Enrico Mattei, to think and then talk with Vincenzo’s cousins and people I met about the past and future. I have to keep reminding myself this is the first trip of many.

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Sweeping histories and the everyday, which involved cooking in Vincenzo’s Grandmothers kitchen, which is as it was when it was built by his grandfather in 1934, bar some 1960’s cupboards, and an early 90’s radiator. It is a room full of memories and stories that live on in cracks and weary hinges, floor tiles so trodden the pattern is all but gone, in the plates and pans that really do come from another time. Before cooking though, there was shopping. Gela no longer has a central market, simply a dispersed one, that plays out on corners, pavements, from people’s front doors and garages. Like many of the world’s most abundant, overflowing, richest markets, Gela is one where the sprectre of poverty hovers. Vegetables dense with flavour and character, and deeply coloured fruit of back-breaking labour are sold by the kilo or case and cost almost nothing. In August, a searingly hot one, we find late tomatoes, crates and crates of them, that taste so resolutely like tomatoes it is disconcerting, figs that taste like honey, and aubergines, some pendulous and black as night, others round and pale purple, that are dense and creamy. There are small trucks and car boots full of peaches whose sweet flesh is the colour of a desert sunset, meter long cucuzze, great floppy bunches of squash greens with tendrils and onions the size of cricket balls. By September there are grapes and more grapes, the kind that burst in your mouth and almost taste drunken. Even without eating grapes,  I feel drunk on it all. It all seems ideal, until Vincenzo’s cousin reminds me that it isn’t, between the good farmers, workers, middle men and opportunists, the good and the not-so-good-stuff, you need to know where to go.

Vincenzo’s grandfather was a farmer who cultivated grapes, tomatoes, artichokes and cotton. He was proud and good farmer, one of the few who didn’t abandon the fields to go to work for the oil refinery, who survived relatively well off his land. He was proud of what he grew honestly. It was fitting then that we were to find to Rosa, whose husband farms land almost precisely where Vincenzo’s grandfather did, near the border of Vittoria. It was like being let in on a secret. It isn’t a really a shop, but the garage under her house from which Rosa sells what her husband grows. Rosa is plump and lovely, her blue eyes accentuated by the thick stripe of pale blue eyeshadow. She invites proximity. At 9 o clock the garage is full, as keen-eyed Gelese wait for Rosa’s husband, another Giuseppe, to arrive from the fields and unload what he has just picked. The shop smells deeply of vegetables and faintly of the bleach Rosa uses to slosh the floor clean each night. I take to visiting Rosa most mornings, coming home with bags of joyous, vigorous produce that needs taming – but not too much – into lunch.

Then it feels like dominoes. In Rosa’s garage we meet the brother of the shepherd who with a nod from Rosa opens up the boot of his car to sell warm sheep’s milk ricotta that flouts EU rules that would prefer we bought pasteurized stuff from the supermarket. It is the cheese guy who tells me about the bakery under a house in Via Garibaldi were we find the durum wheat flour loaves dusted with sesame seeds of Vincenzo’s childhood. It is the baker who tells us where to get the best late night Arancine, and so it goes on. There are lots of stories.

On our last night in Sicily was September 8th, La Festa della Madonna dell’Alemanna, the patron saint of Gela, We walk to Vincenzo’s cousins house on Via Magnuco, the family name, and one of the streets down which the procession passes. As a rule this street is strung with faded cotton and washing which whips in the breeze. Today there is not even a dishcloth to be seen, and everyone seems to have scrubbed their bit of pavement.  We had already seen the Madonna in the church earlier, a Byzantine painting of Madonna and child at the center of a gold frame with cut-out heavenly rays and moulded cherubs. Having been carried from the church by a group of chosen men, who run disconcertingly fast down the steps, the Madonna is propped up on platform with a motor and steering wheel. She is then is driven round the town, preceded by three altar boys, two carabineri with plumes and three priests, one almost singing prayers into a microphone. A lengthy procession of the faithful follow behind. Those who have a house on one of the blessed streets, watch from their balconies. You can feel the excitement and anticipation in the air, but people move with quiet purpose, this isn’t Naples. Vincenzo’s cousin is very proud of the light he has set up from the balcony to illuminate the already illuminated madonna. I understand so little about it all, about the sequence of blessings all over the city, to new-born babies, citizens, farmers, fishermen, mills, industry, the land. I hardly understand a word of the prayers through a speaker phone and the collective response, but find the whole thing extremely moving. Just behind the Madonna, I see a figure wearing a dark suit and white shirt waving, at me. It takes me a minute. Then I realise the man waving with one hand, his other hand on his heart, is my bus companion Peppe.

