Fennel, sprung spring and more sardines

IMG_5377

The clue here is the name.  Wild.  Unbiddable and unmovable. One of countless umbelliferous plants, this family (Ferrula) has barnstormed a place into human civilisation as one of our keystone herbs.  If you think of any writer trying to capture their version of a mediterranean idyll, fennel looms large – pungent, aniseed, flowers that crawl with drugged and clumsy pin-head beetles.  My favourite is Giant Fennel, whose hollow stalks become the homes for colonies of gargantuan petrol blue bumble bees all over Sicily, from the abandoned terraces of Alicudi to the 2,000 year old ruins of Agrigento.  There, you see, I’m off on my personal Mediterranean idyll, and its fennel. 

But, it is not exclusively a plant of the south, here too it will grow freely, uninvited and tall.  Acid green or lustrous bronze, the two forms both carry the same pungency, and promiscuity when it comes to populating your patch with their offspring.  Sadly it does not come with giant bees, but it still carries that unique flavour and smell; full of volatiles waiting to impart something of themselves into your food.  Without the sun, that Sicilian sun, those volatiles will be weaker, less concentrated, something you will need to consider when deciding your quantities.  And after the exuberant spring fronds, come the flowers and their seeds – medicinal, digestive, essential. 

The fennel of spring comes as an eruption of froth, powered by a delving tap root that is heading to the antipodes.  An established clump of fennel becomes a stubborn and resolute thing, a problem if it’s a weed, a heaven sent blessing when it’s a herb.  And that tap root, prone to snapping and source of all life, causes all sorts of problems when the plant pops up in the wrong place and needs to be moved.  A relocated fennel plant is seldom a happy thing.  They have a strong sense of place, and their place is where they germinated, and no where else.  Rehomed it will sulk and wither, the promised lacy abundance turning yellow and wilting.  Given time, there may be a recovery, a return to vigour, but this is never certain, no matter how green your fingers.  

As soon as spring has sprung, the tight froth of new growth will erupt skywards, that deep deep  tap root powering stalks, fronds and yellow insect magnet flowers up to six feet in the air.  Once it gets there, much of the greenery (or bronzery) will start to die back.  All energy is diverted to height and flowers.  So the window for cooking with fennel leaves is over by July.

There is one recipe, involving pasta, fennel and sardines, that for me more than any other, encapsulates Sicilian food.  It’s ingredients are mostly ordinary, foraged, last hour of the market, store cupboard stuff.  And then the smallest of extravagances are added. The flavours are sublime.  Oily fish shot through with aniseed, sweet raisins, crunchy nuts, heady saffron and starchy pasta.  This is cheap decadence that I could eat every day.  The bucatini makes for a strange first encounter, it’s a hollow, tubular spaghetti – fatter and  tricky to eat.  It’s like a secret test to set true Italians apart from us lesser mortals, their deftness in stark contrast to our air-sucking futility.  But the hollowness allows it to absorb more of the flavours and juices of your Sarde, so it’s worth the extra effort and humiliation.

Pasta con le Sarde (for four)

Sardines (fresh, 2-3 per person or 2 tins, in oil)

Wild Fennel, (a big fist full of a fronds)

25g Pine nuts (toasted)

25g Raisins (soaked in warm water)

25g Chopped almond flakes

75ml Olive oil

Breadcrumbs

4 Anchovies

450g Bucatini

Saffron

Onion

Garlic.

If your using fresh sardines, then clean them – heads off, guts out, fins clipped, back bone out.  If you’re using tinned, the messy work has been done for you

Boil your pasta water, heavily salted and then use it cook the chopped fennel fronds (having removed the toughest, stringiest centre parts) for no more than ten minutes.  Remove and keep your fronds, but keep the fennel scented water boiling and add the pasta, cooking for 6-7 minutes (check the packet).

If using fresh sardines, then keep half of the fillets whole, and chop the rest.  Fry the whole ones in abundant oil, browning them on both sides, and when cooked, take them out of the oil and keep them with your fennel fronds. (you can skip this bit if you are using tinned fish, as they will never have the same crowd pleasing looks).

