It may have been a challenge, as Peter pointed out last week, to find evidence of small scale farming in Sicily. But it was not at all hard to discern the centrality of food in both the history and the contemporary culture of the island,
Set at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and cheek by jowl to North Africa, Sicily was developed in Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman times as an agricultural colony. Wheat, olive oil and wine are all commodity scale products it has produced for centuries, and much of its produce was exported. Sicily’s times of greatest prosperity were all strongly linked to its periods of agricultural development and improvement. It was integrated into very broad regional and international trading networks. People often marvel at the distances our modern food travels to reach our tables, but I marvel even more at how extensive trade routes were in Classical Times, and at the variety of goods that were shipped. Humans are inveterate traders generally, but certainly foods which cannot be produced locally have always been a major focus of trade.
There is, of course, not one single human mind-set about food. Even within our modern culture different societies have very different approaches to it. We had ample opportunity to observe these cultural differences in a place where tourists from all over the world converge. It occurred to me one night, out for one of our restaurant meals, that one could do an entire thesis on different food cultures by observing the behaviors of different national or ethnic groups at the restaurant table.
We were at an upscale trattoria in Agrigento, on Sicily’s south coast, on a Saturday night. When we arrived at 8 pm (early by Sicilian standards) for dinner, there was one other occupied table in the small space, populated by three French speakers. They had clearly been there for some time when we arrived, and they were peppering the waitress with questions (in a mix of French, Italian and English) about the various dishes while sipping wines. They were analyzing the choices at great length. For instance, the menu used the term “crispy chard “as the English translation in one dish, and they had to figure out what chard was in French and then consider what it would mean to be crispy. With typical American efficiency we had ordered and eaten our appetizers well before they got around to ordering theirs, and we left the restaurant after coffee well before they got to their main course. The meal was clearly the focus of their entire evening. No wonder the French, statistically, spend so much longer at meals than we do.
Soon after we arrived a large group of Italians arrived. In contrast to the French, they figured out what they wanted, ordered and got down to eating quite expeditiously. They were seated behind me, but Peter reported to me that one woman, tasting her appetizer, found it unsatisfactory and sent it back to exchange for a different one. The different one arrived and she rejected that as well. Only on the third try did she deign to eat. She was as particular as the French about her food, but from a decidedly less analytic and far more experiential perspective. (I was not unsympathetic to this woman, by the way. The restaurant was a lovely space, presentation of the food was very artistic — in my opinion, if not in Peter’s — but virtually nothing we ate there had any appeal beyond the visuals. It was all creative combinations, no taste.)
When it comes to food, it seems, everyone is very particular, and strong opinions are not confined to those who consider themselves to have refined tastes. At another tiny very down scale trattoria at lunch in Palermo a couple of days earlier, we had observed a group of four young Australian women arrive, hungry after traipsing around to monuments. One of them, about 6’2″ and built like a linebacker, with a Donald Trump type baseball cap backwards on her head, turned a chair around and straddled it, grunted loudly and downed a bottle of soft drink she was carrying, When she and the group learned, however, that the place only had pasta and seafood on offer, they (apparently avid carnivores) all abruptly got up and unceremoniously left.
People of every stripe care intensely about what they consume and how they consume it.
For Peter and me, the quest (when we travel or are at home) is what I would call authenticity in our food, which I would define as food prepared with the quality of ingredients, care in preparation and time investment that my grandma Sonia Warman would have employed. In Sicily’s heavily tourist dependent economy, numerous places have signs in English and other languages touting their “typical” or “authentic” Sicilian cuisine. Despite the plethora of signs, authenticity in food was something we only sometimes found. At the high end, the local food traditions seem to have been overwhelmed by the foreign influences of nouvelle cuisine. At the low end, fast food and pizza (an import from the Italian mainland) were the focus. And too often, especially in places catering to tourists, when traditional local cuisine was featured it seemed somewhat slapdash, using perhaps the right list of ingredients for the dish but not with the fresh ingredients or the cooking methods that would have transformed those ingredients into the deep flavors we would have expected.