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Zuppa di Tenerumi e Cucuzze –  Sicilian squash and squash greens soup.

adapted from a family recipe, with help from Fabrizia’s Lanza’s book Coming to Sicily and La Cucina di Calycanthus

serves 4

Cucuzza is a long, pale-green, thick-skinned, Sicilian squash, which has a creamy, extremely mild flavour, in fact the Sicilians have an expression which says something along the lines of you can dress it up all you want, but it is still only cucuzza. Tenerumi are the greens of the cucuzza (stems, leaves and tendril like shoots) which have a tender, slightly sweet flavor, like peas shoots and hairy grass. The idea is simple. You cook the tenerumi briefly in lightly salted boiling water, which produces a green-tinted, gently flavoured broth. You then sauté onions, garlic, diced cucuzza, potato and tomatoes in plenty of olive oil to which you add, first cooked the greens, then the broth, and then some broken spaghetti. The result is a simple, brothy minestra. It is undoubtedly plain, a good example of what the Sicilians describe as cucina povera (poor cooking), but I think it pure tasting and delicious, and now understand why it is one of Vincenzo’s favourite things. While we were in Gela, Vincenzo’s cousin served this soup without spaghetti but over bread and topped with a poached egg, which was dead good and reminded me of the Acquacotta from Maremma. Sicilians serve this soup, not hot or cold, but lukewarm, possibly with a little more olive oil on top.  An alternative to cucuzza and tenrumi are courgettes and their greens. I am convinced this would also work with other greens and now I am back in Rome will be experimenting away. As always, treat this recipe as a template, not a set of rules, and taste as you cook.

  • a large bunch of Tennerumi or squash greens
    1 cucuzza or 2 courgettes
    a large, mild onion
    a clove of garlic
    6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for pouring on top
    a large potato
    6 medium-sized flavoursome tomatoes or 20 or so cherry ones
    200 g broken spaghetti
    salt and pepper

Trim the tenerumi/squash greens of all their tough stems and largest leaves so you have tender manageable pieces with only the smallish leaves. In a large pan, bring 1.5 litres of lightly salted water to a fast boil then add the greens and boil for 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift out the greens and set aside. Bring the water back to the boil. Plunge the tomatoes in for a minute, remove with a slotted spoon, cool in cold water at which point the skins should come away easily. Chop the tomatoes roughly on a plate to catch juices.

Peel and dice the onion, Peel the garlic and gently crush it with the back of a knife so it remains intact. In soup pan, or deep saute pan, warm the olive oil over a medium/low flame and then add the onion, garlic and a pinch of salt and saute gently until the onion is soft and translucent and the garlic fragrant. Peel and dice the potato and cucuzze/courgette and add it to the pan. Stir so each piece is well coated with oil. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring then with a wooden spoon so they break up. Now add the tenenrumi or squash greens, stir before adding approx 1 litre of the green cooking water and a good pinch of salt, Bring to a lively simmer, then reduce to a blip blip simmer for 25 mins. Taste for salt.

Bring the soup to the gentlest boil, add the broken spaghetti and cook until the spaghetti is tender. It should be nice and soupy so you may want to add more greens water if you feel the spaghetti is absorbing too much water as it cooks.

61 Comments

Filed under Cucuzze, Gela, minestra, temerumi, Two kitchens

61 responses to “a way round

  1. Just lovely. Every word of it!

  2. Oh wonderful. Now, this is important. Have you any plans to run any more of your cookery courses, from Gela or anywhere else? I do hope so……

    • rachel

      Morning M, and thank you and yes, we are happily planning another language of Food next June at the school. I have just posted details in a post actually Why are you considering? That would be wonderfully wonderful x

  3. What a lovely story, Rachel. I remember driving thru Gela on a first Sicily trip almost twenty years ago – and not quite getting its charm. Next time I might stop again, look for the stadium mural and try to find the durum sesame bread bakery …

  4. What writing Rachel! I am loving your adventures in Sicily. May there be many more. I wondered what that green thing was, a cucuzze, and even though you have explained it I am wondering even more I want to taste it. x

    • rachel

      Good morning wonderful Kath, hope you are all well? It is extremely mind (bland is a word that springs to mind, reminding me more of marrow than courgette) but delicious if given enough help (olive oil and salt). xx

  5. Beautiful, powerful writing. Got a little chocked up.

  6. wonderful.
    my friend Gigi planted cucuzze on the urban farm a few years ago—they grew quite nicely–long and light green on vines along the farm fence. We had fun cooking with them, and savored the delicate creamy taste.
    There’s a very funny Louis Prima song, “My Cucuzza.” I think you can find on YouTube. cheers! N.

