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.

Tongue & Cheek

In the rather macho world of nose-to-tail eating, there is, I think, some confusion as to what is being propounded – a confusion which can easily put off interested newcomers. Offal is never going to become big business – even when you get past the idea that you are eating a specific, named organ with specific functions, there is still that taste to contend with, that weird, ferric tang, as well as the texture, a dense sponginess that makes it quite hard to cook, responding to heat differently than muscle fibre. I love offal, but I can see why people don’t – and some vaguely ethical idea about eating ‘the whole beast’ is not going to convince them otherwise. It’s no less ethical to feed the weird bits to dogs.

At the other end of the ‘variety meat’ spectrum, though, you have perfectly meaty cuts of meat which we, as a culture, have simply fallen out of the habit of using, cuts which maybe take a little more time or effort to prepare but which are, if anything, more delicious than their more familiar neighbours. It wasn’t that long ago that pork belly fell into this category – look at the first Nose To Tail Eating, published in ’99, and you can find good old St Fergus preaching its virtues as if for the first time – and now it is everywhere, the go-to pork cut for gastropub and restaurant alike. Brisket, thanks largely to the American barbecue craze, is making similar headway, and we are getting more used to ‘difficult’ steak cuts (bavette, flat-iron, onglet) that require more careful cooking than the bleeding/shrivelled dichotomy of old. I think the slightly dubious ‘ethical’ aspect of nose-to-tail has more weight here – you don’t have a responsibility to eat things you hate, but it is irresponsible to ignore cuts of meat that are cheaper, tastier and often healthier, simply because you don’t know what to do with them. With that in mind, here are a couple of suggestions.

OX TONGUE, BREAD, GREEN SAUCE

While in Sicily, I saw, but never got the chance to eat at, a restaurant called Casa Del Brodo, which specialised in tortellini cooked in a rich meat broth (brodo). Presumably to supply adequate quantities of this broth, they also seemed to specialise in simply boiled meat dishes, generally beef or veal, and generally served with green sauce. Having been denied this pleasure, I ordered a brined ox tongue from the butcher when I got back. To cook the tongue, simply poach it with a few stock vegetables until very tender – it’ll take about 3 and a half hours – and then peel it as soon as it’s cool enough to handle. Then do as I did, and follow Fergus Henderson’s excellent recipe, which can be found here. A tongue is still obviously a tongue when you acquire it, and might induce some squeamishness, but the meat is firm, tender, lean and delicious, like a perfection of corned beef. We also ate the broth, with some macaroni and a few veg cooked in it, as a starter. A meat based meal that was clean and simple.

BRAISED OX CHEEK WITH SHERRY & ORANGE

This is quite different, a ridiculously rich and beefy concoction. It requires a couple of days planning, for the brining.

STEP 1

1 fat ox cheek

75g sea salt

50g caster sugar

a few cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1 clove of garlic

Put all the ingredients except the cheek in a pan with 500ml of water, bring to a boil (making sure your sugar and salt are dissolved) then cool completely. Put the cheek in a Tupperware box or similar, pour over the cold brine, cover – you might need to weigh the cheek down so he’s covered completely – and stick in the fridge. Leave for 3 days or so, turning once or twice.

STEP 2

2 onions, finely sliced

1 celery stick, finely diced

1 carrot, finely diced

2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced

1 orange, juice and a couple of strips of zest

1 cinnamon stick

a little bundle of thyme

a few bay leaves

250 ml of sherry – something sticky and dark, not leftover Bristol Cream

a splash of sherry vinegar

Put the oven on low – gas mark 1-and-a-halfish, about 150 Celsius, whatever that is in Fahrenheit. Sweat the veg with a little oil in a casserole until they are really soft, which will take a while. Remove your cheek from its holding tank, rinse and dry, then brown in a frying pan over a fairly fierce heat. Put the cheek to one side, deglaze the pan with sherry vinegar, and pour the juices in with the veg. Assuming they are now soft and golden, tuck in the zest, herbs and cinnamon (tied in a little bundle if you can be bothered), then pour in the orange juice and sherry. Reduce until the liquid is pretty syrupy, then sit the cheek on the onions and pour over enough water to nearly cover (see Fergus Henderson’s alligator-in-the-swamp principle). It shouldn’t need any seasoning, thanks to its briny days. Bring up to a simmer again, whack on the lid and put in the oven. Leave for about 6 hours. Take it out and poke with a spoon. If you can poke through it, it’s ready.

