What time is it?

1st January, 2020, Erice, Sicily

It is certainly past my time to post a story here. Remiss of me but I have tons of useless excuses.

My last post was published while I was in Sicily. Since then I have been in Edinburgh from mid-July to mid-November, then back here to Sicily to assist my mother who unfortunately cracked a vertebra at the end of October resulting in her spending two months in hospital. I had planned to spend a few weeks over November/December in France before returning to Sicily but my mother’s accident caused me to change my plans.

Yesterday I spent a bit of time in contact with friends and family to wish them a Happy New Year. I grew out of the habit of staying up till midnight to see in the New Year but while I was mulling over the global location of midnight at the time that I went to bed I realised that I had friends and family dispersed across the entire planet’s time zones from Japan, Land of the Rising Sun, to Los Angeles, and multiple points in between.

Having my thoughts with all my family and friends I realised it doesn’t really matter what time of day it is when seeing in the New Year … midnight moves towards me and then past me, washing over and carrying my thoughts to loved ones in the process. I went to bed early but the sound of fireworks, akin to being in a war zone, went on for hours from early evening to well after midnight (though exactly what hour it stopped was unknown to me).

I am in Sicily for one more week before returning to my home base but I plan on being back here in Spring – date not fixed yet. Later this month I shall catch up on my posts, especially covering my activities in Scotland, plus a few more from here. I shall also reorganise my blogs, social media, websites and workflow with a view to publishing with more appropriate regularity. The best laid plans ….

Happy New Year!

Aglio Rosso di Nubia

A bunch of Nubian garlic in “Nonna’s kitchen”

Aside from keeping vampires at bay garlic is perhaps one of the most important ingredients to keep in ones kitchen.

Red Nubian garlic in a wooden bowl

The nutritional and health benefits of garlic have been known for thousands of years. In sicily, certainly in and around the town of Trapani, the Aglio Rosso di Nubia is a common sight. It is grown in the countryside centred on the village of Nubia, just outside Trapani in the direction of Marsala.

While a single clove of garlic is not going to have a significant impact, health-wise, a 100 gms (rather a lot even spread throughout the day) offers significant qualtities of vitamins B6 and C, and the dietary minerals manganese and phosphorus (approx 20% of daily need).

I once ate a whole garlic bulb that had been roasted. Delicious at the time but I suspect those near me weren’t so pleased with the garlic smell that stayed with me till next day!

Source: US Department of Agriculture

Garlic has been used medicinally as a cold remedy, though it seems there is no evidence to prove it works. It does have anti-bacterial properties and may be beneficial in reducing hypertension and some forms of cancer.

Personally I enjoy garlic with soups, sauces and salads and will take it with honey if I have a cold.

Where it is from:

Arancina Siciliana

Ragu arancina with kebab

The famous Sicilian rice balls, known as arancini in view of their size, shape and colour that remind one of oranges, have to be on the list of the “must try” treats to experience when visiting the island.

The rice balls made with a filling, coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried. The most common fillings are ragù, mozzarella, or ham and mozzarella.

The best in my opinion are the arancini made with ragu filling (minced beef, tomato and herbs – similar to a bolognese sauce).

It is common to find arancini, regarded as snacks or street food, in bakeries, supermarkets and in cafes.

In some parts of Sicily the arancini are formed into a conical shape. In both cases, round or conical, there are similar looking products served in Brazil where they are known as “coxinha” as a result of their taking the approximate shape of a chicken thigh (that’s another story for when I return to Brazil), ball-shaped but with different ingredients.

It is believed that arancini have been around in Sicily since the days of the muslim occupation of the island ie 1000 years or more.

As with many traditional foods the arancina is considered a meal in itself. Like the cornish pastie, or sandwich, arancini were made to be carried and eaten on the move. The original take-aways.

Tourist disadvantage?

There are many people of my age who are averse to using technology to simplify their lives. I was, at one point in my Marketing days, of the opinion that the more you could put into mobile phone functionality the better.

While I am still of that opinion sometimes the engines of commerce seem to work in favour of the wrong folk.

Currently in Italy, and with my iPhone using a UK sim card with an EU roaming package, I decided to buy a ferry ticket from Trapani to visit the nearby island of Favignana for a day. I did a Google search that took me to DirectFerries, a UK based agent. I could find no other agents, so presumably the UK sim decided I should use someone that it liked. I think it’s nice that AI should be able to select its own friends.

