Why I stopped then started writing again

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I last wrote anything on here in January (the 15th) – nearly three months ago. Writing is a craft I am learning.  To become a good writer, you have to write, write some more, keep writing.  “Write every day” my friend Rachel tells me.  But I stopped.  The words dried up.  Or rather they bottle necked.  I had plenty of words.  Too many words, but there was no sense or reason to them.

The Sicilian and I finished.  After nearly four years.  On the shortest day of the year.  

It was something that had been approaching for months.  I thought that watching its slow and steady approach towards us would shield me from a Titanic moment.  It turns out I was wrong.  I may not be Leonardo di Caprio in this version, but I had a damn good go at being Kate Winslet.

For three weeks, I was fine.  I stumbled through the horror of my dysfunctional family Christmas, I hosted New Year.  There was sadness.  Relief.  

On the 16 January, I found myself at work, in front of the computer.  Crying.  Crying uncontrollably.  Overwhelmed by loss, regret, coulda woulda shoulda, self loathing and doubt, emptiness. Hating my job, my life, myself.

I spent a week on the sofa.  Sometimes in foetal position.  Sometimes not.  I wrote furious, vitriolic, crazed messages that helped no one and produced no answers.  The GP ordered therapy and told me to call urgently if I had any suicidal thoughts.  Dark days.  One night I sat crying on a wall for an hour.  I stopped eating and lost 8 kilos. The dogs got edgy and clingy.  

And for three months nearly, I was off work.  I thought that I would use my time to be productive.  To make the allotment the best in the country.  Become fluent in Italian.  Visit Florence and Rome.  Finish the book.  Decorate the house.  But I did none of these.  I sat.  I gardened a little. I walked the dogs. Every week I would meet my boss for a coffee and try not to cry. The thing that was furthest from and closest to my mind was writing.

I discovered that depression is exhausting and jealous.  It demands all your energy, it allows no room for anything else.  

Fortunately grief and madness faded.  Time did its cliched work.  There are still scabs that I mustn’t pick at and I will have scars, that I shall wear stoically, if not proudly.  And I am left with the need to write, but without the knowledge of what to write about.  Who wants to read the guesswork of some guy from Nuneaton fumbling his way through another culture’s food?  Remember that self doubt I mentioned?

Friends reminded me to cook. To keep up the journey.  To claim it as wholly mine.  Rebrand it if you like.  It was difficult.   I had to stop reading Anna del Conte’s biography, there was too much to remind me of another life.  There were many books I couldn’t finish.  Couldn’t start.  Recipes I couldn’t cook.

Just as Lombardy was starting the most localised of lockdowns, I went to visit my friend Stefano in London.  I went to Borough Market and, as citrus season was in full swing, bought bergamots and citron.  Something began to tilt.  These were wholly mine, and what I did with them was down to me and to no one and nowhere else.  I cooked more, I made the boobs of St Agata,  blood orange curd, bergamot marmalade, candied citron, Agra dolce everything, polpette.  I cooked English food, French food, Sicilian food.  I had a few dates, I met a guy for one evening who’s great (apart from living in Amsterdam, damn this lockdown!).  

As we know, the world then went to pot.  On a Friday (the morning after my date with Mr Amsterdam), my GP and I decided I was well enough to return to work.  On the Monday, the University where I work shut itself down and physically locked the gates.  Officially I work from home, but it’s hard to operate a laboratory remotely.

And then I became ill.  The worst flu I’ve ever had.  Temperature, coughing, fatigue; began to get better and then 8 days in relapsed and spent nearly 48 hours asleep.  This being Britain, I shan’t find out if this was just flu, or the new thing.  I kept out of circulation, a friend walked the dogs.  

This was a month ago now.  Through it I cooked only with what I had in the house.  Things grown on the allotment from the freezer, or pickled or jammed.  Despite the illness, it was a fun experience. On the days that I had the energy, I had the time and the resources to eat wonderfully; alone, yes, but wonderfully.   When I emerged from my isolation, I found the shops stripped bare.  No eggs, no flour, but thankfully, still gin.  So I carried on cooking from my reserves, and kept returning to Italian and Sicilian things of three or four ingredients.  Beans and vegetables, pasta and tinned sardines, stale bread turned into bruschetta with peas and broad beans.  I found cherries bottled in vodka and orange wine.  I made a crostata with marmalade.  Risotto got deep fried as little not arancine.  I found a magnificent sacred heart of a cotagnata from last November.  And I started to plant seeds – this year’s crops for next year’s stores.  My peach tree had two flowers on it.  

The world today is one of sadness, loneliness and strangeness.  But these things in my freezer and cupboards have at least given me some hope again.  The remind me that my past is not all waste and loss.   With hope comes a voice.  The bottlenecked words might have found a release.

So this is not a blog about Sicilian food written by the partner of a Sicilian, rather it is a blog about mostly Sicilian food – the growing and cooking of it, written by a single, adopted-Brummie, because he is greedy, loves the sun, and likes to grow and cook things.  

Today (Good Friday), I made an utterly English Simnel Cake.  It has some of that Borough Market candied citron in it (very Elizabeth David), candied ginger (for extra medieval).  I ballsed up the crystallised flowers, because there is no caster sugar in the shops.  They cracked and shattered, but now is not the time to be wasting eggs to have another go.  I also made the marzipan lamb of Sicily, one of the campest, most delirious things in the world – Jesus as marzipan; my middle aged long sightedness means he ended up all googly eyed, with a distinctly home made look.  My kitchen was both English and Sicilian today.  Two places that my healing Irish heart is very attached to.  Suddenly there were words again.

Schrödinger’s Freezer

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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)