Wednesday, July 29, 2009

brioche + gelsi = summer

The vote is out, and we have unanimously declared La Posada the winner of the best brioche (not too sweet, but perfectly soft on the inside and browned on the outside) and the best gelsi (mulberry) granita.

Even though only myself and my husband are in on the vote, the fact that we actually agree on this one says a lot. On most subjects we usually have lengthy discussions that can often end in disagreements about all sorts of things, including the preferences of our taste buds. So, the fact that we AGREE on this one should mean a lot to all you granita lovers out there!

La Posada is not a fancy bar, but it is located on the water front in the scogliera zone of Catania. And from the seating area behind the bar you will have a view of the big blue sea as you enjoy your refreshing granita. Along with gelsi, peach and fig can be very tasty, when they are available (often they are not), but skip the non-fruit flavors as they get the thumbs down according to our (not-so-expert) taste buds.

The mulberry is an interesting fruit and not widely eaten in the US as far as I know. At least I had never tried one until I visited Sicily. They grow on beautiful trees, can make a mess of the pavement if the ripe fruit is not picked right away, are similar in appearance to blackberries but are mushier in texture, come in two varieties--white or dark red--but it is the red ones that are sweeter and are used for making granite, and are also wonderful to eat raw, fresh off the tree.

They ripen in June, are picked and sold fresh by street vendors, and are probably frozen to be used throughout the summer to make granita.

In a nut shell, the gelsi granita has become our ultimate summer treat to be enjoyed whenever we can find the time or think of a reason to make a quick getaway to the bar.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Catania's sandy beach: the Playa

Most people I know complain about the Playa, Catania's so-called riviera beach zone: the water is ugly, it is too far away, there is too much traffic, the beach is crowded, the sand is annoying. And while such statements could be considered true, they usually come out of the mouths of those who are partial to the rocky beaches of the scoglieria coastal area, with its black boulders, turquoise waters and abundant sea life that feel quintessentially Mediterranean island rather than man-made beach resort. But, as I have discovered on numerous visits to the sandy shore, the Playa (also spelled Plaia) has its own culture and its own place in Catanese summer and therefore must be addressed on its own terms.

First a little background. This stretch of golden sandy beach begins just after Catania's (unsightly) port and extends 18 km in the direction of Siracusa, ending at the Agnone Bagni area. But the core lido zone is the area just beyond the port and here you will find a densely packed beach front with a total of 3 public beaches (not so recommended as they are usually crammed full of people on top of people on top of litter) and 29 lido beach clubs that vary in size and offerings, but that with a montly fee provide a cabina (small wooden cabin that serves as a changing/storage room), the use of the maintained and lifeguard protected waters, and facilities like bar, playground, swimming pool, restrooms, showers and more. 

It is in the beach clubs that you will find families hanging out in the patch of sand in front of their cabina enjoying copious amounts of home cooked food, adults seated around fold up tables playing cards, groups of teens huddled together in their speedos and bikinis with their uniformly tanned skin, and of course the children, lots and lots of children of all ages, enjoying the freedom of open sand, warm water and small waves.

The first thing that strikes you about the Playa is the breeze. There is always a steady cooling breeze that at times can be a strong wind that flings sand in your face and makes you run for cover (in fact a part of the bay is zoned for wind surfing). Then there is the unique view. Immediately to the west are the cranes and large ships of Catania's port, perhaps not so ideal for a beach setting, but also not so uncommon for big city beaches (Los Angeles' Long Beach comes to mind). But in sharp contrast to industrial Catania is the best view of Mt. Etna you can have from the city, completely unobscured from its foothills to its peak, a truly awesome sight. I should also mention that Catania's airport, Fontanarossa, is just behind the Playa, meaning that a constant flow of airplanes is also part of the scenery (this is a plus for my son and his little friends who universally seem to get a kick out of airplane sightings). 

I prefer to arrive at the Playa in the late afternoon/early evening, the time of day when most people are heading home. This helps make the schlep less stressful, as Catania's traffic is manageable in the 4 to 5 o'clock range, at this time of day the sun doesn't burn quite so much, and, best of all, in the late afternoon there is always a sense of peaceful calm on the beach that never fails to transport me to a world where I forget myself and nothing matters but the loveliness of the day. 

And here we play in the waves and on the sand, engrossed in beach play as the time speeds by and before we know it the light is changing, the beaches are empty, the umbrellas are closed, the red flags are up, stomachs are grumbling.  A stop at the playground en route to the token-operated warm shower to rinse off the sand, a change of clothes and our afternoon at the beach is over. 

P.S. These photos were taken on our first visit to Lido Excelsior, which I would definitely recommend for its smallish, family-oriented feel and cute sandy playground. Lido Azzurro is also a good choice for a larger more elaborate facility.

Monday, July 20, 2009

At a loss for words....

I always feel a little strange and surprised to see myself through the eyes of others. It's like the sensation of hearing your own voice on a recording, seeing a glimpse of yourself on film: yes, that's me, but it is somehow a different me than the one I expected.

