For weeks now, I’ve been gorging myself on pomegranates. This is what I’ve waited for, a whole year’s cycle, again come full circle. There is something so gratifying about tearing apart a ripe pomegranate, helped along by the cracks already showing, carefully applying pressure and popping out the translucent ruby seeds into a waiting bowl and eating them by the spoonful. It’s almost as if the fruit wants to spread its seeds, little crunchy pearls bursting with tart sweetness, and will crack open on the tree like a flower, attracting all manner of insects, if you don’t harvest them in time. Oh, what an act of loving patience it is to eat one. And how quickly its season will pass.
Living on a working farm in Sicily is a great luxury in many regards, especially if you are someone who loves to eat fresh pomegranates. I am definitely one of those people and I am also a cook and the gardens at the cooking school I work at are a true Eden. Every month offers up its platter of treats in so many colors and flavors, it’s hard to have a favourite one. I can’t help but be inspired by (or rather forced into creative utilization of) all the produce that steadily streams in through the kitchen doors throughout the year, thanks to the attentive hands and eyes of our gardeners. It’s usually a race against the clock to eat or preserve it all before rot takes over. The procession of fruit, for example, marches along from spring through to winter as follows.
Sour cherries, apricots, figs, peaches, plums, mulberries, pears, apples, persimmons, pomegranates, quinces, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, mandarins. We wait for them and welcome them happily, like a loved one returning after a long time away, turning them into jams, preserves, syrups, liqueurs, and sorbets, and in this way, capture the essence of that moment for the rest of the year.
From the school’s vantage point, tucked away within a large wine estate, I can also observe the agricultural transitions happening around the property. Fall is upon us, but only a few months ago, under the scorching summer sun, the fields across the way, once green in spring, were alive with tractors and huge combines harvesting the golden wheat Sicily is so famous for. Our courtyard was also full of long wooden tables spread with tomato puree slowly thickening over the course of a few days into our famous estratto paste. Scarcely a month ago, the energy and hum of the grape harvest was palpable, as the vineyards were inundated with crews of men employed from the neighboring towns to harvest the various varieties and rush them to the cantina to be turned into wine. The almonds, which grow wild everywhere you look, were harvested in great quantities, mechanically de-husked, and laid out in the courtyard to dry in the sun on large green tarps. And just last week, the olives were being picked and packed into great plastic crates to be sent to the oleificio where they will be pressed and stored in stainless steel jugs for the rest of the year. How we would cook and fry and eat without this golden liquid is a question I’d rather not ponder. How fortunate we are.
At this point, November, the big harvests are over. The pace of work has slowed and the air has cooled.
The thousands of rows of grape vines are slowly turning red and yellow, and the wild arugula sown as a cover crop between the rows is flowering, creating a carpet of white as far as the eye can see. The almond and olive trees are bare of fruit yet still retain their small leaves. The wheat fields are once again a dark chocolate brown, plowed and ready for next year’s seeding.
I like to pay attention to what’s happening around me for it helps me feel connected to the place I inhabit.
My past as a farmer has taught me to appreciate and engage with the seasons in a more attentive, nuanced way. Now as a cook, it also helps me remember how much work goes into producing good, nourishing food.
Paying attention is not an easy or obvious thing to do in this frenetic world of ours, I know. However, wherever we are, we can practice tuning in, in small ways: to the season, to what is around us and to what local farmers and food producers are selling, to what our bodies crave, to what feels like it belongs in our place and time. I love learning the color palettes of each season, for example, because once recognized, they are beautiful and register in the body as right somehow.
Here in Sicily, I especially love the hues of Fall, heavy on the various shades of green and occasional pops of color: wild bitter leafy greens growing near familiar cool weather vegetables like spinach, curly escarole, pink stemmed swiss chard, black kale and butterhead lettuce; dense emerald heads of broccoli and purple cauliflowers surrounded by their crown of blueish green leaves; the dusty tan of large ridged pumpkins, sliced open to reveal their intense orange flesh; pink-tinged garlic and red onions with their papery skins; the fireworks of prickly pears, both skin and flesh, ranging from orange to fuchsia to deep purple; neon green lemons you could easily mistake for limes, which don’t exist here; round persimmons the color of monk’s robes, their translucent insides the texture and flavor of vanilla custard; slightly furry, misshapen yellow quinces seemingly plucked from a still life painting; huge bulbs of crunchy white fennel with their wispy green fronds, begging to be sliced into a salad with pomegranate seeds now and with oranges later, once they ripen. The list goes on.
