Food and Phonetics Sicula style

Italian is a highly phonetic language. This means that each sound is almost always graphically represented by the same combination of letters. When Italian children learn to read, they are taught the alphabet and then it’s downhill all the way.  A six year old who starts the ‘Prima Elementare’ in September, can usually read by Christmas.  Many years ago, I noticed that my son applied the same technique whilst writing his Christmas list to Santa in English.  The video ‘Toi Stori 2’  was at the top of the list, followed by ‘Spaider Man’ and finally ‘Star Wors’.

A new restaurant called ‘FUD’ has been recently opened in the heart of Catania by Andrea Graziano, an energetic, innovative and enterprising lover of food, who will rise to any challenge. The menu is phonetically written in English and there is a wide choice of Burgers including a ‘Chicchen Burger’, ‘Eg burger’ and an ‘Ors Burger’, (yes, they eat horse in Catania). There is also a selection of Pizzas and Salumeria.   You may choose to sit either at the bar or in the dining area, which is simply furnished with a long communal wooden trestle table and several surrounding tables which can comfortably seat four.

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We joined some friends who were sitting at the refectory style table, and after promptly being presented with the menu, Ciro chose the Buffalo Burger and I the ‘Cis Burger’.  Although Andrea gets his inspiration from abroad, he focuses on sustainability and all the products are Made in Italy with 90% of the ingredients Made in Sicily, so my burger came packed with 170g of local beef, Ragusana cheese, organic mayonnaise, locally grown lettuce, tomato and extra virgin olive oil and was easily the best cheeseburger I’ve tasted for a long time.  Our meals where served reasonably swiftly on a slim wooden board with no cutlery,  so we followed the instructions chalked on the blackboard to ‘iusiorans’.  We chose a bottle of our ‘Uain’ from the extensive list, although ‘Aus Uain’ was available and a bottle of sparkling ‘Uoter’.

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The well-known sister restaurant, “Il Sale Art Café” was opened ten years ago by the Graziano family in the art gallery bearing the same name, but gaining popularity, it began to draw  increasingly more consumers than there were tables available.  When Andrea saw customers hanging around patiently in the street outside,  he started to think  of ways in which he could make their wait more comfortable and decided to renovate a property adjacent to ‘Il Sale’ in order to provide somewhere for customers to have an ‘aperitivo’ whilst waiting for a table to became available.   However, his idea grew and clients can now not only have an pre-dinner drink, but also lunch and supper and there is also a take away service available.

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We had decided to arrive early, which was wise,  as when we left, the bar area in the entrance was packed with patient customers waiting for tables and the queue spilling out into the street, where there were also several  people lingering hopefully outside ‘Il Sale’.  Owing to Monti’s austerity measures, the Catanese are tightening their belts and cutting back on spending, but despite this, Italians have a strong set of priorities and ‘FUD’ is one of them.

http://www.fudcatania.it/

Via Santa Filomena, 35
95129 – Catania, Italy

Tel:             +39 095 7153518
E-mail: info@fudcatania.it

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Passione Tasting London

In February we were invited to take part in a tasting which had been organised by our UK importer Passione Vino at a rather smart address in the West End of London.  The event was by invitation only and well attended, with restaurateurs and buyers  in the majority, most of whom were Italian, providing  a rather surreal setting in which I was required to spend most of the day prattling in Italian .  There were occasional punctuations to the proceedings when handfuls of producers broke away from their bottle openers,  in order to peer through the frosted glass windows to watch the Bearskin-wearing, foot-stomping and rifle-wielding changing of the guards on duty at the side gates of the next door palace.

Among the wines I had the opportunity to taste, three from Trentino have since become firm favourites.  These young, passionate wine makers introduced their wines with such infectious enthusiasm and modesty that I wanted to gather them up and bring them home to Sicily with us. Eugenio Rosi’s beautifully made Marzemino was sublime, as was Marco Furli’s Sauvignon Blanc and Alessandro Fanti’s Nosiola.

