From Palermo, and if you happen to be on an over-loaded bicycle, you’ll only need a few hours to reach a little town called Carini. You could easily miss it if you weren’t looking out for it. And if you weren’t expected. We were. We had an appointment.
It was just one of those things that comes together, someone that knows someone that knows someone and next thing you know I’m on the phone with Lina. That’s the way it is here in the South. You can bang your head against the wall when the system works against you: when you’re perfectly qualified but the car or the job or the house goes to….someone that knows someone that knows someone else……
But today though, the river was flowing the right way.
Lina wanted to show me how to make Sfincione, a wood-fired flatbread covered with, in order, caciocavallo, anchovies, tomato sauce with onion, olive oil and then breadcrumbs.
Her husband Giuseppe worked the oven.
Cake flour, salt, yeast and oil are mixed together and allowed to rise for a few hours. A fire is built in an outdoor oven using twigs, or this time of year, vine trimmings. The goal is extreme heat.
The dough is stretched over an oiled, iron tray.
The hands are oiled to stop the pasta from sticking. Even outdoors with an incredible wind I could smell the oil being opened from several paces away.
Giuseppe makes his own oil, which we tasted from plastic cups. It was bitter and biting and terrific.
Crushed tomatoes are boiled with a couple of onions, some salt and a little sugar. Like many home cooks around the world, exact measurement are always personal. ‘Until it gets to the dent’, or ‘until I can see the bottom’, is how many cooks ask any questions about cooking times, recipes as individual as an old, dinged-up pot.
The fire is removed from the oven completely using a pizza peel. (Here Giuseppe then sweeps the floor of the oven with palm fronds tied to a broom handle, the fronds soaked in a bucket of water so as not to catch flame). It works remarkable well. All the burning wood is removed and collected in an old wheelbarrow.
A handful of pork sausages jacked with black pepper and fennel seeds straddle a tiny grill right over the fire in the wheelbarrow. Like every farmer I’ve ever met, nothing is ever wasted.
A few hours later, home-made rosato wine makes an appearance in an hermetic bottle on the lunch table. A startling fresh ricotta, sharp yet sweet from sheep’s milk. A bowel of anchovies. A hunk of aged caciocavallo.
I sit next to Giuseppe and we discuss the olive oil he makes, the wine he produces, his fruit trees and his fields that surround us.
It is sobering his level of pragmatic knowledge. More than sobering, it’s humbling. I begin to look around the perimeters of my field of vision. He poured the cement to build the drive way. He cut down that tree. He built that building. He constructed that outdoor oven. He planted that vineyard. I feel 16 again. Or maybe 19. Not when I know everything but I realise I know nothing.
The Sfincione is instantly knowable, as it’s the kind of dish imported into many countries around the world with the arrival of Southern Italian immigrants. The anchovy is mild and not at all fishy. The cheese is rich. The tomato, tangy. The bread is chewy, and it requires that you pick it up, the kind of food that instantly relaxes everyone. It’s delicious.
Soon almond pastries will come out. We’ll move inside to play cards. In a few hours everyone will change into suits and dresses for the local mass.
As I sat on an old couch and awaited the wind to die down before departing, I thought about Giuseppe and Lina and their self-sufficient life-style and how rare you find that today in Italy. What will the food in Italy be like when they’re gone, when I am, when you are? Without someone making olive oil at home, will consumers continue to blindly trust labels? Will wine become a mysterious beverage, produced by over-saluted lab workers? You don’t have to look far to see that bad food and a passive, uninformed consumer always go hand in hand.
We said goodbye after being together only a day but it felt like more. Giuseppe wanted to load our bicycle bags with fruit from his trees, a bottle of his oil, a water-bottled refilled with his wine. My throat swelled and my eyes begin to fill at his generosity.
Leaving Carini, I noticed that the birds were drunk and smacked into the sides of buildings and telephone poles. Cardboard-lined wooden fruit crates flew into the air as if they were jerked by ropes. A heavy vinyl rug from the front of a tiny grocery store took flight and flew past my head close enough that I could smell the brand of detergent that someone used to mop it. The constant noise was Bix Beiderbecke on a Coke bottle, so loud it hurt my ears. I couldn’t scream over the top of it. We’d wobble every few seconds, be forced to a complete stop every thirty. The muscles in my back begin to hurt from straining to stay upright. The Scirocco was blowing and unless you’ve experienced it, nothing will ever prepare you for it. We aimed out bikes towards Trapani and kept out heads low, our bags heavy with Giuseppe’s fruit and an oily bag of Lina’s Sfincione.