Palermo la Conca d'Oro

Palermo la Conca d'Oro

Manuela Darling-Gansser
6 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Simon Griffiths

To travel to an island always gives the sense of leaving one world and entering another. Even though its northeast coast is within sight of the Italian mainland, to visit Sicily you need to take a ferry or a plane. Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, roughly midway between the east and west, and north and south coasts, Sicily has a sense of being at the very centre of the Mediterranean. If you arrive by air from the north, as I did, this sense of journeying to a different world – a world at the crossroads of history – is all the more real.

But first you must make a choice: where do you begin your trip? Sicily is very broadly divided between the east (which was Greek in ancient times and later overlaid with a rich layer of Spanish baroque), and the west and north. Although settled over the centuries by many occupiers, such as the Carthaginians and Romans, the west and north were the centre of Moorish rule and this is where their influence is most pronounced. Palermo was the Moorish capital and today is the island’s centre of regional government. It was in Palermo that I decided to begin my travels.

As your aircraft circles to land, through the window you can see the city’s extraordinary setting. A deep bay lies between two mountain headlands creating a splendid natural harbour. Into the bay runs what was once a fertile plain, well watered by rivers coursing down from the mountains behind. Broadly triangular in shape, this plain is the famous Conca d’Oro (literally Horn of Gold – but meaning Horn of Plenty), which has produced agricultural riches for the city of Palermo down the centuries.

Today much of the Conca d’Oro is covered in urban sprawl as the city has burst its bounds to spread inland. You have to use your imagination to see the productive fields of early settlement, the world-famous irrigated gardens of Moorish times or even the botanical pleasure gardens for which Palermo was renowned at the end of the nineteenth century.

I have visited Palermo on several occasions and have always been enchanted. It is a city of enormous vitality and a distinguished, multi-layered history. Wandering the streets you see churches and cathedrals from Norman times, sometimes built on the sites of mosques from an earlier period. There are baroque palazzi, ornate classical and baroque churches and grand buildings from the nineteenth century. Behind the grandeur, in narrow lanes and small squares, are residential buildings, some quite run-down, that have been lived in for centuries. Here and there are small commercial centres – a street of shops selling bicycles or small workshops selling all sorts of home-made kitchen utensils.

Even on the grand avenues the shops have a rather old-fashioned quality. Instead of the usual array of international luxury brands, you see local retailers selling quite formal clothes of their own making. These are interspersed with good independent bookshops, picture framers or furniture restorers. Today Palermo’s agricultural past is only on display at its famous produce markets. The city is now a thriving administrative and commercial centre, a place that is very conscious of its rich history, but where the heritage of the past is worn lightly and the future is very much in people’s minds.

Palermo must have originally been settled because of its harbour and good agricultural land. Down the centuries if you occupied good real estate in Sicily you had to be able to defend it. So Palermo must have been a fortified town from its earliest days as it attracted the attentions of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans.

The golden age of Palermo lasted from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, first as a Moorish capital under Arab rule and then as a Norman kingdom. During this time it was regarded as a jewel of the Mediterranean, a city to rival the great centre of Baghdad far to the east. Under the Moors, the city enjoyed great prosperity, as both the economy and the arts flourished. Although the Norman kings restored Christianity, they were tolerant towards the Muslim population and adopted many of the ways of their predecessors. During this era, Palermo became one of the great commercial and cultural centres of Europe, renowned for its beauty, climate and wealth. It is said that during the rule of King Roger II, his income from the city of Palermo alone was greater than his Norman cousins received from the whole of England.

A lot of this wealth came from the new agricultural practices that were introduced by the Moors in the ninth and tenth centuries. It was probably the Phoenicians who introduced the vine and the olive, about 4000 years ago, but it was the Moors with their sophisticated irrigation techniques who greatly increased the yield of existing crops and were able to grow new plants that needed a reliable supply of water. The Moors brought a whole cornucopia of these new plants with them to the island. Oranges, lemons, dates, figs, sugarcane, rice, pistachio nuts, carobs and the zibibbo grape were all introduced by the Moors, as well as a taste for drinking coffee. They also brought cotton, papyrus for papermaking and mulberries with silkworms for spinning silk. Later occupiers introduced other plants, particularly the Spanish who brought potatoes, tomatoes, prickly pear and corn from their New World empire.

In modern Palermo, however, it is the Moorish influence that gives Sicilian food its distinctive local character. Spices and herbs like cinnamon, wild fennel and mint are still commonly used. Pine nuts are mixed with raisins in many dishes. But it was the introduction of a new and abundant source of sweetness, sugar, that probably had the greatest influence on Sicilian cuisine. It was from these times that the Sicilians must have acquired their notable sweet tooth.

Foods preserved in vinegar were sweetened to become agro-dolce – sweet and sour – of which the famous local dish caponatina is an example. Marzipan (sugar with almonds), cassata (sugared ricotta) and sorbets (sugared fruit purées mixed with snow) have become emblematic Sicilian delicacies.