Now fry your chopped onion with the garlic. Add the anchovies and saffron (steeped in a little warm water), then added the chopped sardines, stir through the raisins, nuts and half of the fennel.

Whilst everything is heating through, test your pasta. Once it’s ready, drain, and then layer pasta, remaining fennel and the fish sauce, garnishing with the whole sardines you kept aside.  Finally shake over a generous amount of breadcrumbs and flash everything in an oven on its top heat for five minutes.

Continue reading “Fennel, sprung spring and more sardines”

Schrödinger’s Freezer

IMG_5173

The freezer is on the blink. Scarcely a year old, and apparently it needs a new circuit board.

On the plus side, it’s so fiendishly modern that its insulation levels wouldn’t be out of place on the International Space Station. So nothing is rapidly defrosting, rather things are gradually just nudging their temperatures upwards every time I open the door. I have Schrödinger’s Freezer. I have to make lightning strikes in there, playing a 3D memory game as to what is in which drawer and snatching whatever is most vulnerable to the thaw.

I started with the fish, plural. I bulk buy frozen sardines, because, as I’ve said before, I bloody love them. So I had 20 sardines still board stiff, but too many and too good to risk losing to the whims of over complicated fridge electrics. I also wasn’t feeling particularly finicky , so no Sardine a beccafico for tea tonight.

But I remembered something else. Something gruesome, barbaric, straight from a crap horror film, but delicious. If you decide to make these, keep everyone out of the kitchen, and pray your guests don’t arrive early, as few people will be brave enough to try them, having seen the preamble.

Polpette di sarde
(Sardine meatballs).

The Sicilian made these for one of his monumental feasts last year. They were a triumph, hoovered up with gusto, even though they’re a simple fish meat ball, fried until brown all over and then cooked again in a tomato sauce. I’m giving his recipe (that I’ve not seen in any book), which uses fewer ingredients (no raisins or pine nuts – which are often included). There’s also a north African version of these which is spicier.

You will need a sturdy food mill, a heavy, deep frying pan, a hefty knife, and to put aside any squeamishness you may be prone to.

Start by cleaning your sardines. You need to clip off the fins, scrub off any scales and take out the guts. Doing this under running, cold water makes the job mildly less revolting.

Then, take your knife, decapitate each sardine, flattening the remaining body out, so you can fillet out the back bone (These you can discard) Chop your fillet into two or three pieces and, steeling yourself, throw the whole lot, skin and all into your food mill. Get cranking. The kitchen horror story begins, as your fish are ground down and extruded as fine fish paste into the bowl below. This is as far removed from a ready meal as you’re ever likely to get, you will be not quite staring your dinner in the eye as it disappears down the grinder. At the end any of the tougher bones or fins you missed in the cleaning process should be left in your food mill, and you can start turning the fish paste into your polpette. In the UK, we’re very picky about the bits we will and won’t knowingly eat. But if you ever eat fish such as bream or bass with a Sicilian family you’ll see them picking out the eyes, finding the brain, chewing the whole head and spitting out the bones. It isn’t pretty, but these delicacies are good enough to permit the ditching of niceties. OK, so we haven’t gone this far with our meatballs, but there is sound reasoning behind this gothic almost all encompassing process.

The next bit is easy and less troubling.
Add bread (which you’ve soaked in water for ten minutes), beaten egg, garlic, parsley and grated pecorino, to the fish and mix everything thoroughly. The mix needs to be sticky enough to hold together when you form golf ball sized polpette, but not so damp that they stick to you hands. Most recipes will tell you to use breadcrumbs here, because they’re easier and people get breadcrumbs. You can weigh them, they’re orderly. But, they can turn your fish balls stiff, too congealed; by mixing in bread, squidging it with your hands, you avoid stodge. I don’t know why this works, but it does, it makes a big, big, difference.

Now heat up the olive oil and fry your balls when the oil sizzles if you drop a little of the mix into it. You want to brown them all over, so you’ll need to stand over them and turn as they cook. Don’t do this standing over the stove with a fag in your mouth; the other half’s mother would do. Ash does not improve the flavour.

Once they’re done, you can cool and store them in the fridge until you’re ready to cook your tomato sauce. (This also reduces the chances of horrified guests discovering your barbarism).

