Love at first bite

pizza

 

Until I was  16 years old, I always went on holidays with my parents. Every year, we visited Florence and Venice in Italy. When I was 16, I decided that I would try touring on my own.  After spending some time with my folks in Florence, I set off alone on a tour of my own planning: Volterra, Grossetto, Orvieto,  and Cortona, hoping to visit some Etruscan remains on the way.

All went well except for one thing. In those days, I was extremely shy and unable to strike up a conversation with strangers. As the days passed, I travelled through Italy becoming increasingly lonely. I spoke to no one, and, unusually for Italy, nobody spoke to me. I would get very hungry, but often felt unable to step into any eatery. I would wander around feeling a bit hypoglycaemic yet unwilling to risk entering a restaurant or bar.

When I reached Orvieto, I stayed in a hotel that was close to a church whose bells struck throughout the night. One lunch time when I was wandering pathetically from one eating place to the next, I passed a place selling pieces of pizza. I was overcome by the delicious smell of freshly baked pizza. I bought a piece and loved it. This was the first time that I had ever eaten pizza. Being unadventurous in my food choices, such as I was as a teenager, but no more, I had always avoided pizza. However, when I tasted it in Orvieto, it was love at first bite.

I still enjoy eating pizza occasionally, but now I am not shy about entering the first place selling food as soon as I feel hungry.

Curious ‘cookies’

GARIBALDI

In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi commenced his famous invasion of Sicily. This led to the downfall of the House of Bourbon’s rule in Sicily and Naples and, ultimately, to the Unification of Italy.

Many people who live in the UK will be familiar with Garibaldi biscuits (‘cookies’ in US English). They consist of a paste made with currants sandwiched between two layers of thinnish baked biscuit dough. Because of their appearance, they are sometimes called ‘squashed flies’.  Garibaldi biscuits were first made in 1861 by the Peek Frean Company in London and have been popular ever since. Garibaldi, who visited England in 1854, became very popular amongst the British at that time.

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Garibaldi biscuits (from Wikipedia)

In 1910, the Peek Frean Company designed a biscuit that consists of a chocalate flavoured paste placed between two rectangular chocolate flavoured biscuits. This now very popular biscuit was named the ‘Bourbon Biscuit’.

I wonder how many of the millions of Garibaldis and Bourbons are eaten by people, who know the historical significance of their names.

Espresso in Ealing

Until a couple of years ago, I considered that the very best coffee served in London could only be found in a few coffee bars, all of which were Italian (e.g. Bar Italia, Lina Stores, and The Algerian Coffee House in Soho; the Portobello Garden Café in Portobello Road), Portuguese (e.g. Lisboa Café in Golborne Road and Madeira Star in Lambeth), or Spanish (e.g. Brindisa near Borough Market). I still consider all of these as good choices for excellent coffee, but need to add another to my list.

A Polish born receptionist working at the dental practice where I used to practise dentistry, suggested that a restaurant in Ealing called ‘Sowa’ (means ‘owl’ in Polish) served good Polish food. We visited this place, but were not impressed by the food. Much better Polish food can be obtained at Café Maja in POSK, the Polish Centre in King Street, Hammersmith.

The well-appointed restaurant at Sowa adjoins a café, which is part of the same establishment. Unlike the restaurant that fails to shine, the café is magnificent. The coffee served here in all forms (espresso, cappuccino, latte, etc.) is at least as good as that we have drunk in the best of the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish coffee houses in London. Having visited Sowa too many times to remember, I can safely say that the high quality of its coffee never wavers. 

Sowa’s café also offers a mouth-watering range of highly tempting pastries and cakes. It seems in general that the Polish have a magical touch when it comes to making these delightful accompaniments to coffee.

So, if you are in Ealing, ignore every other café, and head for Sowa.

PS: Next door to Sowa, there is a lovely Polish delicatessen that offers a wide range of salamis, hams, and other cooked meats, as well as other Polish food items.

Sowa: 33 High St, London W5 5DB

NB: I have no interest financial or otherwise in Sowa. I am simply a content customer!

 

Over the counter

The French philosopher Voltaire is believed to have written:

Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, for human beings of which they know nothing.”

I was at a party in Athens, Greece, in the early 1980s when I suddenly became aware of bilateral back pain and nausea. Luckily, there was a medical doctor amongst the guests. He diagnosed a kidney or bladder infection and wrote a prescription for bactrim. The tablets were very effective and rapid acting.

