Thursday, February 25, 2010

Making gnocchi

Our Gnocchi dish has been a big seller since we opened. Sometimes entire tables will go for it, once the first person chooses it. It seems that Sicilians don't tend to have gnocchi at home and so enjoy the potato dumplings on an evening out. They are actually easy to make :

This recipe makes 7 portions of 200g.
* 1 kg potatoes with the skin on
*350g white flour
* 2 egg yolks

1. Boil the potatoes with the skin on and no salt. (this can be done the day before)
2. Mash the potatoes in a bowl, then mix together (using your hands) with the flour and egg yolks.
3. When you have a kind of solid ball, knead it well on your worktop.
4. Then roll it out flat and cut into long thinnish sausages. Sprinkle a bit of flour on to prevent sticking, and then cut the sausages up into little gnocchi size portions.
5. Cook for 3 minutes, or until they rise to the surface. (Extra portions will keep in a tupperware for a few days in the fridge, or you can freeze them and eat them at a later date).

Gnocchi alla Sorentina - fry a piece of garlic in some olive oil for a few minutes. Add in passata and cook through. Mix in the cooked gnocchi and throw in little chunks of mozzarella. This is delicious with some chilli - fresh or flakes. Simple!

We do the gnocchi with baby tomatoes from Pachino, mushrooms, rocket and Parmesan shavings - but I can't reveal the secrets of the quantities - it's important to get the balance between the tomatoes and the mushrooms so it isn't too acidic.

Women in Sicily 25/02/10

This morning a man in his 30s followed me slowly up the hill on his motorbike and gazed back as he passed me, almost causing an accident with oncoming traffic. He then waited for me at a carpark halfway up the hill and watched my backside as I went up the steps to the borgo, a big sleazy grin plastered on his face. Welcome to Sicily, home of repressed maniacs.

I was recruited on Saturday night to a most interesting cause – a Women’s Group for Milazzo. I had just been talking earlier in the day with some English teachers here that it was odd that there were some many clubs for men here – ranging from various sporting activities to card playing etc, but nothing for women. A Spanish girl married to a local man, and a girl of Greek origins were the headhunters. I couldn’t refuse. We had the meeting at the Greek girl’s house, about ten of us in total. They said they wanted to set up a women’s group because women are not represented in Milazzo, no women’s support centre, no rape crisis centre, no sex education in schools. The most interesting thing they said was that they wanted to discuss male-female relationships in a Sicilian context, but also relationships between women here, as the basis for the latter is often predicated on rivalry and jealousy. The Sicilian woman, they said, feels her most potent weapon is her sexuality, so when she meets another woman she sizes her up in terms of the threat she poses to her. Totally foreign to Irish thinking.

But as I have said before, girls coming into our locale will always check me out, stare at me for most of the night, look me up and down to check out my style. But they get over themselves when I smile at them. And of course it helps reassure them when they discover I am married to the man behind the bar.

They wanted to know what we foreigners thought. I said women don’t have much of a chance here since you are bombarded with stereotypical outdated images of women on TV and on billboards; at entrances to the motorway you have huge posters of women in bikinis and thigh high boots holding petrol pumps … or what about that beautiful woman in her lacy bra in the car advert along the ring road? Women, posing as adoring mothers advertise bread, milk, pasta - bringing wonderful meals to the family table in TV ads; and of course, we still have the prancing dancing girls on the family TV shows. And as I pointed out, the worst thing is, that women are complicit in the chauvinism here. It is many girls’ dream to become one of those dancing girls. An English university teacher said many of her 20 year old students told her that after getting their finals their goal was to get married. So what was the point in getting the science degree then? Imagine being brought up to believe that you would only ever be judged by your beauty. No wonder there are no ugly girls around. They must all be kept at home. This explains the excessively tight and revealing clothing at the weekend.
But we can’t forget that not long ago arranged marriages were still the norm here. Mio marito’s parents had to elope in order to get married. My mother-in-law’s parents had picked out another man for her, but she had already fallen in love; so she and my father-in-law had to run away for a night and stay together – with the implication being that when she came back she was no longer a virgin so he would have to marry her to save her honour. And that was in the 70s.

Anyway, the idea of the Women’s Group is to think of projects to strengthen and enhance the position of women in Sicilian society, and propose these projects to the Comune. We shall see. At the minute the Comune is caught up in the farewell to the mayor since elections are coming up in May. All over town billboard size photos have sprung up entitled, ‘la nuova Milazzo’ – the new Milazzo, with pictures of a new carpark, a restructured piazza and the restored castle in the borgo. Hilarious, since none of these projects has been realized, and just below each photograph there is a ten metre wide and two metre high two-week old rubbish heap.