The sauce can be a simple home made passata, or you can make a more complex one by adding garlic, olive oil and basil. Although, despite this coming from a usually reliable recipe book, the Sicilian was visibly appalled at the idea of pairing basil with fish: “a Sicilian would never put basil with fish! And if they do they’re wrong”.

This is where you need trust your own taste. Being an oily fish. sardines pack a strong punch that’ll see off flavours that might overpower a less strident fish, but, I prefer the plain tomato version, it’s more in keeping with this simple version of the recipe. Plus, you have parsley in the polpette, so it’ll all get terribly confusing if you add basil.

Double up your passata with the same amount of water and then heat your sauce gently to a simmer, it doesn’t need to be ferociously boiling and sending little staining lava bombs of tomato all over your kitchen. Now add the polpette and cook them until they are heated through (30 minutes should be enough) and the sauce has reduced down to a sticky thickness.

Serve, perhaps with a few toasted pine nuts over the top for a bit of crunch. And have your ‘scarpetta’ ready, the ‘little shoe’ of bread to scoop up the sauce.

I was reading up on versions of this recipe (in Mary Taylor Simeti’s Sicilian Food) and apparently, it’s specific to Palermo. Elsewhere in Sicily, especially on the western side of the island, it’s more usual to make your polpette with tuna. So this would be a less gruesome version, using just steak meat, rather than all the bits that refuse to let you forget that this was once a living, swimming, silvery thing.

Ingredients
(makes 12 meatballs, allow two per person as a starter, or four as a main)

20 sardines
200-250g bread (crusts off and soaked in water for ten minutes)
Tablespoon of fresh chopped parsley
25g grated pecorino
1 egg (beaten)
1 crushed clove of garlic
Salt and pepper

500ml passata

25g pine nuts (browned in a dry frying pan)

Ever-so-slightly gothic Pasta.

IMG_4434

OK, so this is a slightly curveball dish, certainly for most of us who don’t have access to really good fish sellers.  On the whole, I’m pretty well served in Birmingham – we’re a big, diverse city, and our fish market accommodates that – we can even get cuttlefish.  The problem is they sell them precleaned – and they don’t keep the ink sac.  That will make a passable pasta senza nero di sepia, but the nero is really what this meal should be all about.

There is a perfectly good reason that they don’t keep the ink sacs, it’s because they are an armed and volatile liability to have lying around – especially in a domestic setting.  The ink is part of the cuttlefish’s defence mechanism – if danger threatens, then a small release of this into the water creates an instant pea-souper, giving our hero the cover to make a fast exit.  

Take the fish out of water, and the ink out of the fish (it’s in a hard to miss silvery, iridescent pouch), and you’ll find a small ball of black paste.  So far, so innocuous.  However, a little of this ink can go a long, long way. One slip, and you’ll be scrubbing for weeks.  There are more 21st century ways of sourcing your ink – you can sometimes find it presealed into little plastic pouches (like the ones attached to cut flowers), allowing for some containment of the pigmentary danger.  But the real thing will be fresher, stronger and certainly give you a better dish at the end.

So, if you can find intact cuttlefish, ask the fishmonger to clean them for you by all means – but ask them to keep the squid sac for you.  Be brave!  And keep a scrubbing brush close to hand, just in case.

This is one of those ‘scare the horses’ dishes that people will either love, hate, or be too terrified to try.  There’s no doubt that different food cultures are often mutually appalled and repelled by each other’s idiosyncrasies.  British tastes have gone soft of late, so that many of us are challenged by meals based on offal, or when asked to suck the brains from a prawn (but, please, try it – it’s the best bit).  And, well, jet black ink from a creepily intelligent chameleon of the sea…it’s just a bit left field of roast beef and apple crumble.  To be fair, I think the Sicilian responded in much the same way when I first introduced him to Heinz tinned spaghetti.

Assuming you’re feeling adventurous though, and that you can find your cuttlefish, give this dish a go.  It’s such a rich, sweet, BLACK meal.  You can play around with the seasoning to make it hotter or more herby – but at the heart of this dish is the unique ink depth of flavour.  It’s like nothing else – the only comparable depth of I can think of is sea urchins, but this lacks that divisive, love it/hate it iodine whack.  

