I literally fell in love with Sicily at first sight. From the air, for its patchwork of olives and oranges as we flew from Rome to Catania; and then (at not dissimilar speeds) for the wildflowers and Oleanders growing so profusely along the highway as we tried to adjust to being on the “wrong” side of the road again. As the days turned into a week, and we made our way from east to west, it occurred to me that yellow and orange are the colours of spring in Sicily. Crema giallo in my favourite pastries; fields of durum wheat as far as the eye can see; mountains of melons at the markets; an abundance of mustard flowers, poppies and chrysanthemum; the bronze fronds of wild fennel; golden honey and rusty threads of saffron; the bread (often bought twice-daily); even the sheep had a slightly yellow tinge – all somehow reflecting the blazing sun that shines down on Sicily so generously.
Sicily, though it feels like another world, sits just south of Italy’s boot at the exact centre of the Mediterranean. It's where Europe stops and Africa begins – a fantastic melting pot of culture and agriculture. Oranges and durum wheat are the main two agricultural products per production value in Sicily. And with other staples such as ricotta, lemons, almonds, pistachios, tomatoes (and the hedonistic tomato paste 'estratto'), oregano, swordfish, tuna, capers, anchovies and eggplants, it is little wonder that every mouthful is delicious.
A day or two spent reading the cookbooks in the 'Italy' section of my bookshelf, discussions with various friends, and a quick (obligatory) google search yields several tales surrounding the origin of pasta. The first written reference dates back to 1154 (in Sicily!), some hundred years before the birth of the Venetian merchant (Marco Polo) widely attributed as having brought it back with him from his travels in China. The former suggests it was more likely the Arabs who first developed the technology to turn Sicily’s golden fields of durum wheat into dried pasta as we know it today.
For me, it is impossible to think of Sicily and not think of pasta, and along with Pasta con le Sarde, Pasta alla Norma is surely one of the little island's most ubiquitous pasta dishes. A dish with as many tales surrounding its origin as there are versions: a harmonious marriage of eggplant, tomatoes and ricotta salata (see notes).
Pasta alla Norma isn’t new in our house; in late-summer, when tomatoes, eggplants and basil tumble over the sleepers of my raised garden bed; it’s not unusual for me to make it twice a week. It was the reason we booked an apartment with a kitchen in Palermo, and the first thing I think of when I see a beautiful, shiny, purple eggplant at the markets.
Pasta alla Norma
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large eggplant (or two smaller ones), cut into sticks about the size of a ring finger
Sea salt (from Trapani if you can find it)
Dried chilli flakes
Dried oregano (from Pantelleria if you’re very lucky)
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
3 sprigs basil, stalks finely chopped, leaves roughly torn and reserved
White balsamic vinegar (or another good quality white wine vinegar)
300-400g Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, or passata
200g dried spaghetti or penne
Ricotta salata, to serve
Heat a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Fry the eggplant in batches, seasoning each generously with sea salt, dried chilli flakes and dried oregano, adding more oil as necessary. Remove when golden on all sides and drain on paper towel. Once all the eggplant is cooked, return it to the pan with garlic, basil stalks and a splash of vinegar. Cook for a minute or two before stirring through tomatoes. Lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the packet instructions (and not a moment longer), drain, reserving a little of the cooking water. Toss the pasta and basil into the pot of sauce, adding a little of the cooking water to loosen everything a little.
Serve immediately with freshly grated ricotta salata.
C(h)ook's notes -
On ricotta salata: The sheep I saw in Sicily were somewhat wild and woolly - not that anyone seems to mind - their milk is used to make the creamiest, most fragrant ricotta on earth. Ricotta salata is a firm cheese made by draining and salting ricotta before leaving it to dry in the sun for several weeks. Having served my Pasta alla Norma without it for many years (simply because I didn’t know where to look for it), and then finally stumbling across it, I honestly don’t think there’s a cheese that comes close to being as perfect for this dish. Try hard to find it, even if it’s only once - you’ll understand. And if you can’t, Pecorino Romano is preferable to both Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh ricotta (as much as I adore both).
- Oregano is the *only* herb I keep in its dried state. A recent 'scandal' in the Australian news regarding packets of 'oregano' being sold containing very little actual oregano (instead dried olive and sumac leaves making up as much as 90% of the contents), made me very grateful for having always spent a little more on herbs and spices thus ensuring they are fresh (and contain what they claim). It also meant that when I saw little bags of oregano from Pantelleria for sale in Sicily I bought them - without hesitation - not minding the gamble that they may not make it through customs with me on our return home. Oregano is an important part of this dish - do some research and make sure that the little packet or jar in your pantry is one of the "good ones".
"If the pot doesn't boil, don't throw in the pasta." Sicilian proverb
One last bite: If you are headed to Sicily and you are a cook, a visit to the halcyon Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School is absolutely unmissable. You can stay for the day, or longer (try for longer). To read more about it and their upcoming Cook the Farm program, there is a wonderful article in The Wall Street Journal here and a short video here.