19 April 2015

LIFE; Summer in Sicily

CHIAVARI, Italy - As I sit here by the window this morning watching the rain, my mind keeps pulling me to sunny Sicily.  This happens a lot this time of year. I used to think it was because I lived in Milan where early spring days can be cloudy or foggy and a bit on the chilly side. But I don’t live there anymore. There is something else going on here and I think I know what it is.

Taromina, Sicily  
“Go to Noto,” wrote the Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino, “it is a place where if one happens to come in, he is trapped and happy and never goes away.” What he wrote is true, but not entirely. Bufalino only wrote about Noto casting a spell on the unsuspecting visitor, but the truth is it happens no matter where in Sicily you are. 

The danger is real. Sicily truly is a magical place, but once you go there the spirit of the island creeps into your soul and stays with you forever. Those of you who have been to Sicily know that this is true, and for those of you who have yet to set foot on this magical island, well, don’t say you weren’t warned. 

If you are one of the lucky ones going to Sicily this summer, here’s a list of festivals you might not want to miss. 
Infiorata - Noto, Sicily  
World Festival on the Beach in Mondello. This event is usually held the second week of May (dates vary). Celebrated is everything from windsurfing to sailing, beach volleyball, music and golf.
Infiorata and Baroque Spring Festival in Noto – third weekend in May. Check the schedule for the Primavera Barocca to verify the date. The highlight of the Festival is the display of flower designs local artists create along Via Nicolaci. The Festival closes with a 18th century Baroque procession, with everyone in spectacular costumes.
Festa di San Giorgio in Ragusa on the last Sunday of May. Dates vary for this event. This is a great time to visit the illuminated Ragusa-Ibla.  There’s music and fireworks and a moving procession as the statue of St. George is carried around the city. 
Greek Tragedies in Syracuse. In May and June the Greek dramas are performed in their original site, Syracuse’s Greek amphitheater. You don’t have to understand Greek to enjoy it, as it is the atmosphere that makes this a unique event!

Carretti Siciliani  
Carretti Siciliani in Taromina on Fridays (also in September and October). You will  most likely see decorated Carretto Siciliano (native horse carts) as you travel around  Sicily, and this festival celebrates the brightly colored carts, the drivers and the horses. 
Taormina Film Fest. In the second week of June the Film Fest opens the summer season of the Greco-Roman amphitheater. It starts with the world premiere of a film and then you can enjoy some of the newest movies of the year which are presented in Taormina’s splendid ancient theatre with its spectacular views of the sea and Mount Etna. 
Taormina Arte – from June to September there are rock, pop and classical concerts, opera, dance and theatre performances daily as national and international stars perform in the splendid setting of Taromina’s famous Roman theatre.
Festa di San Paolo in Palazzolo Acreide takes place on June 29th. The festivities in honor of Saint Paul last for three days, there are masses, processions, concerts of light music and fireworks.

Festa di Santa Rosalia, Palermo, Sicily
Festa di Santa Rosalia in Palermo - 10-15 July. Santa Rosalia is the patron saint of Sicily’s  capital. The event includes processions, festivals, plays and fireworks
La Scala Illuminata in Caltagirone - 24-25 July and 14-15 August. This is one of the more famous festivals in Sicily.  The event celebrates St. James, the patron saint of the city and the famous ceramic stair of Caltagirone is lit with lanterns in his honor. 
Kals'Art Festival in Palermo – mid July to mid September. A two month long festival of young European artists: exhibitions, videos, paintings and installations. Performances in the streets, parks and piazzas of Palermo’s Kalsa quarter.
Sagra del Pesce in Giardini-Naxos - every weekend in July and August in the small port "Saja". Fishermen, music and folklore bring back the colorful atmosphere of the small fishing village of Giardini-Naxos. A great opportunity to eat excellent fish and drink local wine and enjoy an afternoon in the Sicily that was.