    • rachel

      I need to go and look for that. How are you N, well I hope? I feel terribly out of touch, but I am now back in Rome and looking forward to some proper getting back in touch xo

  7. Sounds wonderful and the description of your partners grandmothers kitchen made me smile, it read like my own grandmothers kitchen in Christchurch, New Zealand though hers was by the sea. How wonderful that the house has not been “updated” this is such a bonus – you can live in it for a while and then once you know the light you can slowly change things to suit yourself. Or not, as the case may be! Have fun.. c

    • rachel

      You are right and now for now we are leaving it exactly as it is. I think it might need some slight changes though, in the long term (how Sara cooked for so many, so often, Hope you are well? x

  8. Elizabeth Minchilli

    Beautiful post!

  9. I absolutely enjoyed reading this post. It brought me back to Sicily for a little while… beautiful, enchanting, harsh, charming Sicily. How wonderful to get to experience all of it with your family and really experiencing life as it is there, not from an outsiders´take on it.

    • rachel

      This makes me very happy, and words words are right, esp harsh, and of course beautiful. Thanks for reading and taking the time to tell me so. x

  10. If this soup is as transportive as your writing I’ll be making it posthaste. What a crystalized, stunning story. I stopped and read portions of it out loud to my husband, just savoring the descriptions you used.

    • rachel

      What a nice thing to read, and a patient husband. The soup is rather like sicily, elemental and needs work and patience to coax flavors out of the ingredients.

  11. laura

    What a treat to stop in and find you back! You write so enchantingly, Rachel! It’s great to have your book for “crisi di astinenza” but there’s something so special about stopping in here for a visit and being so richly rewarded. Thank you!

  12. In the absence of Sicilian cucuzze, I’ll give your recipe a try with the trombette available here in Piedmont. I’ll be sure not to discard the greens from them either!

    • rachel

      Sounds good, let me know the results.

      • I was lucky enough to be given a huge trombetta (the etta suffix isn’t very appropriate in this instance!) from my husband’s family’s garden this week and last night I decided to give your recipe a try. It was just wonderful, the perfect antidote to the cold and rain we’ve been having Turin lately. My toddler devoured the pasta, greens and trombette. She didn’t even want the grated parmesan I would normally put on it for her either.

  13. victoria2nyc

    It is always lovely to find a post from you waiting to be opened in my inbox. I love them all. This one particularly makes me think about the twists and turns our lives take. If we are lucky, one day we wake up and say, “Oh, look at this lovely, interesting life I have made for myself!”

    And you, Rach, have done just that.

    For your generosity in so eloquently sharing slices of your life with us, I say ta and grazie.

  14. Damn! When will your book be out in the US again?? Just lovely.

  15. I followed your adventure in Gela on Instagram, to read the story behind the images now is just so special! I feel like I know the characters! Love your style, great post. Thank you

    • rachel

      It is so nice having all the different ways of telling stories now, words and pictures, also it is nice having people like you, who really enjoy all the following and the almost detective like putting together . Hope you are well? xo

  16. I haven’t commented in a very long time but this essay is one of your best. Brava! I feel like I was there, starting with the driving over the rolling hills to the watching the procession of Mary. Your tone, just the right details to make this rich without rambling, and the reality of Italy with all of its good and bad, gives your reader a real sense of living there. Thank you.

