Every afternoon when I was a child, my Sicilian grandfather would climb the stairs to the top of the house on our African farm, and lie down on his bed. He did not sleep. Instead, he crossed his arms on his chest and stared at the ceiling, and every now and again, like a tropical parrot, he would shout at the top of his voice: ‘Mamma mia! Mamma mia!’
My grandfather had never meant to leave his orange groves outside Palermo, but he ran away with someone else’s wife. When he returned a year later, his mother was dead; killed by fear and by shame. The Mafia had spoken out against this defiling of the Sicilian code of honour, and their word was law. My grandfather’s family and his village turned their backs on him. Stripped of everything, he left his native island and sailed for Africa, forever to weep for his mother and his home.
My grandfather recreated Sicily at his African table. Alone among our friends, we grew up on the Italo-Arab delicacies that Sicily has made its own: minty pasta colle sarde, sweet-and-sour caponata, breasts of cassata and phallic cannoli. Supplies for the table came from the kitchen garden, where my grandfather spent his days grafting bitter Sicilian oranges and experimenting with seed varieties.
When Peter Robb first visited Sicily in 1974, he was so taken by the food in Palermo’s Vucciria market that he wrote down this description in his notebook: ‘Purple and black eggplant, light green and dark green zucchini, red and yellow peppers, boxes of egg-shaped San Marzano tomatoes. Spiked Indian figs with a spreading blush, grapes, black, purple, yellow and white, long yellow honeydew melons, round furrowed cantaloupes, slashed wedges of watermelon in red, white and green and studded with big black seeds, yellow peaches and percocche, purple figs and green figs, little freckled apricots.’
Robb had left his native Australia and was passing through Sicily
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