Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Love and Sicily

I have just returned from a week of eating, drinking, swimming and searching; searching for Sicilian tiramisu perfection. I didn’t find it – but I did find some perfectly edible things along the way.

My first tiramisu experience in Sicily was a disappointment. We had arrived in the Western port of Trapani, a city known for tuna, swordfish and cous cous or ‘cus cus’ in Italian. Our attempt to take the funicular to the top of the mountain to a town called Erice had been thwarted by the Italian holiday season. The funicular was on holiday and didn’t open until 1pm and it wasn’t quite 12 yet. So the mountain top town of Erice would have to wait.

We drove into the heart of Trapani through heavy pre-siesta traffic, eventually found ourselves port side, and parked up outside a pasticceria (Italian cake shop) called Angelino. We sat down, noted what the Italian family next to us were eating and ordered what they were having – arancino – rice balls stuffed with cheese and ham (or whatever you have left over in your fridge). Through in the bar we battled our way to the front and ordered espresso, and tiramisu – which they cut from a large slab in the fridge.

The tiramisu was €1.50. A layer of thin sponge – not savoiardi – on the bottom, with thick coffee-flavoured cream on top. The cream tasted like it had some kind of thickener in it. The best part of this tiramisu was the drifts of cocoa on the top.

We eventually made it back to the funicular and to the mountaintop town of Erice. Steep cobble-stoned streets, where the stones were worn smooth and slippery. We traipsed around this little town in the desperate midday heat, eventually discovering for the first time, the Sicilian delicacy known as Cannoli. Simply wrapped in a paper napkin and eaten on the street in the shade of a doorway, the Cannoli was an excellent discovery. Crisp but slightly fridge and heat-softened deep fried pastry with a hint of cinnamon, filled with what tasted like creamy custard, but is actually sweet ricotta.
Sicily is a place of contrast. Streets lined with prickly pear and pink & white oleander bushes. Stone houses framed in pink bougainvillea. Water in hues of vibrant blue and green. And then, below the pretty oleander, the streets are strewn with rubbish. The rubbish bins on the street corners are left unemptied and overflowing in the heat. The new parts of town are dishevelled, erratic, with abandoned unfinished buildings, in ugly apricot tones.

One town that is just pure pretty, though geared completely towards (Italian) tourists, is Scopello. It was here that we discovered Bar Pasticceria Scopello, which we made our morning post-swim ritual for coffee and cake. This little pasticceria made a very good Connoli, but I also made another discovery – Cassatelle. Pastry filled with sweet ricotta and a few chocolate chips, and deep fried. In the morning they were still warm from being fried. Heaven.

My second experience of tiramisu in Sicily came at a Ristorante – Pizzeria by the name of Baida, which was just five minutes drive down the hill from Visicari where we stayed. This was a friendly, family-run ristorante. We had a good lunch in the shade overlooking the hillside, and finished off with a serving of tiramisu for €2.50. Thin layers of real mascarpone with well-soaked savoiardi biscuits. The first taste was overwhelmingly of alcohol, before the creaminess of the mascarpone came through, yet the waitress insisted there was no alcohol in it. “No, no! Mascarpone, cafĂ©, savoiardi. No liquori.” I didn’t try to argue with her in my few words of Italian, but I’m sure I could taste alcohol…. Anyway, a good fresh, home-made tiramisu.

We took a trip to the town of Marsala. This is where the fortified wine Marsala is produced, which is usually used in making tiramisu. When we arrived in Marsala we of course needed to eat, so found a pasticceria. This time a place called Enzo & Nino Pasticceria. The most memorable part of this snack stop was trying another Sicilian specialty, Cassata. Now I have to say that this stuff looks hideous. Green icing – is that all I need to say? It reminded me of a frog-like marshmallow cake sold in New Zealand supermarket bakeries for children. But, I put aside all my doubts, and gave it a try. It was actually quite nice – more of the same sweet ricotta on the inside, a little sponge, green marzipan around the outside, candied fruits on the top. Worth trying despite it’s appearance.
However, we didn’t go to Marsala to eat Cassata, we went to try some of this famous Marsala wine. We drove around and around, even asking for directions, trying to find a Cantina. Eventually we gave up and went to a wine shop instead, which luckily did tastings. Luckily, because the Marsala was terrible and I’m glad I didn’t buy any without tasting it. We can get much better Marsala in London, or even in New Zealand than we tried in the little wine shop in Marsala town. I must have gone to the wrong wine shop. So we came away a little disappointed and empty handed, except for a very dusty 1981 bottle of mystery Marsala that I may write about at a later date….

Now, my third and final Sicilian tiramisu tasting was on the way home from a couple of drinks in a stunning town called Cefalu, with a friend who was turning 30. We drove, watching the sun sink into the Tyrrhenian sea, through Palermo, listening at full volume to a radio station called 105 Miami playing Italian glory-pop club anthems (it was, after all, “Sexy Saturday”). We decided we were hungry and stopped off in Castallammare del Golfo for some dinner at L’Isola del Gusto Ristorante. For dessert – tiramisu €4. Now this is definitely the most non-tiramisu tiramisu I have had. For a start, there was no coffee. And no savoiardi. And no alcohol. This was chocolate cake, layered with plain sweetened cream, and dressed with cocoa and chocolate sauce. Now I would call that chocolate pudding, but who am I to argue with an Italian Ristorante?

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