  17. “This sense was what I needed in a city I so keenly wanted to love, but found confusing and upsetting at first. […] the narrow, claustrophobic heart of the old city – which is quietly beautiful and intriguing if you give it time – to explore backstreets, shops, hidden churches.”
    You describe this feeling…It’s the same I had last year when visited Palermo. I felt defeated, and angry at myself for feeling so, for being unable to understand the city and its charm…Perhaps I should have given it more time, perhaps I just need to go back.
    This is truly moving, Rachel, in so many ways. You capture everything so honestly and beautifully – the universal and the mundane, the social picture and the domestic life. I look forward to talking and hearing about farming and produce. Meanwhile, echoing @turinmamma, the cucuzze will also be swapped with Ligurian trombette (now grown by a fantastic farmer who lives in the Epping Forest). x

    • rachel

      V – I think, in fact I know we understand each other on this. You are now in Italy, thinking of you both, lots of love and talk soon x

  18. Catherine

    Beautiful, thank you.

  19. Leggerti e’ sempre un piacere infinito.

  20. Tom

    We’re two generations removed from Sicily. We grow cucuzza every year here in New England but forgot how to cook them! Thanks!

  21. Grey

    Beautiful. I kept stopping to ponder – to look at maps, to read wikipedia – so that I could better imagine you there. I can’t wait for your book to come to the US. I love watching you learn to understand Italy through food and feeling like I might understand it a tiny bit now too, thanks to you.

  22. I know I have already mentioned that my husband is Sicilian too and your post once again put into words what I feel when I visit the island: an island I don’t always understand, an incredible place that is sometimes hard to love, and sometimes so easy, with its moments of breathtaking beauty, great food, wonderful warm people. Funnily enough, the first time I had this dish, I was not in Sicily but in Queens, NYC – my city – visiting my husband’s other Sicilian cousins who emigrated back in the Fifties. It was cooked in the garage and we sat at long plastic tables in the back yard (la yarda, as they call it), the younger generations snubbing it. I loved it and had seconds. I definitely became part of the family then, and earned big smiles.

  23. Suziethefoodie

    Thank you Rachel, a lovely lovely piece of writing and especially thrilling for me. This time next Saturday we’ll be settling into our rented villa above Taormina, hopefully having stocked up en route from Catania. I’ll look out for the fresh produce, wine and cheeses to eat while we stay. Fichi d’India liqueur we bought back last time when we stayed in Palermo (scariest driving experience ever!) it had been poured over a sort of hot rum baba as dessert – historic!
    The seafood is what I’m looking forward to most….the driving, not so much.
    As you may know the general belief is that traffic lights in Rome are treated as an indication, in Palermo they are merely Christmas lights….

  24. I want to hear more voices, and have a better sense of what the earth tastes and smells of, but Peppe and the faintly bleachy garage are just great!

    You’re getting to be my favourite travel writer.

    Tanti auguri, Richard

  25. bolognamimanca

    Rachel, just wanted to thank you for your amazing writing and delicious recipes.
    A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to live and study in Bologna for five months. Since then I have missed it increasingly, most of all the food, smells, tastes, and colours that define Italy for me.
    Your writing brings these flooding back and you evoke the vibrancy of the country perfectly. I can’t wait to read your book and cook your amazing food. As autumn approaches here in the UK, your minestra, in particular, are going to be an increasingly regular occurrence!

  26. Pingback: cook the farm | rachel eats

  27. Oh, Rachel… I so enjoyed reading this.

  28. Giovanna

    Rachel,
    I will be in Rome week October 13-17. Do you know where I can buy your cookbook while I’m there? Thanks in advance.

    • rachel

      Hello There, the Almost Corner Bookshop in Trastevere has copies and soon the spice shop – Emporio dell spezie here in Testaccio will have copies too, thanks so much for your support xo

      • Giovanna

        Thanks so much, Rachel. Looking forward to being back in Rome…and for owning the original publication of your book…before anyone else here in the states! Best to you.

  29. Exquisite! From beginning to end… I am really anxious to see your book finally make it here in Canada. I love, love, love your blog!!!

  30. Morning, I stumbled upon your blog earlier this morning and can’t stop reading it..love the way you write, its as if you are actually chatting to me …. I am having really good friends round to dinner the Sunday after Christmas and want to throw an Italian Christmasy feast, any suggestions/any little Italian treats or traditions I could include… as you can see planning ahead !!

    • rachel

      Morning, and thank you so much, I am glad you are enjoying the blog. I am not very good on Italians feasts, it is all rather everyday around here. I highly recommend you look at Elizabeth MInchilli’s site, it is full of wonderful ideas.

  31. Pingback: 4 tales and 5 things | rachel eats

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