A year or so later, I was flying to Greece via Rome in Italy when I experienced a recurrence of the symptoms. As I had quite a long stopover in Rome, I took the opportunity to visit a pharmacy, but this time without a prescription. To my great surprise and relief, the pharmacist sold me some bactrim without requiring a prescription.

In the UK, it is not possible to obtain antibiotics and most other medications without a prescription. There are also rules determining how much non prescription medication can be bought at any one time.

In India, which I visit often, I have never been asked for a prescription to obtain any kind of medication. One just asks for the medicine or tablets required, and then following payment they are handed over the counter. Quite a few of the medications I have needed in India have been clearly marked as prescription only medicines, but these words are ignored by the pharmacy salespeople.

Having been trained as a dentist I have some knowledge of pharmacology. So, I feel that I am unlikely to abuse the ease of obtaining medicines in India, but I worry about others with less knowledge than me.

The freedom of being able to obtain medications without having to first get a prescription has mixed blessings. On the one hand, if you are certain that you need a particular drug or simply need a repeat of what you have been taking, not needing a prescription can save you time and money that visiting a doctor entails. On the other hand, self diagnosis and self treatment is not without risk.

What Voltaire wrote many years ago is less true today than it was then. But, still, even after so many advances have been made in medical science , a great deal of ignorance about the human body remains.

Marine Ices

Whenever I am in a restaurant and presented with the dessert menu, I often order ice-cream, especially if there are fruit sorbets available. Ever since I can remember I have loved ice-cream, and I continue to do so. Let me tell you about three places where I have enjoyed eating this chilled delicacy. Two are in Italy and one is in London.

Marine 2

During my childhood, we visited Florence (in Italy) every year except 1967, the year the after city was badly damaged by a terrible flood in November 1966. Annually, my late mother used to visit a brassiere maker called Busti Biondi. The owner of this shop was unable to speak English, and my parents were not sufficiently confident of their Italian to communicate with him effectively. Near the shop in the same street, there was a textile merchant called Giorgio, who spoke good English having learnt it from British soldiers during WW2. He helped interpret during the often-lengthy proceedings at Busti Biondi. He also introduced us to one of the best ice-cream shops I have ever visited. This shop or ‘gelateria’ was called ‘Perché No’, which means ‘why not?’ I have not visited Florence since the late 1960s. The gelateria, Perché No, in Via Dei Tavolini still functions, selling ice creams as it has been doing when it opened in 1939.

Bar Cucciolo was a gelateria that stood next to the Pensione La Calcina on the Zattere waterfront (Fondamente del Zattere) of Venice’s Dorsoduro island. It was at the Calcina that our family stayed. Many years before we patronised the place, the Victorian artist and writer John Ruskin stayed there (in 1877). Although the accommodation and food at the Calcina was not great, my parents chose to satay there because it overlooked the wide Giudecca Canal and the lovely waterfront of the Giudecca Island across it.

The Cucciolo made and sold ice creams and sorbets at least as good as those that we enjoyed in Florence at Perché No? Their banana flavoured ices were my favourite. I particularly enjoyed having a cone that contained a scoop of banana and one of lemon sorbet. Writing these words makes my mouth water.

The Cucciolo was run by two men and was always very busy on summer afternoons when the sun shone brightly on the south-west facing Fondamente del Zattere. On one such afternoon we were sitting on the Calcina’s deck that projected over the water when we heard a woman beginning to scream. Her small child had fallen into the canal. Quick as a flash the plumper of the two fellows who ran the Cucciolo dived into the canal fully clothed, and then rescued the small boy. His parents hurried away with their child, barely thanking their soaking rescuer. On the next day when we were buying ice creams, he told us that his watch had been wrecked when he jumped into the canal. Also, the victim’s parents, who were not Italian, had not been in the slightest concerned that he had risked his life, limbs, and clothes, for their child whom they had not been watching carefully enough. My mother was most upset on his behalf. Sadly, the Cucciolo closed many years ago. It had already disappeared when we last visited Venice in 2007.