Who are you married to? 23/02/10

This morning on my way out of the library I was waylaid by the nosey woman at reception. I knew that sooner or later one of them would have to interrogate me – it would be too much for their inquisitive minds to let me pass by several days a week without even knowing where I come from and who my husband is. They have absolutely nothing to do in this beautiful old palazzo comunale where the library is; I often wonder if their work is voluntary, as they could not afford to pay ten people to do nothing. At least I hope that is not what our endless taxes go on. That said, there were 4 traffic wardens (called, importantly in Italian, Polizia Municipale) dealing with deviated traffic at the crossroads at Piazza Roma today – where in most countries you would see one person. But that’s Italy. Two were in conversation, one was smoking a cigarette, and the other was actually directing the traffic.

Anyway, the nosey lady gets straight to the point. What are you doing here? – It’s pretty obvious, I’m consulting the books in the library. Do you live here or are you just passing though? Should have said just passing through and made a quick getaway. Where do you live? Who is your husband? I know your in-laws. I know his uncle who has a shop in town. His wife was in the hairdresser-s last week. Who are you? I manage to get in. She reluctantly gives me her name, then adds her maiden name – though she doesn’t like me asking her questions. 'I’m a dipendente comunale' (she works for the town council), she said immediately as if that was part of her name. A self-defined civil servant. She must have been proud of it. When did you get married, where did you get married, and don’t you have any children yet? When are you thinking of having children? At this point I realized she had a screw loose, although these questions are probably considered demonstration of interest among provincial Sicilians. I started backing away towards the door, but she wanted to know where I would be having lunch. Eh? At home, like yourself, I would imagine. Well, you know how you foreigners eat strange things. I mean, do you cook? She peered at me obviously expecting a negative. I said my husband did all the cooking and I was rarely in the kitchen, just to throw her completely. It stopped her in her tracks, so I left her with her mouth open.

I had just been reading in Il Giorno della Civetta what the Capitano Bellodi thinks about family in Sicily. He says it is lo Stato: The family is the State for the Sicilian. Sicilians are not interested in taxes, the army, other systems which make the state function. They are only interested in the institution of the family, in which they can cross the confines of their tendency towards a tragic solitude and adapt to cohabitation – so Sciascia appeared to think, using Bellodi as his spokesperson. That nosey madwoman will think she has me all worked out now since she managed to paint a network in her head of my husband’s family tree.

Sometimes living in Sicily feels so heavy. The weight of all those stares, all those tongues wagging on your behalf. Oh for the annonymity of the city.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Indolenza 20/02/2010

Our philosophical regular, Giorgio, tells me he’s not going to bother voting in the upcoming elections for mayor. ‘What’s the point?’ he asks, ‘Do you think anything is ever going to change here?’ He laughs derisively. ‘What I hate most about this time of year, is that you see the same old faces you haven’t seen for three years or so; now it’s election time, they are out scouting for support, smiling at you like you’re their best friend. What a load of rubbish!’

The thing that annoys me most, I say, is the lack of rubbish collection, and the fact that there is no recycling. Uncivilised, developing country issues. Any chance this will change with a new administration? Giorgio laughs again: ‘Sure that’s all a ‘giro di interesse’’, he says, looking at me carefully to see if I know what he means. ‘Vested interests’ is another way of saying, that’s mafia territory, without having to mention the M-word. I know, I say, but I can’t believe no one does anything about it: You all complain to each other – the lamento is a typical Sicilian attitude - but there are never any demonstrations or organised protests. It’s outrageous.

‘Ah’, says, Giorgio, that’s because the Sicilian is essentially indolent. Indolenza, e menofreguismo, a couldn’t care-less attitude, that’s how we survive, he says. 'How else could we put up with what’s been going on here on our island for decades. Like Tomaso de Lampedusa writes, in ‘Il Gattopardo’, we Sicilians think we are gods; we’re gods, so why should we bother to do anything?' But why are you indolent, I want to know. Could it be, as he also writes, that Sicilians are tired?; tired of the sun beating down on your head six months of the year, tired of the mistral and scirocco winds battering you for the other six. It’s true – the winds here cause huge damage through the winter. Giorgio nods, 'yes, maybe that’s true, it’s so hot most of the time, it makes us lazy. Or the foreign domination, we’re tired of being told what to do for centuries – Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks, Normans, Spanish .. and now the giro di interesse.'

