You know how there are people you meet with whom you immediately feel a connection, like you’ve known them in another life? Well, I get this feeling with places. The first time I felt this was when I went to London. My father told me that I was feeling the pull of my ancestors who came to America from England in the 17th century. Even though I have no Italian ancestors, I felt the same connection when I moved to Catania two years ago. From landing over Etna and the sea to my taxi driver speaking to me in dialect, I was immediately comfortable and content, a great feat after a grueling 20 hours of traveling. I had just finished a three-month course in Siena where I was not exactly content, but in Catania I felt as much at home as I do San Diego. Although I was constantly challenged, I flourished in the southern chaos. I know I’ve done a post on Catania before, but this time it’s christmas themed.
Returning this weekend after two years gave me a sense of déjà vu. My friend Cri was just where I left her at the little bar called il Chioschetto in Piazza Universita. My old friends in fact were all sitting outside in the sun smoking and drinking espresso as always. It was the same and yet different as I could no longer call myself a resident of Palazzo Hernandez.
One thing that certainly had not changed was the warmth and sense of hospitality. I got to experience this hospitality this week when I stayed with a friend for Christmas. It was a fantastic experience full of food and friends.
The thing I love and identify most with about Sicilians is their love of good food and their passion for life and beauty. Even the way of speaking in Sicily is more expressive and that’s not to mention the mix of Spanish, Greek, and Arabic that makes up the Sicilian dialect. Anyways, enough about my love of Sicily and on to my Christmas experience.
I arrived on Sunday afternoon seriously unprepared with my single backpack of clothes and armed with a large jar of homemade granola (Thank you Sarah of My New Roots), which of course caused some confusion going through security in Milan. Granola, after all, is not Italian, causing an argument among the TSA folks about whether or not I am Italian. I of course happily let them duke it out, as it proved that some of my Americanness must have faded over the past couple of months.
My lovely hostess Simona arrived at the airport to pick me up and take me to eat on the beach. Leaving freezing snowy Lombardia for the Sicilian sun, my obvious first desire was to head to the ocean, my second was to eat. At a caffe on the rocks overlooking the sparkling waters and Sicilian sun bathers, I savored my almond flavored granita, a soft but grittier version of gelato.
After absorbing as much sun as possible, we started the ascent to Simona’s house in the hills. Our journey was punctuated by frequent stops for seaside walks and photo opps, and I reacquainted myself with my old friend Sicily. Dinner that night was a typical multi-course birthday dinner with the grand finale of profitterols from Savia where the father of the birthday girl works. Sicilian desserts are famous in Italy, and this one didn’t disappoint. I decided it was well worth the blood sugar spike and the extra lbs.
The next day was Christmas eve and I awoke happy and well-rested in Simona’s large bed (again Sicilian hospitality doesn’t disappoint). On the agenda for today, surprise my old friends with a visit. As it was a last minute trip, I hadn’t told anyone that I was coming. The surprised expressions and billion hugs warmed my frozen Bergamasca heart. I was soon joking about northern and southern differences, trading my newly acquired bergamasco accent for Sicilian, and the mess that is the upcoming Italian elections. Parting ways yet again, I prepared myself for the midnight Christmas eve feast, observing as eggplants and pieces of bony white fish were sliced, dusted with flour, and fried. I am embarrassed to say that I don’t quite remember everything I ate that night, just that it was a lot, and that the first course was an amazing and healthy lentil dish, and that I finished dinner with a Sicilian mandarin and wine alla siciliana ( wine with the peel of the mandarin in it).
At midnight gifts were exchanged. I gave my single offering of granola made with love to Simona and her family and received two Sicilian posters (now hanging in my room) and a pair of gorgeous purple earrings, which I did not take off for the rest of the trip. The card from the family was addressed, “to Julie, in love with our land, with affection…” Again, I cannot stress enough the elegance and hospitality of Sicilians.
Christmas day arrived with more sun, as I began to prepare my contribution to the family lunch. My contribution was my family’s famous Thanksgiving apple pie. Totally American and totally delicious. Although not difficult, making an apple pie from scratch requires a lot of love, care, and time. The most important thing is the dough. The ingredients must be kept cold at all times to create the perfect crumbly golden crust. Having started the process late, the pie went in the oven as we started the meal, meaning that it was ready just in time for dessert.
The highlight of Christmas lunch was a fabulous pumpkin risotto with fennel, cooked and served inside the pumpkin. Completely winter appropriate and fantastic with or without the addition of local cheese. My pie was the final course served alongside beautiful little ricotta pastries that Sicily is famous for. For some, my pie was a hit. Italian desserts tend to be extremely sweet and creamy, so apple pie is a bit of shock for many Italians as the body of the dessert is in fact fruit. Italians have their own apple cake, but that is really a white cake with pieces of apple on top, a world away from our pies. Even with a lot of sugar and sweet fresh apples, an apple pie is not as sweet as a cannoli.
All too soon my four day trip was over and it was time to head back north. In typical Sicilian style I was given sausage, cheese made with pistachios, and oranges to feed my trip home. I left Catania a few pounds heavier, a bit tanner, and with my soul healed and my stomach filled. The posters hang on my walls reminding me of my promise to return this summer to this warm place with its even warmer people.