When I read the kind description of myself and my blog on fellow expat blogger Laura's Ciao Amalfi!'s Sunday Shout-out, I couldn't believe she was talking about me! What a thrill to have connected with such a talented individual and to be featured on her blog this week.

Thank you again Laura, and I look forward to following your good reads on Ciao Amalfi!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Meet Bianca

You'd think she had been living with us forever based on this photo of a comfortably napping kitten in her favorite dappled sunlight afternoon spot. 

But it was this scrawny but adorable critter who decided we were to adopt her a mere two days ago when she showed up on our doorstep after playing peek-a-boo with our son the day before. We think it was love at first site. 

The toddler is overjoyed with his new playmate (and scratch free, this is a tolerant kitty), and I feel as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders after years and years of repressing my cat-loving nature. I can finally forget about all those what-ifs that have made having a cat impossible. Now we have a yard, we will be able to teach the kitten to remain outside and hopefully retain her ability to get along with the stray cats that prowl our neighborhood, also making it possible to have her fed by a neighbor if we go away for extended trips. And, as for the big what-if, what if we end up moving one day? Well, in that case, she just may have to come with us.  

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The other piazza (Acicastello)

In  past posts about where I live, I always focus on Piazza Castello, the beautiful piazza perched on top of a rocky outcrop overhanging the sea and with its very own Norman castle looming above. It is here that most of the local kids come to play and the tourists stroll through for site seeing at the castle, to take in the wonderful coastal panoramas and maybe indulge in a granita at one of the bars.

But there is also a second, less glamorous piazza, located a few blocks inland (don't actually think this piazza has a name, but it is located on the corner of Via Francesco Crispi and Via Dante). In the winter months the local kids congregate here for soccer matches. But in summer it is taken over by the outdoor seating of two adjacent pizzerias. Our current pizzeria of choice happens to be located right here and instead of going for the portare via, pizza in a box option as usual, last night we decided to combine play time in this cozy piazza with dinner time at Pizzeria Jonica

As local legend has it, Pizzeria Jonica was originally located around the corner from its current spot and has only inhabited the piazza-facing building for the past 10 years or so. In fact, its not so savory nickmane 'i cessi' is due to the fact that its original location was virtually next door to the now defunct public restrooms! And, yes, locals are still referring to Pizzeria Jonica as 'i cessi' even though the public toilets are nowhere in site.

But have no fear, the unappetizing nickname bears no influence on the current appeal of the place nor the quality of the pizza. We thought our 8 o'clock arrival time might be a bit early for Aci Castellans to open shop, but we were pleasantly surprised to find another couple already seated and enjoying a pizza. We quickly joined in and ordered--two normal sized pizzas for around 6 euros a piece, and a mere 3 euros for the so-called 'mini-pizza' (not so mini we were to soon find out!) for the bambino. 

The waiting time passed quickly for us all. From our chosen spot near the table-free end of the piazza, toddler was able to admire several groups of older kids in their big kid play and have fun kicking around his own big yellow ball with little disturbance to the fellow patrons who were steadily increasing in number. 

The pizzas arrived, toddler sat and ate while people watching, his parents sipped beers and enjoyed their meals. Some more play time as we wrapped things up, got the bill and prepared for our short stroll home. While this may all seem pretty banal to most of you, for us the whole evening was a sort of epiphany, i.e., our son is old enough to be taken out to certain kinds of restaurants and actually enjoy the experience?!?!? WOW. This may be a new beginning.

The feeling of contentment and renewed appreciation for the simple act of an evening out followed us on our walk home and lingered throughout the evening. It was unanimous, our town is relaxing, beautiful, easy, kid-friendly and can be most appreciated on a summer evening out doing nothing more than eating a pizza. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Scavenging for pine nuts

It was the loud thud that got me thinking about pine cones. We were outside playing and scattered on the ground were at least 5 large pine cones that had just recently careened down onto the pavement from up there in the unreachable branches.

At least one had come crashing down very close to where we had been standing and it gave us a fright! I would hate to think what would happen if one actually landed on our heads!#@$%^&! 

While numerous things are ripening in our garden, the pine cones, or those little jewels that can be found inside of them, also seem to be ready for consumption. Why else would they be dropping from the branches? 

And as we neared the site of the recently fallen pine cone, there scattered around it were dozens of the now familar dusty brown shell of the pine nut (confession: I did not know that pine nuts came from pine cones until well into adulthood!). No longer did they seem like dangerous moving objects to be avoided at all cost, but free gifts laden with lovely hidden treats.

That is if I was persistent enough to meet the challenge...

While the hard shells that had been freed from the claws of the protective cones by their impact with the pavement were not so difficult to deal with--a few whacks of the hammer, and voila, out popped a perfect pine nut, with only a few smudges of brown pine nut dust on the hands to contend with and a curious toddler who appreciated the taste of the freshly opened nut as much as I did; but it was the process of removing those stubborn nuts still lodged in the pine cone post-impact that made me break out in a sweat. 