Pasta col nero di seppia (serves 4)

3 or 4 small, cleaned Cuttlefish, cut into small chunks (size of a 20p piece).

A medium onion, finely chopped

2-3 cloves of crushed or chopped garlic

3-4 tablespoons of tomato puree 

OR

1 tablespoon estratto di pomodoro ( super concentrated sun-dried tomato paste ).  It’s hard to find, but well worth it for added intensity and umami.  If you know anyone going to Sicily – ask them to bring you some back – you can buy it at any supermarket by the tub.  And I’m sure there will be somewhere in London that has it, but I’m still searching.

Water

White wine

Parsley, pepper, salt and tabaso (optional)

Pasta – it should be a ‘long pasta’ – usually linguine.  But we found that jumbo penne is just as good.  The chunks of meat slip inside the penne – like mini cannelloni.

In a wide, deep frying pan (a small wok is ideal) fry off your onion in some olive oil, and when it’s starting to brown, add your garlic.

Add the cuttlefish and after a couple of minutes add a slug of white wine, and the tomato puree or paste – varying the amounts accordingly.

Take the ink pellet from the sac and mix it up in a small glass of water to a liquid.  Don’t wear anything you want to keep for Sunday best.  If you get any of this sauce on you, it’s never coming out!

Add the ink mixture to your onions and cuttlefish and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.

Get the pasta water boiling and salted, and about 8 minutes before you’re ready to serve, part cooking the pasta,  when it’s just under al dente, take a cup of the pasta water and keep; drain and then stir in the pasta to the cuttlefish sauce.

Loosen it with some of the pasta water, the starch will combine everything and make for a smoother, better coating sauce.

Finally, season with parsley, pepper and tabasco for heat. And serve.

It’s black as pitch and shines like a dark pool in an unlit cave. It is both unsettling and hypnotising.  And, it’s totally delicious.  

Sardines (Part 1)

IMG_3961.jpg

Part One of an extended homage to Sardines, the most humble, overlooked and economical of fish. Sardines are great!   You can buy a bag load that will feed an army for a few quid, they’re delicious, and full of healthy goodness (allegedly) .  They don’t have the glamour or as many foody endorsements of other more flamboyant species  (I’m looking at you Sea Bass), and they’re small and a bit fiddly to prepare.  But, they’re one of the most sustainable fish you can buy, and they’re supremely versatile. 

Like most people of my age, my first encounter with sardines came via the little rectangular tins of packed fillets in rich tomato sauce.  A Saturday tea would often be these spread on toast and heated under the grill.  It’s still a default lazy tea, usually in the winter, especially if it’s raining.  Since can openers have become redundant, there isn’t the same level of jeopardy involved in getting them out of a jaggedy, razor edged tin.  As with so much of life these days, the frisson of 70s childhood danger has been erased.

I don’t think I encountered the ‘real’ thing until my 20s, on holiday in France, when we bought a bag load from the market and barbecued them. I remember that we were late to the market in Trets and took the last of fish seller’s stock and he was entranced by P’s fluency. And the fish were so good on the barbecue – stuffed with fennel fronds, drizzled with oil.  They hardly take any time to cook, and you can be thoroughly revolting, getting your fingers all oily and charred as you pick off all the meat.  They’re especially good with an ever so slightly warm potato salad, which I make with dill.  Every year I start the summer with this  barbeque, it’s almost a ritual, a remembrance of a holiday in Provence – an offering to Hegemone with high hopes for many outdoor meals and balmy evenings.

Below is my one of my favourite Sicilian ways of cooking them – turning them into a little snack that you can serve as a fancy antipasto;  one or two mouthfuls at most, of sweet, nutty, herby, citrusy oiliness, to get your tastebuds going for the main event. The recipe varies across Sicily, I’ll be sticking to the Palermo way – because that’s the one taught to me, but other versions are available.  In Catania, they’re presoaked in vinegar, cheese replaces the nuts and currants and then they’re cooked flat, having been dipped in egg and breadcrumbs before cooking. Although it might seem a bit of a faff to fillet and stuff all these sardines, I promise you that it’s worth it.  Put something captivating on the radio, and the time will fly by.  The stuffing freezes well, so anything you don’t use, you can store for next time.

