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Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Glamourama : Palazzo Federico

Have you ever dreamt of living like a prince or a princess?

The Palazzo Conte Federico is one of the oldest and most important buildings in Palermo. It is in the centre of the old city only a few steps away from the Palazzo Reale, the Cathedral and the Cappella Palatina.

Your hosts Count and Countess Federico will take you on a cultural trip around the 12th century palazzo and will make you feel just like at home.

The guest room, the “Federico Suite”, is unique in its style.

Exactly as it was in the 17th century, it summons up a surreal, almost timeless, atmosphere. The monumental bed, made from the panels of the old music hall ceiling, is a masterpiece, as is the wardrobe. In addition, there are brocade curtains, antique furniture, carpets and paintings.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Recipe of the day : Falsomagro

Farsumagru or Falso Magro (literally Fake-Lean) is perhaps the most celebrated Sicilian meat dish.

It translates roughly as nonlenten, because it contains an amazing wealth of ingredients, including meats.

Farsumagru is another typical Sicilian recipe that places its roots around the 1800's, where the French chefs Monsú (from French word Monsieurs) treated their masters with their special "Viande farcie de maigre" - stuffed lean beef roll.

In Sicily, meat has never been verypopular. Perhaps because of the abundance of fish or, on the other hand, for the high prices of bovine meat itself.

In fact, Sicilians were mainly using the cattle for milk and the only available beef came from old or injured bovines whose meat was very hard, chewy and barely edible.

When the Monsú arrived in Sicily and discovered the almost complete lack of quality beef, they needed to come up with something creative to replace their "Viande de false maigre" and decided to embellish the local hard meat by stuffing it with everything "non-lean", such as salami, boiled eggs, ham and cheese.

Just like for "sarde a beccafico" Sicilians imitated the rich and nobles, but being unable to understand French, they soon renamed that fusion French-Sicilian dish as Falso Magro: A truly original "Fake-Lean".

A rectangular slice of veal weighing 1 3/4-2 pounds (7-800 g), with no holes!
1/2 pound (200 g) prosciutto or mortadella
1/2 pound fresh mild sausage, or the soft salami of Chiaramonte Gulfi
4 hard boiled eggs
4 ounces (100 g) cured lard (a strip the length of the slice of meat)
3 ounces (75 g) ground beef
A fresh spring onion
A beaten egg
A clove of garlic
4 ounces (100 g) sharp caciocavallo or provolone, diced
2 1/2 ounces (60 g) grated pecorino col pepe (similar to Romano, but with peppercorns)
A small bunch parsley
1/4 pound (100 g) freshly shelled peas, blanched in salted water
Tomato sauce
A walnut sized chunk of rendered lard
A sprinkle of well aged red wine
Olive oil
Salt & pepper

Begin by pounding the meat with the flat of a knife, being careful to keep the slab rectangular in shape, and not puncturing it. Next, lay the slices of prosciutto or mortadella over the meat. Trim the tips off the hard boiled eggs to reveal the yolks, and lay them lengthwise down the middle of the piece of meat.

Trim the rind from the lard if need be, put it around the eggs, then sprinkle the diced cheese and parsley sprigs over everything, along with the garlic, minced, and the spring onion.

To complete the filling combine the ground meat, grated cheese, peas, and, if you want, some fresh sausage. Spread the mixture over the other ingredients in the filling, and roll the meat up around it. Tie the roll with string lengthwise and width wise and down, to produces a "salame."

Put the farsumagru in a large pan and brown it either in the fat from cooking sausages, or a mix of lard and oil. At this point the farsumagru is ready to take its place in a festive ragù. Or, if it is to reign in glory by itself at the table, sprinkle it with red wine and continue cooking until the wine has evaporated. Then add some tomato sauce, diluted in water, and simmer the roll for about an hour, covered. When it comes time to serve it transfer it to a platter and remove the string, but wait till you get to the table to slice it into half-inch slices. The beauty of the thing, if it's done right, is the way the brilliant yellow of the yolk is surrounded by the whites, in which are in turn surrounded by the milky lard, with the green of the peas and parsley in the brilliant white of the cheese.

This is the farsumagru, the undisputed King of Sicilian meat dishes.

Serve it with its sauce, and with a fine red wine, along the lines of a Nero D'Avola.