Marine 1

Very recently, I visited Chalk Farm. There opposite the Underground Station, to my horror, I saw a building site where once Marine Ices used to stand. In the 1960s, when I was a child this was one of the only places in London, where good quality ice-creams and sorbets were on sale. One could sit down in the parlour and eat them, or you could take them home in boxes. As I savoured their ices, I could imagine I was back in Italy either at Perché No or the Cucciolo.  

According to its website, Marine Ices was established in London in 1931. When I returned from my trip to Chalk Farm, I looked on the internet to find out what had happened to Marine Ices, and I discovered that it still exists but at a new address, which is closer to Camden Market.

Today, London is littered with great gelateria’s serving ice cream as good as I remember eating when I was a child. There are already three high quality gelaterias where I live and a fourth (a branch of a firm from Florence) is opening soon.

They helped Garibaldi to unify Italy

The Arberesh of Sicily are a group of people descended from Albanians, who left the Balkans in the 15th century to escape from the Ottomans.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is separated from the rest of the island by a crescent of mountain ranges. After the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat to Monreale, a small hill town southwest of the city. There, he built a cathedral and then, later, after the Arabs had been expelled, the Normans built a Benedictine monastery. Monreale, which overlooks the metropolis, is now a suburb of Greater Palermo but in mediaeval times it was almost 5 miles away from the old walled city.

Albanian refugees landed along the coast of Sicily during the 15th century while the Ottomans were fighting in Albania, ably resisted for many years by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Some Albanians landed near Palermo about twenty years after the death of Skanderbeg. In 1488, the Archbishop of Monreale granted them some vacant, disused, plague-ravished land across the mountains about 5 miles south of Monreale. They were told to make the most of it, and they did so very successfully. In exchange for this ‘gift’ of land, the Albanian settlers were required to recompense the Archbishop with taxes raised on what they were able to produce.

PI 1

The settlers established a town on the south-east facing slope of Monte Pizzuta. Originally named Piana dei Greci, it is now known as Piana degli Albanese (‘Piana’).  With a present population of about 7,000, most of the people speak an archaic form of Albanian known as Arberesh, as their mother tongue. They are also fluent in Italian and Sicilian.

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Bilingual signs (Italian/Arberesh) in Piana

In 2014, I published a book, “From Albania to Sicily”, which describes the Arberesh communities in Piana and several other villages in western Sicily. In October this year, while staying in Palermo, we re-visited Piana for a day and a night.

The bus from Palermo to Piana winds through the mountains separating Piana from the capital. As we travelled along the sinuous road with its many hairpin bends, I looked at the slopes strewn with greyish boulders and pondered the difficulty of the terrain through which the Albanian settlers had to struggle in an era long before there were decent roads. Then, I remembered the landscape of wild, steep mountain ridges in south western Albania, south of Vlora. Travelling through the wild terrain south of Palermo must have seemed no different to what the settlers had left behind in Albania.

PI 2

San Demetrio Megalomartire

On arrival in Piana, I popped into the lovely cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire. This church has an iconostasis such as you would expect to find in an Eastern Orthodox church. It is home to worshippers who practise the Byzantine rites. The first inhabitants of Piana, who originated mainly in south-western Albania and the Morea (Peloponnese) were Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archbishop of Monreale allowed them to continue to worship according to the Byzantine rites, but they had to adopt the Pope in Rome, rather than the Patriarch in Constantinople, as their spiritual leader.

In 2016, we visited Himara in Albania. This beautiful seaside resort was one of the places where the Arberesh lived before escaping to Sicily. The old part of the town, high above the coastal resort, is largely abandoned, but it resembles closely the historic centre of Piana. Incidentally, Piana has a street named Via Himara, and, also, a restaurant called Valle Himara.

PI 4

One of the reasons for our recent visit to Piana was to present a copy of my book to the town’s excellent library that occupies two storeys above Piana’s centrally located Extra Bar, which is famed for its fine canoli. We were invited to meet Ing. Rosario Petta, the town’s Mayor, who showed great interest in my volume, and even suggested that it ought to be translated into Italian.