Rachel Roddy tells the story behind their name in Two Kitchens – they’re meant to resemble little fig eating songbirds (I shan’t paraphrase further – I don’t want to spoil the original).  It’s another example of the romance of food in Sicily – just because the ingredients are ordinary and humble, there is no reason that the dish should not rise above its origins, with an accompanying flourish of poetry.

Sarde a beccafico

Ingredients (for 4)

16-20 cleaned and filleted sardines (depending on the size of the appetites of the 4)

1 clove garlic (crushed)

100g Breadcrumbs

Zest and Juice from one lemon

Juice of half an orange

2 anchovies (the ones in oil that come in little mini sardine tins)

25g Pine nuts

25g currants

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

4 generous tablespoons of olive oil

16-20 bay leaves

Salt and pepper

Clean and fillet your sardines.

They tend not to have been cleaned when you buy them (especially if they’re frozen).  So you have to grit your teeth and deal with the innards I’m afraid. I do the whole thing under a cold running tap, which makes it more clinical and less gorey. Scrape any scales off, snip off the fins (but not the tail).  Make a snip through the spine behind the gills, and then pull the head away, this should bring all the guts too, so it’s quicker and cleaner than cutting open the belly and scooping everything out. 

With the head gone, make an incision along the underside all the way to the tail, then flatten the sardine, by placing it opened out, on a chopping board and running your thumb along its spine.  Then you can flip it over and and slide a small sharp knife along all the ribs and lift them and the backbone out in one.  Don’t worry about any small bones left , these will soften in the cooking.  Trim the edges but leave the tail.  You should have your first fillet.  Once you’ve cleaned all the fish, cover them and put them in the fridge til you’re ready to stuff and cook them. (There are loads of video tutorials on YouTube on fish cleaning, if you feel in need of moral support).

For the stuffing, start by boiling the kettle and then soaking your raisins in hot water for ten minutes until they’ve plumped up, then drain and give them a light squeeze.  Meanwhile you can be lightly toasting your pine nuts in a dry frying pan.  Set them to one side.

Then add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the frying pan, add your anchovies and dissolve them in the warming oil, then add the breadcrumbs and fry until golden.  Half way through, add the crushed garlic. Once the crumbs are cooked, put them in a bowl with the zest of the lemon, the pine nuts and the drained currants.  Add your salt and pepper, and finally your chopped parsley.  Mix everything together, and leave to cool.

When you’re ready, take each fillet, put it skin side down and put a small spoonful of the stuffing in a line along the fish,  Then roll the fish up toward its tail and secure it with a cocktail stick.  You’ll get some stuffing spillage, but don’t worry about that. Slide a bay leaf onto the stick.  

Line them up in your backing tray, with the tails in the air, looking supposedly like little beaks (the becca in the beccafico)  sprinkle the lemon and orange juices over the lot and cook in your hot oven (around 180 degrees C) for ten minutes.  Then allow to cool before serving, which makes them an excellent thing for making in advance.

Untitled.png

Sardines (Part 2) will be coming soon…

Fumetto di Pesce

fantastic stock for a mesmerising fish stew…..

Fish stews have a bad rap.  Overly romanticised and complicated – good old Elizabeth David goes as far as saying there’s no point even making a bouillabaisse outside of the mediterranean.  Well, maybe back in the 50s, that was the case, but I think that you can be a little less risk averse these days.  Boullaibaise is, of course, the show off in the room, but the principles of a good fish stew are the same (whatever you call it): get the stock right, give it time, choose the ingredients carefully, and get the best and freshest fish that you can.  In Italian, Fumetto is the stock that is the base of your fish stew. It also means a comic book, I’ve no idea why the word has two such disparate meanings – if you can enlighten me, you’d make me a happy man.