We had been informed that the day would conclude with dinner at a nearby restaurant and after being gently herded up St James St, left into Piccadilly and across the road into Berkley St, we were halted in front of what appeared to be a rather swish establishment called Novikov,  owned by Russia’s most famous and successful restaurateur, Arkady Novikov, who apparently heads an empire with more than 50 restaurants throughout Moscow.  In we shuffled, and were icily greeted by  floral frocked, long-legged, beautiful-looking creatures with scarily scraped back hair, who gave us directions past the vast Asian eating area and bar, towards the Italian restaurant on the lower floor.  Upon descending the staircase we passed a well-built gentleman in a dark suit, talking quietly  into his lapel and at the foot of the stairs we were confronted with  an enormous windowless room containing an overwhelming sea of  chattering tightly packed Botox, Bulgari and soft leather, whereupon we were swiftly rescued and trawled to our tables by a pretty southern Mediterranean-looking  girl.  The meal was Italian, as was the company, which was marginally better.  We shared our wines, winemaking experiences and had an altogether very pleasant conclusion to an engaging and informative day.

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Berlinale 2012

Timo Vuorensola director 'Iron Sky'

When we arrived in Berlin it was cold and buzzing with hype about a Nazis -in -space, wacky sci-fi comedy called ‘Iron Sky’ which seems to have become a cult film, even before going on general release. We spent the following four days in consummate self-indulgence, watching a kaleidoscope of films, eating crunchy schnitzel and drinking fabulous beer.  Our hotel was well situated, within easy walking distance of all the popular sights and more importantly,  very close to an extremely cosy ‘kneipe’ called ‘Stadtklause’ which had a warm and welcoming interior, with wood paneled walls and photographs of the of the once-magnificent Anhalter Bahnhof,  located a short distance away.  Having stumbled quite by chance upon this little gem on our return from seeing the wonderful  ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’,  we were disappointed to find that they had stopped serving food, so resigned ourselves to ordering a couple of beers. However, our genial host must have taken pity on us and surprised us with a laden plate of thickly sliced bread, gouda and cold meat.

The following evening we had been invited to ‘Joyful Reunion’,  one of the 15 films about food and the environment, which were being shown at the 6th Culinary Cinema of the Berlinale, which too was followed by a meal,  but this time prepared by a Michelin starred chef in a Spiegeltent across the road from the cinema. The red velvet curtains, antique wooden panels and a unique arrangement of mirrors provided a swanky atmosphere with clutches of tables, heavily laden with cutlery and glasses, sparkling in the candlelight which ricocheted off the mirrors around the room.  Unfortunately, the meal, although tasty, was disappointingly meagre.  However, our glasses were generously re-filled generously at regular intervals with a couple of interesting Rieslings.  The end of the evening heralded the arrival of Dieter Kosslick, the charismatic artistic director of the festival, who greeted the cast of the film, seated at the adjoining table and after accompanying them to their courtesy cars,  joined us with a couple of bottles of Pinot, until the early hours.

Huo Siyan 'Joyful Reunion'

Our trip to Berlin allowed us to catch up with Mario Giordano, an old friend and  writer whose work includes the book/screenplay of ‘Das Experiment‘  who, despite living in Hamburg, has Sicilian connections.  He happened to be in Berlin for a meeting and we met at ‘Cafe Einstein’, where we had a light lunch, rounded off, at Mario’s insistence,  with a rather delicious pancake.

The climax and the conclusion to the festival was our invitation to the awards ceremony. Nursing glasses of bubbly, we looked down upon the bustle of the red carpet,  the jostling  photographers and expectant faces of the public,  straining to see who would alight from the gentle stream of  BMW cars sweeping smoothly past, emptying their contents out to the hungry pack of photographers. Paolo & Vittorio Taviani received the Golden Bear for their  ‘Caeser must die’,  but the most endearing part of the ceremony was when Jake Gyllenhaal (Donny Darko) announced  that the winner of the Silver Bear for best actress was Rachel Mwanza for ‘Rebelle’ (War Witch).  She had clearly not heard or understood,  as the ladies seated either side of her nudged and whispered to her, until she bounced up and down on her seat, clenching her fists in childish excitement and undisguised disbelief.

Rachel Mwanza 'Rebelle' (War Witch)

After the screening of the winning film, we joined the party, but after a couple of glasses of Reisling, we decided to disentangle ourselves from the swell of the crowd and escape  in all our finery to our snug ‘kneipe’, where we brought our stay to an appropriate end with mouth-watering Schnitzel, potatoes and a thirst quenching beer.