During our visit, we met many people who remembered us from our earlier stay in Piana. They greeted us like old friends, an indication that the Arberesh have not abandoned the Albanian traditions of friendship and hospitality. They have also not forgotten other traditions they brought with them from Albania. Although they dress like other Italians for daily activities, no opportunity is lost to change into colourful, decorated traditional Arberesh/Albanian costumes. This is particularly the case at Easter time, when visitors from all over Italy flock to Piana to see great numbers of people wearing this garb.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the people of Piana, “… had a reputation for rebelliousness …” He quotes the words of GM Trevelyan who said that Piana “… was the hearth of freedom in Western Sicily.” I wondered why of all the towns in Sicily, Piana was one of the most rebellious. GM Trevelyan puts it down to some kind of inheritance. Maybe, those Albanians, who preferred living freely rather than under the yoke of the Ottomans and also chose to leave their homes in the Balkans in the 15th century, were perhaps endowed with something, maybe even genetic, which engendered in them a love of freedom and equality. Who can say?

The Arberesh in Piana played an important role in assisting Garibaldi in his invasion of Sicily in 1860, the beginning of a series of events that led to the Unification of Italy. When GM Trevelyan visited the town sometime before 1912, he met leading citizens of the town, “… in their circolo, where a very intelligent and just pride is taken in the history of the revolution of 1860 and the highly creditable part played in it by the ‘Albanians’ of Piana.” Garibaldi, who began his campaign to liberate and unify the Italians in Sicily, proclaimed to the Sicilian Arberesh who fought with him that: “Avete combattuto come leoni” (i.e.: they had fought like lions).

During our recent visit to the library in Piana, we met a group of highly educated librarians, who showed great interest in my book. When we began discussing Garibaldi in Sicily, they, like several people we met in Palermo, displayed unfavourable sentiments about the Unifier of Italy. They all felt that the liberation of Sicily and its incorporation into Greater Italy was a bad thing for the island. What had once been a prosperous part of the Italian lands became impoverished whilst the previously impoverished north of Italy became increasingly wealthier. Many of the people we met in Piana and Palermo suggested that the liberator Garibaldi, a northern Italian, had not only liberated Sicily from the Bourbons, but had also ‘liberated’ much of Sicily’s wealth including the contents of the vaults of the island’s banks. I have yet to check the veracity of these surprising slurs on Garibaldi’s reputation.

Returning to Piana, this delightful little hillside town is an attractive, peaceful place to stay. There is accommodation in the town and in the countryside around it. You can explore the old town with its steep streets as well as the interesting Nicola Barbato Museum, the lake, and several old churches. Energetic visitors can enjoy breathing fresh mountain air on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta and other nearby peaks. If you speak Albanian (or Italian), you will have no difficulty communicating with the hospitable Arberesh. Although the Arberesh language differs from Albanian, Albanian-speakers can easily converse with the Arberesh. If, however, you are hungry for Balkan food, Piana will disappoint.

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Various restaurants in Piana, including the first-rate Antica Trattoria San Giovanni, serve wonderful Sicilian fare. Signor Salemi, who established the Antica Trattoria, was a child in May 1947. He was present at a large public political gathering on the 1st of May at Portella della Ginestra (close to Piana), when members of a gang of bandits led by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on the unarmed people, massacring about 12 folk including children as young as he was and a baby. But, that is a tragic story that I will save for another time.

Wherever you go in Piana, you will see the Albanian double-headed eagle and Albanian flags. Road direction signs and other public notices are frequently bilingual: Arberesh and Italian.  In the Cathedral, I noticed a huge poster recording the 550th anniversary of the death of the original settlers’ compatriot, Skanderbeg. The people of Piana retain their ancestral homeland, Albania, close to their hearts.

book cov

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ARBERESH BY READING
FROM ALBANIA TO SICILY

by Adam Yamey.

Available on Amazon and bookdepository.com

Arab or Norman, Hindu or Muslim…

The Normans took over Sicily from its Arab rulers. The early mediaeval church architecture adopted by the Norman builders shows the influence of Arab design.

In Gujarat (India), the Muslim invaders began building mosques in the style of local Hindu temples, just as the Normans built in the way that they found when they arrived in Sicily.

Nothing changes

Palermo

It is 2018, and I am eating ice cream in Italy after the ladies in my family have just visited a shop selling brassieres.

60 years earlier, aged 6, I was doing the same thing. We used to visit Florence annually during my childhood. Every year, my mother used to buy her bras in Florence at a shop close to an excellent ice cream shop called “Perché no?” (IE Why not?). After every visit to the bra store, I was rewarded with an ice cream.

Now, here in Palermo, the same thing has happened six decades later?

Nothing changes.