Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Eye of the Cyclops and the Black Madonna

Only in Sicily an you find the such a compelling mix of folklore, religion and Greek myth. One of Sicily's best hidden gems, the Greek amphiteatre at Tindari, has just concluded its festival of Teatro dei Due Mari, and I was lucky enough to catch Il Ciclope, Euripides satirical nod to the Polyphemus episode in Ulysses... at sundown. And just in case that wasn't enough, the lore of the Black Madonna opened and closed the evening - the sandbank in the shape of the madonna's head on our way to the theatre, and the sanctuary of the Black Madonna in all its kitch shining glory as we left.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Carnival in Sicily - "A Màschira" of Cataffi

Scenes from the Carnevale at Cataffi

February is Carnival Season in Sicily – something not to be missed. Streets of most Sicilian towns and cities are strewn with confetti and streamers sprayed by children dressed up as nobility or peasants – or even as mafiosi – like some of the boys in my English class (“How do you say “mafiosi” in English, prof?”).

Carnevale, born in the sixteenth century to celebrate the end of the old year and party like mad before the asceticism of Lent,  evolved through the centuries. In the 1700s “Abbatazzi”, or folk poets, similar to the Irish Bard, improvised rhymes along the streets of Acireale, one of Sicily’s most famous carnivals. The 1800s brought the parade of decorated horse-drawn carriages, while the twentieth century introduced floats led by speers, accompanied by characters in papier-maché masks and fancy dress.

Le Maschere Tradizionali originate in the sixteenth century Italian Commedia dell’Arte, characterised by masked stereotypes and improvised sketches. Traditional stock characters are Pulcinella, Harlequin, Dottore Balanzone, Pantalone and Colombina, the only female character. You can read more about them here. This is where the satirical, burlesque nature of carnival comes from, and it reaches its most outrageous in the Grotesque floats of Acireale, where Sicilians give vent to political frustrations.

This year, the carnival of Cataffi really impressed me. "A Màschira" celebrates the 1544 battle against Saracen marauders seeking to rape and pillage their way from the coast to the hilltop town of Santa Lucia. But they met their match in the villagers of Cataffi hamlet, and Barbarossa and his Turkish pirates were banished forever. From then on villagers celebrate the victory by dressing up in the amazing attire of their erstwhile enemy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Morning walk at the cape

Two boats, two seagulls, and hundreds of cactus fruits facing the sun. This is why it is good to be in Sicily in February...

Birthday of a Sicilian matriarch

This is how the birthday of 93 year old nonna Aurora begins… This sweet, wise matriarch is already receiving visitors at 9am when I return from dropping the bambini off at school. She’s all style in a smart long cardigan, graciously offering coffee to guests. Among the first to arrive is our former and most beloved postman, Enzo, also a poet, with his daughter. He has brought nonna his latest book of poems and flowers for the occasion of course. Nonna’s sister-in-law from Turin paints her nails for her, a friend brings homemade cakes – torta di mele and a chocolate one… Ninety-three roses from Holland adorn the living room table – brought on the airplane from her son in Amsterdam…

At lunch, the extended family occupies an entire restaurant, where poems and songs from nonna’s talented children and grandchildren are performed between courses of delicious Sicilian food. “The craic is mighty” – comes to mind; as always at these family gatherings, I’m reminded of similarities between Irish and Sicilians… Nonna finishes the day checking her facebook account for more greetings and Auguri from friends and family far and wide… what a legend. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Sicilia in Bocca

Every good cook book has a story behind it, and this one is no exception... Sicilia in Bocca by Antonio Cardella, received as a wedding gift from savvy Tuscan friends years back. It’s printed on yellow-tinged paper with a rustic feel to it, like the placemats you get in trattorias. The illustrations are witty, the prose has socio-political undercurrents (the author prefaces the Starters section with a caveat: Don’t get the idea that Sicilians are used to anti-pasti; not so long ago hunger was the norm. “It is not easy to change a state of forced abstinence into one of cheerful guzzling.”) And the recipes are in dialect, Italian and English – with creative translating from the original and a good dose of Sicilian wisdom and proverbs. I need to consult all three version to make sure I’m following the recipe correctly J

