Sunday, 4 December 2011

'Tis the Season of Sicilian Christmas Markets & Cookies!! :-)

Buona sera a tutti! December has now arrived amici miei ... the cold has set in and the excitement of the festive season can be felt all around us. Many families across the world are now starting to prepare their homes for the Christmas festivities, however in Italy it is tradition to wait for the 8th December to put up the Christmas tree and hang the decorations. This is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary, and it is a public holiday in Italy. This event is celebrated throughout the country with religious street processions such as that shown in the video below in Termini Imerese, Palermo.




This is also the period of the 'Mercatini di Natale', the wonderful Christmas markets, and one that I can highly recommend is that of the 'Mercatino di S.Lucia, Belpasso' in the province of Catania. This is held from the 9th to the 11th December in the beautiful town of Belpasso, which is found on the slopes of Etna, and features stalls selling local delicacies and handmade Christmas crafts. The mountainous setting with its tall pine trees and views of snowy Etna creates the perfect festive atmosphere and the nearby town of Nicolosi even offers outdoor ice-skating.


To celebrate the arrival of the Christmas period I will leave you with a recipe for traditional Sicilian Christmas cookies to enjoy on these dark, winter nights! Enjoy :-)

                                                      Mastazzoli


Ingredients
500g Honey
500g Flour
250g Ground Almonds
200g Grated Dark Chocolate
1/2 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Cloves

Preparation
Mix together all of the ingredients and place the cookies in the desired form onto a baking tray. Bake at 180 degrees for fifteen to twenty minutes. 

Buonissimi!!
A presto - Debra :-)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Sicily's Cyclops Riviera - Mystical Tales of Romance and Courage!

One of my favourite parts of Sicily is the 'Riviera dei Ciclopi', or Riviera of the Cyclops, which is a stretch of coastline north of Catania leading from Aci Castello to Acireale. This is such a beautiful part of Sicily and is surrounded by myth and legend. Two of the most popular stories tell of the Cyclops 'Polifemo', the one-eyed giant son of Poseidon (the god of the sea) and Thoosa (a sea nymph).



The first legend comes from Homer's book 'Odyssey' and tells how Ulysses, the King of Ithaca, lands on the island with twelve of his men on his way home from the Trojan War. He ventures into the Cyclop's cave, who then traps the men and eats four of them. In order to escape, Ulysses blinds Polifemo as he sleeps by driving a burning hot stake into his eye. When the Cyclops awakes, he removes the large boulder from the cave's entrance in order to let his sheep out, thus giving Ulysses and his men a chance to escape. As the men escape on their ships, Polifemo tries to stop them by throwing enormous rocks into the sea after them. These rocks can still be seen along the coastline and are known as 'i Faraglioni di Aci Trezza'.



The other legend is much more romantic and tells the mythological story of the beautiful nymph Galatea, the daughter of the sea god 'Nereo', and a young shepherd named Aci. Galatea and Aci were madly in love, however Aci unfortunately had a rival for his lover's affections in the form of the Cyclops Polifemo. One day, Polifemo was so overcome with jealousy that he crushed Aci under an emormous boulder. Jupiter, the king of the gods, took pity on the young couple and turned Aci's blood into a river and the nymph Galatea into sea foam, so that as the river met with the Ionian Sea, the lovers would be united in an eternal embrace.



There are now nine towns that lie in this river's path and all take their name from Aci. My favourite of these are Aci Trezza with its wonderful seafood restaurants, Acireale with its stunning Cathedral and Aci Castello with its breathtaking castle and sea views. This area also holds a special place in my heart as my wedding reception was held at a venue high on an Aci Trezza hill overlooking the Faraglioni :-)




Be sure to add these mystical places to your itinerary if you come to Sicily!

A presto,

Debra :-)
www.sicilianconnections.com

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Cin Cin! Let's drink a 'brindisi' to San Martino.

