Continuing his exploration of Sicilian food, DonQui Oaty turns his attention to olives, the second most important staple of Sicilian cuisine (after wine!).
The olive trees at Casa di Latomie near Castelvetranto on the west of the island, are rooted in the limestone of an ancient Greek quarry. They derive much of their flavour and nutrients from it. They are picked by hand from in order to ensure the careful selection of high quality olives.
DonQui is introduced to the great-grandfather of the olive trees. 1200 years old, this tree was a sapling when the Arabs took Sicily from the East Romans and grew into maturity when the Normans came. It is still producing fruit.
The olives, the oil and tapenade that DonQui samples are utterly delicious. The tapenade is served on crusty rustic bread made from tumminia flour. This ancient grain has a delectable nutty taste and is unique to Sicily.
Meat does not feature much in Sicilian cuisine. Milk and butter are noticeable only by their absence. Olive groves and vineyards dominate the landscape and, apart from a few sheep and and the odd cow or two, DonQui does not see any animals in the fields.
Livestock is mostly important for cheese. At La Masseria dairy, near Ragusa, DonQui encounters a whole menagerie including a distant Sicilian cousin.
At the dairy DonQui learns how caciocavallo is made. This a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese is quite mild.Sicilians prefer to use it rather than northern Italian parmesan on their pasta.
DonQui finds it pleasant enough but a bit too bland to get excited about.
He does rather like the fresh version which has not been aged and is served with olive oil and herbs. It is a bit like mozzarella but slightly firmer
The curds are made into a delicious ricotta. The taste is vastly superior to any ricotta DonQui has tasted at home in England.
Sweetened ricotta is the filling for cannoli. These ones also have a few chocolate chips in them and they taste fabulous.
Since Roman times Sicily has been the bread-basket of Italy. The industrial revolution passed by the island without stopping. The result today is an agricultural landscape of small family farms abundant with vines, olives, almonds, lemons, oranges and grain. These together with cheese from livestock and fish from the sea have produced a delectable and healthy cuisine that harks back to the days of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs.
In order to more fully appreciate Sicilian cuisine, DonQui Oaty is spending a bit of time exploring its sources. He starts with wine.
The sweet fortified wines from Marsala on the west of the island were made famous in northern Europe by the English in the 18th century.
At the Alagana winery DonQui has the opportunity to see the grapes being delivered from the surrounding vineyards to make this most well known of Sicilian wines.
DonQui had thought that Marsala was Marsala — strong, sweet wine. He learns that there are actually many types of Marsala wines. Although the sweet ones are the most well known there are also dry and semi-dry versions, tasting a little bit like dry sherry. Marsala ranges in colour from oro (gold) to ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby). The latter is made from red grapes while the others are from white. The amber wine gains its darker colour from simmering the grape must until it reduces and caramelises.
DonQui is rather impressed by the Cotto which is the highly concentrated non-alcoholic grape must (musto). It can be used as an alternative sweetener in dressings, sauces and deserts. The locals recommend pouring it over chunks of rustic bread for a simple sweet treat.
The west of Sicily is best for its white wines. DonQui particularly likes the dry yet fruity Grillo made from a grape unique to Sicily and particularly well suited to the climate and conditions of the Marsala region.
He is also rather fond of the sweet Zibibbo. This is an ancient grape variety related to Muscat. The name is derived from the Arabic word for grape. It is as good a desert wine as DonQui has ever sampled. It is said that this is the wine favoured by Cleopatra and it is sometimes called Muscat of Alexandria.
The volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in the east of Sicily are particularly good for red wines. In the past these were produced in bulk and exported to mix with northern Italian and French vintages. Over the past 40 years there has been a move away from quantity in favour of quality—something DonQui utterly approves of.
At Gambino Vini, on the northeastern slopes of Mt Etna, DonQui has the opportunity to sample several excellent wines along with some rather tasty titbits.
He particualrly likes the Tifeo, named after Typhon, the monster of ancient Greek mythology whom, according to legend, is the source of Mt Etna’s volcanic eruptions. This full-boddied wine has earthy, mineral tastes derived from the volcanic soil in which it is grown. The 2016 is just ready to drink but would benefit from a bit more time in the bottle. It would keep well for up to up to another 8 years according to the vintner.
Even better (and quite a bit pricier) is the elegant Petto Dragone made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, originally brought to Sicily by the ancient Greeks.
Later at a caffe DonQui samples a local brandy (Brandy Siciliano). It is quite rough and not at all up to the standards of a basic Cognac or Armagnac. The Sicilians still have a bit of work to do in this department.
