‘Golosa’ is an Italian word meaning ‘greedy for sweets’, and one that perfectly defined my mood on Sunday. We headed for the gelateria around the corner, El Bar Cubano, and I ordered a breakfast of conchiglia pan latte, a large pastry ‘shell’ filled with custard and dusted with icing sugar. A hot cappuccino was also necessary to mitigate the flaky sweetness.
El Bar is a vast building, always half empty and mostly white but enlivened by bright orange and green plastic furniture and a mural of ducks flying over a swamp in a South Pacific sunset. The waitress looks and speaks like the actress Anna Faris. Her parents, a reserved couple in their sixties, remind me weirdly of a salt-of-the-earth couple from my hometown.
The bar was busy this morning. A father was ordering granitas for a dozen or so children, and weekend swimmers were streaming in to get espresso and caffe crema (soft icecream posing as coffee). John and I sat on chairs outside, near the front door, and a haughty brown tabby came to investigate us. It brushed my offered hand with the smallest possible part of its flank. John waggled his hat enticingly; The cat considered the gesture briefly, but then twitched with irritation and presented us with its testicles.
Strolling ‘home’, we passed sights now familiar after two weeks–the cactus nursery, the overgrown almond orchard, and the house on the corner with a neglected garden and two fawn Staffordshire terriers. This mother-daughter pair have warmed to us—well, to John, who makes a point of offering them treats–salami, ham, peanuts. The young one yips with a high puppyish voice whenever she sees him coming, runs alongside him on the other side of the fence, and sticks her snout in the narrow gap between the gate so she can sniff his offered hat. The next house along has two sturdy Dogo Argentinos, both of which gurgle-growl as we pass, snuffling under the gate like a post-surgery Cerberus. Next house along it is Ginger’s turn. She has the Anubis-like ears of a Phoenix Hound but is otherwise like auburn retriever (hence Ginger—I don’t know her real name). She barks enthusiastically whenever we walk past, but it isn’t frightening, especially when she puts her front paws on the fence and mushes her muzzle against the railing.
The air was bath-warm, with genuine zephyrs. The greenery glowed, walls and tree-trunks cast dense shadows. Catching a glimpse of the sea, we could see it was dazzling, sprinkled with molten-silver. Sicily keeps throwing up days like this—so perfect you hardly know what to do with them. They seem almost fake—the intensity of colour is unnerving—deep blue sky, emerald leaves, the shocking pink of bougainvillea, the gross, fleshy pink of hibiscus…
‘I’ll go for a walk,’ I announced, deciding as I spoke. ‘It’s such a lovely day.’
‘Where to?’ asked John, who was sick and couldn’t go anywhere.
‘The nature reserve, south.’
He told me to be careful on the road and I set off with a bottle of water and my camera, light of heart.
I walked impatiently down the hill to town, a trip I’ve made several times already. I only really started paying attention on stepping into unknown territory, past the last bus stop. Tall eucalyptus trees lined the road, offering some wonderful shade and a scent that made me nostalgic for the two-day summers of New Zealand. From the ‘beach club’ to my right I heard a voice calling out numbers, “Cinquanta nove, cinque nove!” and I realized they were playing Bingo. Ahead of me on the road a man was walking in jeans and no shirt. Judging by his deep tan, this was not an unusual state of dress for him, and fair enough too because it was an excellent back. That is one thing I’ve noticed about Sicilians—they’re supremely comfortable in their own skin, especially the men. I was in the shop yesterday and a man in his sixties was standing conversing in tiny teal speedos with the dignity of a Greek statue. He was no Zeus, just a normal looking Sicilian man for his age—stocky, deep tan, proud carriage. No one blinked—it’s a beach town, so beach wear is appropriate. I chuckled to think of the shock this would cause in certain other places.
Walking on along a highway fringed with tall swamp grasses, I saw rocky hills and a canyon. This is the site of Cavagrande del Cassibile, the nature reserve where I was headed. It looked a lot like Greece to me—the dry looking hillside interspersed with pale rock, all baked in sun.
The canyon was carved by a little river called the Cassibile, which the Greeks knew as Cacyparis. The river is mentioned in Thucydides’ Pelopponesian War. In 413 BCE, crushed, desperate, abandoning their sick and unburied dead, the Athenians snuck away from Syracuse at night, marching south along the coast and, reaching Cacyparis river, turning inland. The Syracusans found them and attacked with full force in an olive grove, forcing Demosthenes to surrender and to attempt suicide. Unwittingly, I had followed that ignoble retreat from Syracuse. I wonder if the river looked this beautiful that bloody day?
Olive groves surrounded me, another echo of that defeat. Of course, that’s hardly a coincidence. When the Greeks settled in Sicily in the eighth century BCE, they brought plenty of home comforts and olives were top of the list. Mary Taylor Simetti, a native New Yorker who made Sicily her home in the 1960s, explains in her book Persephone’s Island:
It was the Greek colonizers who brought cuttings of cultivated olives with them to graft onto the wild oleasters of Sicily, and Sicily today preserves the greatest respect for this mainstay of his household and goes to great effort and expense to insure his family their year’s supply of good, unadulterated oil, preferably grown on trees he knows and processed on a trusty press.
This was true all over Magna Graecia– the foot of modern Italy where the ancient Greeks settled heavily. Two years ago we spent an autumn in Apulia, near Brindisi, and the area was essentially one enormous olive grove and vineyard. The ground was strewn with the pretty multi-colored fruit, and I often saw men laying out nets underneath the trunks then bashing the top of the tree with a stick to get the high-growing berries. The dusty roads would be busy with the Apis, little three-wheeler trucks, whose flat beds were laden with buckets full of olives.
In ancient Greece, oil was not only used for cooking. It was used as a cleanser—after bathing or spending time at the gym, you (or a slave) would smear it on your skin and then scrape it, along with the dirt, with a strigil (scraper). Women valued oil as a moisturizer and hair conditioner. Physicians like Hippocrates recommended it as a treatment for a variety of conditions. It was used to fuel oil lamps. It was an important part of religious ritual—dead bodies were anointed and at funerals and other ceremonies, worshippers would offer a libation (liquid offering) that might include oil. There was even a special vase for storing oil for funeral libations, the lekythos. It was quite a precious commodity and something the rich used more than the poor. Winners of athletic competitions might receive olive oil as a prize—handy, since athletes oiled themselves up before competing.
The other abundant crop around here is green lemons. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea there was such a thing as a green lemon. A green lemon, as I understood it, was a lime. Not so! Here they are all over the place. When I turned off the main road into Via Fundolupo, I found that the ‘via’ was really a little dirt lane between orchards and I was surrounded by a sea of rich, deep green. Although Sicily is now Italy’s biggest producer of citrus, the fruit wasn’t eaten by Greeks or Romans, lemon is a relatively modern addition to the agricultural harvest.
The rest of my walk was in this landscape of productive fruit trees, with the sound of buzzing and birdsong, and distant traffic creating a drowsy effect. It was very peaceful, almost disconcertingly so, and I found myself in a sun-dazed trance.
Realizing that the Cavagrande Reserve was going to be a little too far for me to walk, I chose a prominent landmark, something called Villa Mimma, a hotel that seems to be aimed mainly at German clientele, then turned around.
Back in Syracuse, I decided to stop in at La Casa di Gelato and have two Sicilian treats: a lemon granita, in honor of the lemon orchards, and a giant cannolo in honor of my stomaco goloso.