Me going beyond two comfort zones. (No recipe yet, not until I’ve nailed the thing).
1) First there’s my comfort zone. As I get older and older, the only certainty that I have so far settled on is that a recipe is just a list of instructions. The rest of life still remains a mystery to me.
And it is almost impossible to capture in a recipe and a photo, what a dish should ‘be’. In the four years now that I have been learning to ‘properly’ cook Italian and Sicilian food, all I know is that everything is subjective. Every version is personal, familial, communal. And dependent on the quality, and the soil of the ingredients.
I can follow, to the letter, a recipe given to me, but The Sicilian would say it was a facsimile, a northern approximation. Removed from the physical presence of the island, that great, lowering, volcanic, ancient massif of rock and culture, the recipe is born without something essential.
Alternatively I can present a truly ‘authentic’ Sicilian meal to British friends, and they will take away their version of it, without the fruit, halving the sugar, cutting out the offal and eyeballs, sanitising all traces of the island from it.
A recipe can only ever be a face pressed up against the window, because it cannot recreate a place, a moment, the heat or light or perfume of the setting. And when you are cooking the food of a culture other than your own, these are the missing ingredients; you were not raised on them and there are no instructions on how to add them.
2) Second; Sicily is an island the size of Wales. To talk of ‘Sicilian food’ is, at best, a sweeping generalisation. It ignores the history and identity of the island; that Palermo believes itself to be overwhelming superior. But then so does Catania. The interior is still terrifyingly wild and at times dissolute. The east is Greek and the west is Arabic (even though this has not really been the case for millennia). Time is different there. Rivalries stick over generations, across mountain ranges, between cities and geographical points. Nothing is truly Sicilian, only, of Sicily. And all I really know, second hand and diluted, is the view from a Palermitan, a loud and strident voice among many loud and strident Sicilian voices. It is against this that I measure my cooking, but there is much in Sicily that is not of Palermo.
Such as bread pie – Impanata.
This is inherently Sicilian in the way that lava bread is inherently British; it isn’t. It’s from that Greek corner of the island, Ragusa, Syracusa. So, when asking The Sicilian for advice, I drew a blank; ‘We don’t do those in the west’. I am left resorting to ink on the page and my own judgement, and the closest thing that I could draw on was Britain’s own ‘Homity Pie’ of potatoes, cheese, egg and spinach (itself perhaps a modern invention or reimagination).
I am vastly fond of carbohydrates. So anything that combines potatoes and bread catches my eye. Truth be told, it catches my heart. And Impanata, can be just that. A pie of bread, stuffed with potatoes (as though created to seduce this Irishman). It can also be many other things. It can have anchovies, meat, chard, tomatoes, cheese. The list, the variety, is limited only by the ingredients available and the particular rules of your family. Every writer has a version; the grander the chef, and the further they are from Ragusa, then the greater the complexity – throwing in nutmeg and pine nuts and raisins, all the herbs, chilli. But going back to how these things originated (and Impanata is a thing of the day to day, think Cornish Pasty with added mediterranean), it is best to stick with the general rule of Italian food, remembering that less is more.
Bread is typical of the differences that arise when you use an Italian recipe with British ingredients. Tangents are flying all over the place to confound this home cook.
I have made bread since the 70s, when everyone made bread, briefly, during one national crisis or another. I’m good at it. I know that, only because I’ve been doing it the same way for years, decades now. I know what works, I know how to knead, how to prove, how to get the right rise. I have been using the same strong Canadian flour forever, and know just how to play with it, adulterate it with rye, or add spelt or beer or cider, and still get the blousy result I want. I can’t claim any credit, it’s just practice and familiarity.
But Italian bread just isn’t like this. Think, for example, of pizza dough that is chewy and crispy, with a rise that is totally different; bigger bubbles, no height, it can’t support its own weight. And the bread of the pie of the impanata, should, I think be more like this. A crust, not a loaf.
I have never overcome this disparity – is it flour? Is it oil? Is it the Birmingham air? Nothing, no one, and certainly no recipe, has ever stopped my bread turning out like a yeasted, rosy cheeked, Saxon, farmer’s wife.
So of course, the first time I make my Impanata, guided only by the page and accompanying picture, I create not a solid, almost unleavened thing to make Ragusa proud, but a stuffed Bloomer. Admittedly, it is the most delicious of bloomers, all the juices and saltiness of the filling (potatoes, chard, cheese and prosciutto) have seeped into the bread. It is intensely savoury and satisfying. You can see how and why it came to be a staple of Greek Sicily. It feels ancient, you know that people were eating something similar when the Cathedral of Syracuse was still a Temple of Athena. Few foods do this. Few have the ability to make you realise that we live within our own history. That the people of three thousand years ago were the same, but without the mod cons and that the untrammelled joy a slice of impanata cannot have changed much since then. I’m sure that when I eat this, I am sharing a near identical sensation lived by a long dead, hungry and eager child.
But this version of mine, is still, I know, inherently wrong. I see this however as a blessing. Because, purely in the interests of research, I must now spend a few weeks practicing my impanate, not just the bread outside of things, but the guts – I have a larder full of ingredients to use up; preserved aubergines, anchovies, dried tomatoes from last year; mozarella near its use by date and caciocavello that didn’t make it into a risotto. I finish my first impanata challenged to work harder, to cook better, read more, strain the limits of my Italian, seek advice, and to find skills I don’t currently have. I sense the beginning of an adventure. It is exciting.