A good fish stew is improved by variety  If your choice of fish is limited to farmed seabass and salmon, prevacupacked in a warehouse-slash-distribution centre, then you’re going to be a tad stuck.  But if you’ve access to a decent fishmonger, or better still, a fish market – then you’re in luck. Ideally, you want a mix of white, oily and fatty fish – and as a rough rule of thumb, a different variety for each person you’re cooking for – so six people, six types of fish (but don’t get too hung up on this).  The Bullring, in my hometown of Birmingham, has fantastic fish stalls, so I can usually take my pick from red and grey mullet, cod, bass, Conger eel, monkfish, mackerel, and a whole range of fish from less familiar seas.  The rule is though – check that your fish has been caught sustainably.  Have a look at the Marine Conservation Society’s website if you’re not sure

So, to the Fumetto

First tip – if you eat shellfish, particularly prawns or langoustines, then save the shells and heads and freeze them for the next time you’re making a stock.

Whatever fish you decide on, ask for the heads when the fishmonger cleans them for you.  Equally, any trimmings should be retained. Gruesome I know, but it’s all about the flavour.

And now you’re ready to begin…

IMG_3718.jpg

Sweat some standard veg in a decent sized (anything over 5 litres) pot – chopped onions, celery, carrot in your oil of preference (if you’re going Mediterranean, then good extra virgin olive is the default). Don’t have the temperature too high (you don’t want the veg to colour), and keep a tight lid on things when you’re not stirring, the steam from the veg helps to soften and cook them.  After five or ten minutes of sweating, add your fish heads and prawn shells (if you have then).  Throw in a slug of booze – white wine or pastis are both good.  Ramp up the heat for a couple of minutes and add water – enough to fill the pot to within 5cm of the top and then leave to simmer as gently as possible, for as long as possible.  If the Sicilian is around, he’ll inevitably fish out the heads and strip them clean – they are, apparently, delicious.  I have yet to discover the verve to test this opinion!

I try to make this stock the day before, so as soon as you get back from the shops with the fish, get it on the go and stick your fish in the fridge.  Alternatively, you can have a premade stock in the freezer, and then replace it with a fresh batch made from this load of fish heads for the next time.

From fumetto to stew

When you’re ready to start the stew, get your Fumetto on the hob – a nice gentle boil and add a good pinch of saffron. Now you can add any vegetables you choose – potatoes, sliced fennel, anything that won’t break down into a mush, and leave to simmer until they’re almost cooked. There will be somewhere written down what vegetables must and must never be used,  but, as ever, go with what you like, not with what you’re told.

Meanwhile, prepare your fish.  Remove any scales that are still clinging on, clean and bone as required and then separate your fish according to their cooking time – oily and cartilaginous fish will take slightly longer to cook than white fish, such as cod.  Add the first fish, and then five minutes later add the white fish and any shellfish you’re including, as these will need to least cooking time.  At the last minute, throw in some chopped parsley and serve.  

I’m a big fan of serving this with a rouille, which is a French way.  A rouille is a garlic mayonnaise spiced with paprika,  the garlicky heat goes brilliantly with the delicate richness of the soup.  It’s easy if you’ve got a mixer, start with two egg yolks and then drizzle in olive oil on a high speed, add crushed garlic (it’s your call here as to how much) and half a teaspoon of paprika, salt and pepper.  You can dollop straight into the stew/soup or be more dainty and spread into over bread.  Again, the choice is yours.

AlicudiMatt

IMG_3418

It seems that, if you’ve calves of steel, the lungs to match and a can-do attitude reminiscent of a minor Waugh novel, then paradise can still be found. Your best bet in getting there is to ignore any  timetable that assures you there is a ferry from Palermo and to head for one of the smaller ports, for whom such trivialities as passengers are important.  The ferry from Palermo has a tendency to be cancelled a few hours before departure, which is unhelpful, because they wait until it is too late to make alternative arrangements.  It is even more unhelpful when you discover that it wasn’t cancelled, but ran as normal, only, presumably, unburdened of troublesome luggage-laden yahoos.  But this is Sicily, it kind of goes with the territory. Head instead for Millazo, or Messina.  Less glamorous, yes, but at least you stand a chance of getting to paradise.

And then you arrive.  An unprepossessing dock, part building site, part dock.  Sicily again – they’re enlarging the dock, however they’re at an impasse – to finish the work, more materials are needed, particular materials that need a bigger boat to deliver them.  But the boat cannot come because the dock is too small.   But it will be sorted, somehow, one day.

