For our first full day in Sicily, Monsieur and I took the advice of a friend and headed for the north-west coast of the island, to a town called Trapani. Dark clouds loomed but, ever the optimists, we drove on, along the autostrada where anti-mafia Judge Giovanni Falcone’s convoy was blown up by an under-road tunnel of explosive, thereby meeting an untimely demise, and on past the turn-off for the airport.
As we left the coast behind for a while, the mountainous landscape to our left was nothing less than magnificent, the clouds gathering at their zeniths only enhancing their mighty appearance. Then the rain began, just as we passed the signs for Segesta, a Greek temple complex that I had been too ill to visit on my last trip here. Ah, well. We’d just have to hope that the weather would be better after lunch.
As we entered Trapani, we were initially frustrated by the mess of narrow streets and traffic lights, but eventually located a large, open lot in which to park the car. We wandered along the adjacent seafront looking out at the sea now mirroring the grey of the sky. The water was curiously clear, however the litter on the beach marred the otherwise arresting view. The shore was strewn with dented cans and bottles, its rich, green seaweed plaited with battered plastic bags.
We’d wanted to see Trapani’s fish market in action, but it was closed for the holidays, not a prawn in sight. Walking on through the old town, we found cobbled streets lined with intriguing little shops and ornate Baroque civic buildings and churches. Nothing was open, however. Everyone had gone for lunch, even the priest at the cathedral dedicated to San Lorenzo, one of the patron saints of chefs. I’d really had my heart set on lighting a little candle at the feet of his statue, asking for his protection from sharp knives, soaring gas flames and salmonella, but as the saint and the priest were off enjoying a lengthy midday repast, Monsieur and I needed little encouragement to do the same.
We walked along the docks where ferries were anchored, rear ends open to a motley crew of vehicles destined for the little islands of Egadi just off the coast, but turned away from these giants, back to the tangle of Trapani streets. There we saw fake Santa Clauses hanging from ladders attached to various windows, (judging by how many of these we saw, it was THE 2008 decoration of preference in these parts), and braving the suspicious stares of local folk, sought out a restaurant for lunch.
We’d heard good things about a little place in the Old Jewish ghetto, called Cantina Siciliana . It had been bestowed with the Slow Food badge of approval for authentic, home-cooked Trapanese food and had its own wine shop just next door in case you sipped on something scrumptious and wanted to take a bottle or two of the same to your cellar at home. The entrance was about as unprepossessing as is possible for an eatery, and once inside, the small front room was simply decorated with Moorish blue tiles from floor to mid-wall, high shelves bearing rows of wine bottles, presumably of revered vintage, and the unexpected accessories that bore little resemblance from one group to the next, for instance, from the ceiling was suspended a carriage wheel and above the entrance stood a line of mismatched vases in the shapes of ancient Greece.
Towards the back of the room sat a family gathering, including kids of all sizes, from new-born to around ten years old. A very pregnant waitress with long, dark hair and a kindly face seated us near her station at the front. The sky outside darkened, dimming the room. Across from us, a well-dressed Italian couple finished their lunch and in the midst of the room, a young couple courted over the remainder of a bottle of red.
Monsieur and I decided to share a starter of mixed seafood, as is so often our preference when travelling in the sort of environment where fresh seafood and fish thrive. Today, we were blessed with slices of smoked tuna, its texture dissolving gently against the palate, and bright red prawns which were so fresh and slippery that they almost escaped our grip each time we tried to shell one. The octopus was fresh and juicy, somewhat unexpected on a dark December day, and the sardine in breadcrumbs, one of Cantina Siciliana’s signature offerings, was quite possibly the best sardine I’ve ever tasted. Why? The little fish were first marinated in a little vinegar before being lightly floured and fried. It’s incredible what a little vinegar can do to a dish when added in the right way. The end result is often not even vinegar-y to the tastebuds.
Monsieur followed this lip-smacking selection with scaloppine al limone, whilst I stuck to local fare, ordering the pasta alla Trapanese, made with a salsa of tomatoes, basil and garlic so incredibly fresh that it stung to eat. Traditionally, this dish often includes a handful of processed almonds, but in this case the garlic was so mouth-igniting that I couldn’t honestly tell if nuts made it into the salsa or not.
The women and children from the family gathering had now left the restaurant, with all children and related baby paraphernalia in tow. Three menfolk remained, whispering misdeeds with mean eye whilst polishing off a last bottle of blood-coloured wine. For once, I was quite pleased that I couldn’t eavesdrop.
A couple of espressi and a very reasonable bill later (tip refused and discount given for cash payment – what is it with Sicily and cash? No need to answer that…), we left Cantina Siciliana, in the hope of reaching Segesta for a wander through its ruins. Unfortunately for us, the weather had quite a different plan in mind.