Seduced by Aztec & Sicilian chocolate

The chocolate in Modica is famous for its tradition : A tradition that was handed down from the Aztecs to the Spaniards and then to the Sicilians when Sicily was controlled by the Spanish from 13th to the 15th century.

This is a story about chocolate. It's also a tale of discovery that we want to share with you, as written on the International Herald's Tribune.

It begins with the ancient culture of the Aztecs in Mexico, and ends, at least for our purposes, in the charming Baroque town of Modica, just inland from Sicily's southern coast, an area of remarkable natural beauty where history still lives in the sights, sounds and tastes of the present.
In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors of the New World came into contact with an extraordinary variety of hitherto unknown foods. One of these was xocolatl, obtained from ground cacao seeds. Ingested in solid form or as a beverage, it was much appreciated by the Aztecs for its invigorating properties and the sense of well-being it induced.
In his "Historia Verdadera de Nueva Espana," Bernal Diaz de Castillo, who followed the Grand Conquistador, Cortes to Mexico, described how the Emperor Montezuma used to drink bitter chocolate, sometimes spiced with vanilla.
Sicily became acquainted with various foodstuffs from those distant Spanish dominions as the island gradually adapted to Spanish rule.

For Modica and the surrounding county of the same name, this period coincided with an age of exceptional wealth and development, to the extent that it was considered an island within the island, a kingdom within the kingdom.

Then in January 1693 a terrible earthquake devastated much of the town and killed 2,400 people. Despite the destruction, the positive spirit of Modica endured. While churches, monasteries and palaces had to be built anew, thus giving rise to the glorious chapter of Baroque architecture and urban planning that makes this part of Sicily such a visual treat, certain traditions survived unscathed. One of them was preparing bitter chocolate and using it in savory cuisine.
Leonardo Sciascia, the great 20th-century Sicilian writer, declared that "Modican chocolate is unparalleled in savor, such that tasting it is like reaching the archetype, the absolute, and that chocolate produced elsewhere, even the most celebrated, is an adulteration, a corruption of the original."

Since 1880 the high temple of archetypal chocolate in Modica has been the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. A constant attraction for myriad devotees, local and otherwise, this wooden-paneled repository of toothsome treasures is tucked into a little side street just off Corso Umberto I, the main drag snaking through the rift between the two hillsides on which the town clings like crafted coral. Behind the counter is the inner sanctum where six young confectionery cooks practice an ancient art under the supervision of high priest Franco Ruta.
"This is a family enterprise by indirect descent," says Ruta, who divides his time between his profession as a medical analyst and his passion for chocolate. "Though people in Modica have been making chocolate and marzipan sweetmeats since time immemorial, it was my father-in-law's father-in-law who actually started up the shop.
"In fact the founder won the Grand Gold Medal Award for his products in the International Exhibition held in Rome in 1911. And we have been basically making things the same way ever since — nowadays of course with the help of electrical contrivances. My wife retired from teaching English at high school to work with us, and our son Pierpaolo is now also involved. In fact he set up our Web site."
Though the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto no longer ferments and grinds its own cacao seeds, it purchases the otherwise unprocessed chocolate mass direct from the Ivory Coast.
This contains all the original cocoa butter that makes the end product so rich and creamy, and that is largely lacking in industrially manufactured chocolate.
The crude chocolate is heated to around 40 to 50 degrees, when the cocoa butter melts and the basic ingredient can be worked together with cinnamon (or vanilla) and sugar until it is ready to be placed in the rectangular aluminium forms that give the sturdy little bars of chocolate their shape. Before the chocolate solidifies, these forms are lined up on a large wooden tray that is beaten relentlessly against the thick pale gray marble kitchen table top.
This extraordinary ritual makes a tremendous din, but actually serves to expel air bubbles and leave what will become the top side of the chocolate bars shiny and smooth. It remains only to wrap them in red or pink paper emblazoned with fin-de-siècle graphics.
The Ruta family and their enthusiastic team of young assistants also make the traditional mpanatigghi, (mm-pan-na-tee-gee) little empanadas stuffed with minced meat and chocolate, liccumie, a variant stuffed with eggplant and chocolate, and a variety of temptations made with locally grown almonds ground into a paste with sugar and then spiced with grated lemon rind and vanilla.