Cari amici, we are at the start of a new month and, for some, the most important month in the Sicilian calendar. Wine lovers across the island are preparing themselves for the first taste of this year's 'vino nuovo', or new wine, which has now finished fermenting and is ready to enjoy!



The traditional day for this first taste is actually the 11th November which is 'la festa di San Martino', or St. Martin's Day. The Sicilian saying goes - 'a San Martino ogni mustu diventa vinu' - which means that on this day every mosto becomes wine. On this day every year Sicilian vineyards and wine producers open the doors to their cellars to allow patrons their first taste of this year's 'vintage'. Aside from these large producers, many Sicilian individuals make wine from their own grapes and sell it to neighbours and friends. In fact many Sicilian families fill several 15 litre containers with this wine and store it away for the coming months.


Any wine enthusiasts planning to try this 'vino Siciliano' should be warned that this is not comparable to your typical wine - this is an absolutely delicious, but extremely potent version. Beginners should therefore go slow at first to avoid being the first reveller to dance on the tables at the annual 'festa di San Martino'! Personally, I think that it is truly 'buonissimo' :-)



This tradition has lead San Martino to become known as the Patron Saint of drunkards, however his actual story is far more modest. According to folklore San Martino was actually a Roman soldier who later became a monk. One of his most famous legends tells how, on a bitterly cold, stormy and snow-filled day, this soldier cut his cloak in two with his sword to share it with a beggar who he encountered on his travels. He then continued on his way only to find that after several minutes the storm miraculously cleared and the sun came out as a reward. According to the legend this is the reason that we often experience an unseasonal spell of sunny, warm weather at this time of year. This phenomena was originally referred to as 'St. Martin's Summer', however it is now more commonly called an 'Indian Summer'.




Whatever the weather, our Sicilian Connections friends across the globe should be practising their tarantella, opening this year's vino and preparing to pay homage to this time honoured Sicilian festival! Cin cin Amici!

A presto,

Debra :-)
www.sicilianconnections.com

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Legend of 'Pizzo di Lauro' - A Sicilian Story for Halloween!

Buongiorno a tutti! Anyone who has visited my website and read the descriptions of the Sicilian regions will already know how fascinated I am by the myths and legends that surround the mystical island of Sicily. So many enchanting stories are embroidered into the island's history and some offer such an insight into Sicily's past that it is difficult to divide fact from fiction. As Halloween is upon us, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to share one of the lesser known, and rather more ghostly, legends that I have heard about the area.




This legend that I have recently come across is called 'il tesoro di Pizzo Lauro', or 'the treasure of Pizzo Lauro'. It is set close to the town of Villalba, a remote, inland town which is situated 55 kilometres from Caltanissetta. Just outside of Villalba there is a tall, steep rock which dominates the skyline and is cloaked in mystery - its name is 'Pizzo di Lauro'. Residents of nearby towns do not dare to venture close to the mountain at night, however shepherds in the neighbouring hills have long told tales of spirits that dance in the night, of fierce dogs that protect the area and of witches ready to ward off curious eyes.




The legend tells of a hoard of treasure hidden inside the mountain containing enough gold to pave the streets of the whole island of Sicily. In the past, many courageous people have attempted to find this treasure but none have returned. It is said that they fell into the deep abyss below never to be found again. On stormy nights, the tale tells that it is possible to hear the spirits of these adventurers singing their sad sicilian song -

Pizzu di Lauru, pri la to ricchezza    (Pizzo di Lauro, for your treasure)
nui pirdemu la via e la salvezza        (we lost our lives and salvation)



Only when the bravest of the land will reach the rock's summit and find the hidden treasure, will the curse be broken and the souls of these men set free.

Happy Halloween!

Debra :-)
www.sicilianconnections.com

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Sicilian Pride and Passion across the World!

I was inspired to create the Sicilian Connections website because over the years I have met many people of Sicilian origin who, for various reasons, have emigrated and live in different locations worldwide, but the passion that they feel for their homeland has remained strong. It was my aim to create a community where Sicilians could come together and share their wonderful stories of the island and memories of their ancestors and, thanks to the constant support of our Sicilian Connections friends worldwide, this is now a reality. Therefore, as October is officially National Italian American Heritage month, it seemed the ideal time to dedicate my blog to the pride and passion of Sicilian immigrants in America and throughout the world.