After a few tastings DonQui is anything but an expert on Sicilian wine. He has, however, had his taste buds awakened by delicious new flavours from ancient and nearly forgotten grape varieties. He vows to learn more.
DonQui has the opportunity to try his hand at Sicilian cooking under the watchful eyes of the chefs from Duca di Castelmonte, near Trapani.
Duca di Castlemonte is an old farm estate now converted into an excellent country restaurant and guest house.
DonQui Oaty’s first lesson is in making a traditional Sicilian spiral pasta (busiate).
This is done by rolling out a thin finger of dough then gently rolling it around a wooden stick to produce an elegant spiral. The stick is first dipped in flour to stop the dough from sticking to it.
DonQui takes his time with the first one, learning that it is best to make them quite thin and not too long.
Once he gets the hang of it he is able to produce them with confidence but it is a time consuming process which would be best done with several willing helpers. DonQui is fortunate that the dough (hard flour and water — no eggs) is pre-made for him.
The sauce is a Trapanese tomato pesto. The ingredients (for two) are:
2 pealed garlic cloves
approximately 2 tablespoons of blanched, lightly roasted almonds.
a small bunch of fresh basil (torn up)
a pinch of salt and pepper
a generous glug of olive oil
pulp of 4 red, ripe tomatoes; peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
To peel and seed the tomatoes: score the skin in quarters, cover with boiling water for about 5 minutes then let cool. The skins will peel off easily. To de-seed, squeeze the tomato over a bowl and the seeds and excess liquid will come out leaving just the pulp.
Prepare the pesto by first mashing up the dry ingredients and garlic, with a mortar and pestle, until it forms a sort of paste. Add the torn basil and pound together a bit more until well blended.
Add the tomato pulp and olive oil then mash it all together until well mixed. Set to one side.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water (You don’t necessarily need to use home-made pasta). Drain and tip out into a bowl and mix in the pesto.
Serve with a good sprinkling of chopped roasted almonds on top then enjoy.
It is one of the most divine pasta dishes DonQui has had the opportunity to taste. In his view it does not benefit from the addition of cheese.
Having decided to eat his way around Sicily, DonQui begins his gastronomic tour in Palermo.
The coffee from the machine in the hotel breakfast room is not that great so he takes a tip from a local and starts his day with a super-charged shot of espresso from the bar over the road.
Then he makes his way over to Capo market which is reminiscent of an Arab souk. This is hardly surprising given that it sprung up during the Arab occupation of Sicily 1200 years ago.
The tastefully arranged displays of vegetables are amazing and DonQui learns a couple of interesting facts.
These super long zucchini (courgettes) are a local speciality. They are grown over trellises which allow the zucchini to hang down and gain their long length.
In Palermo, broccoli is called “sparacelli” and cauliflower is called “broccoli”.
Palermo is famous for its street food.
After a bit of a wander around the market, DonQui stops off atArianna’s “Friggitoria Gastronomia” to sample some.
Cazzili are a sort of potato fritter flavoured with mint and parsley. Although not a great potato eater, DonQui rather likes them although one is plenty for him.
Next up are arancine — deep fried balls of saffron-flavoured rice with a filling of meat and vegetables. These can be found all over Italy but these ones use the original recipe which pre-dates the introduction of tomatoes to Europe. They are utterly delicious and DonQui much prefers the saffron rice to the tomato infused version often served elsewhere.
DonQui is informed by his local guide that a good arancina needs to be crisp and crunchy on the outside. This can only be achieved if freshly fried. If left in a display case for any length of time the steam will cause it to go soggy.
Panella — a fritter of chickpea flour is OK but a bit boring. It needs a good squeeze of lemon to give it some cut-though but even then it is rather bland, stodgy and a bit greasy. DonQui can imagine that it would be the sort of thing he might enjoy later in the evening after a few too many beers.
After a bit of a trot around the old city to work off one or two calories, DonQui summons up the courage to taste that most infamous of Palermo street food — the pani ca meusa, or spleen sandwich.
The inhabitants of Palermo love their spleen sandwiches and 72 year old Pippo has been preparing them since he was 6. His are reputed to be the best in the city.
Thinly sliced pieces of offal are slowly simmered in a cauldron. The only spicing is salt. You can have them “single” with just a squeeze of lemon, or “married” with a sprinkling of cheese as well. DonQui goes for the former as his guide advises that it is best to remain single at first and only contemplate marriage later.
DonQui finds it absolutely delicious. The meat is very tender and quite mild-tasting. The lemon juice provides a bit of a zing which balances the flavours perfectly. Maybe next time he will try ithe ‘married’ version with cheese.
