I am half in love with Commissario Salvo Montalbano but I am completely besotted with Commissario Guido Brunetti. Mind you, my fickle heart skips a beat whenever I see Inspector Rex though there is some reservation about his nationality. I am pleased that when he finds himself, inexplicably, in Rome he demands panini con porchetta instead of ham rolls but I have always felt that he secretly hankered for ham, lashings of mayonnaise and perhaps a pickle. We never really give up the foods of our youth.
Commissario Salvo Montalbano, on the other hand, is not merely Italian. He is Sicilian. When he needs to ingratiate himself with authority figures, he speaks standard Italian, usually through gritted teeth. When he deals, invariably compassionately, with the elderly or the innocent, he speaks in the dialect of Ragusa. So it is with most Italians of a certain age. At their most unguarded they speak, literally, their mother tongue. But all Italians recognise the limiting nature of speaking only dialect – who would employ them, how could they travel throughout Italy? And so, grudgingly, many Italians eschew the language of their paese to embrace the official language, itself a dialect – the vernacular of Florence.
But I digress.
Montalbano is a creature of habit. He rises, takes his coffee on the veranda and swims in the ocean. As luck would have it, his housekeeper, the devoted Adelina is a wonderful cook. One of her sons has been in a number of scrapes and has had his ears boxed many times by the inspector, the other is in jail, put there by Montalbano himself. As Montalbano opens the oven or fridge door to see what Adelina has prepared for him, I hold my breath too. Ah, pasta col ragu’ alla siciliana, pasta with Sicilian meat sauce. This is followed by peperoni arrosto, roasted red peppers with just olive oil, garlic, parsley, oregano, salt and pepper. Sweet Adelina has done it again. She restores his spirits, brings sanity and humanity after a day spent with self important bureaucrats, sunny delivery boys who become ‘collateral damage’ in a small time neighbourhood war, sad refugees bought and sold in human trafficking. And the best thing? Adelina goes home in the evening so Salvo can eat without talking, the better to savour every mouthful.
Montalbano does not have a sweet tooth, he is happy to finish his meals with an espresso with a few grains of sugar. Whenever he visits a witness’ house, he always graciously accepts a coffee. As he watches the woman go through the ritual of carefully preparing the cafetiera, the distinctive Italian coffee pot, he appraises her every move. Then there is the seemingly banal chat as the coffee percolates, the ceremonial pouring into the cups, offering of the sugar. All this time, Salvo Montalbano is absorbing the scene, grasping the character of the witness. In Il Cane di Terracotta, The Terracotta Dog, he is described with reluctant respect as a man who ‘understands things’.
Certainly, he understands how to eat. He eats local produce, fish from the ocean he swims in, vegetables grown by the farmer in the countryside, bread purchased that very morning by Adelina. The warm Sicilian sun means that vegetables are plentiful, tasty and infinitely versatile. Caponata is Montalbano’s favourite. In La Gita a Tindari, Excursion to Tindari, we have an ode to this dish:
“The moment he opened the refrigerator, he saw it. Caponata! Fragrant, colourful, abundant, it filled an entire soup dish, enough for at least four people...The notes of the triumphal march of Aida came spontaneously, naturally, to his lips.”
I don’t claim this is as good as Adelina's, but it is delicious, nonetheless.
1 kg eggplant
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup olive oil
2 stalks celery, cut into small dice
1 large onion, cut into small dice
3 peppers – red, green, yellow, cut into small dice
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1/2 kg ripe fresh tomatoes, peeled and cut up
1 cup pitted green olives, chopped
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
2 tablespoons plump sultanas
3 large basil leaves, shredded
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 tablespoons tiny capers, drained
Dice the eggplant without peeling, sprinkle with salt and set aside in a colander to drain some of its liquid. I usually put a plate on top of the pieces and weigh it down with a weight.
Heat some of the oil in a large frypan, add celery, onion, peppers, garlic and carrot and cook, uncovered until soft but not coloured. Transfer vegetables to a shallow baking dish, but retain the oil. You may need to add a little more oil from time to time.