Yesterday I went to my libraio di fiducia, my favourite bookseller, Filoramo, and asked him if he had a copy. I wanted to give it to an American friend who is getting married.
“Ah,” said Filoramo. “A fabulous book. Sadly it’s no longer in print.”
And why not? 
The publisher did a low print run at first, thinking only a few copies would be sold - to the more discerning tourist. But Filoramo called the publisher after a few days: 

“I’m all out of that book. Give me 50 more.” 
“I only have 20 copies.” 
“Well, bring them here!” 
It sold out so fast that soon the publisher was making regular trips to Milazzo and Taormina with his carload of recipes. And then, as can happen when money enters the equation, the thing went sour. Someone tried to cash in on the success, with another book called Isole in Bocca; they were sued for copyright infringement, and the result of the legal fallout was that Sicilia in Bocca could be printed no more.

“The greatest shame,” said Filoramo, with heartfelt lament, “is that I didn’t keep a copy for myself. So treasure yours.”

Humble aspirations: "We offer you firstrate,
authentic Sicilian cuisine, borne out of fantasy and
popular imagination.

Cardella suggests that every recipe, being a creative act, is inherently incommunicable – pretty much in line with my mother-in-law’s culinary gems. “Oh I just throw in a handful of this, a pinch of that”. Everything is “a occhio” – an expression that means a rough estimate, but in terms of cooking connotes instinct and how you’re feeling that day.
Of course, it is so much more than a mere recipe book. The author takes us on a reconnoitering stroll across Sicily: through mountain towns of Saracen origin such as Geraci Siculo (“… [whose] inhabitants, very affable to visitors, live the life of a little mountain village”) to fish markets, where “[F]oreigners are always cheerfully amazed at the crafty and noisy expedients used by fishmongers in order to compel the hesitant purchaser to buy something”.
Recipes are pitched with hearty reverence, from “Agghiotta di pesce spada”, a Messina speciality, to Pasta with sardines, and wild fennel: “[T]o find it, it is necessary to go to Sicily as it does not exist anywhere else”. Everyone who has contributed to making Sicily what it is gets a mention, including musicians, writers, artists and demagogues – and not forgetting legendary shapers of Sicily such as Aeolus and the Cyclops. Cardella honours centuries old traditions and gives us his take on Sicilian history: and this is the book’s passionate achievement.


Monday, September 21, 2015

Black Madonna of Tindari

My favourite Madonna of all the multitude of Virgin Marys venerated by the Sicilians, is the Black Madonna of Tindari. 

Her feast day takes place on 8 September, but the festivities go on all weekend: these include the annual pilgrimage to her Basilica at the top of Mount Tindari, fireworks and local processions.

Part of the draw is the place of her shrine: Tindari, off the beaten tourist track, sits high on a rocky promontory with spectacular views. Founded by the Greeks in 396BC (by Dionysius the Elder, a nasty despot from Syracuse), the ruins of the city include an amphitheatre, the gates to the city, stone arches and tombs. 

You can enjoy a picnic there without a Japanese tourist snapping a photo of you while you munch your sandwich (likely to happen in nearby Taormina).

But the interesting thing about the Madonna of Tindari are the stories surrounding her origins. Legend has it that the cedarwood statue was hidden on a cargo ship returning from the Middle East to save it from destruction during the Iconoclastic Wars. A storm blew up and the ship took refuge in the bay below Tindari. When the storm had passed, the sailors lifted the anchor and started rowing but the ship didn’t budge. They left some of the cargo on the shore, thinking that was the cause of the problem. Still no joy. It wasn’t until they left the Black Madonna on the shore too that the ship started to move again. Local fishermen found the statue and decided to build a shrine one the highest point of the plateau of Tindari.

Today, Tindari draws thousands of pilgrims and visitors every year.