I selected the points of departure and terminus and the travel date. I then chose the available travel times, and paid by debit card with an extra insurance charge in case I needed to amend or cancel the trip (having had such a need on most bookings made this year!). Easy.

Then the email confirmation arrived. Unfortunately, it indicated that my point of departure was Marsala and not Trapani as requested. That’s a bit like booking a flight from Edinburgh and being told it departs from Glasgow.

I hopped onto the agent’s site only to get a “system down, try later” message. Maybe the site was down for maintenance. Try again later. Nothing.

Try the call centre. No answer. Try again. No answer. Try email. Try online and call centre next day. No answer. Monday – try email, call centre and online – this time to cancel. Nada!

I found their Facebook page. Not good. Full of complaints about poor service etc. Some comments quite angry …. including mine. The following is not mine but is similar.

The response that I, and many others, received was similar (simple cut and paste reply), or asked that a personal message should be sent (obviously to keep the ensuing rage offline).

Despite me paying for insurance the agent refused to make a refund (ignoring the fact that the email confirmation stating that full refunds were possible) even having the arrogance to state that they deduct an admin fee on refunds but anything less than £100 it isn’t worth THEIR effort to make a refund!

Blatant profiteering, exceptionally poor customer service, and an unbelievably arrogant approach to commerce.

Needless to say I have told the company that I shall take legal action for the cost of the tickets plus legal fees. They didn’t seem phased but merely sent another cut and paste response. My legal claim is in process and based on the evidence submitted I expect to win. Soon.

Based in my experience and that of those other unfortunate clients I recommend avoiding Direct Ferries. Book direct with the ferry operator (who were sympathetic but unable to assist).

The Direct Ferries FB page is full of apologetic fob-offs. They make reference to their terms and conditions (to avoid liability for refunds) yet these terms are not visible at the time of booking and conflict with what they say, and charge for, elsewhere.

THIS IS A COMPANY TO BE AVOIDED

Post script

I decided to get a local sim-card for my phone. A much better deal than the EE roaming plan that seemed to use data even when the phone was switched off. I recommend the TIM one-month tourist plan. Really good deal even if staying for only a week. It also picks up local booking sites more easily than the UK sim did. Bear in mind that a one-month plan has a fixed data content. If that is exceeded than you need to buy a new sim and, even though the TIM app lets you top up, any top up will not work. I discovered this the hard way and am still trying to get a refund from TIM.

Pps (21NOV19)

Now nearly the end of November and still have not received the refund from TIM. Whike they possibly have the best package for tourists I shall never use them again as they have, seemingly deliberately, tried to avoid making the refund. Despite assurances that they had done so at the beginning of this week there is no sign of it reaching my account.

A Taste of Trapanese History

Entrance to the Pepoli Museum (facing out towards the gardens of the Santuary of the Madonna of Trapani)

In my teens, while visiting relatives in Rome, I was given a choice of spending a day visiting the Vatican etc or going to the beach. I chose beach! I guess, as a younger man, I always preferred sun and sand to old relics though I now like art galleries and museums more than beaches. Or as my daughters might say “You like old relics because you are one!”

In spite of having spent many weeks or months in Sicily over the past 10 years I had never visited a museum on the island. Last week, while returning from a photo project, I passed through the gardens adjacent to the Agostino Pepoli Regional Museum, took a few pictures and decided that I should return.

Considering the history of the region I am surprised that there aren’t more museums in Trapani. I suppose it’s because the majority of tourists come here for the sun, sea and sand as I would have done years ago.

The Pepoli museum covers a wide range of aspects of Trapani’s history and I was happy to see a group of young school children with their teachers apparently conducting a history lesson there.

View from the gate of the museum, separating from the Sanctuary gardens, towards the entrance to the museum.

The entrance to the Museum is behind the Santuary of the Madonna of Trapani, one of the principal churches in the town, and is reached by passing through the gardens that seem to attract a daily quota of both pensioners that enjoy the coolness and tranquility of the setting and young children, whose laughter as they play under the watchful eye of their mothers in the shade of the trees, echos off the front of the Sanctuary.

The Sanctuary viewed from within the gardens

A gate separates the museum from the gardens, with a pair of white stone column heads positioned as if to welcome visitors. A wide path leads between an area littered with ancient masonry and a large anchor on one side, and a bust of Sr Agostino Pepoli on the other.

