Trapani: Distilling A Sea
Like a serious of long, sensual whispers, the brown and tan cattails that line the road outside of Trapani go on for hours, their sighing sounds seem to almost sizzle in the late afternoon as I near the old city, the shimmering salt pools perhaps one of the most welcoming sites I’ve ever seen. They seem imaginary, like some sales lot for unsold lakes, stacked side by side, the shores between them just thin strips of land.
The city of Trapani is hauntingly beautiful as well, the centre more European than Sicilian, more regal than you might expect from a city that has made its name by pulling salt from the sea using only the strong winds and sun, and then using that salt to dry and preserve food, long before refrigeration, canning and trucking changed everything.
What’s endearing, and maybe even promising, is how intact the cuisine still is even today, so little changed by tourism, refrigeration and more to the point, the bulldozing effects of ‘modern tastes’ (the thing about cuisine is that once it’s gone, it’s gone). Folks here still seem to prefer dried tuna to fresh, you find salt-cured capers and olives everywhere in the food and the pasta shape of choice is oddly called fusilli, even though they are fresh and look like tightly-curled telephone cords. Even in the better restaurants, my vegetables arrive with the tell-tale marks of the serrated-tooth scrapes of a common, plastic-handled table knife, a sign that things are still cut against the thumb rather than on a chopping board. Fish-based couscous is everywhere, and the desserts are so sweet that they make my teeth hurt just thinking about them: Trapani’s souvenirs from its Phoenician past. Taken together, the cooking here feels like it’s still ‘of a place’, something you find less and less, even in Italy.
Wobbling on my bike on the way out of town- the screaming winds ripping past my ears, and the sun burrowing into the back of my salty neck, I think about my school’s working definition of the word ‘cuisine’- how a people solved scarcity as a group over time ’– and it occurs to me that that pertains to Trapani itself as well. Harnessing their only resources, the sea, the famously-ripping wind, the cruel, bleaching almost-African sun and generation after generation of aching backs and blistered fingers, i trapanesi built a way of life and even a remarkable city together, which their food still reflects, beautifully. As I teeter along the white-capped and breaking sea, I think about everything we have in Italy today, and how little of it we actually earned ourselves.