Between the years of 1861 and 1965, almost 25 million Italians left the peninsula in search of a new life. This is considered to be the biggest mass migration of contemporary times and, in Sicily, was partly due to the drop in economy and over-population experienced after the unification of Italy. In 1906 alone, 100,000 Sicilians emigrated to the United States of America and in 1920, 87 percent of Sicilian immigrants were still headed for the US. Other countries with a significant number of Sicilian immigrants were Venezuela, Brasil, Mexico, Canada, Australia and countries throughout Europe. Among the main cities in America where Sicilians settled were New York, New Orleans, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco and these immigrants tended to reside together in groups depending on the area that they came from. For example, in New Orleans there was a district called 'Little Palermo'.



These Sicilians were so passionate about their homeland that they took their traditions and values with them and believed in them so much that these aspects of Sicilian life have become an intrinsic part of communities worldwide and are still very much in evidence today. Throughout the year there are festivals across the world to celebrate different Sicilian traditions. The island's way of life is echoed daily in neighbourhoods worldwide through their cuisine, language and culture, such as the music listened to or the plays seen at the theatre.



It is viewed as a real honour to belong to such a loyal and devoted community and it is this devotion that will ensure that the respect for 'u paese vecchiu', or the old country, will stay strong long into the future.



Don't forget to keep sharing your favourite memories and stories with us!

A presto,

Debra :-)
www.sicilianconnections.com

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Pistacchio di Bronte - A taste of Sicilian gold!

Following on from my post last month about my love for a 'festa Siciliana', this week's blog is about a different kind of Italian festa.......the 'sagra'. Sagras are celebrated in towns and villages throughout Italy and are local festivals often dedicated to a specific local food. Over the past week hundreds of visitors have descended upon the countryside town of Bronte, in the province of Catania, for its annual 'Sagra del Pistacchio'.


The town of Bronte can be reached from Catania by driving around the foot of Mount Etna and this is one of my favourite journeys in Sicily. The area may not boast the panoramic sea views of Taormina or Trapani but in my eyes it is almost equally as breathtaking. From the road to Bronte travellers can look far across the Sicilian countryside and view miles and miles of valleys and hilltop towns such as Regalbuto and Centuripe. When the sun is setting, it is truly beautiful to watch the shadows descend gradually down the deep valleys - a completely different world to the tourist filled coastal towns.



The mystical atmosphere that surrounds Bronte is even echoed in the town's origins. According to Greek legend, the town took its name from its founder, the Cyclops Bronte, and means 'the Thunderer'. In mythology a group of three Cyclops, including Bronte, lived under Mount Etna and made thunderbolts for Zeus, the god of sky and thunder, to use as weapons.



The pistachio which comes from the town is known as 'oro verde', or green gold, because of its value to the local economy. The value of the 3,000 hectares of Bronte pistachio actually amounts to around 15 million euros and over one percent of the world's pistachio. This pistachio is an ingredient in a wide variety of different dishes, both savoury and sweet, including pistachio salami, pasta al pistacchio and 'gelato al pistacchio', or pistachio icecream. My personal favourites are the 'paste di mandorla al pistacchio' which are soft Sicilian almond cookies with pistachio - truly buonissime!



The 'Sagra del Pistacchio' is worth a visit just to see how locals open up their private garages in order to let visitors sample one of their homemade pistachio dishes. For those who can't get to Bronte but would also like to indulge, here is the recipe for another of my pistachio favourites - 'torrone di pistacchio', or pistachio brittle -

TORRONE DI PISTACCHIO -

50g butter, plus extra for greasing
100g light soft brown sugar
100g shelled pistachios

Lightly grease a baking tray with some extra butter; set aside. Heat a small heavy-based pan; add the butter, sugar and 4 tablespoons of cold water. Heat over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Increase heat and bring to a rolling bubble.
Cook for 5-7 minutes until the mixture starts to turn a deep golden brown. Tip in the pistachios and mix for a few seconds to coat the nuts in the caramel. Carefully and quickly pour the mixture on to the baking sheet. Leave to cool and harden.


