Shananigans is back

I’ve been on holidays… a brief diversion for a week in Sicily, a land of magic and colour, of sunshine and history, of baroque cities, rugged coastline, rolling fertile landscapes and beautiful beaches all in a compact package.
It was a week to savour a combination of excellent food and wine, stunning cityscapes, the wilder northwest and the gentler south east of the island and to soak up the late summer colours, aromas, light and heat of this special island.
it was an opportunity to register the contrasts and, at times, the unexpected resonances with my trip to China in June. Scale was the obvious difference – the sheer size of China and its population was an ever-constant drumbeat to that visit along with the absence of colour and direct sunlight in the the misty, smog bound city of Beijing and the sense in Xinjiang Province of being part of a massive landmass with the sea a very, very long way away.
And yet, wander the food markets of Palermo or Siracusa and suddenly I felt  transported to the market in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province so similar was the array of vegetables, fruits and sea-food. Even the expressions on the faces of the stall holders were similar and their evident passion for their food and their trade as they went about the age old traditions of cooking food on street braziers and sharpening knives.

The food markets of Sicily – the difference is the € sign

It was striking that Arab influences caught up with me on both sides of the world – permeating the  cuisine of Palermo and northwestern sicily with its couscous and its aubergines and Xinjiang province, via Turkey with its lamb and naan bread. That’s a theme worth deeper exploration.
The similarity between noodle and pasta dishes, even at times in the spiciness of the dishes, was also evident – the Sicilians like their chilli heat. I found myself wondering what role Marco Polo might have played in all this.
Sharp knives and spicy pasta in two cultures

Much as I enjoyed the food in Sicily, I found myself missing the spicier notes and the relative quantity of vegetables in the Chinese diet. I’m always fascinated that the rich array of vegetables available in Italy doesn’t feature more prominently in the daily diet, often being confined to occasional platters of antipasti and as a base for sauces. The balance of vegetables, meat and fish in the Chinese diet already feels inherently healthier and easier for me to digest.
So I came back looking forward to the next stage of the Shananigans journey as I attempt to work my way through the different regional cuisines of China. I’m hoping to post more recipes soon and updates of my attempts to reproduce them using the best of Irish ingredients along with further tales from our experiences in China.
I’m loving the way this blog and the associated tweets are helping me discover how many of you here share a passion for Chinese and Asian food and the store of knowledge and ideas that is out there in Ireland and further afield. I get a great kick when you get in touch with a suggestion, a recipe or an insight and I am always delighted to pass them on. Yesterday alone I picked up ideas from Jacqueline Stedman (@Jaq_Stedman), Irish Food Guide (@IrishFoodGuide) and Ronan Farrell (@ronan_farrell) which I will pick up on in coming blogposts. I enjoy being part of this global conversation and learning from you all.
Meanwhile my sone Shane has found the diary he kept in his early days in China over 5 years ago which provides a fascinating insight to his initial and at times naive perceptions of the place, a moment in time in a country that is constantly changing. If I can convince him to give me guest posts it should provide an interesting counterpoint to his and our more recent experiences as he becomes increasingly embedded in the culture and lifestyle there.
So give me a day or two to get back into action and on top of my emails and workload and the Shananigans will continue…

Sicily – already dreaming of coming back

It’s official. A week isn’t long enough to appreciate Sicily but it’s enough time to fall in love with it and dream of returning.
We’ve spent the last 3 days wandering the necklace of baroque cities in this south east corner of the island:
Ortigia in Siracusa, drifting through its narrow tangle of alleyways and streets to its elegant Piazza del Duomo and out again to catch the breeze off the sea;
Noto with a hint of the sea always on the breeze, the taste of gelati and granite in Corrado Costanzo and Caffe Sicilia, its gorgeous Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the discovery of great restaurants in Noto Alta and Lido di Noto;
Modica with its long trek up winding steps to Modica Alta with gorgeous churches and belvedere over the old city;
not to mention the best chocolate in Sicily, if not in Italy, at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto;
And then there was Ragusa Ibla and one of the most sublimely beautiful piazzas I have ever seen sloping up to the steps of the Cattedrale Di San Giorgio;
Where better in the world to savour a wine- flavoured icecream at Gelati Di Vini.
After all that there was still time to wend our way along winding, hairpin roads across the glorious terraced landscape, until the sea came into view again and to have one last swim at Lido di Noto
and to get back to our base at La Corte Del Sole to watch the evening draw to a close.
There’s just one last meal to be had here before the trek back to Ireland tomorrow. The toss up for the best meal so far is between Trattoria del Crocifisso in Noto Alta and last night’s discovery Baglieri in Lido di Noto. Both are worth a separate blog post in their own right but I can now confirm that there’s excellent food and wine to be had in these parts once you seek it out.
Now wouldn’t it be lovely to have another week to enjoy it all…

