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Unmasking the Faces of Sicily

Clasping bone handled knives and silver forks, Marina hurries along the loggia carrying a wooden tray bearing a pile of prickly Figs of India. She forbids us to eat the chick pea panelle or battered sage leaves until she demonstrates how to reach the heart of a Fig of India. Securing the fig with a fork, she tops and tails the oval fruit and makes a cut lengthwise through the thick skin. Deft fingers lever pulp from skin and orange flesh rolls onto a plate. We had been warned, but even so, we had carelessly picked these figs from a wild tree beckoning along the cliff path wandering high above Taormina. Thousands of hairy prickles stuck in our hands and arms which led to Marina’s demonstration. Her grandmother approaches unfolding from her flowery pinafore two bottles of hazy liquid which she rigorously shakes, turning the liquid milky white. “Try my Latte di Mandorla,” she implores. None of us has ever tasted fresh almond milk before.

Marina’s husband, Salvatore, whose family have owned Azienda Trinità organic farm and orchard for more than eight generations, guides us around this exotic oasis on the volcanic slopes of Mt Etna, demonstrating irrigation canals inspired by Arab gardeners which change the direction and flow of water on an island where rainfall is meagre and the sun relentless.

After a glass of Mount Etna wine we are encouraged to peel our own Figs of India and Isabella talks about the destruction of the French fleet in the Straits of Messina. The Sicilian Vespers at Palermo was a vast conspiracy plotted by the Emperor of Constantinople, the medieval Papacy, Queen Constance of Spain, the Barons and rebellious men and women of Sicily against French Charles I, King of Sicily, in 1282.

Our hotel at Taormina clings to a cliff thick with exotic palms and cacti, frowned upon by menacing Mt Etna volcano and overlooking the Ionion Sea. Coastal land is a patchwork of citrus orchards and olive groves. Near the Greek stronghold of Syracuse almond groves multiply and papyrus grows wild. On the Island of Ortygia at Fonte Aretusa fresh water gushes from the sea just as it did 2,500 years ago.

Greek playwrights premiered tragedies here in the 5th century BC. Sitting on slabs of marble our necks prickle as we ponder Aristotle, Pindar, Theocratis, Sophocles and Euripides. Wisdom lost to mankind for two thousand years, tied up for centuries in knots of his own making.

Medieval Castelbuono is a cluster of stone houses secluded in a valley in the Madonie mountains. For those like Queen Constance of Sicily, who prefer to bed down away from the frenzy of cities, Castelbuono is a real treasure; its Italian-ness is evident in the unwritten rules as we fall into step on the evening passeggiata. Smartly dressed village folk, chattering teenagers, mothers with prams, farmers and their black-scarfed wives parade and mingle, exchanging gossip and news, as curious about our presence as we are in their evening ritual.

Dinner at Quattru Cannola is splendid. Mountains of baked pecorino cheese, truffle of Madonie shaved over tangled pappardelle served in giant terracotta bowls is followed by hand made veal sausages. We finish with a Castelbuono dessert; Testa di Turco – head of the Turk. Grandmothers in Castelbuono have been baking Testa di Turco for a thousand years and see no reason to cease the tradition. Our host recounts the Saracen legend as we savour dessert served with home-made mandarin liqueur.

During a couple of hundred years of Arab occupation Palermo boasted 300 mosques. Arabic signs and street names are everywhere. Wandering through the markets we marvel at gleaming fruits, nuts, spices, squirming snails, tripe dangling like rubbery foam, slabs of swordfish, velvety skinned tuna fish, skinny lambs strung from a wire and goat heads looking at us with glassy eyes. Palermo’s markets are legendary, the best in Italy. An aproned Sicilian dips his hand into a cauldron darkened by layers of tea towels. Retrieving a handful of something steaming he quickly pokes it into a bun. Ordering one resolves the mystery; broiled intestines. We forgo this culinary opportunity.

Ever watchful, Isabella nudges us and we see the outstretched hand of a passing man snaffle a wad of notes offered from the side of a cheese stall. Dirty money disappears into a pocket. The market lanes are narrow and the roadway littered with cauliflower and cabbage leaves and all manner of discarded produce. Now alerted, understanding what to look for, our heads turn to a man on a swivel chair sitting in the middle of a narrow alley. His chair swivels and his leathery hands are in and out of jacket pockets with astonishing frequency. Every vendor in Palermo market pays pizzo – protection money. An in depth discussion about the Sicilian Mafia must wait until we are out of the market.

Lunch is at award winning Caffè Spinnato. We indulge in delicious cassata and cannoli prepared in front of our eyes. A marvellous afternoon at the Palatine chapel in the Palace of the Normans and the tombs of the Kings and Queens of Sicily is followed with a viewing of the sublime Annunciation by the master Antonello da Messina; a true Renaissance treasure.

The story of the Sicilian Mafia, in depth, occupies the early evening. Isabella’s story holds everyone captive, attention riveted as she discloses the story piece by piece, episode by episode, giving us a picture of a Sicily at the mercy of Mafia power. The discussion that follows is heated, indignant, almost disbelieving, but the myths have been  destroyed  –  we were witnesses this very morning to the disturbing reality of the Sicilian Mafia.

An interior road winds through barren limestone ridges. Spying a whitewashed village we chance a detour looking for a snack lunch. Our driver peers anxiously into every hair-pin bend as we ascend into a rocky ravine. He’s worried about being able to turn this bus around when we need to descend. School children stop in their tracks and stare, unable to fathom our delight when we photograph a rather weathered and crumbling stone fountain, shuttered stone houses and an upward cobbled alley.

“We don ‘ave ‘otel ‘ere”, an ebony haired girl ventures. Explaining we are hungry, the children signal for us to follow them up the cobbled alley and taking an elliptical route for a hundred metres we climb a stone stairway and emerge in a tiny piazza of the village of Sutera. “Yous stop ‘ere,” we are instructed. Curious mothers and grandmothers, all dressed in black, appear; our gathering grows alarmingly as curious villagers arrive to inspect us. Seated at Formica tables outside what seems to be the only shop in Sutera we hope for panini and prosciutto, but visitors to Sutera are rare and beaming mountain folk determined to create a bella figura. For an hour we savour hospitality and food in abundance. Purple wine is served from chipped double handled jugs, chick pea and fava bean paste is slathered on sesame seed bread, colourful caponata shining with purple aubergine and a platter of crescent shaped almond biscuits are all laid out. The children are learning English at school, but the women chatter excitedly in indecipherable dialect.

The Valley of the Temples at dusk. Majestic temples built by ancient Greeks to deities uncertainly named by archaeologists. Fading light on the Temple of Concordia washes translucent pink into apricot, to peach, to terracotta, to brick…. to darkness. Mystical deities feel close.

Our last dinner is at Ristorante Margòz. Threading our way through poorly lit alleys in a decrepit neighbourhood of Palermo we find the place shrouded in scaffolding, and the door seems to be locked. We bash on the door and a small square of wood at eye level swings inwards. A shadowy face inspects. Uncertainly, we follow Isabella inside, and the night fills with incredible food and black Nero d’Avola wine. Splendidly dressed Palermitani arrive, most kiss the hand of a bronzed gentleman sitting with an extraordinarily glamorous not-so-young woman. Both are heavily laden with gold. The rituals, customs, exuberant displays of affection, hand-kissing, vitality and unfailing joy as plate after plate is ceremoniously borne to their table results in our meal being eaten in amazed silence. With a few clues from Isabella, we realise we are witnessing the dark side of Sicily few people get to see, let alone participate in.

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