IMG_3042‘Gazzosa’ (or ‘gassosa’ – alternative spelling) and ‘Chinotto’ are old-fashioned Italian carbonated soft drinks.  They haven’t been trendy for years – if they ever were.  But now, Lurisia,  bottler of the famous mineral water from the S. Barbara springs in Lurisia Terme in Piedmont, is producing a superior version of both.  It’s worth looking out for.

The Lurisia products are made of Lurisia mineral water  and the juice of carefully selected fruits; free of colouring agents and preservatives; packaged in recyclable glass bottles; and labelled with simple, stylish and, according to some slightly ‘snobbish’, labels.  They’re a marketer’s dream it’s true, but the drinks themselves are delicious – well-worth whatever effort it takes to find them.

I hadn’t heard of ‘Gazzosa’ until recently I heard it being ordered in a local bar.  “It’s not at all a refined drink”, I was told, ” just lemonade”.  And, in fact,  when I checked a dictionary later, I found that ‘gassosa’ is defined as ‘lemonade’.  But it doesn’t seem to be quite what we usually think of as lemonade.  Having asked for ‘Gazzosa’, my friends were  apparently served Schweppes lemonade – they knew immediately it wasn’t ‘gassosa’ .  Gassosa, they said, is different: not as sweet, slighter more bitter.  Later, the waiter confirmed that he hadn’t, in fact, served Gassosa.  He said you don’t see Gassosa around much any more: these days, more often than not, when you order it in a bar in Palermo, you’ll be served Schweppes.

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IMG_3028In any other city,  lunching at ‘Carlo il Salumiere’ would have been a pleasant experience.  Here, there was an added frisson and air of discovery.

Our visit began in the main sunny thoroughfare of  Ballaro’, one of the city’s biggest, oldest, noisiest and most colourful food markets, and continued into the tangle of narrow, shaded laneways that surround it. ‘Carlo il Salumiere’ is tucked away in one of these, in an elegant and stylishly restored 17th century palace.  At the end of the laneway, we discovered as we left, there is another palace; but this one, while still hauntingly beautiful, is derelict and abandoned.  The city is full of  these contradictions: breathtaking possibilities linger even in the darkest streets; then,  just around the corner,  there is neglect and abandonment, a seeming failure of will.

And always, there are questions.  They seem never to leave you alone.

In the Ballaro’ market where he’s been operating for years, selling the finest cheeses and salume –  hams, mortadellas, finocchione, salami – Carlo is known as ‘Carlo il salumiere’.  Last year, he opened a little restaurant in a side street off the market.  It proved to be so successful that a few months later he moved into premises on the ground floor of Palazzo Prestipino, in via San Nicolo’ all’Albergheria.

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“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days!” Leviticus 23:40.

IMG_2239These huge, slightly bizarre looking, lemon-like fruit are a constant presence in Sicily’s winter markets. Piles and piles of them: intensely, brilliantly yellow.  I was curious, but never imagined they might be of such ancient lineage or poetic association.  “The fruit of beautiful trees” –  possibly only those familiar with the Feast of the Temples, one of Judaism’s three annual pilgrimage festivals, would know that this refers to the citron – the slightly bizarre, overgrown ‘lemons’ that appear in such abundance on Sicily’s market stalls.

They may continue to look like slightly bizarre, overgrown  lemons, but for me they will now always be “the fruit of beautiful trees”.   Maybe a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet!

But what to do with “the fruit of beautiful trees”?    The citron is quite unlike an orange or lemon – it is almost all pith, with only a small amount of flesh at the centre and very little juice.  It’s often used for candied citron peel, an ingredient in many Italian sweets, including panettone and Sicily’s famous cannoli – and in English Christmas puddings. But that’s not where all the piles of citron in the market are destined.  Here are some of the other ways it is used.

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Like many other Sicilian families of their class, every year, in May, the Agnello family would pack up and travel to their country estate – and there they would remain for the summer months. It was a short journey from the family palace in Agrigento to the large airy farm house at Mose’, but a major excursion. At Mose’, the family entered into a completely different way of life.

For those who made the journey many years ago, the Mose’ of today is obviously greatly changed. The farm, which still produces olives, almonds, pistachios and wheat, as well as fruit and vegetables, is greatly reduced in size, and the house and surrounding buildings have been extensively restored and opened to guests. Nevertheless, thanks largely to Chiara who now manages the farm and Agriturismo business, it is still possible to feel something of the rhythm of a past way of life. Something of those magical summers that linger on in the family’s memory can now be shared by anyone who visits.

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“If the bee were to disappear from the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left.”  – Albert Einstein


I have always wanted to keep bees, so when I saw a notice in the morning paper about a guided tasting of cheese and Sicilian honey, I was keen to read on.  The guiding was to be done by Carlo Amodeo,  who, according to the notice, is a very special bee keeper, largely responsible for saving the Sicilian black bee (Apis mellifera sicula) from extinction, and now producing highly prized honey using typical Sicilian plants – from orange blossom and mandarin to loquat; red clover and thyme to chestnut.  For me, this was clearly an event not to be missed!