Our best meal in Sicily in 2012

Apart from the excellent food in near San Vito Lo Capo, the meals on this whistle stop tour of Sicily have been a bit disappointing.
Last night’s dinner at Trattoria del Crocifisso was an exception and deserves a brief blog post all of its own.
We stumbled into this lovely trattoria, high up in Noto Alta, about 10 minutes walk from Corso Vittorio Emanuelle, to escape the thunder and lightening and rain lashing down from the north.
On a Sunday evening it was full of locals, in couples and family groups, settling in for a long evening of chatter and food.
We had a simple meal and what singled it out from others was the rich flavours and perfect balance of the dishes.
We shared ravioli to start. It was oozing ricotta and served with a pork and tomato sauce containing tender chunks of pork.
My main course was tagliata di manzo – sliced fillet beef served rare with caponata and was perfectly tender and delicious.
My other half’s secondo was a stuffed fillet of pork in a Marsala reduction.
My desert, described on the English menu as a “cup cake” was the most divine chocolate essence I have ever tasted
And the other dessert, involving pistachio, was every bit as good.
We washed it all down with a bottle of Arianna Occhipinti’s SP68 Nero d’Avola from 2011, a lighter take on this Sicilian classic. The whole meal, including tip, came to €70.
For once I was too busy eating and ogling the delicious dishes on the way to other tables to take careful note of the full descriptions of the food but all is not lost. We’ve booked to return there tomorrow night for a last supper before returning home and this time I will bring a notebook 🙂
Noto itself is a lovely town and its cathedral (pictured above) looked splendid in the sunshine yesterday morning. It is well worth a visit for it’s gelati and granite alone. The granite di mandarino from Corrado Costanzo is like tasting Sicily in a dish.
I’m only getting the hang of uploading a blogpost from iPhone so forgive any errors. I will tidy it up when I get home!

Sicily 3 ways in 1 week

I had been to Sicily once before – an enjoyable week in Taormina following the well-trodden tourist trail including a day-trip to Mount Etna. It was a good holiday but quite manicured and I didn’t leave with a feeling that I had experienced the real Sicilia.

This time, with only a week free before the busy Autumn period begins, I picked up low-fare mid-week to mid-week flights from Dublin to Catania on an Aer Lingus sale, rented a car from Hertz and began to consider the options. I was determined to get to Palermo but after that I had an open mind. The sensible thing would have been to pick one location as a base for 5 or 6 days but I couldn’t resist the contrasting lure of the north west and south east of the island. So while we’ve packed too much into 7 nights to do the island justice, it has given us a genuine taste of the variety that Sicily has to offer. And by shopping around on line I got great room rates at this tail end of the August tourism season here.
We arrived in Catania airport early last Wednesday afternoon and it was a pleasant two and a half hour drive from there to the heart of the old city in Palermo where we had booked a room for the night at BB22. This turned out to be a great choice. We were given a big attractive room in this comfortable old palazzo, stylishly decorated and with a balcony, complete with multi-coloured chandelier and a view over the port and we were just “due passi” from the heart of the old city.

BB 22
BB 22 – a room with a view

Chandelier on the terrace at BB22

By 4 pm we were having a gelatao in Piazza Giusseppe Verdi right opposite the steps leading up to the opera house -Teatro Massimo – famous among other things for being the location of a scene in Godfather IIII.
Sicilian gelato

That Godfather III moment

I had expected Palermo to be a dirty, noisy port city, dilapidated and run down with an undercurrent of corruption and a certain edgy charm and in many ways it is all those things. But I also found a city surprisingly easy to fall in love with, where the streetscape of contrasting architectural styles gives you the sensation of wandering in an open-air museum as the locals go noisily about their business oblivious of the few tourists around. I had a sense of the city in the process of being cleaned up and re-invigorated and that seems to be down to the work of the city Mayor proving that one person with vision can make change happen. This is a city that oozes atmosphere and is far easier to get around on foot and in a car than larger port cities like Naples and Genoa.
By lunch time Thursday we had found time to wander the streets of the old quarters – the Vucciria and La Kalsa, get lost in the sights, sounds and smells of the Mercato del Capo and savour the beauty of Piazzas Pretoria and Bellini and Quatro Canti, known locally as il Teatro del Sole because of the way each of the four perfectly proportioned facades of this crossroads at the heart of the city catches the light at different times of the day.
Mercato del Capo, Palermo

No shortage of chilli heat in Mercato del Capo

The only slight disappointment was the meal at San Andrea which came highly recommended in several guidebooks but may be trading on long established reputation. The food was pleasant with good pasta but was not particularly exciting and I sense you could do a lot better in this foodies paradise.
Piazza Pretoria, Palermo

