Flower of Phoenicia

It is easy to find your way around battered Palermo. In the centre of town is the Quattro Canti, a square which could be accused of being an octagon; from this emerge roads aligned with each point of the compass, slicing the city into four. To the North lies the Opera House, the street of artisans, and a fine friggitoria serving doughnuts filled with cooked ham and ricotta; to the East lies the Casa del Brodo, the Antica Foccaceria, the puppet museum, and of course the wine-dark sea. What is in the South and the West, I do not know – churches, I imagine, the outside walls a dusty beige, the interior lustrous and deep – but at any rate, like all maps, this is of course a fiction. It is easy to get lost in Palermo.

The city has that quality, which it shares with Granada and also with the flatly shadowed cities of your dreams, whereby it is quite possible that a side-street you thought terminated in a little square and perhaps a coffee shop opens out instead to reveal the ancient slopes of mountains, the scent of wild fennel drifting in on a snowy breeze, the darkness of looming buildings giving way to a harsh winter sun; turn back again, and there is the coffee shop, and you sit with your dense espresso and your little pastry amidst ancient dust and passing scooters. It doesn’t especially matter where this is, as there is good coffee everywhere – scooters, too, even when the streets narrow so quickly it seems they will drive into the vanishing point. Even in the thick crowds around the market they weave through the slabs of swordfish and piles of wiggling ceruses, the great heaps of artichoke and citrus, and the slicked-back men singing as they grill intestines over coal.

You might discover an urge to get out of this crush, away from the dust and the violence of history; this would be easily done, if the perimeters of the town were not guarded with spaghetti-ing roads and the hulking remains of the Cyclopes, trapped in knock-off concrete by the building contractors of Casa Nostra, if you could work out the bus timetable. Ah well. Back to the city and to the fat sfincione which must surely be the original of the American Deep Dish Pizza Pie; a great number of Italian-Americans are in fact Sicilian-, as indeed are British Italians. Look at the ice-cream parlours of St Andrews and Broadstairs – look at the British habit of dumping pasta sauce on top of pasta, rather than emulsifying it in the pan; a Sicilian habit, too. Whoever codified the so-called Mediterranean diet had clearly not spent much time in Palermo, where, at least in public, they eat a quite astonishing amount of white carbohydrate, and very tasty it is too.

Pane e panelle, for example, gram flour fritters stuffed into white baps, is a dish which epitomises the cucina povera – chickpea in Italian being, as it is in French, the meagre or the pauper’s pea – while at the same time seeming distinctly modern or at least urban, and you eat it and look up, and realise you are standing not in myth or history but in a city which bustles as all cities do, where hurried sandwiches are eaten on the way to or from work, and you shake yourself, and head off, via the Quattro Canti, to a nearby bar.

Just a Snicket

“Toasted cheese”, moans Ben Gunn, marooned in a lonely paradise; of all the trappings of his lost past, it is this that he craves the most. I, too, have been a stranger in strange lands, and I have always longed for cheddar cheese. Ubiquitous across Britain, synonymous, in fact, with the very idea of British cheese (imagine ordering a cheese-and-pickle sandwich and getting crumbly Wensleydale or aggressive Stilton), a decent or even semi-decent cheddar is almost impossible to find elsewhere. The stuff that some Americans call cheddar would be a joke, if it were funny; as it is, it is horrifying. I spent a year in upstate New York, and though, I think, every single sandwich I ate had cheese in it, not one cheese sandwich did I see. My (vegetarian) father tried to order one once, at a gas station deli somewhere in the Adirondacks, and was met with polite confusion. “Mayo, cheese, yes – what filling would you like?” Your American cheese lacks both the structure and the physical presence to carry a sandwich by itself – with the exception, of course, of the grilled cheese.

The grilled cheese is grilled in the sense that it is cooked directly on a solid flat-top grill, possibly alongside eggs over-easy, fat pancakes and little sliders; that is to say, it is fried. In its platonic form, before the current sourdough-and-raw-cheese reinvention, it consists of cheap sliced white sandwiched around cheap American cheese, the outside buttered or even mayonnaissed and fried or ‘grilled’ until golden brown. The stated ingredients perfectly match the treatment given them; sliced white (I will not call it bread) is of a uniform density which allows for both maximal surface crispness and minimal escapage of the cheese within, which, being so heavily processed, easily melts in the time taken to cook the sandwich. Sourdough is obviously a vast improvement in terms of flavour, but its irregular size and numerous holes present a new set of challenges to the sandwicheer; best, in most cases, to wrap the whole thing in foil and fry within. As for the cheese, I find the hard calcified click of a good cheddar wasted here, unless you happen to have some gratable odds and ends lying around. A classic melting cheese, something like a raclette or ogleshield, seems most appropriate; it is like a reminder of what American cheese could have been.

Personally, I prefer cold cheese; cold cheddar cheese, in malted brown bread. I resist the idea that every sandwich should be toasted – and no-one would argue that all cheese should be fondued. The joy of fresh mountain cheeses, crumbly, soft and sharp, lies partly in their coldness. Like a cucumber, there is something refreshing about their existence, so clean and white. These are also the easiest sorts of cheeses to make at home, which is nice; just sour and salt some milk and drain off the whey – no culture or clamp required. These are ancient things, particular to animal and soil and air; they are born fresh every day, in country, in village and in farm. It would be instructive and, of course, delicious, to do a comparative study of cheeseĀ terroir, ranging across all of Anatolia, Greece, Sardinia, Spain, to see the different flavours wrung out of dry slopes and distant seas.

Who could possibly say which is better, a ball of mozzarella cold out of its brine or melted across a scarce few millimetres of dough – the way the former tears into strings, the way the latter pools and glistens? I would rather eat a whole burrata with my hands. In a good pizzeria, I like my dough almost bare, just a few razor-shavings of garlic across the sweet tomato sauce. As the bread gets worse, the toppings pile higher – which isn’t to say I would turn my nose up at pepperoni, hot peppers, olives or even mushrooms, though I draw the line at sweetcorn; that way lies pineapple. To be honest, I have never encountered a pizza or indeed any form of melted-cheese-on-bread that I have truly, viscerally disliked. Even that sliced white grilled cheese, though barely providing sustenance, has a beauty of its own. Nothing else sits so well next to a cup of cream of tomato soup. Still, for all the joy of cheese-on-toast, of Welsh or Italian rarebit, of saganaki and fondue, if you put me on a desert island it is a good strong cheddar, cold from the fridge, that I would cry for in the depths of the night – so long, of course, as there were pickled onions.