As the Catania Airport hire car man surveyed our filthy vehicle, one last large lump of mud, which had clung on despite all the potholes a road round Etna could throw at it, finally dislodged and fell to the ground in front of him. Totally unfazed, he retrieved the keys and wished us a pleasant flight.
Our visit to Sicily fell just after torrential rain had hit Italy, as warm winter sunshine returned. The effect of the rain was all too obvious on the vertiginously-ploughed, muddy hillsides of Central Sicily. Our mid-stay Agritourismo accommodation lay at the end of 6.5km of patchy concrete track from which most (but by no means all) of the mud had been scooped and a collapsed bridge had been temporarily circumvented. Safe to say, we weren’t leaving for supper! Which meant eating in.
Over the next few nights, we began to understand what the man sitting next to us on the plane had meant when he explained that our ‘bellies would thank us’ for visiting the island. Sicilians seem to have a deep and abiding love of food and cooking. Every evening, four course meals were lovingly prepared by our host, who then hovered, waiting for (very willingly given) approval. If we went out for the day, we were given restaurant recommendations (“eat at Da Salvatore’s today, he makes the most delicious antipasti!”), before being told with panicked looks to eat little at lunch. “Tell the cook you can’t eat much because you are eating well this evening” was the daily refrain of our hosts, but in this small, rural part of Sicily, where everyone knows everyone, this was an instruction always ignored by the chef at wherever we ended up for lunch.
In Central Sicily, we ate like kings. Aubergines, tomatoes, lots of garlic, onions, wild funghi, wild boar, ricotta, mountain pecorino. But the meal that we won’t forget came at the end of our stay in the unprepossessing town of Randazzo. We were travelling with my parents and my father, having seen a sign to a restaurant, had decided without reason that it was the only place to eat. Down a slightly scruffy side street, Gli Antichi Sapori was a small place with checked fabric tablecloths and colourfully mismatched crockery. The owner decided we would eat inside, away from street fumes that might affect our enjoyment of his cooking. There followed a 3 course meal (antipasti, pasta, dessert) of good food prepared with a huge amount of love. Each dish was carefully explained as a series of ingredients and origins, without pretension but because it was important that we should understand the food. The omelette (very Sicilian, with lots of cheese and greens) was given a very brief description in case it cooled too much – it should be eaten hot. Greens had been picked – not foraged, just picked – from the local hillside.
Food should always be like this. There were no bells or whistles, just great food cooked well by a chef who wanted his customers to enjoy their meal. It felt personal and unfussy and very, very good.