We arrived in Sicily in a snarling mood. The journey had been miserable, but we’d lucked out on the destination. Our Airbnb turned out to be a sumptuously baroque house with marble fireplaces, antique terracotta tiles and a sweeping stone staircase.
Best of all, it was on a private estate surrounded by an abundance of fruiting trees — veteran, gnarled olives, almonds, oranges, lemons, figs — with Mount Etna looming in the background, smoke billowing from her core, blessing the soil and whatever blossomed from it with her volcanic eruptions. I stood squinting at the sky amid a symphony of bird calls and the hum of bees, the thud of ripe fruit surrendering to gravity. My London fatigue evaporated.
With our bellies rumbling we drove into town in search of lunch, but we’d forgotten that Sicilians love a siesta. The shops were shut and the piazza had emptied out so that the great snooze could ensue. Doggedly, we followed our noses to the warm waft of a trattoria where the clatter of cutlery rang out from behind a door left ajar. Inside, convivial diners sat around long tables with platters of cheeses and cured meats, small, marinated fish, oiled up buxom tomatoes and so much more.
It was a private party, the christening of a dimpled baby who turned out to be the owner’s granddaughter. Our charm offensive paid off and they agreed to let us have a table on the terrace as long as we were happy to eat whatever came out of the kitchen. We accepted gratefully.
Gastronomically speaking, Sicily is the meeting place of at least two major traditions, the Arab and the southern Italian. The result, as we discovered that afternoon, is a succession of thrills: an imposition of spices on the homegrown, sweet and sour sauces made with tart capers and sweet raisins and desserts rich with nuts and ricotta.
It was quite the culinary parade: a bottle of Etna Rosso perfumed like a Catholic church, bowls of robust caponata, sardines swimming in grassy olive oil, mountains of ricotta salata grated over pasta alla Norma and a cake bursting with fruit and booze served in a pool of cream. As I do every time I have an excellent meal, I go home and try to recreate its magic. So here’s a taste of Sicily — no Air Miles required.
Heat half the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the aubergine in batches and stir occasionally until golden, then drain on a plate lined with kitchen paper. Add the remaining oil to the pan and fry the onion, celery and pepper and stir occasionally until they are very tender — this will take 8-10 minutes. Sprinkle in the cinnamon and the garlic and fry until fragrant, and then add the tomatoes, sugar and 250ml water and simmer until reduced by half. Return the aubergine to the pan and simmer until tender and the mixture is reduced to a thick sauce. Remove from the heat and stir in the olives, capers, currants and vinegar. Season and cool to room temperature. Serve scattered with the basil and parsley and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Pasta con le sarde
Begin by making the pangrattato. Preheat the oven to 180C. Mix together all the ingredients in a small bowl, spread out on a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and crisp. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, bring the wine to a simmer and take it off the heat. Add the sultanas and saffron and leave to infuse.
Season the sardines. Drizzle them with a little oil and then fry for 2 minutes on each side until golden, crisp and cooked through. Set aside and keep warm.
Heat the remaining olive oil over a low-medium heat. Add the fennel and fennel seeds and cook until tender. Pour in the wine and sultanas, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook for 10 minutes or until the liquid has almost evaporated.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large saucepan of boiling salted water, drain and return to the pan along with the fennel. Add the sardines, the parsley and half the pangrattato, then toss gently to combine. Serve immediately, scattered with remaining breadcrumb mix and some lemon wedges.
Apricot ricotta cake
For the sponge
Preheat the oven to 180C and lightly butter and line a 20cm cake tin with greaseproof paper.
Add the apricots, sugar and Moscato to a pan and simmer for five minutes until they are tender but still holding their shape. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
In a large bowl beat the whole egg, the yolks, sugar and seeds from the vanilla pod until pale and thick. Slowly add the cooled butter followed by the ricotta to the thickened eggs. Once the batter is smooth, fold through the flour, baking powder and salt. Spoon the mixture into the tin and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Peel the skin off the apricots and arrange them over the batter, gently pushing in a little. Scatter flaked almonds evenly over the surface of the cake. Reserve the syrup for later.
Place the cake into the middle of the oven and cook for 20-25 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the centre. Meanwhile, reduce the Moscato syrup over a medium heat until thickened and brush over the surface of the cake.
Allow the cake to cool in the tin before slicing and serving. Serve with cream if desired.
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