A short trot away from Pippo’s spleen sandwich stall is a tiny taverna which has been operated by the same family since the 19th century.It is a bit of a dive but DonQui rather likes this as the place has plenty of atmosphere.
Here he samples the local sangue or “blood wine”. This is a rough, sweet, fortified wine — a little bit like port without any refinement. It is rather good and DonQui is glad he tried it, even if it does not quite match the taste of a good port or marsala.
To accompany his sangue he nibbles on some cheese and a piece of sfincione — thick soft bread with a topping of tomato, onion and anchovies. Although often described as Sicilian pizza, DonQui thinks it is perhaps more like a soft bruschetta. It is OK but not outstanding.
Having grazed his way around the old city, DonQui stops off at a gelateria for a coffee and bacio ice cream. A more traditional way to have an ice cream in Palermo would have been a broscia which is a brioche cut in half with an ice cream in the middle. Since he has eaten so much already DonQui decides to stick with a cone as do most of the locals eating there.
His stroll around the city provides DonQui with more than enough food to last him the day. In the evening he settles down at the very pleasant Caffe Spinnato on via Belvadore for a beer or two.
As these come with copious snacks he has no need to seek out a restaurant for dinner.
Note:DonQui likes to portray himself as an intrepid, independent explorer. He has a bit of that in him but the truth is that he would never have discovered the delights of Palermo street food on his own. His guide was the knowledgable and cheerful Marco on Exodus’ Sicily Food Adventure tour.
For many people, and the odd donkey, 7 is a lucky number. The recipe that follows must be very lucky indeed as DonQui makes it with seven vegetables and seven spices.
This is DonQui’s take on a traditional couscous from Fez, adapted from Paula Wolfert’s excellent book: Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. DonQui’s recipe differs from the traditional in two ways.
Firstly he uses no meat while the original contains both chicken and lamb. This is not because DonQui is a vegetarian — he is anything but. Rather it is because he is cooking for just two people, not a vast horde, and very occasionally he likes to experiment with vegetable dishes.
Secondly he likes his vegetables crisp and crunchy while the vegetables in most traditional Moroccan couscouses are cooked to the point where they are soft and soggy. This is because the vegetables (and meat) are used to produce a deep rich bouillon. It is the sauce that is important rather than the the individual ingredients that are used to make it. DonQui’s recipe tries to balance both — crisp, crunchy vegetables as well as a deep rich sauce.
Ingredients (for two people)
1 cup of dry couscous
500 ml chicken stock
500 ml lamb stock
1 small tin (250 g) of chopped tomatoes or 2 fresh large tomatoes peeled and chopped
a bunch of chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)
a bunch of chopped parsley
½ cup of dry chickpeas (garbanzo beans) soaked overnight
a handful of raisins
a handful of blanched almonds
salt to taste
harissa to taste
lemon juice to taste
a mix of butter and oil for frying
½ tsp ground coriander seed
½ tsp ground cumin seed
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp dry ground ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground black pepper
a pinch of saffron threads
DonQui parts from tradition here, using whatever is fresh and available as well giving a good colour balance rather than sticking to traditional Moroccan vegetables. This time he uses:
1 onion, finely chopped
1 small courgette (zucchini)
4 baby sweet corn
6 sprigs of tender stem broccoli
a handful of fine french beans
a bunch of broad beans (later podded).
The onion is essential but the other vegetables are entirely up to your taste. Turnip is a traditional vegetable in Moroccan couscous and it adds a nice peppery flavour to the sauce. Unfortunately there were none available in his local shop when he made this dish. Normally he would try to include it.
Notes: DonQui uses a combination of chicken and lamb stock as the traditional recipe is made with both chicken and lamb. He sometimes uses only chicken stock. Alternatively if you want a vegetarian dish then you could use 1 litre of vegetable stock instead.
To peel fresh tomatoes, place them in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them sit for a few minutes and the skins will come off. It is easier if you quarter the tomatoes before peeling.
Method Note: This dish takes several hours preparation. DonQui usually starts in the morning for an evening meal. Most of the more complicated stages can be done well in advance to leave the final preparations to the last 30 minutes.
Drain the chickpeas and simmer in boiling water for 1 hour. Then drain.
In the bottom of a couscousiere gently fry the chopped onion in the butter and oil until it begins to colour. DonQui also likes to add one chopped carrot as well.
When the onion-carrot mix begins to colour but before it burns, add the chickpeas and all the spices. Stir for about a few seconds over a medium heat.
Add the tomatoes, salt, coriander and parsley, stirring continuously so that the mix is well blended but does not scorch. The add the stock and bring to the boil.