Palio dei i Normanni, Piazza Amerina, Sicily
Festa di San Sebastiano in Palazzolo Acreide.  Starting on August 10th there are three days of festivities in honor of Saint Sebastian.  Masses are said, there are colorful processions and concerts of lights, music and spectacular fireworks.
Madonna della Luce in Cefalu’- 13-14 August. Nighttime boat procession off the coast from Kalura to the old harbor.
I Giganti in Messina  – 13-15 August. The Passeggiata di Giganti is Messina's biggest  celebration of the year.  Mata and Grifone the Moor, the mythical founders of the city, are celebrated with a parade of floats and music.
Palio dei Normanni in Piazza Amerina (Enna) – 14-15 August. One of Sicily’s most spectacular events, and definitely worth seeing. The Palio includes Medieval and Renaissance equestrian games and shows, costumed processions and parades. The event, a competition of horsemanship and knightly combat, remembers the Norman invaders who ousted the Arabs from Sicily. Participants in full costume act out the entrance of the Norman Count Roger I to the city. There's also music, dancing and horse trials that make for a great day's entertainment. The Palio dei Normanni is one of Sicily’s oldest events.
Maritime Festival in Syracuse. This is a rowing regatta held off the shore of Ortigia, a small island connected to Syracuse. 

Couscous Fest, San Vito Lo Capo, Sicily  
Madonna della Luce in Mistretta -  7-8 September. This religious event includes a procession of two enormous warriors following the statue of the Madonna around town. There are floats, plays and costumed participants.
Couscous Fest in San Vito Lo Capo – end of September, date can vary. This is a gastronomic feast with plenty of opportunities to sample North African cuisine. One week music, dance and plenty of couscous, prepared by chefs from all over the world.
ViniMilo in Milo - first 2 weeks. Wine festival at the slopes of Mount Etna - guided wine tastings, workshops, themed dinners, visits to wineries. 

Be sure to confirm the dates before you go - things (like dates) can be flexible in Italy and Sicily.

16 April 2015

AUNTIE PASTA; Easy Sicilian Fish Dish

CHIAVARI, Italy – It’s been a busy week with little time to cook. After having used a PC for about 20 years, I have just changed over to a MAC which is good but it has meant spending a lot of time trying to figure things out. 

 Fish Market in Sicily
Fortunately I found some PC classes on the internet that answered most of my questions, like how do you copy and paste on a MAC. Elementary for sure, but when you don’t know, you don’t know. As it turns out it is pretty much the same process as on a PC, now if I could figure out where or what the delete command is - oh well, by the end of the week i should be a MAC Pro pro and be able to get back to my life.

With no time to shop, let along cook, I decided to raid the freezer and take out  a fish dish, an old Sicilian recipe that I had prepared a couple of weeks ago. Then I boiled some rice and abracadabra! lunch was ready.

Cherry Tomatoes
Freezing the fish didn’t alter its texture at all, which is what I was afraid of since the fish was frozen to start with. You can use any white fish for this recipe, which is super simple and practically fool proof. I use codfish because I like it, especially for this recipe which needs a fish you can taste through the tomato sauce. This recipe feeds two people, for four people, just double it.

One trick I learned from a cook down in Tuscany was to pre-cook onions in the microwave until they are soft.  You have to add a little water to them, unlike other vegetables i.e. broccoli or carrots, because onions don’t contain water and they will burn.  I don’t know if there is a real name for this recipe, but I call it Sicilian Fish in Tomato Sauce.

Tomato Sauce

Sicilian Fish in Tomato Sauce

2 frozen codfish filets
1 can of peeled cherry tomatoes (or any type of peeled canned tomatoes)
¼ cup (more or less) water
1 clove of garlic (peeled and crushed)
1 onion, roughly chopped and partially cooked in microwave
1 teaspoon of capers (in brine)
1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of oregano or marjoram

In a frying pan, sauté the onions and garlic until the onions are completely cooked. If the garlic turns brown, discard it, and turn the heat under the frying pan down. Add the can of tomatoes, juice and all, and the water. You can also add a little dry white wine instead of the water if you want. The fish will not complain. 

Let the tomatoes cook for a few minutes, about 5 minutes, and then add the frozen fish. They do not have to be defrosted. Cover the frying pan and let it all cook until the fish is soft. Add the capers and the oregano and let cook for another 5 minutes or so until the fish is thoroughly cooked. 

At this point you can turn off the heat and let it sit until you are ready to eat. Actually the longer it sits the better it is, even overnight is not too long – in the refrigerator of course. Just let it cool to room temperature before you put it in the refrigerator.