Not a great outlook. On a hillwalk just outside town today, my friend and I are admiring the slopes of orange trees and wondering whether we could help ourselves to a few, since so many have already fallen off the trees and are rotting in the ground. An old man pulls in on the narrow road. ‘Girls, what a pity about the weather today (it’s a nice enough day – a bit cloudy, but it hasn’t rained yet and the sun gets through the clouds now and again).’ The farmer greets us with the typical lamenting attitude. ‘Look at the state of the roads, you can hardly walk down them. They’ve been promising to fix them up for years, but sure you know round here the politicians just pocket the money.’ There were old abandoned farmhouses, the bamboo sticks used as insulation sticking out of the walls, a derelict building with rusty iron bars on the windows, the number three still nailed to the crumbling wall and a postbox that looked like it hadn’t been used for years. We had passed a few men tending to their ramshackle vegetable plots, raking out the land, pruning olive trees – nascent green buds just beginning to appear on some. The older men stared and looked over their ground protectively. The younger men wished us a pleasant walk. But the houses were all built on fabulous positions with views over the valleys and out to the sea. ‘What a shame the houses have been abandoned, ‘ we say. ‘Oh, for years now. Nobody will bother about them now.’ The farmer shrugs. We try to cheer him up. ‘And the lovely orange trees, why don’t the owners pick the oranges?’ ‘The manpower needed to collect them wouldn’t be worth what you can get for them on the market, ‘ he said, shaking his head. ‘Now the oranges belong to the ground.’

'All Sicilians are actors' 18/02/2010

It’s 18 February and about 26 degrees in the sun here in Sicily. It is so warm that by the time I got to Vacarella at 10.30ish, my hair was burning. Since the weather has been so stormy the last few days, forcing the locals to stay at home and play cards or watch San Remo, the Italian version of the Eurovision Song contest, the beautiful weather today has brought them all out on the street to buy fish, or watch others buy fish. Crowds are gathering round the latest catch, which the fisherman is still hauling off his boat. Eels spiral in a bucket, bright eyed red mullet are already lying on the metal tray, and he now pours on small silvery ‘mope’, some still alive and wiggling. A quiet row has formed, waiting for the moment when the fisherman will be ready to sell. Two old men wheel their bikes through the crowd, waiting with patience and resignation for people to move to let them past, instead of saying, ‘excuse me’. The fishermen start gutting fish or wrapping them up for customers while 20metres away the rubbish overflowing from the open skips and pile on plastic bags on either side, has started to stink in the heat. Behind the people waiting, short squat men with wrinkled faces and bulbous noses talk in pairs in low guttural dialect. It is hard to tell that they are talking to each other, so busy are their shifty dark eyes darting around the passersbys; noting who’s there and who’s not, who’s being two-timed (‘cornuto’, a favourite insult even when not true, as it is one of the biggest violations to a man’s pride in Italy) who owes whom money, and who’s on their deathbed. In public, with so much going on, Sicilians don’t look at each other in conversation; but in bars, in at a quiet time, confidences can be shared without the worry of missing something important.

At the bar across the road with my cappuccino, I reflect that often bars in Sicily are not as noisy as you would expect. In most parts of Italy, the bar is a hive of activity, an essential part of every day life, the daily coffee gives the Italian some meaning to their morning, a chance to greet acquaintances, exchange news, reassure themselves that all is as it should be. But in Sicily, it can also be the place of muted confessions, an important information-exchange, an implied threat. Private matters are discussed over a cappuccino, an agreement is knocked back in the toss of an espresso cup – or roundly challenged with a bang of the cup on the counter. Here, two elderly gentlemen have the local papers spread in front of them and read out news of interest to each other, commenting accordingly. A man and a woman sitting in front of me keep their voices low in case I should overhear what they are talking about. Two men come in and take up position so they can watch what’s going on outside. Love, death, double-crossing and two-timing – our cook proclaims it all loudly in our kitchen as soon as she’s heard it, but it’s all happening in front of you in the street and under your nose at the bar; hence the need for the daily coffee. Who knows what your beady eye might spy on the way to the cafĂ©. And who’s watching me? That’s what the Sicilian is thinking.

For Sicilians are all actors, the girl outside the library tells me. She is working on a congress on Beni Culturali being held on the first floor, but since it is safely in progress, she and her colleagues are all outside in the sun, smoking cigarettes and watching out for news in the faces of passersby. As she talks, of course she doesn’t look at me; her eyes are across the street, and our chat is constantly interrupted by her greetings – most respectful to the Professore Meriano, chairperson of the Beni Culturali – overjoyed to a friend she hasn’t seen for at least two whole days. Sicilians, and Italians in general, love talking about their native characteristics, and in a most contradictory way, probably know themselves better as a race than Irish people, but yet are not at all open to self-criticism or self-irony. Giulia tells me she is delighted about the good weather, that it was about time it stopped raining (it has rained for about a week) and she thought spring would soon be on the way. Being weather sensitive, she can’t go out on wet windy evenings, but now that the sun is out and it will be a mild evening, she’ll probably go out tonight to see who’s around – as will many others, she predicts, who have been cooped up at home with the cars, the football on TV and San Remo. She wouldn’t last a week in Ireland.