Place the couscous in the top half of the couscousiere and steam over the mixture for 20 minutes as described in step 2 of How to Make the Perfect Couscous.Up to this point everything can be done well in advance and it is better to do so. You can then set everything off to one side and make the final preparations without time-stress.
Thirty minutes before you wish to serve, add the raisins to the mixture in the bottom of the couscousiere and bring back up to the boil. Place the pre-prepared couscous back on top to steam another 20 minutes as described in step 3 of How to Make the Perfect Couscous.
The original 1 litre of stock will have reduced considerably by the end of this stage but it should be enough to continue to steam the couscous while forming a rich broth. If it looks like it is evaporating too much then add a little water.
Gently fry the blanched almonds in butter until they turn a golden brown. Tip out on a plate covered with paper towels to dry and set aside to dry.
Meanwhile prepare the fresh vegetables by cutting the larger ones (carrots and courgette) into julienne style batons about 3 cms long. Cut the french beans in half widthwise and slice larger baby corn in half lengthwise. Cut off the thicker parts of the broccoli stalks. Although not essential, broad beans are best if you remove the outer skin of the individual beans after podding. This is best done by blanching for a minute or two, pinching an opening in the outer skin and then squeezing the tender inner bean through it.
When the couscous has steamed for 20 minutes add the carrots to the broth and continue to simmer for 2 minutes more. Then add the baby corn, broccoli and beans, and simmer for 3 minutes. Finally add the courgette for a final 2 minutes. In this way the carrots will have cooked for 7 minutes, the beans and corn 5 minutes and the courgette for 2 minutes. Adjust your cooking times to the individual vegetables and your taste. DonQui likes his still a bit crunchy and these timings give him that.
Tip the couscous out onto a serving platter. Fluff up with a fork (possibly adding a few dollops of butter) and form a well in the centre for the vegetables.
Strain the vegetables, reserving the broth. Tip the drained vegetables into the well of the couscous.
Pour the strained broth back into the bottom of the couscousiere. Bring back up to the boil and immediately take off the heat. Add a dollop of harissa and a squeeze of lemon juice to taste and stir well. Taste for seasoning and pour the broth into a serving jug or gravy boat.
Sprinkle the vegetables with the fried almonds and serve with the broth on the side.
Moroccan food must be counted amongst the world’s great cuisines. DonQui has been in love with it for many years and he enjoys preparing a Moroccan feast as much as he enjoys partaking in it.
His faithful guide to unlocking the secrets of this wonderful cuisine has been Paula Wolfert’s brilliant Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. The pages of his copy are now stained from use and the pages are coming apart. It is from these pages that DonQui discovered how to make delectable tagines as well as the traditional way of preparing couscous.
Couscous in the West is rarely prepared properly. Most instructions simply tell you to pour boiling water or stock over the couscous, let it swell for 5 minutes and then loosen the grains with a fork, perhaps adding a little butter. You can make couscous this way and it will be edible but the grains will swell to at most twice their size. Done in the traditional way the couscous grains will swell up to at least three times their original size without becoming soggy or lumpy. The result is a deliciously light, fluffy concoction — perfect for sopping up the deep rich bouillon in which the accompanying meats and/or vegetables are prepared.
The trick is to let the grains absorb water in three stages, drying out in between and steaming the couscous over the meat, vegetables and spices which will accompany it. You will need a couscousiere to do this. The process is simple but it takes time. DonQui is a great fan of the slow food movement and he is of no doubt the time taken is well worth the effort.
This is how it is done:
First Stage. Washing and Drying
Put approximately 1 cup of dry couscous for every two people in a large deep bowl. It will not look like much and DonQui often worries that it will not be enough. Fear not. It will grow to three times as much — or more.
Pour a good amount of cold water over it. DonQui never measures exactly but is should be more than enough to cover the grains and then some. Swish the grains around in the water for a few seconds with your hands (the water will then become cloudy).
Gently pour off the excess water (no need to use a sieve) leaving the wet grains in the bowl to settle.
Set aside to let the grains absorb the remaining water and then dry. This will take about 30 minutes. You can let the couscous sit for as long as you like. DonQui often does this hours before he intends to start cooking.
When the grains are dry (this does not have to be done immediately) break up the couscous with your hands so that the grains are no longer sticking together. By this time the couscous will have expanded to about twice the original size.
Second Stage. The First Steaming
Place the fluffed up couscous grains in the colander of a couscousiere on top of the food you are cooking to accompany it.
You will need a good deal of liquid in the bottom half of the couscousiere as much of it will evaporate in the steaming process.
Bring the liquid in the bottom half of the couscousiere to a vigorous boil and steam the couscous on top of it for 20 minutes, uncovered.