Buon appetito! A presto :-)

Debra
www.sicilianconnections.com

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Mount Etna - Sicily's 'friendly volcano'!

Buona Domenica a tutti!

Taking inspiration from Wednesday's eruption, this blog is dedicated to the almighty and powerful presence of Mount Etna. A natural phenomena which is both fearful and yet at the same time almost considered by Sicilians as an 'amico' or an ever-present companion. It would be impossible to write about Sicily without mentioning the volcano as its presence is constantly felt, especially in the eastern and central parts of the island where the mountain reigns over the surrounding towns and villages.



We have a wonderful, uninterrupted view of Etna from our balcony in the province of Catania and, when we are there, it is the first thing that we see when we step outside with our morning espresso. It is fascinating to watch the changes on the mountain through the seasons - to see the thick snow on the summit melting away as the summer heat makes its appearance.



According to which town around the volcano is having its annual feast day we can watch the sky at different points around Etna light up with bright firework displays. Of course, the most dazzling display of all is when the volcano erupts - it is after all the most active volcano in Europe and volcanologists around the globe have often commented on the fact that the island's residents don't take the threat of Etna as seriously as they should. On the contrary, families take trips up the mountain when it is erupting to see the lava flowing right past them and I have even seen boys playing football nearby!



Every boxing day or 'il giorno di Santo Stefano' it is tradition to drive up the volcano to find some snow to play in and Sicilian 'bambini' relish the chance to put on their snowsuits and indulge in a rare snowball fight! There is even a place high up the mountain called Rifugio Sapienza where the thousands of tourists that visit the volcano every year can buy souvenirs - however in 2002 Mount Etna reminded us just how dangerous it really is when it erupted and destroyed parts of the 'rifugio', including the tourist office.



I shall never forget the fear that I felt when the volcano erupted in July 2001 and the island realised that it was truly in danger. It was an unforgettable experience to see the steps of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Guardia in Belpasso hidden under the hundreds of Sicilians praying to God to stop the lava. Almost 7000 devotees also attended a mass at the Sanctuary of the 'Madonna della Roccia di Belpasso' in the hope of saving their towns. In 1669 the city of Catania was almost completely destroyed by lava together with 14 other towns and almost 20,000 people were killed - the airport of Catania is still frequently closed due to the volcanic ash.



The mountain has also played its part in many legends over the years such as that of Pluto, the ruler of the underworld, riding out of the volcano on four black horses to capture the Roman goddess Proserpina from the lake of Pergusa. The paradox of this 'friendly volcano' is ever-present on the island and it is well deserving of its place in legends .... in my eyes Etna is in fact a legend in itself.

A presto!

Debra :-)
www.sicilianconnections.com

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Any Excuse for a 'Festa Siciliana'!

September is known to be a month full of festivals in the Italian calendar and most Sicilians have recently spent their summer celebrating occasions such as 'Ferragosto', therefore this seemed like the perfect opportunity to write about the festivals which form such an integral part of the Sicilian culture. These 'feste' provide the perfect occasion for Sicilian communities to come together, share news with family and friends and indulge in the vast variety of festival food on offer. Many merchants come together and set up stalls selling everything from jewellery and clothes to paintings and sculptures. The atmosphere is always full of anticipation and excitement as everybody joins in the 'passeggiata' along the promenade or through the streets dressed in their 'vestiti della Domenica' or Sunday best!