The seagulls are out in force wheeling over the water’s edge and swooping down to scoop up any remains of the fishermen’s catch. A plate of scraps has been left for the cats. Some fishermen are taking advantage of the good day to touch up the paint on their boats – apple green, sky blue, white. The rugged mountains are dark grey behind the morning mist, in relief against the strong blue of the February sky, snow-capped Mount Etna clearly visible.

A female president for Italy? - maybe in the 25th century14/02/2010

At the bar down by the fishermen’s port, two Saturdays in a row we run into the local Tom Jones. Sitting with his wife and her friend, he stares at us through the haze of his cigarette, without removing his shades. He wants to know where we are from. He is delighted to know we are Irish and not English, whom he dismisses with a flick of his cigarette as boring and unfriendly. Do we like it here? he wants to know, and beams at our positive reply. We know better than to mention the negative sides of living here; the pollution from the refinery, the filth around the smouldering rubbish heaps every 100metres, the lechy old men. Ahem … what are relationships like in Ireland, he demands to know, abandoning the small talk to cut to the quick. I mean, who wears the trousers? He leans forward in his chair, keen to see our reaction. We both proclaim the equality prevalent in male-female relationships in Ireland, unlike what we see here. Aha! He gets excited, and what is it like here? We both know by now that this kind of question can lead to dodgy territory here, and, not wanting to offend the amiable Tom Jones, I come up with the joke I have heard before – in public, men like to be seen to be in control, but everyone knows at home he is under the thumb – ‘la scopa dietro la porta’ as they say here, the broom behind the door.

Tom and company burst out laughing, delighted we have picked up this idiom; he leans back, satisfied in his wicker chair, but has one more question. ‘What about the women in Ireland, are they as jealous as they are here?’ he gives a big smile and the female friend smiles too, looking hopeful that we will have a good answer. It is true that Sicilian women are jealous; they often seem to me to be more jealous of each other and more in competition with each other, than of their partner. Some girls spend their entire evening watching me at the restaurant, checking out what I am wearing, and others try it on with mio marito, flashing him special smiles and flicking their curls at him. But when they realise that I am immune they get over themselves, and find it hard to put on their jealous-competitive performance when I am especially friendly and charming to them. So we tell Tom and company that actually the men are very jealous and possessive here, and he pretends to be surprised. ‘who have you met?’ he asks, laughing. Next time we see him he tells us he loves us because we are always in good form, and magnanimously invites us to his music night in the bar, when he will be playing piano bar music. (cheesy smulchy Italian lovesongs). He will be honoured if we can make it, so we tell him we are honoured to be invited and hope we can make it.

His relationship question is interesting as it comes up again and again here in a variety of guises. My friend who teaches English to men at the oil refinery (attendance is up since she started, last year they had a male teacher and the school nearly went bankrupt) says the topic comes up often and they joke about women being inferior and having to stay at home and do housework and look after the children. The ‘bar-humour’ I am subjected to by the late-night male drinkers propping up the bar is of the same ilk, albeit clothed in ‘witty’ sayings, or anecdotes. But unfortunately, it is nothing to joke about at all. My 35year old English student says she has a hard time in her job at the chemical plant, being one of the only female engineers. She has to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to get any kind of recognition for her expertise, and says that she has no chance of promotion now since her bosses assume at her age she will be having children soon and so they won’t waste the money. At her age, she says, she would have difficulty getting employment elsewhere for the same reason.

This is one of the prickly issues that lurks under the jolly ‘sole, gelato e pasta’ idea we have of life in Italy. And if men weren’t convinced enough that women are inferior creatures, just for adornment and housekeeping, then you just have to turn the TV on at any time to see women in bikinis playing arm candy to the male host. Think Bruce Forsyth in the 80s with his card bearing dolls. To make matters worse, it is the aspiration of many young girls to become one of these bikini-clad dancers for TV shows. In fact, my problem with chauvinism in Italy is that many women are its accomplices; with their tight clothes, stiletto heels, chests out and hours spent on hair care, they play at being dolls as soon as they’re too old to play with dolls, playing right into the hands of chauvinism. Plus, the mamma is guilty too. She never stopped washing her son’s clothes, feeding him just whatever he wanted and at whatever time he dragged himself out of bed, while she and his sisters cleaned the house, so the Italian male has been surrounded by images of women catering for his every need from an early age. A female president for Italy? Maybe in the 25th century