Just to reiterate. I am not Sicilian. Or Italian. I’m half British, half Irish, from the most mediocre of small towns in North Warwickshire. The late and wonderful Terry Wogan used to joke about its mediocrity. It is that mediocre.
But the other half is Sicilian. It’s complicated. He lives in London, I in Birmingham. He likes clubbing. I like slippers and cocoa. And although he is on a near permanent diet (all those decades of pasta start to catch up eventually), a passion we share is our food and the cooking of it. When we got together, I can hand on heart say that I’d never encountered Sicilian food. I think I had heard of Cannoli, perhaps Sicilian lemons were on the radar. That’s it.
Here we are, getting on for four years later, and it seems that I’ve accidentally (and only partially) imbibed from some sort of Mediterranean fount of knowledge. It hasn’t gifted me with even a basic grasp of the language, I still burst out in a heat rash within 24 hours of arrival in Palermo, and I’ll never get used to all the shouting that passes as conversation. But now I can turn out a passable cassata, turn sardines into songbirds, and have just planted a mulberry tree in the hope of one day granita.
There should be limits though. Birmingham is not Palermo, the flavours that I mimic can never be as strong, as strident, as Sicilian. They are faded facsimiles.
But I am stubborn. Some things are too ridiculous not to try. Too impossible. Too of the South.
Astrattu is one of these things (a quick word here on the name. Astrattu in Palermo, Estrattu or ‘strattu everywhere else – dialects, abbreviations, urban v rural. Things I’m sure I’ll never get to the bottom of).
In August, as the tomato crop is taking over Sicily, and the summer is at its most stifling, the crimson abundance is transformed by time and that heat into a concentrated, turbo charged fraction of itself. Boiled, sieved and salted, litres upon litres of pulped tomatoes are spread out on boards to bake in the sun. Fingers create furrows that drain away leaking water, and gradually, the sloppy pulp thickens, darkens, stiffens. The tomato sunburn turns iron oxide, knee scab red. What was once liquid, spread over table after table, is now reduced to the corner of a single board, scraped up and squirrelled away to add intensity and umami from the smallest of additions.
Perhaps it is the essence of Sicily. There is nothing quite like it. Don’t even imagine that it resembles the puree you get in tubes. It is scarcely even tomato anymore, it has had an apotheosis. You can smell its power. The brave spread it on toast for a hit of salt tang shudder.
So, obviously, wearing my stubbornness and pigheadedness like badges of honour, I chose to take this task, the one that demands at least three days of continuous and unrelenting heat, and make it Brummie.
The Sicilian’s usual mild amusement was replaced by out and out incredulity. Having lived through four of our summers now, he is beginning to understand what drives British fatalism. The idea of it hitting 40 degrees, of there even being three days of continuous sun, of being able to grow enough tomatoes, all was folly. Everything was against me. Crushing failure was certain.
But, I had a secret weapon. I had my poly tunnel.
The idea that I could achieve the impossible first dawned on me last year during that rare, glorious summer. A friend was in charge of watering said tunnel whilst we were on holiday in Palermo, and regaled us with tales of nearly fainting from the heat inside, when we returned. Admittedly she’s a red head, and wilts as soon as it gets above 25. But it sparked my imagination.
And then, on cue, over an August bank holiday weekend, a plume of heat rose northward from Africa, bathing Birmingham in the kind of warmth that makes us break out our worst clothing and drink too much cider on a school night.
I started small. Just two litres of tomatoes and a large wooden tray, balanced precariously on the arms of a camping chair. Heath Robinson sprang to mind, not the slopes of Etna. Wobbling like the chair, I began to doubt my sanity, as paste dribbled over the edges and a cloud passed over the sun. I left for the day, expecting disaster in the morning, and a puddle of red spatter on the floor.
But the next day, the Sunday, there was indeed movement, a definite trend towards a thickening, my finger furrows stayed put, and there was clotting in places. And so over the next 48 hours, it progressed. Next up I could spread it like putty, and then it began to crack, like damp mud in hot sun. Two litres finally became a smear, which bundled together was no bigger than a golf ball. It had that metallic tang of fresh cuts and the best sun dried tomatoes. Somehow, for 36 hours, the gods of Sicily had decamped to a poly tunnel in the suburbs of Birmingham.
Will I ever make it again? Unlikely. You have to be ready at the drop of a weather forecast to attempt your astrattu, it’s cheap as chips in Palermo, and they don’t seem to have a problem with you sticking it in your hand luggage. But, then again, in a future, legendary summer, when the tomato crop is running away with itself and red headed friends are going giddy, maybe I will. Because, now I know I can.