Now, get ready for the calves of steel.  Your house will be an idyll, with astonishing views from your terrace across to mainland Sicily, with Etna in the distance; turn your head just a few degrees, and the other Aeolian islands are strung out before you – Filicudi, Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, and Stromboli (if you squint), smouldering in the distance. It is a landscape of mythology.  This house will also be several hundred vertiginous steps up the side of the extinct volcano.  Yes, a donkey will take your luggage (ignore the time they give you though, remember, you’re in Sicily now), but you do have to do the climb, too. There is a shop in the harbour run by Carlo, a rare blue-eyed Italian in this part of the world.  He’s not going to beat Aldi or Lidl in the value for money stakes, but let’s face it, any man that stocks Cynar on an island of fifty inhabitants gets my vote.  There is a reason that he stocks water by the crate and prominently sells wine by the box.  Buy your groceries in bulk and let the donkey do the heavy work – believe me, once you’re in for the evening, set for a G&T – you will not be ‘nipping out to the shops’ if you’ve forgotten anything.  Even if it’s the T.

But once you’re ‘home’ get ready to unpack that can-do spirit.  With a two ring hob hidden away in an old bread oven, the game is on to turn the courgette that you were given by Simone on the way up into dinner, with some pasta perhaps, some parmesan, garlic and oil (olive of course).  You’ve never met Simone before, but it seems that courgette growers are the same the world over – always desperate to off load their courgettes onto total strangers.

Begin by frying a crushed, whole garlic clove.  Put it into the pan with cold oil and bring them up to heat.  Once it browns, take the clove out and put it aside.  Now fry your sliced courgette until both sides are the colour of the forearms of the guy who owns the donkey that brought your luggage up.  This will take a lot longer than you expect.  But that’s fine.  An orange full moon will be rising into the sky behind Etna, your amour will point out all the stars that form Scorpio, and you will have resorted to G&. Because you didn’t believe the bit about not wanting to nip to the shop for some more T.  As the household gecko emerges to snack on the moths drawn to the light above the dinner table on the terrace, it will all start to feel a bit Gerald Durrell, childhood dreams can come true.

Cook the pasta – the usual way, for less time than it says on the packet and with enough salt in the water to make your blood pressure rocket to the heights of Scorpio (it’s ok, all those steps have already made you fitter than when you arrived).  Drain, keep some of the cooking water back and throw the pasta and two or three of the courgette slices (mashed up) into the frying pan you cooked the courgette in.  Toss, to get the oil all the way through, add parmesan and dress with the courgette slices.  Eat, under aforementioned full moon, and be glad that you’ve moved on from the G& to the wine box you wisely invested in.

Tomorrow, you can bathe in the bluest waters you’ve seen, or climb to the summit of the extinct volcano, gathering wild capers and fennel along the way (should you be feeling particularly Saturday Guardian) and see more butterflies in two hours than you’ve seen in a decade in the UK, fat emerald lizards, furtive jet-black snakes that vanish as soon as you see them, moths like hummingbirds and perhaps a praying mantis skulking amongst the artemisia.  My 21st century phone told me that it was 118 storeys, my calves of less -than-steel, had a hissy fit, but my inner Famous 5, 12 years old alter ego was having the time of his life. 

For dinner,  you can eat seafood by the sea (raw prawns full of electric blue eggs, octopus, swordfish).  Or you can let the amour rustle something up with aubergines and pasta in the converted bread oven cum kitchen  Or pop down the hill to visit Simone (on Alicudi, people open up their homes as restaurants, and not in a pop-up kind of a way).  By now you’re waiting for the catch – surely there’s a catch?

And of course, there it is, niggling away somewhere, that upon your return, you’ll be hauled over the coals for something at work, the dogs will expect you to segue seamlessly back into their usual early morning walking routine, and the hedge you didn’t cut before you left will have grown rampantly.

So, have a return plan, and maybe next time, you’ll come back for longer – you’ll get up earlier so that you can buy fresh fish from the dock, be a bit fitter, so that you can climb the volcano without worrying that you might be the prime age for a heart attack, stock up on aperol, campari and cynar, as rewards for the climb, persuade a few more friends to join you, and for two or three weeks next year, you’ll relive the dream.