One of a pair of white stone column heads outside the museum gate

Once inside the shaded entrance of the Museum one can see the cloisters that borders the museum garden.

Cloisters with garden

I paid €6.00 to enter the museum and was given a brochure in English. I believe they offer French and German versions too (in addition to Italian, of course).

Brochure and entrance ticket

Museum staff are on hand as one enters the building and throughout the museum in various rooms to ensure you follow the appropriate flow of the exhibition areas. Anyone with questions or seeking clarification on any aspect can of course approach the staff who are happy to provide the benefit of their knowledge.

One of the first exhibition areas in the museum is that of religious artefacts

Ceramic tiles depicting the town of Trapani

Garden with the bell tower of the Sanctuary above and behind the museum walls

A number of stone decorations on loose display under the cloisters

View of the cloisters and shaded part of the garden

What to see

Paintings of historical figures linked to Trapani

Paintings and sculptures of religious subjects

Example of clothes and jewellery of the Baroque era

Painted wall and floor tiles

Roman and Greek pottery, metal and glassware dating back over 2,500 years

Fascinating finely detailed carvings and dioramas of historic scenes eg views of life, of nativity, and horrific images of the Massacre of the Innocents.

How to get there

via Conte Agostino Pepoli, 180

By bus, taxi or car, but there is only street parking

Open:

weekdays 9 am – 1 pm and 3 pm – 7.30 pm Sundays and holidays from 9 am to 12.30 pm

SUMMER TIME (JULY AND AUGUST):

weekdays: Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to 5.30pm

Sunday and public holidays: from 9.00 to 12.30

This is a great place to see so much history in one place. A visit to this museum is highly recommended.

Figs

A few small figs

I always think of bright Mediterranean sunshine when I eat figs, forgetting that my mother had planted a fig tree in our garden in Staffordshire (England) when I was in my teens. That tree yielded masses of delicious figs within a couple of years.

In the garden where my mother now lives in Erice, Sicily, there is a fig tree that has provided us with a few figs in the last couple of weeks. We have eaten perhaps half a dozen but a neighbour harvested about 25 figs to take to his brother on another island. These were all large, soft green fruit and, in general, sweet.

July is expected to see the tree in full production, though a lot of the figs on the tree now are small, are turning black and have a tendency to fall off easily before reaching maturity.

Figs (Ficus carica) is related to the mulberry, about which I wrote just recently, and has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years.

Nutrition

Figs are high in soluble fibre and natural sugars. They are also rich in minerals including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and copper and are a good source of antioxidant vitamins A and K. As they are a low calorie food they are an ideal addition to a weight-loss or weight-maintenance diet.

Fresh figs are nice at anytime of day. I like them at breakfast, after meals and between meals as a snack.

Sicilian fig biscuits

Dried figs are nice too though a bit on the seedy side. The seeds are softer in fresh figs, to the point of being unnoticeable. And the flavour is quite a lot different too – much stronger in dried figs.

I hope the tree produces a few decent fruit soon as, despite the countryside and gardens being edged by fig trees, the fruit in supermarkets are pretty expensive. Time will tell.

Favignana

Favignana port with the tuna cannery on the far side and the Norman fortress of Santa Caterina

Located at the toe of Italy Sicily is an island that has smaller islands under its administrative responsibility. The nearest of these, the Aegadian Islands (Italian: Isole Egadi; Sicilian: Isuli Egadi), are a group of three small mountainous islands and two smaller rocky outcrops in the Mediterranean Sea off the northwest coast of Sicily near the cities of Trapani and Marsala.

The five Egadi islands

Favignana, the largest island, is 16 kilometres (10 miles) southwest of Trapani while Levanzo lies 13 kilometres west and Marettimo lies farthest away at 24 kilometres west of Trapani. The two minor islands, Formica and Maraone, lie between Levanzo and Sicily. The administration of the archipelago falls under the comune of Favignana in the Province of Trapani.

Liberty Lines ticket office at Trapani port

To reach the three larger islands you have to take a ferry from Trapani port. I made the mistake of booking online through an agency (for some reason I couldn’t access the ferry company’s site) and was obliged to re-buy a ticket at the port. More on this in a separate post – it’s another example of what can go wrong with online reservations that seem to be a regular feature for me this year.

