A few years ago, we found ourselves in need of a tiler and came across Salvatore, who was advertising in the local newspaper. Born in Messina on the north east coast of Sicily, at only fourteen, he was apprentice to his uncle, learning the art of intricate mosaic work in local churches.
After an assessment of work required, he made us an offer we couldn’t refuse and began work the following week. He is now a good family friend.
Not for the faint hearted, Salvatore has big personality and is, let’s say, something of a perfectionist. This meant many breaks for strong coffee, much talking and removing of the few tiles he had painstakingly put up, if they weren’t ‘just right’.
However, there was no doubting his passion for food and he would offer advice, whether asked for or not, on the benefits of a full, fruity Sicilian olive oil, how best to care for my basil plants or the sheer beauty of a freshly plucked lemon, squeezed over grilled swordfish. He raved about the swordfish from the straits of home.
It was in the middle of the job that Salvatore’s van broke down and he ended up living with us for a few days. If we provided the board, he would cook supper. I was duly given a precise list of ingredients to be purchased.
Like his tiling, he took his time. School night or not, he would potter in the kitchen putting a few ingredients together. Thereafter, he would graze with ease for 3 or 4 hours, talking enthusiastically with a remarkable command of English but a pronounced Sicilian accent which demanded our full concentration. Every morsel of good food and every sip of wine were to be savoured.
Sicilian to the core, he reminisced a lot about his childhood and adolescence, describing himself as an expert swimmer and keen to show off the many scars he had acquired from falling off scooters. He dreamt of returning to Sicily in his later years to retire.
Salvatore would make his annual return in early autumn. He would know he was near to his homestead when the fine meaty note of porcini reached his nose, as his father dried those freshly harvested, on their garden table.
At The Table
Anti-pasti was as simple as a few anchovies, olives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on a thin slice of bread with a scattering of salt and pepper or Insalata Caprese, ‘Sicilian style,’ with a sprinkling of oregano. Salvatore cooked fresh, easy to prepare dishes which were generally inexpensive such as roasted chicken wings marinated with olive oil, tomatoes and oregano, served with green salad or his sister’s amazing baked aubergines filled with minced lamb. His simple tagliatelle with cooked onion, a little garlic, chilli, a few mushrooms and a splash of wine served with fresh parsley was delightful.
I asked him how he had learned to cook so well and he looked at me with scrunched brow, “everyone enjoy their food where I come from, we all cook and we all like to eat, simple and that”, he expressed.
At forty-something, Salvatore belongs to a generation of which that may well be true but sadly, times are a changing. More supermarkets and hypermarkets are sprouting up and it seems that many Italians are neglecting local markets. According to Angelo Pietrobelli, University of Verona, 20 percent of Italian children are watching 4 hours of television every day and trying to imitate the US diet, (Oliver Thring, Sunday Times, 01/09/13)
Meeting Salvatore gave us a fascinating insight into Sicily and its expressive food culture. Having holidayed there once, we certainly plan to re-visit and will take immense pleasure in eating our way around the island……………again!