When we did find what seemed authentic, the meals were memorable. I recall one lunch at the neighborhoody feeling Trattoria Al Cascinari not too far from the cathedral in Palermo, recommended by my office colleague Chris, where a spaghetti with squid in its ink, a heaping, unadorned plate of black stuff, knocked out my taste buds. And then there was the very quirky restaurant Tenute Margana, at an “agriturismo” farm, 3 km. up a single track dirt road near the ancient Greek site, Segesta. It was All Saints Day, between meal hours (around 4 in the afternoon, but we had spent the whole day at Segesta and were starving). We had found to our dismay that most restaurants seemed to be closed. But then we saw signs for Tenute Margana. . After we drove under a highway overpass and started up the dirt road, the signs for the restaurant soon stopped appearing, and I kept saying it was crazy to keep driving into the hills on this one lane path, but Peter insisted we go on. As usual, he proved right. We eventually came to a little rustic haven out in the fields. But was it open, we wondered. Open it was, with a roaring fireplace especially appreciated on what was a relatively chilly, drizzly day, and smiling at these strange Americans having lunch at 4 in the afternoon, they served us. Peter’s simple grilled rabbit, in an herbed sauce, was I think one of his favorite meals on the trip. And my simple plate of farm-grown pork sausages brightened my afternoon.
In both these instances, and in some of the fancier, more internationally inflected establishments we found quite excellent, such as Restaurant Ex Panificio in Agrigento and Osteria del Vespri in Palermo you could tell almost from the beginning that the kitchen cared about the food at least as much as the management cared about the revenue that food was generating. These restaurants used fresh, flavorful and whole ingredients, treating them lovingly, respectfully. Breads were not just commercial filler to keep diners’ hunger at bay but well crafted, often freshly baked, and tasty. At least some pasta offerings were freshly made as well. They avoided ingredients like hard thick skinned flavorless orange tomatoes which other restaurants used and which only reminded you of what you were missing. They instead used cool weather greens appropriate to the season.
We found authenticity in some of the most modest places, and a lack thereof in some far more pricey ones.
We know we are not alone in valuing food authenticity. This is the season when a great many Americans express the same cultural food ideal most vigorously — the Thanksgiving holiday. Even folks who graze on prepackaged frozen dinners or take-out for most of their meals the rest of the year strive, at this holiday, to make something authentic. They cook many dishes from scratch. The insist on a turkey they have roasted themselves as the centerpiece of the meal, around which are arrayed a series of special dishes, often traditional family recipes (Aunt Lettie’s sausage and oyster stuffing, say), that are essential to making the feast. It’s one of the few times that we simply don’t countenance short cuts.
Maybe the excessive lengths we go to at Thanksgiving only serve to highlight how much we sacrifice during the rest of the year. I prefer to think the holiday helps to recall that there is a higher food ideal we should and can aspire to at other times. It’s that ideal, rather than the burdens of preparation, we should keep in mind as we rev up for the holiday. We wish you success in achieving a happy authenticity this Thanksgiving.
WHAT’S NEW THIS WEEK:
WE ARE BACK. THE RECENT FROSTS HAVE CLEARLY TAKEN A TOLL ON THE GARDEN, BUT WE STILL HAVE LOTS OF STUFF WE HAULED IN BEFORE THE FROST OR THAT IS HARDY, INCLUDING CHEESE PUMPKINS (FOR YOUR THANKSGIVING PIE), BEANS RADISHES, TOMATOES, BEETS, BEANS (YELLOW AND HARICOTS VERTS) CARROTS, RED TURNIPS, SOME WHITE TURNIPS, TATSOI, SORREL, PARSLEY, CILANTRO, MINT AND DILL. LIMITED EGGS (AS THE LIGHT FADES) AND BROCCOLI.
STILL TAKING TURKEY ORDERS FOR OUR HERITAGE BREED TURKEYS RAISED FREE RANGE ON ORGANIC GRAIN AND SLAUGHTERED FRESH THE WEEK OF THANKSGIVING. SEE ORDER FORM AT END OF THIS BULLETIN
FOR DETAILED OFFERINGS THIS WEEK PLEASE SCROLL BELOW
THIS WEEK’S OFFERINGS
FROM THE GARDEN:
BEETS (Chiogga (pink/white striped), $3/LB PLENTIFUL
BROCCOLI, limited quantities, but if anyone wants half a pound or so, $3/lb
LEEKS, UNFORTUNATELY, FOR OBVIOUS REASONS, NO LONGER OFFERED
HARICOT VERTS and YELLOW WAX BEANS, $3/BL
DAIKON RADISHES, $2/LB
JALAPENO PEPPERS, $3/LB
CHEESE PUMPKIN, $1/LB SALES SUSPENDED TO RESERVE FOR THANKSGIVING PIES.