And it proved to be every bit as interesting as the notice had promised.  We had the opportunity to try most of the honeys, learning to match the stronger flavoured honeys, such as chestnut, with mild cheeses and the more delicate honeys, such as orange blossom or loquat, with stronger cheeses.  But it was the story of the Sicilian black bees and Carlo Amodeo’s role in saving them from extinction that really captured my attention.   

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I discovered Emma Dante, quite by chance, while browsing in a bookshop  recently opened in Palazzo Cattolica, one of Palermo’s grand old palaces. I’m not sure what it was that attracted me to the small  book called Interview with Emma Dante.  Maybe because it was an interview I thought the Italian would be relatively easy to follow;  or maybe I just found the size and appearance of the book appealing – it’s an attractively produced little book, just  12 x 16cm, printed on lovely smooth white paper.   Whatever it was, I had soon read enough to realise that Emma Dante was both a formidable talent and an interesting commentator on Palermo: definitely someone I wanted to know more about.   

What interested me most, initially, was her relationship with Palermo.  She is one of the most important figures in contemporary European theatre, her works regularly performed to acclaim – yet here in Palermo, her home city, she is virtually unknown and her works are almost never performed.  Not surprisingly, she is highly critical of the city, but her relationship with it is complex: on the one hand she despairs of Palermo; on the other, she is deeply attached to it.  It is the force behind her work.

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 The colourful abundance of Palermo’s Vucciria market was already a dream when Renato Guttoso created his famous painting, La Vucciria, in 1974.  By then, Guttoso had been living in Rome for years and was painting largely from memory.  He was painting a market he had known well and was dreaming of still; and the work he created has helped  keep the dream alive for others.   Although these days the  market itself is much diminished, in many ways a sad reminder of days long gone, the Vucciria has acquired an almost iconic significance in the city: despite everything, something of its old magic and distinctive character remain.      

Other food markets in Palermo’s historic centre, such as the nearby Ballaro’ and Capo markets, may now be bigger, more vibrant and exciting, but there is still nowhere better than the Vucciria to sample some of Palermo’s famous ‘fast food’.  The Vucciria is, in fact, famous for two in particular:  polpo bollito (boiled octopus)  and panini con milza (bread rolls filled with spleen of veal). 

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Palermo’s food markets have their own particular charm –  it’s a raw, earthy charm, devoid of any prettiness or contrived display.  The stall holders, almost universally men, are tough, concentrated, often surly, leathery skinned, loud voiced, and energetic; the buildings lining the narrow, paved streets often run down.   What matters is the produce, abundant and colourful  under faded red canvas awnings and bright unshaded light bulbs.  The markets are appealing in every season, but for me, the winter markets have a particular charm.      

The dominant colour is green, splashed here and there with the brilliance of radishes, oranges, lemons and pumpkins.  The stalls are full of all types of green vegetable: huge stacks, row upon row,  of pale green cauliflowers; bunches of fern-like wild fennel and dark green broccoli and, everywhere, giri, a Sicilian plant with the darkest green glossy leaves and startingly white stalks – something like a cross between silver beet and spinach, it’s a particular favourite of mine. 

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Imagine that the face of someone close to you, someone you loved, had suddenly been radically altered – even taking on some of the characteristics of someone you didn’t like at all.  As I pondered this scenario in Paul Broks’ intriguing book Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology, my thoughts turned to the new face of Casa Merlo.  The proprietors are the same, so is the stock – and the manner in which it is displayed.  And yet my reaction to the shop in its new premises is markedly changed.  Before, the shop was interesting; now, it is irresistible.

In the five years since it opened, Casa Merlo has become one of Palermo’s most interesting speciality ceramics shops.  Its previous premises in one of the old city’s beautiful historic squares, Piazza S. Francesco d’Assissi, was simple and elegant, the ceramics clearly and intelligently displayed.  But, somehow, there I always felt I was being kept at a distance.  The new premises, with its fantasy of shapes and colours reflected in mirrored and dark wood antique shelving, fires my imagination and draws me in.  The richness of the Sicilian ceramics tradition is being displayed to perfection. 

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This week I visited Salina, one of the Aeolian Islands off Sicily’s north-east coast, and came upon Da Alfredo, a tiny waterfront bar, famous, I’ve since discovered, for its granita.  I had never heard of Da Alfredo, but one taste of its granita and I knew it was something special. 

The bar’s location is perfect: it is in a tiny piazza on the waterfront in Lingua, a peaceful and attractive little village on the south-eastern tip of Salina, looking out over the water to the islands of Lipari, Panarea and Stromboli.    

The more I learned about Da Alfredo and its granita, the more impressed I became.  Perhaps not surprisingly!  I always derive pleasure from seeing traditional products being made with great care and skill, and family traditions developing as sons or daughters pick up the skills of their parents with energy and enthusiasm and take them to a new level.  Both these things are part of the story of Da Alfredo.

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