Monday, December 22, 2014

Sicily - Day 3

A gorgeous morning in Erice meant it was the perfect time to walk to the Spanish Quarter and take a gander at the views from the castle. Good start to the day! 

Today was the longest drive as we went from the western part of Sicily all the way to the eastern part. To break up the monotony, we stopped at the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. It was a boiling hot day - I'm so glad we took the taxi from the parking lot at the bottom of the valley up to the top - that way we could just slowly walk through the park, stare at all the ruins, and then end up at the car. If you're a temple geek, this is the place for you - so many temples, so much history.

We also stopped in a beautiful little town called Noto, known for its particularly good examples of Baroque architecture.   

But finally, finally we arrived in Syracuse (Siracusa). We found a spot to park in, and went to find a cafe to meet our AirBnB host in. We ended up at Caffe Apollo, since it was close to where our host wanted to find us, and sat down to get a couple of drinks. Service was slow, but the waitress eventually took our order. When she came back with our drinks and bill, I decided to pay right then in case it took a while, so I handed her a 50 euro note to break it. We then waited for her to come back with change, and after a while it became apparent she was not coming back. We flagged her down and she then tried to pretend like we hadn't given her any money at all - I was getting pretty irritated by this charade and as we got more and more agitated she then started saying that maybe we just gave her a 20. In a stroke of luck, our AirBnB host showed up right then, said hello, and then asked us what the problem was - when we described to her what was happening, she burst into Italian at the waitress, who then quickly hurried off and came back with our change. This confirmed our worries that the waitress was trying to cheat us - I'm not sure how this would have ended had we not had our host there to argue for us - but it was really upsetting and such a stupid thing for her to do.

Our host, of course, was as lovely and charming as the waitress wasn't. She and her partner took us on a walking tour of Ortygia, pointing out shops and restaurants they recommended. The location of the AirBnB was perfect as well - right next to the Duomo. A and I were keen to go have a drink and meal to wipe out the cafe memory so after a quick look around we stopped at La volpe e l'uva - a restaurant in the piazza right in front of the Duomo. The view was incredible, and the warm evening, wine and food was the best antidote for our earlier frustration.

After a pizza that we couldn't stop devouring and some linguine with clams that were exactly what I needed, plus a carafe of red wine, we were stuffed and relaxed again, watching a guitarist play in front of the Duomo. It was such a beautiful evening we decided to explore a bit.

Which is how we ended up at a little cafe in front of yet another stunning fountain, drinking limoncellos.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sicily - Day 2

We had a morning in Palermo so we went for a walk through a few areas - the markets of Vucciria, the Cathedral, through more markets in Ballaro, out to the Teatro Massimo - then to the harbour (which I wouldn't bother with). We interspersed walking with stops for cannoli and the wedge of flatbread stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella. We made our way back to the car, all the while discussing how much to give the old parking guy - we settled on 5 euro, and when we got there he was standing by our car, waiting for us - after handing over the 5 euro note he said grazie, and we were off. Somehow, even after paying a bribe to a guy who was questionable at best, we still felt like we won.

Then it was off to Monreale, a town on the outskirts of Palermo which is known for its cathedral and the incredible gilded mosaics inside. And yes, it was pretty, and very gold and shiny - but A and I are only amused by the interiors of cathedrals for a few minutes tops so we were out of there pretty quickly. Some gelato and granita was needed for a pick-me-up and this hilltop town seemed as good a place as any - but my granita was way too sweet and syrupy so maybe don't get any at the cafe right outside the cathedral.

Next stop, Segesta - doesn't this Doric temple look exactly like what you'd expect a Doric temple to look like? We skipped the Greek amphitheatre in favor of driving on to our final stop for the day.

We were staying in Erice, a wonderful medieval town high up on the hill - the road up to the town is winding and chock full of views, so make sure your driver can handle looking out the window and driving at the same time. The town is entirely pedestrianised (and reminded me a lot of Laguardia in Spain). We checked into our AirBnB and got a restaurant recommendation from the host, and then went for a wander up and down the cobbled streets.

The tourist information lady I asked about parking had told me there was a place to do wine tastings, so we hunted that down. I can't remember exactly how much the wine tasting cost, I think it was pretty reasonable - we had four glasses, two whites and two reds, and it also came with bread and some dips - a homemade Sicilian pistachio pesto and caponata. There were also marzipan sweets at the end - marzipan seemed to be incredibly popular in Sicily and it made appearances in a lot of sweet shops. 

