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.