Then there’s the miracle: the legend about the beautiful sandbank below the sanctuary, in the shape of a side profile of the Madonna and Child. The story goes that a woman brought her sick child to the sanctuary for a blessing but upon arrival, when she saw the Madonna was black, she refused to pray to her. The child slipped from her grip and fell over the cliff’s edge to the sea, hundreds of metres below. But instead of drowning, the child was found playing safely on a ridge of sand that miraculously rose out of the sea.

Finally, you have the theories about the Black Madonna in general, for the Madonna of Tindari is not the only one. Prevalent in Hispanic cultures from Guadalupe to Montserrat (there’s even one in Dublin in Whitefriar Street’s Carmelite Chapel), the mysteries of the Black Madonna are many. 

Some say she derives from a pre-Christian mother goddesss figure, linked to Demeter or the Egyptian goddess Isis. Others say that the dark skin tone of the Black Madonnas reflects that of the Virgin Mary, who likely had Semitic colours and features. She is often associated with miracles, always invoked as a protectress.

Our Black Madonna of Tindari sits on a throne, with the child Jesus on her lap, his hand raised in blessing. Inscribed on the base of the statue are words from the Old Testament’s Song of Songs: Nigra sum sed Formosa (I am black but beautiful). 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Migrant crisis in Sicily

Italian premier Matteo Renzi speaks eloquently on the issue of the Migrant crisis to the Guardian UK. 

Milazzo has a shelter for boys, mostly aged 18-20. I know the people who run it and several of the boys have worked for us at the restaurant under social projects. I know they are well-provided for at the shelter, with "tutors" or psychologists, and money to buy food etc. I wanted to speak to them about their experience but was afraid they would get upset. However, yesterday Emilia from Oxfam GB came by to interview some of them.

Her questions were well-phrased and not too personal so the boys responded briefly without getting upset. I sat with two boys from Mali when they spoke in case they needed translation from French. I was struck by how much they spoke about their family back home and how they feel a loss of identity in coming here. "No one knows me here, no one knows my family," said Issa. With a smile he nodded at me and mio marito and said, "Now I know you." Issa wears an amulet around his neck. When I asked him if his mother gave it to him he nodded, eyes full of tears: for protection and luck.

Modou from Gambia also works for us. He already has refugee status because his family was persectued by brutal dictator Yayhah Jammeh, in power for twenty years. He told me the real story of weeks of travelling from Gambia to Niger to Libya. Of the fear in Libya where he saw people get killed for the first time. The driver who left him at the border to Libya said: Don't look at an Arab woman or you will get shot. Don't say anything when they mistreat women and children, or they will kill you. Don't volunteer to navigate or captain the boat (for free passage) because when they discover you can't do it, they will kill you."

In Libya for three weeks waiting to travel, he only left the holding centre to get food because of the danger of being assaulted by truckloads of "soldiers". "We are all ex-soldiers from the Gaddaffi regime," the human-traffickers told them. They take women and lock them in a room, then call their friends. "We have African women here," they say, and charge a fee. When I asked him about treatment of children, Modou wouldn't tell me. "Libya is a crazy place," he said.

When at last his turn to sail came, they were given a sat-nav and nautical directions, and a mobile phone to keep in touch with the people-traffickers. "When you are three hours away from Italy, we will give you the number of the Italian coast guard," they said. "You must then throw all sateliite equipment into the sea so they don't know where the boat comes from."

Modou knows that Europe doesn't want African migrants. But, he says, "There are thousands of Africans waiting for good weather to travel to Italy." As Renzi says, the history of humanity has been marked by migration flows... Europe needs a management strategy for the arrival and distribution of the migrants and also, most importantly, needs to address the underlying problems in the African countries from where they come, Libya included. Easier said than done, but this is a humanitarian emergency that is not being treated as such.

The way these youngsters smile, you would never imagine their epic journey to Sicily via the harrowing hell experience of Libya. Barely eighteen, they are fleeing persecution under the Gambian regime of dictator Yayhah Jammeh, and post-war chaos in Mali and Sudan. They pay around €600 to travel from Libya to Sicily. The price of human life in so many cases.