A parting gift from Sicily

Things weren’t going quite to plan. After two wonderful months driving around Sicily in our campervan, my partner and I were finding the port town of Messina hard work. We hadn’t appreciated how regional the island is and the long list of favourite food items we wanted to buy were nowhere to be found; there were no small ports or carparks for us to sleep in for the night and our plans of a last seafood feast were dashed by the lack of anywhere safe to leave the van.

It’s not that Messina is overrun with criminals, but we’d been broken into a few days before in Catania and were sensitive to our van’s permeability that night. What we needed was a restaurant with parking right in front, so we headed away from town, east to the suburbs.

We drove around for a long time, getting more frustrated and tetchy with other. It was our last meal in Sicily, the pressure was on to make it a good one, but how you tell a good restaurant from a bad one?

We needed local knowledge and pulled up by a fishmonger’s shop with the intention of asking his recommendation. We waited politely as a glamorous couple chose their octopus. The fishmonger slapped its face to demonstrate freshness and the creature writhed a little, receiving a curt, ‘Bene,’ from the stylish woman. It was hard to imagine her wrestling the creature into a pasta dish, but we knew by now about Sicilians and food.

In faltering Italian, we explained our needs to the fishmonger and he held up a finger in thought. After a moment’s deliberation, he reached for a mussel and cleft it open with a knife, squeezed lemon over the raw flesh and handed it to me. ‘Eat, eat,’ he said and I did, curling my toes a little. I could see Jon’s amusement until he too was handed a raw mollusc. It was amazing, as was the second one we ate, the fishmonger joining in as we chatted. Next we tried pippies, which weren’t quite as good, then an oyster so big I had to bite it in two. Spurred on by our enthusiasm, the fishmonger finished with a mussel-shell full of tiny translucent fish, seasoned with Sicilian lemon and a big smile.

When our new friends disappeared out the back, Jon and I shared a look. We were ready to pay extortionately for our raw seafood tapas, to have another ‘stupid tourist’ mark against our names.

The fishmonger returned with a bag of lemons and a picture of the shark he’d landed the year before. As we admired it, he was walking us out of the shop and down a couple of doors to a restaurant. He and the restaurateur grasped hands and the fishmonger explained it was our last night in Sicily. Then he handed me the bag of lemons and shook our hands, saying something I didn’t quite understand.

Later when we were eating stuffed squid hoods, our van clearly visible through the window, I looked up the phrase: ‘A gift,’ he’d said, ‘from Sicily.’

A Parting Gift Warms the Cockles, The Sun-Herald, June 17, 2007

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