The hydrofoil takes 30 minutes to Levanzo and another 10 minutes to Favignana. Not listening carefully to the announcements I got off at Levanzo but, realising my error, reboarded.

Fishing boats at Favignana marina

Once docked at Favignana, I walked up the slight rise along the edge of the marina that was littered with small wooden fishing boats.

Aside from tourism, Favignana’s principle industry is tuna fishing. There is a cannery where visitors can see the process of preparation, cooking and canning of products that are exported.

At the top I followed the road to the right towards and round the landmark Palazzo Florio where I took a couple of photos, and then along via Florio to Piazza Europa.

Palazzo Florio

Piazza Florio is triangular in shape with the Municipality building facing in from the wider end, a statue of Ignazio Florio in the centre, and a variety of ice-cream parlours bordering the square. Ignazio Florio was an entrepreneur and politician who owned the Egadi islands and established tuna fisheries on Favignana and Formica.

Statue of Ignazio Florio in front of the Municipality building in Piazza Europa

To be honest, I found the lack of restaurant options a bit frustrating. For anyone actually staying on the island for more than a couple of days I imagine this could prove irritating.

From there I walked along via Vitorio Emanuele to Piazza Matrice. Facing the piazza is the church of the Immaculate Conception (Chiesa Madre Maria SS Immacolata), a nice church that is ornately decorated in white and cream tones inside.

Inside the Maria Santissima church

I had lunch at Tunafish City, a casual food bar whose speciality was a tuna sandwich. Fresh tuna, grilled and served on a bun with tomato. I had a glass of prosecco to acompany the food.

Tuna sandwich at Tunafish City

I walked around, exploring a few lanes (always good fun in the hope of finding unexpected stuff) before taking a route back to the marina where I found the tourist “train”. The driver was waiting for the incoming ferry so after about 20 minutes we were on our way.

The route took us into the countryside where the driver gave a running commentary about the island, the views and the indigenous plants.

Derelict garden outside Favignana town

On return to the marina I walked back to Bar del Corso, in a corner of piazza Europa, for coffee and a pistachio cassatina that looked nicer than it tasted. The coffee was good though.

Bar del Corso which serves a variety of ice creams as well as pastries and snacks

Pistachio Cassatina

This was less than a half-day excursion. I had taken the 11:30 ferry to Favignana and the 16:45 ferry back to Trapani.

At one stage during my visit I thought about catching an earlier ferry back but had decided instead to take the train tour. So, on balance a half-day was enough for me.

Anyone wishing to visit the cannery or Santa Caterina fort would need a whole day.

How to get there

Hydrofoil ferry from Trapani to Favgnana. Round trip fare is about €20 per person.

Tickets are available on the day from Trapani port though in summer its best to book in advance.

Here we go round the Mulberry bush

Ripe mulberry fruit in a punnet

“Here we go round the Mulberry bush”

These are the words that start an old nursery rhyme that is believed to be about 150 years old, though its origins are subject to speculation. The same tune and some words are used in similar rhymes eg “Here we go gathering nuts in May” and “The wheels on the bus go round and round”. But back to the subject if mulberry fruit.

The mulberry bush, genus Morus, is well-known both for its fruit, similar in appearance, but not related, to blackberries, and for its leaves that are used for feeding the larva of silk worm moths. Its leaves are also used for making nutritional supplements.

Leaf of the mulberry bush

Nutritionally mulberries are high in vitamin C and a significant source of iron.

High in vitamin C

Significantly rich iron content (14% of daily requirement per serving)

Sources: US Dept of Agriculture via Wikipedia

Ripe mulberry on the tree

This bush is located in the garden where my mother lives. There were just two fruits on the tree, one appears to have been eaten by birds, the other by me!

The fruit varies in flavour, depending on maturity, from acidic to mild. They are ideally suited to eating with yogurt on breakfast cereal. I usually eat fresh or dried fruit with oatmeal each morning.

Cassata

Traditional Sicilian painted wagon

Before having a siesta after lunch last week I came across something on Face Book that a friend had posted.

http://www.custonaciweb.it/i-dolci-piu-buoni-del-mondo-sono-siciliani-ad-affermarlo-e-il-new-york-times/

It’s an article that appeared on the village webpage of Custonaci, a small town outside Erice. The article references a piece published at the end of last year in the Los Angeles Times about the best pastries in the world being made in Sicily.