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‘Sicily Unpacked’ in ‘Cisterna Fuori’

Reading tantalizingly glowing reviews about the BBC2 series ‘Sicily Unpacked’ made me all the more frustrated about the BBC’s policy of restricting their audiences to the home front. ‘Currently BBC iPlayer TV programmes are available to play in the UK only’.  The TV travelogue, presented by Michelen-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli and art critic Andrew Graham Dixon, appears to have not only informed, but entertained British viewers, judging from the feedback we received last night from friends in Britain, who had just finished watching the third and final episode of the series.

Last May, Giorgio and Andrew arrived at the vineyard in style, driving a sleek Maserati and accompanied by a charming young film crew. Andrew was dressed in a crisp white shirt and dark slacks, looking every bit the Englishman abroad.  In contrast, Giorgio wore a navy, silk Brioni shirt and navy trousers.  After the introductions, Giorgio, Andrew and Ciro were put to work  by Karen McGann, the director, who suggested a stroll through the terraced vines with Ciro, chatting informally about winemaking on Etna and how it dates back to the period of the Greeks.  They carefully waded their way through the vines, selecting a few  leaves, which Giorgio was to use as one of the ingredients for a dish he was to prepare for us, before returning to the shady area in the heart of  Cisterna Fuori, where Ciro introduced them to our Outis Bianco and Outis Rosso.  A number of takes were required owing to outside noise disturbances, glasses were re-filled again and again, Giorgio tossing his long wavy hair back in laughter at Andrew’s jokes, who was eventually told to stop misbehaving by the producer.

Prior to their visit, I had been emailed a shopping list of the ingredients that Giorgio required for what he had decided to prepare, which included flour, salt, eggs, beer and 5 litres of cooking oil.  Having checked he had all that he required, filming then switched to the outside kitchen area we use for entertaining in the summer months.  Giorgio began by skillfully whisking a batter mixture together with  two forks, dunked the leaves into it, then  gently lowered them one by one into the hot oil.  When he was satisfied with the end product, he carried them over to the table where Ciro and Andrew were eagerly waiting to taste them.

After the filming was concluded, we were all able to relax and the film crew finally had the opportunity to taste the wines.  Whilst nibbling on the remaining vine leaves, chunks of bread and slices of local salami and cheese that we had provided, Giorgio informed us that in the past, when food was scarce in Sicily, a mind boggling combination of things had been fried in batter, a forerunner to the ‘frittelle’, which is so very part of ‘la cucina Sicilana’ today.  It’s not surprising to read that the series has been such a success, as Giorgio and Andrew acted as two knowledgable guides during the series and generously shared their knowledge, painting a colourful image of centuries of life in Sicily. Despite not having met each other before the programme was made, they had clearly bonded over the plates of food, wine and paintings, and appeared to us that day, to have become firm friends.

‘Sicily unpacked’ may be seen on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b019f8vm/episodes/guide

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Vive la France !

 

One of the most subliminal moments during our short trip to Burgundy was an introduction to the Domaine de la Romainée-Conti Montrachet 2001.  This unique opportunity to taste one of probably the most expensive wines in the world, came about last summer, over a lamp lit dinner in the heart of the Cisterna Fuori in the company of Robert Camuto*, Kermit Lynch and his delightful wife who were visiting Sicily with Monsieur de Villaine.  Having caught up with Robert at the Berlinale 2011 the previous week, we then joined him in Beaune, where Cristiano Garella, a passionate young winemaker from Piemonte and Alberto Graci, an equally passionate neighbouring winemaker on Etna, arrived to make up our motley crew. 

