by Musetta Joyce © 2015
Italy is divided into Regioni and each region subdivided into Province with each province having its own favourite food and Sicily is no exception as everyone clings jealously to their own local traditional customs.
Thus Messina is influenced by its position as the nearest city to what they call la continente. Your first taste of one of their favourite inventions will be on the ferry from Calabria, for during the twenty minute trip carrying unshackled railway carriages, heavy trucks and cars, passengers will flock to the bar to buy arancini. These deep fried balls of rice are examples of the Messinese passion for stuffing anything edible, and you can chose between stewed beef or ham with mozzarella to ooze out as you bite into the 'little oranges'.
As you walk along the streets at lunchtime you will get whiffs of whatever is on the menu of the day. It is likely that it will involve tomatoes, garlic and fish. Fish of all kinds and sizes, from huge tuna and swordfish to diminutive neonati newborn anchovies, are immensely popular.
The two and a half kilometres wide Straits of Messina that separates Sicily from the mainland of Italy is where they catch most of the swordfish. Special fishing boats have lookout towers 20 metres tall for somebody to spot the fish, and a 15 metre long plank in front of the boat where others stand ready to harpoon the prey. This is to keep the fish under the illusion that the boat is far behind them, as the noise of the motor would scare them off. Swordfish usually swim in pairs, and when the female is caught her mate will always follow his partner to their death. So expert fishermen have learnt to recognise flirtatious feminine behaviour to aim for. Fish caught this way are deemed to have the best flavour and so are more expensive.
Photo © Victor Sullivan 31/05/2010
Locals also love little fish called costerdelle and aguglie that look like miniature swordfish and are eaten fried with a raw onion salad, or fresh anchovies that, being easy to filet, are usually stuffed. Stuffing is nearly always the same: breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley and grated cheese. The breadcrumbs are made from stale loaves, and last for months. They are also used for making meatballs, and for coating slices of meat, fish, aubergines etc, and even with pasta when funds are low. I once lived with a couple whose diet varied according to the husband's luck at the local gambling den, as he never went to work. On the bad days, they would serve spaghetti with garlic and salted anchovies fried in olive oil, with a sprinkling of pan-toasted breadcrumbs. On the good days he would bring home spiedini (stuffed veal) from the best tavola calda – takeaway.
Other seafood that the Messinese really appreciate include octopus, squid, clams (with pasta) and mussels (grown in the lakes at nearby Ganzirri), none of which I have ever managed to acquire a taste for, but their all time favourite is the one I hate most of all: stockfish! This dried cod from the far north is a delicacy both in Venice and Messina, ports at the opposing end of the 'boot'. They like to eat it raw in the summer and cooked alla ghiotta with potatoes (one of the very few times they tolerate potatoes) in winter, after soaking it at length. This is when it gives off the most awful stink. It is soaked for anything up to ten days and often treated with lime to hurry the process. I have to leave the room whenever it is being served.
On the subject of queasy stomachs, another local 'delicacy' that I cannot watch being enjoyed is the snail. In Messina snails live in small black shells and, once fried, are poked out with toothpicks in order to eat. They are so popular that they are sometimes sent abroad to homesick Messinese. La Mamma once sent a large packet full of live snails by post to her son in Salzburg. They were supposed to behave and stay asleep only the cold woke them and the post office in Salzburg phoned my sister-in-law to complain of very suspicious noises coming from the parcel. Evidently, unlike snakes that hibernate in winter, these snails go into aestivation during the hot summer when there is no rain and only emerge in autumn. But, as it is in their sleepy state that they are at their tastiest, they get dug up in July and August. With the widespread use of chemical fertilizers local snails have become very scarce; they are now imported from Turkey and Tunisia, and have become very expensive.
Anyway, back to fish, the normal legless kind: in Messina they use the whole fish, head, bones and all, to make a sauce for spaghetti with garlic, parsley and tomatoes and white wine. One of the favourite fish for this sauce is the cernia, (grouper) and one day himself managed to catch a very large specimen indeed.
'What are we going to do? It's still alive. I could cut it up, give some away. Or freeze it.' He was so excited with his catch that it had to be shown off.
'But we have guests at the weekend – wouldn't it last till then?'
