A Scooter Called Monica

04 Sep 2008

It’s not exactly the 18th-century Grand Tour with Goethe singing the praises of Hellenic culture in an ignored Sicily. But Matthew Fort’s odyssey does manage to convey to the reader the passion—for the food, the scenery, the Sicilians themselves—that guided him on this adventure. Part travel journal, part cookbook, part historical novel, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, published last April by Ebury Press (London) describes how English journalist sought to understand the island, its inhabitants and its history by tasting it in the true sense of the word.

Riding his red scooter Monica, Fort explores the island by dividing it into two itneraries. In the first part of his journey, in spring, he crosses the island from Marsala to Catania, passing through Corleone and Caltanissetta and endless expanses of vineyards and fields of almost ripened wheat. In the second part, he rides along the coast—Catania, Modica, Trapani, Palermo and Taormina—with brief forays into the hinterland in the Nebrodi and Madonie mountains.

Seven weeks in all in an effort to relive and expand on the Sicilian summer Matthew experienced with his brother Tom in 1973. Back then, they were two lads looking for sun, good fish, clean sea and a bit of culture in the Greek temples. What the young Fort finds, however, leaves him amazed, incapable of solving the island’s mystery, which begs to be understood.

There are the constant contrasts he runs into: between the wealth of the cultural heritage and the surrender to today’s fatalism, the tumult of the coastal cities and the wild, impassive beauty of the hinterland. Such clashes are reflected in the local dishes: the sweet and sour of caponata; coffee-flavoured crushed ice served with cream and a warm brioche; the crunchy outside and ever so creamy inside of the ricotta cannoli, which recount 2,000 years of history just by themselves.

Sicily had remained in his memory ever since that first visit, playing in his imagination for 33 years. Fort experiences this adventure with the same sunny Mediterranean spirit that is reflected in his writing style, which sometimes verges on the baroque.

Each chapter tells the story of one stop on his journey —places, encounters, historical references—and ends with a short but valuable set of recipes. Sicily, Fort shows us, might seem like a homogeneous land in terms of its food, with the same dishes on restaurant menus and at family tables from Catania to Palermo, from Trapani to Messina, but this is not the case. At each stop he makes, we discover ever different versions of caponata, sarde a beccafico, farsumagru, ravioli. Arab, Greek, Phoenecian, Roman, Spanish, French influences are the layers that have defined the history, culture and gastronomy in Sicily over the centuries, the levels through which every single dish is constructed.

Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons is the sequel to the successful Eating up Italy, the tale of an epic Vespa journey up Italy in search of the peninsula’s gastronomic delights, from Melito di Porto Salvo (the southernmost point of the boot) to Turin.

While in that first book there was a precise design, a well-defined organization of places and people to talk to, in the Sicilian tour it almost seems as if Fort surrenders himself to the land, letting it choose the people to meet, the routes to take, the restaurants to stop at.

Maybe that’s also why, at the end of the journey, Fort wasn’t able to solve the mystery that envelops the island. Nevertheless, he did understand one thing: with all its contradictions and inconsistencies, Sicily can’t be summed up in a formula or confined to a single definition. You simply can’t explain it; you have to taste it for yourself.

Matthew Fort
Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons
352 pages
Ebury Press
London, UK2008
£ 10.99

Elisa Virgillito, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office

Adaptation by Debra Levine

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