 There was an air of reverential silence as we cradled our glasses,  having rinsed them carefully with a precious drop of the ethereal liquid, following the tasting of the Grands Echizeaux 2001 followed by Romanée St Vivant 1999. We had glanced at each other excitedly, like naughty school children playing at grown-ups, in the darkened cellar of the most highly revered estates of Burgundian wines, while the first (Grande Echizeaux 2001) was generously poured.  Upon being asked if we were able to identify the vintage,  I fidgeted nervously, whilst contemplating the contents of my glass, until a couple of courageous members of our group hazarded a guess, only to be admonished with a sympathetic smile by the kindly gentleman who was generous enough to share these masterpieces of winemaking with us.  A fellow taster, whose familiarity with the wines was startlingly evident, was rewarded with a conspiratorial  smile, as he triumphantly and quite accurately went on to not only name it, but also declare the vintage.  I looked on in awe, yet with some alarm as he elegantly swirled, spat and nonchalantly cast what was remaining in his glass into the squat, wooden casks filled with wood shavings, strategically positioned in the four corners of the darkened cellar. Despite the fact that he had to drive to Paris after the tasting, it still seemed rather a waste of what would have amounted to a rather princely sum, although, I did admire him for his abstinence.  He then quietly and confidently went on to reveal the vintage of the Romanée St Vivant 1999, a sheer divinity of blackberry, licorice, bitter chocolate and minerals, showing superb acidity, but horror of horrors, being rather distracted whilst complimenting this young man on his skill at the task in hand,  I committed the cardinal sin of tossing the remains of my St. Vivant into the wood shavings,  in order to prepare my glass for the Montrachet!  

Our visit was drawn to a close by an exciting tour of the winery, which included a glimpse of a narrow cellar, housing older vintages such as a 1931 La Tache and three 1956 Grands Echizeaux. With the taste of the celestial Montrachet 2001 still in our mouths, we took our leave, the fruit aromas combining with hints of ripe exotic fruit and dense layers of flavours,  a minerality combined with an energetic acidity and such an incredibly long finish, that were I to have closed my eyes, I may have even thought it a red.

*Robert Camuto ‘Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey’     http://robertcamuto.net/

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Sommeliers help save our skins

 

Oliver and Co.

Winemaking can be a struggle when the elements are against you as they are here on Etna, and finding a market for the wines can be equally challenging.  Despite producing reasonably modest quantities from an area which has recently been under the media microscope, we are still not guaranteed a regular, comforting clink of bottles leaving the winery on a daily basis.  Our allies in this wine war are the sommeliers, who are in the front of the line, guiding the consumers in making their choices, whilst protecting them from any unsuspecting corked and oxidized bottles.  Ciro and I had the fortune to meet some of these talented youngsters during a recent visit from our Californian importer, Oliver McCrum.  www.omwines.com 
One of the group included the very articulate and extremely amusing Jeff Porter, the wine director at  Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles, who had chosen to study Bio-Chemistry before turning to the world of wine. There was also the gentle, quietly spoken Alejandro Gutierrez, wine buyer for a Whole Foods Market in San Francisco, and not to mention the passionate salesman, Ted Vance, with blonde pony tail and piercing blue eyes, appearing every bit the Californian. Ted runs a wine brokerage in Southern California called Vance Erickson, which sells Oliver’s italian portfolio among other wines; he impressed us with his educated palate and the bold adjectives he used whilst describing our wines. 
After dinner ‘chez-nous’ on the evening of their arrival, composed predominantly of comfort-food  including pasta in a rich ragu sauce followed by oven baked Sicilian sausages, the following evening we took Oliver, Michele (GM of omwines), and the boys to the ‘Antica Marina’ in Catania, where we had a sumptuous fish supper.  It kicked off with such an alarming quantity of anti-pasti that it culminated in a rather Monty Pythonesque scene as the small dishes were mercilessly delivered to our table with more speed than we were able to fill our plates.  This was followed by a couple of ‘assagini’ of pasta, one of which was subliminal: a cluster of mussels nestling in a plate of spaghetti adorned with green clumps of ‘mauro’ (locally collected algae); this coupled exquisitely with the Outis Bianco ’09.  The meal reached its climax with the arrival of a beautifully cooked, gargantuan ‘dentice’ of which the Outis’ Rosso ’07 and Monte Ilice ’08 were a perfect accompaniment.  We were joined for dinner by Alberto Aiello, an effervescent young Etna producer and close friend, who had brought his Graci wines for us to taste. 
Oliver’s trip happened to coincide with a visit from Geoff Kruth, MS, the Wine Director at the Farm House Inn in Sonoma, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Kenneth Branagh!  Geoff graduated from Sonoma State University with a BS in Computer Science, but he too changed direction when he decided to enroll at The French Culinary Institute’s Classic Culinary Arts program in New York where he was able to pursue his passion for wine.  Each of these dedicated wine professionals displayed such passion, skill, and knowledge about wine that it was inspiring.  Ciro and I remain both grateful and unequivocally confident that ‘our babies’  rest in such capable hands. 
The McCrum crew’s trip to Mt Etna, although brief, was concluded rather appropriately by a magnificent eruption the night before they left the island, heralding their departure.