Dry the eggplant with paper towel then add to the frypan in batches. Fry until lightly golden. Add to the fried vegetables. In the oil that remains, mash the anchovies to a paste, off the heat. Add to baking dish with vegetables. Now, add tomatoes, green olives, vinegar, sultanas, basil and parsley and cook in the oven at 180C for 20 minutes.
Remove from oven, add capers, and mix well. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary. You should aim for a pleasant sweet and sour flavour. Serve warm as a side dish or cold as an appetizer, an antipasto, or even un primo. Since Salvo Montalbano rarely eats without an accompanying wine, I would suggest a cheeky carricante varietal from the slopes of Mt. Etna.
Of course, you must serve this, and indeed every meal, with fresh, local bread. See how Montalbano uses a crust as a utensil, scooping another morsel, loading the shiny vegetables onto his fork. And then eating that piece of bread saturated with all the flavours, all the while breaking off another piece to start anew.
The original works of Montalbano's creator, Andrea Camilleri, capture the sense of place – the fictional town of Vigata (filmed mainly in Ragusa Ibla) set in the province of Ragusa, with its sun washed streets and ornate Baroque buildings. Though the language is sparse, we capture the sense of irony, of humour, but even more, the sense of despondency of a people moving between the ancient world of their youth and the incomprehensible modern world. I have yet to find a translation that moves me as much as the original. I miss the lapses into dialect, the refreshingly coarse language uttered in frustration (the English profanities sound merely unsophisticated and crude). But mostly, I don’t have a sense of the landscape nor the labyrinth of history that underscores life in Sicily. It is worth learning the language.
Montalbano’s day is punctuated by his dining. Like most Italians he avoids breakfast, taking only a short, black coffee. By 11.00am though, he breaks for another coffee and perhaps a baba’, cannolo or brioche either pilfered from a colleague’s desk or shared with the long suffering Fazio or the genial lothario Mimi Augello. I imagine a hard working police inspector here in Australia might not even stop for a quick sandwich in the middle of a case. Not so Salvo Montalbano. All’ora da pranzo, lunchtime, our inspector downs tools and heads to Enzo’s (in real life, Enzo a Mare, Lungomare Amerigo Vespucci, Santa Croce Camerina). I can’t remember when or why Montalbano took his patronage away from the easy-going Calogero – did the chef overcook the striped mullet? Was Calogero too chatty at pranzo? Anyway, when I took my excited Montalbano groupies to dinner at Enzo a Mare, we walked through Marinella and past Montalbano’s house on the way to the restaurant. There sitting on the very same veranda, just metres from the sea, the waves underscoring our conversation, we ate a simple octopus salad and spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with pipis or clams). The photo does not do it justice. My recipe transplants this quintessential southern Italian dish to my adopted paese - we do simple food so well here.
SOUTH AUSTRALIAN (GOOLWA) PIPIS STEWED WITH PASTA, TOMATOES AND GARLIC
Serves 4 hungry Italians or 6 for a first course
4 tbsp South Australian extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
4 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped or 1 can diced tomatoes
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup fish stock (or chicken stock for a more subtle flavour)
salt and pepper
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp chopped flat leaved parsley
2 slices stale sour dough bread, made into coarse breadcrumbs
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1 kg fresh pipis, scrubbed
chilli, if you like
500 g spaghetti cooked and drained
Heat half the oil in a deep frypan and saute the onion until very soft but not coloured. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes on high. Pour in the wine and boil until reduced by half. Add the fish stock and simmer for 5 minutes. Season well.
In another frypan, heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil then add the garlic, parsley and pipis. Cover tightly and cook over high heat until the pipis open.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pipis to the tomato sauce and mix well. Carefully strain any water left from cooking the pipis and add to the sauce.
Toast the breadcrumbs in the extra oil until golden. Set aside.
Cook the pasta, drain and toss with the pipis. Hold back a little of the pasta water lest the sauce is too reduced, add a little at a time until the sauce is a nice consistency.
Season well. You may like to add some chopped fresh or dried chilli flakes.
Serve immediately. (without parmesan! But you may sprinkle over the toasted breadcrumbs here.)