Tip the steamed couscous back into the bowl and immediately pour about ¼ litre of cold water with a dash of olive oil over the hot grains. Swish the bowl around for a few seconds then let it settle for the couscous to absorb the water. It is best to add the water in stages as too much at this stage may cause the couscous to become soggy.
Set aside to dry as in the first stage. Once again this can be done hours in advance. By this time the grains will have expanded to three times their original size or more.
Third Stage. The Second Steaming
Thirty minutes before you wish to serve, break up the couscous with your hands so that they are no longer sticking together and there are no lumps.
Once again steam the couscous for 20 minutes, uncovered, in the top half of a couscousiere. In the last few minutes DonQui often adds a few dots of butter.
Tip out onto a serving platter and fluff up with a fork or two so that there are no lumps.
Either form a mound, over which the meat and vegetables can be placed. Or form a well in the centre for the same purpose. Then enjoy!
In his next blog, DonQui will give a recipe for a vegetable accompaniment which he recently cooked in the bottom half of the couscousiere as the grains were steaming. Over time he will add additional recipes.
If you only want light fluffy couscous (for a salad, for example). You could steam the couscous over a simple stock.
After enjoying his day at Jekka’s Herb Farm, Duchess treats DonQui to a meal at Michelin-starred Casamia — Bristol’s finest restaurant. Many of the herbs they use are sourced from Jekka’s farm.
After the slightly disappointing experience at the Black Swan in Yorkshire, DonQui wonders if the multi-course tasting menu at Casamia will also be a little over-fussy. He need not have worried. The meal is utterly exquisite — each small dish of the 12 course menu is a wonderful gastronomic experience in its own right and the courses build beautifully.
Tucked away on a pedestrianised road beside the Bathurst Basin water, the contemporary styled restaurant has room for only 35 diners, creating a nice intimate atmosphere with the tables spaced well enough apart that there is no crowding. On arrival Duchess and DonQui are treated to a quick tour of the huge open kitchen where the enthusiastic young cooks prepare the dishes.
We are given no menu in advance. Instead we are advised to sit back and enjoy the journey. Every dish is brought to our table by one of the enthusiastic cooks who helped prepare it. They give detailed explanations and are happy to answer questions. The pride in their creations is palpable.
The meal begins on a high note with an incredible parmesan tartlet. The ultra-fine crisp pastry filled with a parmesan cheese mouse and topped with grated parmesan is a taste explosion with beautifully contrasting textures. It is one of the most wonderful things DonQui had ever eaten.
Hot on its heals came a fabulous dish of Canary Islands prawn served on a lava rock evoking the islands’ volcanic state.
The dishes are very small — tiny even, but with 12 courses to get though this is a good thing. Every dish is exquisite and DonQui finds it hard to find the words to do justice to the tastes. In addition to the parmesan tart a couple of other dishes stand out.
The brown trout served with a white-hot piece of charcoal on top still cooking the fish is not just a piece of showmanship. The lingering taste of charcoal infuses the fish with its flavour and the crispy skin is served on the side, much like a piece of pork crackling. The monkfish tail with a champagne sabayon is also quite delectable and definitely one of the stand-out dishes. It is helped by the fact that DonQui opted for the wine pairing and a glass of the champagne which was used in the sauce is served alongside it.
A wonderful sourdough bread with tangy cultured butter is served as a separate course after the salad and before the two fish dishes. DonQui remarks to the chef that he is not a fan of bread being served before the meal. Inevitably he is hungry then and eats far too much of it. The chef replies that the bread is so good that it deserves to be served as a course in its own right. He is correct and it helps that the previous dishes have knocked the edge off DonQui’s hunger.
The meat courses are based on duck with a flavourful consommé preceding a beautifully cooked piece of breast with a crisp, spicy-herb skin and a rich sauce.
DonQui is very glad that he chose the ‘wine flight’ as Cassamia calls it. In doing so each of his dishes is accompanied by a different wine, few of which are familiar to DonQui. Amongst the most notable are the Equinocio Branco from Southern Portugal which goes very well with the opening courses and the French Uroulat Jurançon desert wine.
The deserts are as sublime as the savoury courses. There are several of them including a passion fruit concoction served in an elegant ceramic pot as well as a mix of strawberry based sweets. Perhaps the most unusually interesting is the tiny porcini mushroom fudge served at the end of the meal — the earthiness of mushroom unexpectedly and beautifully combining with the sweetness of the fudge.
This is probably the best meal DonQui has had in a long time. Given the restaurant’s reputation and its small size, bookings need to be made well in advance.