With considerable prying, banging, huffing and puffing (to the puzzlement of my toddler) I managed to free all remaining pine nuts from my first specimen. But it was only after repeated handling of the thing that I realized I was now covered in sticky pine resin that oozed out of the pine cone and had turned mostly me, and partially toddler, into a sticky mess. 

No big deal, really, only that this resin is REALLY sticky and glue-like! I grew up in a house with large pine trees and am sure I handled plenty of pine cones as a kid, but never do I remember encountering such resin! It is opaque white on the cone, colorless on the hand, very fragrant in a good way, but impossible to get off the skin and immediately transferable to anything that one's sticky fingers comes in contact with. 

So after one mere pine cone our scavenging adventure had come to an abrupt end. And between those eaten and my quickly defeated spirit, I doubt there are enough de-shelled pine nuts for that homemade pesto I had in mind...

But I did come away from the experience with the following important lessons learned from grappling with a pine cone: 

1) Wear gloves when attempting to collect pine nuts.
2) When flustered due to pesty pine cones, take a break and try again the next day, taking into account the lessons learned from the previous day, it will be much more fun! (no I didn't give up and was at it again the next day, this time during toddler's nap time to prevent unwanted consumption of the precious goods, and unwanted stickiness to deal with later).
3) I finally understand why store bought pine nuts are so pricey.  
4) No doubt that it is easier to go out and buy your own pesto, but I am hoping that the taste of the final product will make all the scavenging worth it. 

P.S. Is collecting pine nuts something that people with pine trees on their property do on a regular basis, or is this just plain crazy?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Impressions from Turkey

From the plains of the Tigris river valley...... the Siclian coast....

We are home!

My fingers are rusty, my words aren't flowing like I like them to with the practice of writing, but it feels so good to be back after a five week hiatus. Adjusting to the new but familiar environment of 'home' after living in a completely different reality for an extended period of time really shakes up one's whole being! We are wide-eyed, appreciative of all modern comforts and conveniences, in awe of the big blue sea, the succulent tastes of all Sicilian edibles, and the sudden re-entry into summer living which means swimming, sitting on the terrace, wearing next to nothing (not possible in the conservative Muslim village we were living in despite the hot, dry climate) and later nights for the toddler (and later wake up times too, yay!). 

I feel a bit disconnected from all my blogging friends, but after a few timid clicks onto my favorite sites, the enjoyment and passion I feel for the blogosphere has quickly returned. I can't wait to find the time to read up on what has been going on out there for the past month. You'll be hearing more from me soon!

Our adventures in Turkey were not new for myself and hubby, except that it was the first time we had a little person along with us. Having him along made for a truly incredible experience for the whole family, and we think our son was enriched by such things as the opportunity to live among the fields of an agricultural village in the midst of harvesting grain and lentils, a community of friendly archaeologists, welcoming local neighbors, rough but loving children to play with, an all together new way of eating, new languages and ways of communicating (Turkish, Kurdish, gestures, invented sign language), and a level of freedom not possible living in an urban setting. 

Now back home, we can see how much the little guy did develop and grow out there in our tiny village. For example, at meal times he sits down at the table with us much more willingly, with more self feeding and curiosity to try whatever we are eating, as we were immersed in community living and shared meals during our time away. He hasn't asked for the TV or computer once since our return as those past times were more or less completely removed from his routine. He has incorporated the few words of Turkish and new gestures he learned while away into his normal way of communicating. Now back home, his favorite toys are his cars and especially tractor as he was fascinated by these vehicles that were in constant activity around us out there in the fields, and he is particularly pleased to see his toy vacuum cleaner, shouting with glee 'broom broom mi piace!' when he was reunited with it.

But there are also signs that he feels much more comfortable here at home than in the village, no surprise really as we adults feel the same! He is sleeping better now with no noisy tractors or bird song concertos to wake us up at the crack of dawn. The dry hot temperatures made afternoon naps difficult, especially when the electricty went down and the fans stopped working (unfortunately a regular and inconvenient occurrence in our village). And he has instantly stopped what had developed into aggressive behavior towards mommy and papa, a habit of cheek pinching (a sign of affection in that part of the world that lead to overly painful pinches when administered by children), hitting and angry 'via papa' or 'via mamma' at wake up times. He had been imitating the behavior of the local kids who were often overly touchy feely and rough with our little guy who looked so different with his red-blond curls and American-Italian background than any child they had ever seen. 

For the first time in my life I felt like I understood how it feels to be a movie star! Whether we were in the city or in the village, our son would get compliments and kisses from complete strangers, and many people asked us if his hair color was natural! Can you imagine dying a child's hair? On our final day in the village a beautiful 16 year old very keen on learning English told my son "I love you, I want to marry you!"

Yes, it was time to go home!