Chocolate is also part of a wider cuisine in Modica, as a visit to the Fattoria delle Torri will gloriously reveal. At Vicolo Napolitano 14, on a little side street off Corso Umberto, in what used to be the vaults of a patrician palazzo, this beautifully appointed restaurant is the gastronomic realm of Peppe Barone and his partners Massimo and Zelia.
Peppe is a quietly inventive cook, revisiting local recipes and traditions but derisive of the sort of culinary silliness that abounds when the accent is all on novelty.
Peppe sticks to seasonal produce, which is not hard in Sicily, but at most times of the year his menu features u lebbru 'nciucculattatu, rabbit cooked in chocolate. Of distant but evident Aztec provenance, this rich but delicate dish embodies a perfect balance of tastes and textures. To accompany it (and the other many delights of the day) the Fattoria delle Torri boasts what is possibly the finest wine cellar in Sicily.
Fattoria delle Torri
Vico Napolitano, 14
Modica (RG)
Phone : +39 0932 751286

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Sicilian item of the day : Ceramics

Sicilian clay, used in terra cotta earthenware over the millennia, is different from the other clays (Eg. Mexico or Mongolia) because it contains a combination of silicates unique to Sicily. This clay, freshly mined from the Sicilian mountains and valleys, is molded by hand by ceramic masters, and then left to dry under the sun.

The most traditional ceramic art features the intricate motifs brought by the Moors, embellished by the Renaissance spirit of the Baroque. That's the ceramic art for which Sicily is famous.

Each Piece is unique, each individually Hand painted/moulded, therefore no two are the same.

Sicilian ceramics tend to be vibrant and colorful : just the perfect way to serve a tasty Sicilian antipasto and impress your guests!

If you are planning a trip to Sicily, don't miss to visit Caltagirone and Santo Stefano di Camastra : World's famous ceramics producers. But if you simply happen to be insipered by fascinating Sicilian culture and you are considering buying a ceramic plate online, have a look at the following link.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Recipe of the Month : Sarde a beccafico

Every Sicilian dish has its own story to tell.

In an island that has been at the cross-road of so many different cultures these stories become even more fascinating.

This month we will disclose the culinary secrets and a recipe of the delicious "Sarde a Beccafico" (Stuffed sardines).

Maria Carolina, the wife of Ferdinand I and the sister of Marie Antoinette imported French chefs to the royal court in Palermo in 1805. These chefs became known as Monsú, a corruption of the word monsieur. Gradually the Sicilians, who had served their apprenticeships under the French cooks, took over the kitchens and continued to bear the prestigious title.

Monsú were able to produce magnificent flavours in the kitchen : The quintessential baroque opulence expressing its art in food and in sophisticated presentations.

The Sicilians creatively got rid of the austerity of Norman dishes and filled their specialties with the exoticness of a southern land bathed in sunshine and all the virtues and vices of the east. They used spices, marinated the meats in lemon juice and used breadcrumbs, pinenuts and raisins fillings.

Sarde a Beccafico originally consisted in roasted quail-like small birds, some even believe robins. While the poor people could not afford such an expensive delicacy, their ingenuity made them think of a cheaper alternative using sardines.

The choice of the sardines is not casual, as this fish's tail resembles a bird or even a robin's tail.

Another theory behind the name of this delicacy comes from Salvatore lo Presti, the renowned Catanian folklorist. He writes in Lo Stivale allo Spiedo (The Spitted Boot) that the beccafico is a gluttonous bird that loves ripe figs and is therefore considered a gourmand.

I know you have all been waiting for this...
Here's my grandma's recipe :

ingredients for 6 serves
2 pounds fresh sardines
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
6 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup currants, plumped in water
2 tablespoons minced parsley
8 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
6 black olives, pitted and slivered
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Juice and zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon sugar
2 dozen bay leaves

Preheat oven to 350° F.
Scale, gut and clean sardines. Split open to remove backbone, but do not cut in half.
In a heavy skillet, over low flame, brown breadcrumbs in 2 tablespoons oil. When golden, take off heat and stir in pine nuts, currants, parsley, anchovy, olives, orange and lemon zest. Moisten with 1 - 2 tablespoons additional oil if mixture is dry.
Place a spoonful of mixture in the centre of each opened sardine. Do not close sardines. Roll up starting with edge opposite the tail. When rolled, place side by side in baking dish with tail sticking up. Place a bay leaf between each fish.
Mix together, lemon and orange juice.
When ready to bake, sprinkle with sugar and then with the citrus juices.
Bake in preheated 350° F oven for 10 - 15 minutes.
This dish is excellent when served either hot or cold.