After collecting out bags from BB22 and rescuing our car from the nearby piazza where it had been “minded” overnight by the locals for a tip of €4 (the “lockhards” familiar to Dubliners are alive and well in Palermo) there was time to detour inland to Monreale to see the stunning Norman cathedral which dates from the 12th century and is perched high above the coast giving a perspective on the scale of Palermo and its sprawling suburbs.
Interior of Cattedrale Monreale

We lost an hour or so getting to San Vito Lo Capo, thanks to the SS186 being closed at one point with no diversion signs and the sat nav unable to find an alternative. I bet the locals know about the road closure but we didn’t so instead of our cross-country route we had to return to the outskirts of Palermo and take the coast road out past Castellmare del Golfo to near the tip of the peninsula to our second stop The distance is a bit deceptive here. While it looked close enough to Palermo on the map the twisty roads meant it took nearly two hours to get there from Palermo even without our unscheduled detour.
This small guest house with a restaurant attached had been recommended by friends. In a lovely location, it faces due west and overlooks a bay surrounded by rugged cliffs it certainly produced the most spectacular sunset of the trip and the most memorable meals so far.
The “menu fisso” changes daily and is all based on seafood. The second night’s meal went something like this:

  • An aperitif of Capirhina – a brazilian cocktail made with cachaça
  • Smoked swordfish and tuna pâté served with onion relish
  • A souffle of branzino (sea bass)
  • Spaghettini con l’arragosta (pasta with lobster sauce)
  • Pasta con tenerumi e cozze (a few pieces of a large pasta like short lengths of cannelloni served with a local vegetable which is the vine tendril of the cuccuza plant – a type of courgette I think – and mussels)
  • Pesce spada con caponata (swordfish with a vegetable salad of tomato, capers, aubergines, celery, olives and onions)
  • Desert

Swordfish and tuna pate at

There is a great selection of local wines at and, over the course of the two nights, I had two whites that were new to me – a Grillo and a Moscato called SP68, the latter made by a young Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti – which opened my mind to the delights of Sicilian white wine.
Sunset at Pocho,it

Our room was very small and though it had a sea view it didn’t have the benefit of balcony but the restaurant, presided over by the formidable owner/ chef Marilù Terrassi who runs a tight ship, draws diners from as far away as Trapan and is worth a visit in its own right.
There is a lovely terrace and pool (bring your own beach towels and swimming caps) and just a few kilometres up the road at the tip of the peninsula lies the pretty seaside town of San Vito Lo Capo with its semi-circular beach and pristine clear blue sea where you can indulge your beach bum fantasies for awhile. Apart from that the striking landscape in these parts is arid and wild with very little fertile soil. It has something of the feel of Donegal without the green.
All set for a day at the beach

The beach at San Capo Lo Vito

I know many friends who would happily spend a full week pottering between the beach and pool but I came in search of culture and a sense of ordinary life here in Sicily and to follow a little bit of the trail of Montalbano – the tv series that had cultivated a longing in me to see Sicily in the chilly winter months in Dublin. So it wasn’t too hard to leave San Vito Lo Capo yesterday morning. A storm had blown up overnight, turning the deep blue sea to a steely grey, whipping up white tops on the waves and making the busy road through Palermo treacherous with flash floods.
Driving through Palermo

Although as the crow flies our trajectory was from north west to south east, the fastest route was to take the autostrada along two sides of the triangle that is Sicily, back past Palermo and Catania and south west from there, past Syracuse to Noto. Miraculously we escaped the storm clouds just before arriving at our destination – the drop dead gorgeous masseria – La Corte del Sole, set in the stunning, green landscape sweeping down to the sea a few kilometres from the town of Noto which is the setting for some of the Montalbano series.
We were met with a warm, engaging welcome from Maria Angela who shudders as she recalls being served “dried blood” for breakfast in Dublin some years ago – black pudding no doubt. Her outgoing and chatty attitude was something of a contrast to the more reserved approach of Palermitans to outsiders for which they are renowned. Our room is a basic one without a terrace buts it’s spacious and simply furnished and will do nicely for 4 nights.
The views from the swimming pool away to the west and from the terrace of the restaurant down to the sea are across a fertile landscape dotted with woodlands, vineyards and olive groves. A little bar at the pool side serve snacks – salads and panini all day. Though storms are forecast, we seem to be blessed with out own little micro-climate with a stiff breeze from the sea keeping the storm from the north at bay for now.
The pool at la Corte del Sole

From the moment you arrive in this place a sense of peace overwhelms you and it’s a perfect base for exploring the lovely towns in this area – Syracuse, Noto, Modica, Ragsua – if I can drag myself away from here that is. To be continued…
The view from La Corte del Sole