'Five days? You must be joking. Wait a minute – I have an idea.' And off he went back to the boat with hooks and line and an anchor.
'That should do it. Luckily the cernia has extra wide gills. It's got plenty of line to swim around for a few days.'
On Friday he managed to catch a couple of lads delighted with their 'find' just it time to save our plan and on Saturday evening we brought the poor fish to the best local restaurant where they cooked it and served us and our guests. It turned out to be one of those dinners that stood out in our records of extra special occasions.
But, back to everyday mealtimes when the staple food is, of course, La Pasta. Not for Sicilians are alternatives like risotto or polenta, for a meal without pasta of some kind is not a real meal for them. Only if you are sick would you accept rice with a dab of butter, but even then they would prefer pastina, tiny versions of the real stuff, to satisfy the toothless or those with any digestive disorder.
The shape of the pasta is very important and varies according to the dish. Odd shapes like strozzapreti (priest strangler), cavatappi (corkscrews) or orecchiette (little ears) are not for the Messinese; they favour margherite (marguerite petals) or ditali (thimbles). It is vital that it is boiled in correctly salted water, for salt is never added at the table, and it must be al dente (biteable), both of which qualities are, of course, personally variable and subjects of heated argument.
I was once startled to read an article on the front page of the Gazetta del Sud describing the scene of crime in an old people's home dining hall, when an eighty year old pulled out a gun and shot the elderly woman he had considered his fidanzata, because he had spotted her chatting to a rival. 'And the meal they had been eating was margherite with zucchini and baked ricotta!' the article continued, making the crime all the more inexplicable, as the old folk were eating a favourite dish.
One day, with some time on my hands and the children at the crèche, I made lasagne from scratch: fresh pasta with the help of a hand machine, slow cooked meat sauce and my first béchamel which turned out miraculously free from lumps. With the family at the table I drew the bubbling perfection from the oven, only to be met with scorn.
'Che diavolo! What is that supposed to be?'
'It's lasagne. It's famous. People love it.'
'And that creamy stuff on top?'
'Hah, French! I knew it was some foreign nonsense. Well, I'm not eating that stuff.'
And he didn't, for although Bolognese and creamy sauces have become international favourites, in Messina they prefer their pasta with simple tomato sauce.
Except on Sundays, when various kinds of meats – stuffed veal, sausages, spare ribs and meatballs are doused in red wine and slowly stewed in lashings of tomato sauce. The meats are then fished out and served as the main dish, after the pasta course. For special picnics a more complicated dish is usually prepared: pasta al forno (oven baked pasta), into which practically everything but the kitchen sink is added to macaroni drowned in tomato sauce: small meatballs, peas, hard boiled eggs, salami, mozzarella, parmesan, fried aubergines, ham, etc etc.
But it is in the stuffing of seasonal vegetables that the Messinese excel. It is very hard to beat stuffed artichokes in spring and peppers and aubergines in summer. The best stuffed aubergines I ate last year were made by a ninety-year-old great-great grandmother visiting her daughter in the nearby countryside. Coming from Messina with her son, an old friend of my husband's, she had got up at dawn to cook the aubergines with three different kinds of cheese. They brought fresh fish from the city: tiny prawns, squid as well as fresh tuna to make the pasta sauce. It was an unexpected feast and a celebration of energetic healthy old age.
Yes, it's true that the Mediterranean Diet is reputed to be one of the healthiest, with its emphasis on fruit, vegetables and fish as well as food prepared with care as an expression of love for family and friends and taking the time to eat slowly with the whole family around the table. Even the shops close 'for lunch' from 12.30. to 4.30.
However, one problem with the Messinese love for very sweet cakes and biscuits as well as too much sugar in their bitter expresso coffees, is that it has led to an increase in diabetes, not helped by their preference for fizzy orangeade while oranges rot on the trees all around the countryside. Add to this their sedentary lifestyle, for most town and city dwellers are confined to small apartments and drive everywhere, with fruit and vegetables grown out of season and bloated with chemicals, fish that are farmed and poultry that are battery reared, and it is not surprising that there are those who fall into ill health.
Still, death notices for country folk show them lasting well into their nineties, and a recent Italian survey claims that Eighty is the new Fifty, so the Mediterranean Diet must be worth considering.