STEP 3

This is entirely up to you. You could cut the whole cheek into a few happy chunks, sit them on some mashed potato and serve with greens; you could do the same with pools of cheesy polenta and some bitter raw leaves, lurking with anchovies. I shredded it up, left it overnight, and did this –

CASARECCE WITH OX CHEEK RAGU & TALEGGIO

for 2

half your ragu

200g casarecce

75g taleggio, diced

flatleaf parsley, chopped

a knob of butter

a splash of extra virgin olive oil

reheat the ragu with a splash of water in a small pan. In another, bigger pan, cook the pasta in only lightly salted boiling water. Have everything else ready to go, as well as some arrangement for catching the pasta water, so you can work quickly. When the pasta is just cooked, drain, then put back in the pan. Let it steam for a second, then add the cheese, the butter, and the oil; stir, melt, add the hot ragu and a couple of tablespoons of your pasta water (I told you!), stir, add the parsley and some pepper, tip onto hot plates (I should have mentioned that) and serve with a little salad of broad beans, rocket and capers, dressed with vinaigrette and lemon zest, which hopefully someone else will have prepared while you were messing around with pasta.

Spaghetti con Ricci

Palermo is a cartographer’s nightmare, a psychogeographer’s dream, a tightly wound warren of streets and alleys overlain on centuries and centuries of growth, where modern concrete rubs up against a bombed-out Norman church, where Roman utility sits next to swirling Arabesques, the whole thing surrounded, threatened by the savage outcrops of the wild Sicilian hills. Two hulking cartographic engines sit in the ethnographic museum on Palermo’s outskirts, monuments to the tremendous effort it must have taken to map that intricate city. This physical complexity, itself a reflection of the long histories of occupation and control which Sicily has undergone, is reflected in the culture of the island, particularly, as you might expect in Italy, in its food.

I don’t, it should be said, know a huge amount about Italian food – my main impression of it before visiting Palermo was of a fierce and ossified provinciality, of a formidable tradition of dishes, refined over decades or centuries, that would admit little in the way of regional or cultural variation. This was largely confirmed in Palermo. Restaurant after restaurant served variations on a theme, the same few sauces skipping around between the same few pastas, a seemingly endless, albeit delicious, procession of caponata. Look closely into these dishes, though, and you can see the way they have gradually assimilated their influences, the lessons they have learnt from their invaders.

The Greeks are there in their mania for fish, as simple and fresh as possible, and in their bracing mountain herbs; the universal Roman seasoning of garum, fermented fish sauce, has found its expression in the universality of the anchovy, often used, it seemed to me, as a substitute for salt, while the influence of the Arabs is everywhere. The dried fruit and nuts with fish, the meat ragu incongruously stuffed into sweet biscuits, the granita’s echo of sharbat, the love of sugar and pastry and bizarre contortions of both; even pasta, I believe (an argument I am not getting into here) is a legacy of the Arab occupation. 

Then again, there were things which seemed wholly of Sicily, chiefly the street food, which seemed the product of a poor and inventive population – boiled spleen transformed into something resembling doner meat, stuffed into a bun with two kinds of cheese, chickpea flour cooked like polenta and served in little deep-fried triangles, lengths of sheep intestine threaded onto skewers and grilled over scorching heat – I’m sure these, too, had their origins and their influences, but like the rest, they had been assimilated into the odd fusion, the fascinating tapestry, of Sicilian cuisine.

Having said all that, the finest thing I ate in Palermo was also one of the simplest, the least expressive of any outside culture or influence beyond the sea which the city crouches round – spaghetti with sea urchin, at the Trattoria Piccolo Napoli. Sea urchin is becoming something of a fashionable ingredient – the various St. John’s have been serving it for a while now, and even old Hugh F-W was getting in on the act on his Scandinavian show – which I had never tried, so it was a bit of a must-eat for me, even though I’m not much of a fish lover. I had heard it variously described as ‘delicate’ (which often seems to mean tasteless) and tasting ‘of the sea’ (which usually means salty), so my expectations weren’t particularly high, especially when my spaghetti arrived, plain except for a little parsley and what looked like bloody mucus.

Well, it was absolutely, outrageously, delicious. Forked through the pasta, the urchin dissolved and thickened into a rich sauce, perfectly coating the spaghetti, which tasted, delicately but powerfully, of the sea. It was elusive, only just on the tip of your tongue, and yet the aftertaste lingered and lingered, tasting the way the seaside smelt when you were young and everything was fresh and clean. The dish as a whole was an absolutely perfect collision of skill and ingredient; the pasta was cooked to absolute al dente perfection – and there the chef’s interference stopped. Parsley and urchin were dumped upon it, and there you go. Easily one of the nicest dishes I have ever eaten, and one which seems to epitomise much of what is admirable about Italian cuisine – the absolute primacy of ingredient, the vicious simplicity of execution.

I’m not going to attempt to give a recipe for this – for one thing, I’ve never cooked it, and probably never will. I could try for the rest of my life to approximate that experience. If you’d like to, it should be pretty simple – scoop out a sea urchin, cook some pasta, chop some parsley, combine. Good luck.