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Casa Cuseni

Producing wine often provides rewards that can sometimes make up for the often meagre financial return.  An example of this came by way of an invitation from Alex Burge to visit probably one of the most beautiful houses in Taormina.  Alex is overseas sales director for Andrea Franchetti, who has vineyards in Passopisciaro, here on Etna, and whilst living with his family in Aci Trezza during the ’80’s, was a companion of Ciro’s .  Although their paths had not crossed for many years, Etna and her wine were destined to bring them together once again.  Whilst chatting with him at Vinitaly in April 2010, I casually asked Alex how his English father and Dutch mother had met.  I was staggered to hear that they had been introduced to each another by one Daphne Phelps, from England who had lived at Casa Cuseni, Taormina.   A few years ago, thinking it would be of interest to me, my father had sent her Obituary which had been published in the Daily Telegraph.  I read it with avid interest, as not only had she attended the same boarding school as I had in Suffolk, but she had also chosen to make Sicily her home at a considerably more ‘challenging’ period than I had.  After reading her obituary, I decided to embark upon a more in depth research,  and found that her Uncle, Robert Kitson, had first visited Taormina in 1898 at the age of 26.  He knew at once that he had ‘found his place of destiny’,  as being homosexual,  he felt that he was able to create his own world there, and after briefly returning to England, he immediately returned to settle in Sicily and embarked on the construction of Casa Cuseni in 1905.  After his death in 1947,  Daphne was sent to Sicily by the family to settle his affairs and sell the house,  but upon her arrival she immediately fell in love with the house and its extensive gardens, and decided to stay on until her death in 2005.  When Ciro, Alex and I arrived at Casa Cuseni, we were met at the gate by Franco, the son-in-law of Daphne’s long-term housekeeper, Concetta, who had died the previous year, and cautiously made our way up the slippery narrow path through a tangle of jasmine and mandarin trees to the house and climbed the steps to the extensive front terrace, where we were greeted  by Mimma, Concetta’s daughter.   Concetta and her family had lived on the premises since Daphne had kindly given them shelter in the house at the garden gate after their house in ‘campagna’ had been destroyed by lightening.  Alex and Mimma embraced fondly as she welcomed us to the house and Alex back ‘home’ introducing us to her daughter, named Daphne, after the ‘Signorina’.  It was a beautiful day,  and with a welcoming, brilliant shaft of sun light falling on to the oak floor, we walked through the large double doors leading from the front terrace into what was an essentially English large drawing-room .  Gazing around in reverential delight, I  noticed to my right,  a door opening on to what had been Robert Kitson’s book-lined study, with a further door leading onto the once beautiful garden. 

 After a lengthy discussion between Alex, Mimma and Franco about the state of the house and the unsuccessful attempt by Daphne’s nieces and nephews to sell the property, despite a failed attempt at a project to restore both the house and gardens, which were in themselves a horticulturist’s delight, Alex showed us around the remainder of the house,  which included Daphne’s own bedroom and the guest rooms which had been occupied by a stream of paying guests such as Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, and Tennesee Williams. We were then shown the converted rooms on the top terrace where he had slept as a child on the regular occasions he would visit with his parents.  The rooms were furnished as they had always been, the dining room heralding a harmonious mixture of art nouveau and Sicilian styles with a mural painted by Frank Brangwyn, who had also designed the panelling, table, sideboard and chairs.

Franco kindly searched for the guest books, in which we found Alex’s signature, written in a bold four-year old hand from 1969. 

As there do not seem to be many prospective buyers on the horizon, and saddened to see the house descend into even more disrepair,  Mimma and her husband very much hope that a buyer will  appear to save Casa Cuseni, thus continuing a legacy of which they have played a very important part.  Both Ciro and I wish them all the very best and will do every thing we can to support and help them in their crusade to maintain the dream of ‘Don Roberto’ and la Signorina, who lie side by side in the cemetery in Taormina.

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