I discovered Sicily with my brother Tom in 1973 and fell in love. It struck me then, as it strikes me now, as the strangest, most exotic, most extraordinary place I’ve ever pottered over and round. It’s the only region I know where you live in 5,000 years of history every time you step outside.
Many years after the initial reconnaissance with my brother, I decided to travel around Sicily on a Vespa. I started by riding more or less across the middle, from Marsala to Catania. Before coming down from the hills to Catania, I stopped off at the market at Adrano, where I’d bought some figs of striking beauty and unforgettable flavour, an exquisite harmony of sweetness, sharpness, elegance and delicacy. They lingered with me as I took the road down to Catania, where I had an appointment with the Vespa agency.
It took me a little while to find the agency, and when I did I was very late and not in the best of humour. I was greeted by a young woman of impeccable grace and efficiency. She showed no surprise at my lateness or apprehension at my distinctly sweaty and dishevelled appearance. She dealt with my paperwork with swift dispatch.
‘I think you need a coffee and something eat it,’ she said as she put away the file. Sicilians are a socially civilised lot. They always have time for a coffee and a chat.
‘I think I do,’ I said.
‘Follow me.’ she said, and so I did, out of Vespa agency office into the smart café next door.. ‘I suggest a cannolo or maybe a Minni Di Virgini,’ she said. ‘This café is famous for them. .”Minni Di Virgini?’ I knew about cannoli. I’d been them being made in Corleone.
Virgins breasts, she explained. Named in celebration of St Agata, whose breasts had been cut off in the course of her martyrdom. It seemed a bit gruesome to me, but how often do you get the eat a virgin’s breast snowy with icing and topped by a red glacé cherry? So I had one and a cannolo for good measure,
Over a brace of crisp espressos and the sublime pastries, I told her of my adventures and of the glorious figs I had eaten in Adrano that morning.
‘Ah yes,’ she said’ ’Those are passaluni. Very special. You only find these fig trees on Etna. They have two fruiting seasons, one now, in spring, and a second in autumn. The autumn ones are good, but the spring figs are better, the best in the whole of Sicily.”
She spoke in a calm and matter-of-fact way, as if everyone knew about passaluni figs. Of course they did. Sicilians - most Italians for that matter - irrespective of their background, have a proprietorial attitude when it comes to their food culture. This sense of ownership leads to a shared pride, shared interest and shared knowledge. Her knowledge of the nature and quality of figs was part of her inheritance as a Sicilian.
Afterwards, I wondered if I wandered into a motorbike shop in, say, Birmingham or Basingstoke, and fallen into a similar conversation with whoever manned the office whether, I would have had a similar conversation about the relative merits and qualities of, say, Ashmead’s Kernel and Allison’s Orange apples? I rather thought not.
On further reflection, I don’t suppose I’d have found a motorbike shop next to a smart café dispensing impeccable coffee and pluperfect pastries either.
Matthew Fort is a renowned food writer and critic. He has been a judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu since the series began in 2006 and was The Guardian’s food and drink editor for ten years. His great love affair with Italian gastronomy and culture has inspired three out of four of his books. We welcome Matthew as an ambassador for Piano Coffee.