Tuesday, July 7, 2015

My Vacation in Sicily, or “Almonds Gone Wild”

By Kelley Lindberg

Ah, Sicily. Land of mythology, history, Godfather t-shirts, pasta, lemons, pistachios, and almonds.

Lots and lots of almonds.
Almond and pistachio cookies greeted us
in our hotel room in Sicily.

If you’re not allergic to almonds, pistachios, or lemons, you’ll love Sicily. If you’re allergic to almonds, pistachios, or lemons, you might want to plan on doing a lot of your own cooking if you go there.

Almonds, lemons, and pistachios are some of Sicily’s biggest crops, but stranglehold trade restrictions from Sicily’s parent country, Italy, make it difficult (if not impossible) for Sicilian farmers to sell them off-island. When you have a lot of something and you can’t sell it, you use it in everything.

My mother and I enjoy a day visiting
Greek Temples in Italy.
In May, my mother and I traveled to Sicily for a badly needed vacation. Truly, it’s a breathtaking place. We were on the eastern coast of the island, in the town of Taormina. From our beach-side hotel, we took day-trips to see the ancient and storied town of Syracuse, the Straits of Messina (where Odysseus and his crew met with scary monsters), the active volcano Mt Etna (which graciously did not erupt until hours after we’d left its hillsides), an ancient Roman villa with magnificently preserved mosaic floors, ancient Greek temples, and other Sicilian marvels. Throughout history, the island, which is strategically located off the “toe” of Italy, has been over-run by a steady parade of better-armed empires, like Greece, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Spanish, the Arabs, the French, and of course both sides of WWII. All that history and all those conquering cultures have combined in Sicily to produce a land and a people who seem to accept that “stuff happens” and you just have to roll with it.

That extends to their cooking. With a plethora of almonds on the island, they’ve learned how to incorporate them into almost every meal. I had almond cookies, almond gelato, almonds sprinkled on my pasta, and fish breaded with crushed almonds. When almonds were missing, pistachios took up the slack.

Because of the constant presence of those tree nuts, I was often glad my son wasn’t with me on this trip. Sure, it would have been possible to talk to chefs and waiters and request special handling to make sure he was being served almond-free foods, but the constant vigilance would have made this vacation more stressful than most we’ve taken. Since my mother and I are not allergic to tree nuts, we were able to enjoy the food without worrying. (Although I must admit, I felt a pang of guilt every time another dish arrived in front of me with almonds sprinkled liberally over it.) (And I guess I should also admit that those almond cookies were DIVINE. Don’t hate me.)
I'm telling ya, lemon granita is a highly civilized way
to end a breakfast. I could get used to this!

On the other hand, if my son HAD been with me, he would have loved the lemons. There were jars of lemon marmalade, lemon syrup, limoncello (a lemon-flavored liqueur—okay, that would not have been for him, but definitely for me!), a lemon-cream pasta sauce that was out of this world, and scoop after scoop after heavenly scoop of lemon granita (Italian ice). Lemon granita was even served in the breakfast buffet every morning at our hotel, which my mother and I agreed was a very civilized way to face the day.

All of which just goes to show… when life hands you almonds, make lemon ice!
An iconic Sicilian view: the active volcano Mt. Etna
(notice the plume of smoke coming out of its vents),
seen from a path through a lemon orchard.

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