We made a stop at Maria Grammatico's pastry shop due to its fame (our host insisted that we get something there) and ended up buying a cannoli and a couple of other small sweets for after dinner. Also poked our head into a wine shop, tasted a few Marsalas and ended up buying some.

Our evening meal was at Ristorante La Pentolaccia - it specialises in seafood and Sicilian cooking. I had grilled squid, while A had ravioli that he really liked. We got some roasted peppers but they were a bit too vinegary for us, and the roasted potatoes were great but when can you even go wrong with roasted potatoes? Bottle of red again - nero d'avola I think as it is Sicilian and trusty. It was easy to skip dessert knowing we had a cannoli waiting at home.

And here is a glorious cannoli. We had it on the rooftop terrace of our AirBnB with some Marsala, basking in the rolling fog and glowing lights. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Buttermilk Biscuits with Green Onions, Black Pepper, and Sea Salt

I made these once a long time ago and loved them (and so did everyone else, judging by the speed by which they were consumed). So no picture, sorry, but I wanted to post this so I have it for posterity.

Buttermilk Biscuits with Green Onions, Black Pepper, and Sea Salt


3/4 cup chilled buttermilk
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions
2 cups self-rising flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper plus addition for sprinkling
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tbsp melted butter
coarse sea salt


1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 425F / 220C. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. 

2. Combine buttermilk and green onions in medium bowl. 

3. Whisk flour, cornmeal, sugar, and 1/2 tsp ground black pepper in large bowl to blend. Add 1/2 cup chilled butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk mixture and stir until moist clumps form. 

4. Gather dough together. Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead gently just to combine, about 3 to 4 turns. Roll out to 3/4 inch thickness. 

5. Using floured 2-inch cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out rounds. Reroll scraps and cut out additional rounds. Place 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheet. Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter. Sprinkle each lightly with coarse sea salt and ground black pepper.

6. Bake biscuits until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Sicily - Day 1

A week in Sicily. Sunshine, pasta, cannoli, and wine. A and I were incredibly excited about this holiday. After flying into Palermo, we picked up our car from Sicily By Car - more about them when we get to the last bit of the holiday. We were staying in central Palermo and as we couldn't figure out the parking signs very easily - but there was a square parked full of cars with a spot open, so we pulled in. An old man came up and seemed to want payment for the parking spot, but as we couldn't speak enough Italian to figure out the charge and he seemed to be ok with us coming back in the morning to figure it out then, we went to our AirBnB to see if someone there could help us translate. Our host was lovely and after settling us in, he walked back to our spot with us to make sure it was ok to park overnight. He then saw the old guy and told us that the square was free parking, and that the old man had no authority to charge for parking there, but he also said we could give him a few euros in the morning if he was hassling us. I was a bit incredulous about this, but he shrugged and said "It's Palermo."

Anyway - the car was safe from towing, at least, so we headed off to explore. Down the street from us was Piazza San Carlo, where people were enjoying pre dinner drinks, or aperitivo next to a beautiful fountain - I was so happy to have an Aperol spritz and tuck into the generous free buffet of snacks. On holiday, A and I tend to like to graze, so we only stayed for one drink. We continued on down Via Allessandro Paternostro, stumbling across a cute bar called Bar Garibaldi - people were merrily having drinks in the street outside which snacking on more small plates of free snacks. To be clear, when I say snacks, I mean entire pans of gnocchi and pasta and sausages were laid out for you to help yourself from - it made me wonder whether it would even be necessary to buy dinner!

The eventual destination was a place recommended by a lot of guidebooks, Antica Focacceria San Francesco. It's in an absolutely stunning piazza - with a beautiful church on one end and the charming outdoor seating in the middle. It being our first evening, A and I wanted to try some Sicilian specialties, so we went for a sample of antipasto - arancino, some flat chickpea fritters (panelle), and some potato croquettes. All perfectly decent if a little greasy but to be honest, with the free snacks we'd had beforehand, it would have had to be much more impressive to make a dent in our consciousness. We also got a bottle of Sicilian red which I sadly didn't take a picture of so I have no idea what exactly it was (maybe Nero d'Avola or something like that?) - it went well with our food though. We shared a pasta dish - another Sicilian specialty involving sardines and raisins (pasta chi sarde). I was suspicious of the raisins, and I have to say this dish did not convert me into a fish and fruit lover. Then dessert was some dense cake involving ricotta - we were way too full to enjoy it and it was also way less exciting than the description. While it sounds like I didn't really enjoy this meal at all, I have to say the atmosphere in the piazza and the amazing warm weather meant that we still seriously enjoyed our evening - so I'd still recommend this place to people looking for a nice place to relax and soak up some history.