While in general I would agree, as soon as I saw the article I was struck by deja vu. To finish off our lunch of roast chicken and panelle we had …. one of the very same pastries featured above.

Cassatina Sicilianathe classic mini Sicilian cassata

The ones we bought were from a local pasticceria in Erice, while not the best that I have eaten they were a nice way to finish our meal.

Cassatina is a small cake, that’s how I think it’s best to describe it. The nearest thing in UK supermarkets are the famous Mr Kipling French Fancies – small sponge cakes that are covered in icing.

Selection of Mr Kipling French Fancies

Personally, I like the Kipling cakes though do not feel the sane sense of satisfaction after eating them that I get from cassatina’s.

The Sicilian cassatina, if well made, has that level of satisfaction that only comes with freshly made cakes made with great ingredients and the passion of a good pastry chef.

The traditional cassatine are made with a sponge base soaked in fruit juice (or alcohol, eg marsala), with a layer of ricotta cheese and candied fruit, topped with a thin covering of marzipan. Delicious and possible to make at home (though I will write about this at a later date).

Dar El Medina

Dar El Medina

This little restaurant advertises itself as a specialist in couscous and pizza. While the food is decidedly good I always feel that there is something missing here. That “something” is, for me, the absence of an atmosphere promised by the name of the restaurant.

Window display promoting couscous and pizza

The parents of the owners were Tunisian while the owners, born and raised in Trapani, regard themselves as Sicilians. Dar El Medina, which translates as Gate (or door) of the Town in English, offers a hint that you are about to enter a corner of Tunisia in Sicily. Had they called the restaurant “Porta da Citta” I would automatically assume the food to be Sicilian, or Trapanese, or even Italian.

While I can understand the owners wish to both assimilate yet offer the type of food they obviously know how to prepare well, the execution comes out as neutral at best and disappointing at worst.

The ambience

The decor is modern and clean, though bordering on clinical. White walls and square white plates, few plants, simple overhead lights and splashes of colour in the form of nameless decorations.

The tables were white with inset aqua-coloured ceramic tiles that remind you of clear green seas. However, these were then covered in yellow tablemats, thus losing a touch of Mediterranean colour in the process. One could sit at high-backed dark brown bench seats or on modern yet simple armless chairs. The music was modern Italian and American.

The food was good. Very good.

So two things that I would recommend. The first is a quick fix that would help the ambience. Music. Traditional Tunisian songs or folkloric dance music. The sort of stuff that can play quietly in the background while creating a sound that allows diners to imagine they are in Tunis.

The second thing to do is to use genuine Tunisian decorations: cushions, wall coverings (optional, could keep it white as many restaurants in Tunis do, but add colour). While the restaurant did have some colourful serving dishes the crockery was modern, square and white. There are plenty of moroccan imports that are similar in style to Tunisian designs. Even so, importing direct from Tunisia would not be expensive.

The food

To be honest I wouldn’t dream of eating pizza at Dar El Medina. Their pizza may be good, though I haven’t tried them, but if I want pizza I go to a pizzeria. The reason they do so is probably because in the evening many people like to eat pizza, especially tourists that stay in the vicinity or those on cruise liners visiting the town.

As a starter I ordered an octopus salad. My mother wanted the burik but settled on buying a couple to eat at home and sharing the octopus with me. We still over-ate despite sharing!

A basket of fresh Tunisian bread to accompany the octopus salad

Octopus salad. The octopus had most likely been caught that morning a couple of hundred metres from the restaurant

Sauce to pour over the couscous

The best options are seafood dishes and, of course, couscous. The dish I liked most, to date, was a fish couscous but various types of fish and shellfish dishes are available and served in a variety of ways – but why not go for couscous?!

Fish couscous

The fish was perfectly cooked, and the sauce that accompanied the couscous was tasty to the point of wanting to take some home!

I have also had vegetable and lamb couscous that I enjoyed, though not as much as the fish.

This restaurant is highly recommended. It is walking distance from the port, near to the main piazza in the heart of Trapani, and is there is ample car-parking close by.

Dar El Medina

Via Marchese Enrico Platamone, 12

Trapani

91100

Sicily

 

+39 0923 196 4100

The restaurant can also be accessed from via Regina Margherita opposite the Villa Margherita park entrance.

Dar El Medina entrance from via Regina Margherita

Entrance to the Villa Margherita park gardens