VINE RIPENED TOMATOES, WINDING DOWN, BRANDYWINE, AMISH PASTE AND ROSE DE BEIRNE $3.LB
CHERRY TOMATOES, $2/PINT
RED TOPPED TURNIPS $1/ LB, POSSIBLY SOME SMALLER WHITE TURNIPS AT $2/LB
GREEN CABBAGE (CONICAL WAKEFIELDS AND DE VERTUS SAVOY), PLENTIFUL, AND SOME RED CABBAGES $2/LB
NO LONGER QUITE BABY CARROTS (BUNCH OF 8 FOR $2)
SWISS CHARD, $2/BAG, limited quantities
DILL, PARSLEY, MINT, OREGANO, CILANTRO, CUTTING CELERY, SAGE: $.75 A BUNCH.
HORSERADISH ROOT: $4/LB (A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY)
FROM LAST FALL’S GARDEN HARVEST:
FROZEN SQUASH (SHREDDED, TROMBONCINO), GREAT FOR FRITTERS, $2/LB.
EGGS: very limited quantities $5/doz
GUINEA FOWL, frozen $7/lb (half the price of the Union Sq. Farmers Market). These are excellent 3 lb. or so birds.
LAMB: Lamb by the cut has been mostly sold but we still have some Leg of lamb and chops at $14 a pound and a bit of ground lamb at $7/lb.
BEEF AND PORK: from our freezer stash
PORK BY THE CUT:
Smoked bacon, $10/lb
Pork chops, $12/lb, we have lots, they are a convenient size for a quick meal, and quite tasty.
Spare ribs and country ribs $7/lb
Smoked hocks, $6/lb.
Leaf Lard, now sold out or fully reserved for buyers
Sirloin steaks, $14/lb.
Porterhouse or Tbone: $16/lb
Short Ribs $6/lb
Stir fry, $5/lb,
Chuck or eye round roast, $5/lb
Top or bottom round roast, $8/lb,
Sirloin tip roast, $12/lb
Beef tongue, $2/lb
organ meats: kidney, heart etc. $1/lb
GOOSE: Processed last December. We have a 8 lb bird from this year here, and from last year a 9 lb bird, a couple of 8 lb. birds, and about 10 in the 6 to 7 lb. range. $10/LB. Prior years’ geese $6/lb. Goose is a great start for cassoulet.We have pigs feet to add for the consistency, too. We use all three ingredients with the beans in our cassoulet.
ROASTING CHICKENS – frozen These Freedom Rangers were bred by the French to be slow growing, good foragers, and to have complex flavor. They range from 3 to 7 lbs, most in the 5 lb. range, and are very moist and flavorful. $6/lb.
TURKEYS: Order your fresh turkey for thanksgiving, $11/lb, using order form below. We also have some remaining small heritage turkeys from last year in the freezer, between 7 and 9 lbs, perfect for that small special dinner party. On special to clear freezer space $8/lb
DUCKS: Last year we did Pekin ducks. The males are not so different in size from the females, and these are nice meaty birds, most between 5 and 7 lbs. Also $7/lb.
FOR THE GARDEN, ANOTHER PRIME COMPOST TIME If you are beginning to put your garden to bed, fall is an excellent time for top dressing the garden for next spring’s fertility. $6 for a 40 lb (approx.) bag from our now towering compost mountain. This compost is a mix of cow, sheep, turkey and chicken manure, hay, leaves, weeds and some decomposing feed grain, a pot pouri of nutrition for your garden beds. Order in quantity (30 bags or more, roughly a small truckload full) for $5/bag. We will deliver bulk orders in Germantown.
Email us your order at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Regular pickup times are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other days by arrangement. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call at 518-537-3815 or email.
TURKEY RESERVATION FORM 2017:
TURKANA FARMS, LLC
110 Lasher Ave
Germantown, NY 12526
Please check here if you would like to receive email offerings in season:______________
HERITAGE BREED TURKEYS: We are again raising Bourbon Reds, Naragansetts, Holland Whites, and Spanish Blacks, which range from 7 to 18 lbs. Fed on organic feed, pastured all day, protected on perching bars all night. Slaughtered the Sunday or Monday before Thanksgiving, delivered fresh, not frozen, in Lower Manhattan, at points along the Taconic Parkway, or at the farm. $11 lb plus $5 off premises pick up fee. Note: These sell out early.
Number desired: ___________ Approx. weight ________
Pick up place: ___at the farm; ___Lower Manhattan___a point along the Taconic Parkway
Please send a deposit of $40 per bird to hold your reservation to Turkana Farms, 110 Lasher Ave., Germantown, NY, 12526. Make check out to Turkana Farms, LLC.(Yes this luddite farm still uses checks). The balance due will be paid at the time of the pick up.