Serve hot over rice or cous cous, spaghetti or curly pasta, I think even mashed potatoes would work. 

This is a recipe my mother used to make, but instead of adding capers she added raisins and it was just as delicious. If you don’t have capers and you do have raisins, you might want to try her version.

12 April 2015

LIFE: The Porticos of Chiavari

CHIAVARI, Italy – It’s not hard to imagine what life was like in Chiavari during the Middle Ages, any early morning stroll through the old portico covered streets of this small town on the Italian Riviera will take you back thousands of years, and do it faster than a time machine.
Chiavari, Italy
What I like the most about Chiavari are the porticoed streets of the historic center. They are called “carruggi” in Genovese dialect, and while many of them look like movie sets, they unify the center of town better than any other architectural detail ever could.

 The porticoes were the idea of the Genovese, who took control of the town in 1167. The Genovese were merchants and traders and realized that Chiavari, which was located at the crossroads of the Roman Via Aurelia and the roads for Emilia and Lombardy, was in a strategic commercial position.
Friends Meet and Greet Under the Porticoes
And precisely because of its position, the town was often under attack by other city states who also recognized the commercial possibilities, as well as by Barbary pirates who lurked in the watery coves waiting for an opportunity to haul away cargo and sell off the locals as slaves.

Within a year of taking control, the Genovese fortified the town by building a castle/fortress on the edge of town. Less than ten years later they drew up a plan for what was to be the new Chiavari, safe and secure, enclosed by a circle of walls complete with a moat and a drawbridge. To develop balance in the urban core of the town they created a commercial area of porticoed streets.
The Center is Closed to Traffic 
The most important porticoed street is via Martiri della Liberazione, known locally as the “carrugio lungo”, the long street. From its conception in the 1100’s, it was designed to be a commercial street occupied by artisans and merchants. On this street, more than in other parts of town, the columns and capitals that form the bases of the porticos are made from a variety of materials, including marble and granite.

Because of the differences in the materials, town historians think that the columns and capitals came from China, carried as ballast on Genovese cargo ships on their return trips. It’s entirely possible as the Chiavarsi, as well as the Genovese, had been actively doing business with, or living in China since the days of Marco Polo.
Not All the Porticoes Look the Same
There was a lot of money to be made in those early days, and if you were a merchant or trader in this town, chances are you were very rich. And if you also happened to have a Pope on one of the branches of your family tree, you were probably richer than most of your richer-than-all-get-out neighbors. In fact, you were probably richer than anyone in the entire territory.

That was the situation with the Ravaschieri family who were related to Pope Innocent IV.  Sometime after the year 1250, they built themselves a palazzo the likes of which Chiavari had never seen before.  The palazzo was – and is still – called the Palazzo dei Portici Neri, the Palazzo of the Black Porticoes and it is on Via Ravaschieri. Of course it is.
A Corner of the Palazzo dei Portici Neri
Not only are the porticoes on this Gothic building black – as they are made of slate -  but they are twice as wide and twice as tall as any porticoes in town. The building’s façade is made from alternating bands of marble and slate, giving it the characteristic black and white stripes that have set the palazzi of rich and royal Genovese apart from the run-of-the-mill palazzi owners for centuries.

But for all the grand buildings and soaring porticoes, I confess the parts of Chiavari I like the best are the back streets with the squatty old porticoes, the ones where the posts look a little bow-legged and a little tired. I like the posts that seem to have shaken off the layers of cement put on them over the years in an attempt to give the old bricks a make-over. I’m glad they resist.  They have been standing in place for almost a thousand years and no doubt they’ll be standing long after those who want to fancy them up are gone.

Not far from my apartment there is a building that dates back to 1493.  From what you can still see of it, it was a building of rare and haunting beauty. On its façade there is a slate carving of exquisite workmanship, and an inscription on a column that has been almost entirely worn away by time. There is also the bust of a man, clearly from the Renaissance, but nothing is known of him. Why he is there is a complete mystery, but he has left his mark.

Going Home
You can almost feel the spirits of the many Chiavarese who have passed this way as you walk along the oldest of the old streets, the ones with the short, squatty porticoes that pull you in and protect you. And I’m convinced that one of these days I’m going to turn a corner and actually run into Christopher Columbus. I"m convinced it will happen.   