When I arrive in a new city, I like to walk the streets to get a feel for the place and when I do, I am inevitably drawn like a homing pigeon to the produce markets. So on my first morning back in Palermo I set off early to walk around the old centre – and walk you must because driving is only for the locals and the brave. And, as I did, I gravitated to its two famous street markets, the Vucciria and the Ballarò, both near the centre of the old city.

Although it is only a block away from some of Palermo’s smartest streets, the Vucciria is in a poor neighbourhood. The market stalls line a small square and the street that runs through it. Even though it is a fairly humble market, it has great character and the produce on display, whether in the market stalls or a few specialty shops, is tantalising. On that spring morning I was particularly taken by boxes of small spiky artichokes, the sort that are best eaten raw in a salad (they apparently grow wild in the mountains behind Palermo), and punnets of tiny wild strawberries.

My next stop was at Palermo’s other famous market, the Ballarò. This is much larger than the Vucciria, stretching for about a kilometre along a number of streets in a residential area. Again I found the vegetable stalls ablaze with colour. Eggplants, artichokes, tomatoes, baby broad beans, asparagus and new-season potatoes were heaped on display. At the fish stalls, huge tuna were being sliced into great red steaks on marble slabs. Smaller fish, like sardines and anchovies, surrounded them and there were piles of mussels and sea urchins. I was tempted by cheese stalls selling the full range of Sicilian cheeses, from seasoned hard cheeses such as pecorino to soft and fresh ricottas. There were barrels of olives and bunches of wild fennel, a local favourite. The market was crowded, noisy and full of life. It is easy to see why the Ballarò is considered a great market.

What you don’t see at either of these markets is much food being sold ready to eat, which is surprising because Palermo has a very strong tradition of street food. But nevertheless, after all this food viewing your appetite is likely to be aroused. That morning was no exception, so I decided to head to lunch at my favourite restaurant in Palermo, Piccolo Napoli, which is located on a small square near the port.

If I had to generalise, I would say the best food in Sicily comes from the sea. As the local saying goes, ‘Il pesce fresco e re di tavola’, a fresh fish is king of the table. Piccolo Napoli is a family-owned seafood restaurant, with three generations all working there, from grandmother Corona, to sons Giovanni and Pippo, and grandson Davide. For our late lunch we enjoyed house specialties like pasta con ricci (pasta with fresh sea-urchin roe), gathered by the restaurant’s very own sea-urchin diver; pasta con inchiostro nero (pasta with black squid ink) and involtini di pesce spada (rolled swordfish). The food was served with a local white wine, and followed by Corona’s strong espresso coffee. (Sicilian coffee is generally just a finger-width deep in the bottom of a small cup.) This was restaurant food as I like it, with the best ingredients, simply prepared with great care and pride, by people whose business is also their passion.

The next day I was able to experience another side of life in Palermo – home cooking. I had an introduction to Natalia Jung who lives in the seaside town of Mondello, just outside Palermo. Mondello is sited on a big beautiful bay with a crescent of white sand. At one end are stone buildings and a small fishing port. At the other is a mountainous headland. All along the beach there are brightly-coloured bathing cabins and in the middle there is an old ‘wedding cake’ of a building, a nineteenth-century casino built out on the water.

Natalia lives a little back from the beach in a house that is full of colour to match her vivid personality. We started the day as acquaintances and finished it friends for life. As I watched she cooked two classic Sicilian dishes, a timballo (baked pasta) and a gelo di anguria (watermelon jelly). They were delicious and we ate them in the way they deserved, in her courtyard garden under a small pergola.

The street-food tradition is very much alive in Palermo and you see very few modern fast-food outlets. Traditionally, the rich Sicilians ate in their palazzi and the poor, who were almost everyone else, ate at street stalls. Food had to be very cheap and very filling. There were panelle (chickpea fritters), crispeddi (fried dumplings filled with anchovy, cheese and wild fennel) and arancine (fried rice balls with cheese filling). There were other fried foods using dough and the cheapest cuts of meat – the unmentionables of the animal, like spleen or intestines. Many of these meat-based offerings are not to my taste, but the others, if done with a light touch, can be a delicious snack.

Another tradition in Sicily is to eat your main meal at midday (life stops for lunch), and this meal is often eaten at home. Among the older generation, the view still lingers that if you are not eating at home then your mother or wife is not looking after you properly. Perhaps this is why there are not as many restaurants as you would expect. When you do eat out the food is very distinctly Sicilian, and usually showcases their special pasta dishes, great seafood and good local wines. It’s all part of a strong tradition that is a pleasure to experience.

To give you a flavour for life in Palermo, I’ve begun with a recipe for arancine. The basic recipe is filled with cheese, and I’ve added another variation that is made using squid ink.

There are also two vegetable dishes inspired by my visit to the markets – pomodori ripieni (stuffed tomatoes) and finocchio al forno (baked fennel). I had to include a seafood dish, and by a happy coincidence, the season for swordfish, one of the luxury foods of Sicily, is the spring. And what could be better than involtini di pesce spada (stuffed swordfish rolls)? In this recipe they are stuffed with a mixture that has very traditional ingredients and flavours, such as anchovies, pine nuts and currants.

And, thanks to Natalia, I am delighted to include her classic Palermitano recipes of timballo and gelo di anguria.

Recipes in this Chapter

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