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