Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
This book turned up out of the blue when it was still cold and miserable back in the spring (thank you very much Bloomsbury), I spent a couple of happy hours leafing through it which almost surprised me. Mediterranean food isn’t generally my biggest enthusiasm, I like it, but it doesn’t catch my imagination in the way some other cuisines do – partly due to the difficulty of getting really good, ripe, fruit and veg in supermarkets here. Cheese is often disappointing too, and the lack of a herb garden doesn’t help.
Sicilia is a mind changer though. It helps that it starts with a bread chapter, and I’m a very big fan of bread, especially these kinds of breads – the sorts that are meals in themselves. They come filled with sausage or as lasagne bread; made with grapes wine, and honey, they cross over into cake territory, stuffed with lemon, orange, cranberry, and nuts, with more nuts to top. And then there was a fig and fennel bread that I had to make right away (despite being a fig sceptic) because it’s precisely the kind of thing I can’t resist – something that will be perfect with a little ricotta or goats cheese spread on it, fruit, honey, and maybe a little charcuterie on the side.
There have been times reading through it where it feels a bit wasted on my household of one, so much of this is food to be made in generous quantities and shared. When I first looked through this during the last lockdown (the one where it seemed like restrictions would never really end) it felt like a vision of an idealised past; one when we could all get together to eat in a garden on a sunny day for a lunch that would go on all afternoon and be full of wine and conversation. It still feels like a promise of that for the future when we’ll all feel a bit more confident about getting together and be able to stop balancing plans against the possibility of infection.
This book also hits the mark as ‘A love letter to the food of Sicily’ which makes up its subtitle. The love for Sicily comes across on every page. Some of the recipes aren’t traditional, but all of them are an homage to the flavours and history of the place. A pork, orange and mint ragu with fusilli is an example of this and is something I’ll make as we move into autumn. The fig and fennel bread was every bit as good as I hoped it would be, and handily makes two loaves; one for now, one to look forward too. There’s an amazingly good pistachio pesto as well, and a brilliant strawberry cake that’s beautifully simple to make, easy to adapt for other fruits, and can be dressed up into something really special – the kind of recipe it’s very useful to have to hand.
There’s a lot to like here, both in the way it evokes a sense of place, and for the selection of dishes – most look easy enough to make, some are calculated to impress, others to be regular favourites, plenty are both simple and frugal, and all of them feel like that thing I’ve missed the most in the last 18 months – the chance to cook with generous abundance for a group of people.
It’s also the chance for a bit of armchair and kitchen travel which I enjoy every bit as much as the real thing, albeit in different ways. At least right now cooking at home is considerably less stressful than making travel plans, although sourcing some previously easy to find ingredients for the recipes I’ve tried so far has been a reminder of how much has changed in the last couple of years, how much of what we took for granted has slipped out of reach for now. What does remain is a book that’s got me honestly excited about a food in a way I hadn’t felt for a while – and what better recommendation can I give?
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.
Ben Tish, Sicilia, (Bloomsbury 2021). 978-1472982759, 202pp., hardback.
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