When I leave the farm and the school, and find myself in a more urban environment, say at one of the many local markets that dot most towns and cities and that mistakenly give the impression of wholesome abundance, my discerning antennae go up. Even here, perhaps especially here, where the “Made in Italy” label bestows rather automatically an aura of quality, it’s important to wonder who is actually behind the aesthetically appealing food you see piled up before you and where and under what conditions it was grown. Because this will determine how good it is for you, in terms of flavor and nourishment.
I happily note that wild foods, especially greens, are still being brought to market, which means someone is buying and eating them. This fills me with joy.
I have a natural curiosity towards wild foods which I carry with me wherever I live. In this regard, Sicily has rewarded me mightily and it wasn’t long before I caught on, learning from those who knew and were willing to share their knowledge with me.
Foraging for wild foods has now become something of a trend, but we must not forget that in the not so distant past, it was done out of necessity in a time when people in Sicily were truly hungry.
Perhaps as a way to distance themselves from that past, few people still go out to gather wild foods, let alone know how to identify them or even enjoy their punchy flavors. We have met some, though, usually older folks, and we interview them and forage with them if possible and ask how they cook these foods and why they eat them. The reason is usually health related, and I will say they seem rather fit for their age. How satisfying, that now after a year, I can go for a walk and easily identify various species of wild plants and their consequent uses in the kitchen. The various wild mustards and chicories are good when boiled in salted water to soften their intense bitterness, seasoned in a pan with a little sauteed onion and anchovy, tossed with pasta and served with grated ricotta salata or toasted breadcrumbs.
Spiny wild cardoons, ancestor of the artichoke, are a pain to dig up and clean, but make a wonderfully bitter appetizer, battered and deep fried, or boiled and baked with a bechamel sauce.
Wild chard, smaller leaved and a little hairier than its cultivated counterpart, and borage, with its distinctive white spotted leaves, are delicious boiled, stems and all, in salted water and simply dressed with a good sharp olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon. Wild fennel, starting to grow back tender and feathery, will be harvested in bulk in a few months, boiled in salted water (are you sensing a theme here?), squeezed dry and frozen for use throughout the year in various savory dishes that allow its anise-like flavor to shine through such as pasta con le sarde and small fried polpettine.
Close by and everywhere, the tall mature stalks of last year’s wild fennel end in eruptions of umbrella shaped yellow flowers and fully formed fennel seeds, which feature in sausage and salami, and definitely certain cookies. During the summer, these stalks would have been covered in small snails called babbaluci that are still prized in these parts, gathered early in the morning, purged for days, then gently boiled and simmered in either a rich tomato sauce or sauteed with oil, garlic and parsley. I can still hear the sounds of a room full of people slurping these tiny snails from their shells, devouring pots of them in honor of a particular saint.
Land well-tended can provide so much under proper human custodianship, but nature also offers us so much wildly and freely, if we know where to look. That is on such clear display here in Sicily, and sadly that knowledge is disappearing faster than you can say crastoni and pecorelle, two other types of snails found and consumed in the fall.
How do we come to eat what we eat anyway? Centuries of repetition? Trial and error? Outside influences? Experimentation? Climatic and socio-economic limitations?
I would argue all of the above and more. Sure, I get bored sometimes of vegetable soups with ricotta salata or an aged pecorino grated on top, but I’ve also grown to, at times, deeply crave it. After a year spent living here, it makes sense within my body. Sheep milk cheeses are the most common in Sicily, and ricotta is a byproduct of that process, and so that is what is eaten, in various incarnations both savory (dolloped on pasta, baked, salted) and sweet (think ricotta cream in cassata, cannoli, cassatelle, and even as a cornetto filling for breakfast). Almond trees grow everywhere and so understandably the almond features widely in many Sicilian pastries, as well as sauces like pesto trapanese. Wild greens and other plants grow abundantly and so we eat them as a side or with pasta or added to bean soups. Sheep are a common sight (and sound- you tend to hear them before you see them) and so our freezer is full of mutton and lamb, which we traditionally serve to our guests the first evening they spend with us. It makes sense that we eat what grows and lives easily on this land. We accept that these are the foods that are produced here. They form the foundation of Sicilian cuisine.
When I go outside, I admire the beauty that surrounds me, but I also seek to understand it.
This curiosity towards what we consume is something we encourage at the school. This place still has a feeling of realness to it, complicated but real, and if you stay here long enough
you begin to understand the connection with the living world around you, and that to learn how to cook in and from a place takes time and patience, but generally leads to delicious results.
Chef in residence at Anna Tasca Lanza