05 April 2015



I’ve been having serious computer and internet problems, which is why I wasn't able to post on Thursday, and there is no post today. All the problems should be resolved this week (I hope). I can’t promise for this coming Thursday, but surely by Sunday I’ll be able to post text and photos again. 

In the meantime, thanks for your support and patience while I try to straighten out the technical difficulties.  See you Sunday.Fingers crossed!

28 March 2015

LIFE: Palm Sunday at the Vatican

CHIAVARI, Italy –Today is Palm Sunday.  The church ladies have been out selling braided palms in the local street markets all week, while others have been busy decorating their churches with palm fronds and braided palm crosses. It’s an old custom that is kept alive to remember the crowds that held palms and olive branches as symbols of peace and joy when they greeted Christ as he entered Jerusalem six days before his passion. 
St. Peter's Square at the Vatican and Caligula's Obelisk
In Rome’s St Peter’s Square two thousand woven palms have been blessed and will be given away. One hundred palms have already been given to the Cardinals, with the largest one reserved for Pope Francis.  

The palms are a gift from the Ligurian towns of Bordighera and San Remo and are part of a long tradition that began in 1586. That was the year Pope Sisto V decided to move an ancient Egyptian obelisk that had been brought to Rome by the Roman Emperor Caligula in the year 37 BC from its location in Caligula’s Circus to St. Peter’s Square.  
Pope Francis
The Pope’s workmen got busy building the foundation needed to support the heavy obelisk and by the scheduled installation date of September 10, 1586, all was ready. Hundreds of Romans gathered in St. Peter’s Square. The monument, which weighed 350 tons, would need 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches to move it and set it up. Who would want to miss that show? No one. 

The Vatican’s Chief Engineer, Domenico Fontana, warned the Pope that the project was very risky and that total silence would be needed to raise the obelisk once it was in St. Peter’s Square. Fontana said that even the slightest sound could distract a worker and result in the obelisk crashing down on the crowd. In other words, a whisper could cause a total disaster.
 Bishops Carrying Ligurian Palms
The Pope turned to the crowd and said, “if anyone speaks or makes a sound during this delicate and risky operation, they will be put to death by my order.” As the obelisk was slowly raised, the ropes holding it began to weaken and the obelisk began to wobble perilously.

 Everyone, including the Pope, was holding their breath. It soon became obvious that the ropes were not going to hold, they were starting to fray and were almost at their breaking point. The ancient Egyptian obelisk was in serious danger of crashing to the ground.  
 The Work of Making Parmureli Starts Long Before Palm Sunday
Just then, Benedetto Bresca, a ship’s captain from the town of Bordighera, cried out – “aiga ae corde!” Put water on the ropes. The Chief Engineer spun around to see who dared to speak, but then he realized the Captain was right. He ordered the ropes to be doused with water. They soon became taut and strong and the obelisk was raised without further danger of falling. Six days later it was blessed and consecrated.  

In spite of the Pope’s demand for silence, the Captain wasn’t punished for his outburst, instead he was praised. As a reward, the Pope asked him what he wanted and Captain Bresca said what he really wanted was for his town of Bordighera to provide Ligurian palms for the Holy Week ceremonies at the Vatican.
It's Slow Painstaking Work
You may think that Captain Breca’s story is pure fiction but there is no denying the fact that Bordighera and San Remo, which are on the Ligurian Riviera of the Palms, do have had the exclusive right to supply the Vatican with palms for Palm Sunday, and those rights are in perpetuity.

 It’s been more than four centuries since that day the Captain spoke out, and the cities of San Remo and Bordighera have been sending palms to the Vatican ever since. They are the palms used for the Vatican’s traditional ceremony of the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday. For this special ceremony the palms, which are known as parmureli, are woven and braided into intricate sculptures large and small.  
Parmureli Are Sold in the Markets Throughout Italy
If you happen to be at the Vatican on Ash Wednesday, the ashes you receive will be the ashes of the palms from Bordighera and San Remo. The Vatican, and many churches throughout Italy, save their palms from Palm Sunday and burn them for Ash Wednesday. The Church considers the ashes from the blessed palms to be sacramental and endowed with the power to promote good thoughts and increase devotion.