The main highlight of the summer for Italians is 'Ferragosto' which is celebrated on the 15th August. The majority of Italian workers are on holiday over this period and journey to seaside resorts for the festivities. In Sicily, many groups of friends and family spend the night of the 14th August sleeping on the beach, lighting bonfires and participating in a traditional midnight swim. Everybody then gathers together to watch the sunrise before heading to the local café for their espresso coffee and their granita & brioche. One of my most memorable summer moments was spent doing just this on the Giardini Naxos beach in Messina..........truly unforgettable!


The main religious festival during the summer is that of Santa Rosalia, the Patron Saint of Palermo. Thousands of visitors come to the city on the 15th July to see the statue of the saint being paraded through the streets and on the 4th September devotees walk barefoot from the city of Palermo to Mount Pellegrino in her honour. At the beginning of the twentieth century Sicilian immigrants took the tradition of the Feast of Santa Rosalia over to New York to the first Italian parish in Brooklyn - the Sacred Hearts and St. Stephen's Church in Carroll Gardens. The festival has since moved to the Bensonhurst neighbourhood.





My favourite summer festival in Sicily is that of San Pietro in the town of Adrano in Catania on the 1st August. I just love the intimate atmosphere in the small piazza where the statue of the saint is carried out of the church. When it comes to choosing my favourite festival food it would have to be 'zeppole di San Giuseppe',  also known as 'crespelle'. You can enjoy these filled with ricotta cheese or anchovies  or made with rice and covered with honey.......absolutely buonissimo! :-)




Be sure to get in touch with stories and photos about your favourite summer festival!

A presto!

Debra :-)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Dreaming of 'La Dolce Vita'

Buona Sera Amici!

Firstly, I would like to say a heartfelt ''mille grazie'' to all of you who have supported Sicilian Connections in our first week online. It was a big (& rather nerve-wrecking!) step for me to publish everything that I have been working on over the past months and it truly means a lot to me that so many people have got involved.

As a thank you for sharing your personal thoughts, stories and photos with us, I would like to write about a place that is very special to me - it is actually my favourite place on the island of Sicily. For me, it is the most magical place in the world and when I am here I feel completely removed from the worries of day to day life. Piazza IX Aprile in the hilltop town of Taormina, in the province of Messina, boasts the most breathtaking panorama that I have ever seen.



I just love to sit at a table at the Wunderbar Café with a glass of prosecco or a 'granita di mandorla' and look out across the baia and the seemingly infinite Ionian Sea. You can see the beach resort of Giardini Naxos from here and there is also a wonderful view of Mount Etna.

There are often mandolin players in the piazza which provide the perfect accompaniment for watching the many boats drifting along in the water far below. I could sit for hours with the sun shining on my face listening to the romantic music of the mandolins. It is easy to comprehend what inspired great authors such as D.H. Lawrence and Goethe to spend time here whilst working on their literature. Indeed, there are often artists in the piazza looking to capture the enchantment and beauty of this location.  Another reason to visit Piazza IX Aprile is to see the charming church of San Giuseppe which looks out over the piazza and the beautiful Ionian Sea.

I'm sure that many of you have visited this wonderful destination and can understand why it holds such a special place in my heart. For those of you who have not yet visited Taormina, I hope that one day you will be able to experience its magic!



Please keep in touch and continue to share your wonderful stories and photographs.

A presto!

Debra
www.sicilianconnections.com


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Benvenuti a tutti!

Benvenuti a tutti! The day has finally come that our website www.sicilianconnections.com is up and running and we can interact with our Sicilian Connections friends around the globe! This is the beginning of an exciting journey for us and we really want you to get involved. We will constantly be adding to our website so please get in touch with your stories, information and photos about the island of Sicily or about Italian communities worldwide.

Our blog is our way of keeping in touch with you and we will be posting about a wide range of different topics relating to Sicily. These will include information on our favourite places on the island, interesting aspects of sicilian culture and of course our favourite sicilian delicacies.............cassata & cannoli anyone?!

There is also a forum on our site for you to share your knowledge on the island, interact with others within your 'little Italy' community or simply to discuss your passion for Sicily!

A presto!!

Debra - Sicilian Connections :-)
www.sicilianconnections.com