In Sicily

“I had found my island, and I wanted to stay forever.”  Theresa Maggio, Mattanza

Villa window

 

Mattanza book coverWhen I visit Sicily, I enjoy following in the footsteps of Theresa Maggio, author of Mattanza: The Ancient Sicilian Ritual of Bluefin Tuna Fishing and The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily.  

My family and I first travelled to Sicily 14 years ago, in part to re-connect with my father’s relatives. That was when I discovered Theresa’s splendid books.

Reading them again on our recent trip was like meeting up with an old friend. When I see Sicily through Theresa’s eyes, I see the island so vividly, with a more nuanced understanding of the complex people, culture, and history of this stunningly beautiful place.

We usually stay on the outskirts of Scopello, a small fishing village that is now a quiet, secluded haven for tourists. On this trip, we rented a villa halfway up a mountain on the edge of Zingaro Nature Reserve. Once the home of a tonnara (tuna factory), in years past Scopello celebrated the mattanza, the ritualized killing of bluefin tuna, every May and June. The mattanza was first practiced by the Arabs, or perhaps the Carthaginians before them.  The custom died out in the 1980s when industrial over-fishing made it obsolete.

 

Former tuna factory in Scopello

Scopello’s former tonnara, converted to tourist apartments

 

Theresa’s book is a love letter and an elegy to the mattanza and the people whose lives were intimately bound to it. During one of the last years of the mattanza, Theresa befriended the fishermen (tonnatori) on the island of Favignana and accompanied them on their boats as they watched and waited for the tuna to become trapped in their underwater chambers of ropes and nets. When several hundred tuna had been captured, the tonnaroti lured them from one chamber to the next, while chanting thanks and prayers to God, the Virgin Mary, the saints.

The bluefins’ final destination: the chamber of death.

“After a while huge black shapes rose up into the backlit square. Their slow rising was mystical, like a birth. They rose higher. Dorsal fins swirled, wild animals drawn up from a silent abyss.

They were giants, eight feet long, some bigger, and there were hundreds of them. The net was drawn taut and they skittered in front of us, half out of the water. I looked into their glassy black eyes. The fish were as big as men, some bigger than four men. When their tails slapped the water it rose in columns above our heads. I remember the din, the thunder of falling water, and their frantic thrashing. They darted to the corners of the net, but there was no way out.

The crowd went wild. People were soaked, screaming and cheering….The fish were churning the sea into a white froth, and then the froth turned pink.”

Rusted anchors

Tonnara anchors

 

At one time, these hand-made tuna traps were in Spain, France, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Dalmatia and Corsica, as well as Italy; some sixty tonnaras dotted the Sicilian coast.

“Gone, all gone,” writes Theresa.

The old tonnara in Scopello is beautiful, but I didn’t like seeing it in the hands of tourists. In their heyday, the tonnaras employed, directly or indirectly, thousands of men and women; some even had child care centers on site. Theresa writes with great sadness of the tonnaroti who netted fewer and fewer tuna each year until they had to stop.

I don’t like a world where men and women who love working on or near the sea, who make their living by physical labor, can no longer do so because it is not profitable. I’ve never seen a mighty bluefin tuna, but I’d prefer to have our seas teeming with them.

Theresa Maggio is a compassionate and keenly intelligent traveler. Her passion for discerning the heart and soul of a people and a place will enrich your own explorations.

Scopello sunset

Scopello sunset

Sunset photo by A. Hallinan.

 

 

Christmas comfort

For the first course of my Christmas dinner, there must be something hot and inspiring – a cup of what is to me quite the most marvelous and stimulating of soups ever created, a deep carnelian-clear and concentrated fish consommè, an essence of Mediterranean fish and shellfish made aromatic with leeks and tomatoes, fennel stalks, lemon peel, olive oil and white wine.  Elizabeth David, in Elizabeth David’s Christmas

Friday was the winter solstice, a typically cold, gray day in upstate New York. This year, barren of snow and darker than usual in spirit.

The 50-bell carillon in the Rush Rhees Library tower at the University of Rochester rang 26 times, followed by melodies children love: “Mr. Rogers Theme,” “It’s a Small World,” and others. In the medical center chapel that afternoon, we lit candles to brighten the longest night and welcome the lengthening days.

Giant evergreen treesSnow fell that evening. The next morning, in the woodsy part of our backyard, I saw two young white-tailed deer hopping nimbly over a fallen tree.

We need comfort food more than ever this year. On Christmas Eve, I’ll make a feast of four fishes, not quite keeping up with the feast of seven fishes traditionally prepared in seaside Mediterranean villages. Seven for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. As for what kinds of fish you’d find on the Christmas Eve table in villages of old, I imagine whatever the fishermen caught that day.

When we travel to Sicily we stay in Scopello, a small village by the sea. We hear the fishing boats heading out before sunrise. Later, we go to the market and look over the fresh catch. One day, on a trip several years ago, our boys were thrilled to see a magnificent six-foot swordfish on display.

This year, I thumbed through an old paperback cookbook my Sicilian father often consulted, The Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Lo Pinto, to plan our holiday menu. The pages are yellow and I’ve lost the back cover of this edition, which was the 40th printing. First published by Doubleday in 1948, the cookbook was picked up by Bantam in 1955. The Art of Italian Cooking cover

The Christmases of my life seem to fall into distinct phases. Do yours? The holidays of my childhood and adolescence I spent in my family’s floral shop surrounded by poinsettias, piles of fragrant evergreen boughs, and fresh flowers by the dozens.

Then came Christmases in New York. I remember the paper bags filled with warm chestnuts I bought from street vendors, the Salvation Army bells ringing along Fifth Avenue, and the department store window displays: Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, B. Altman, Macy’s. I’d buy a small Christmas tree and bring it home by taxi to my third floor walk-up.

On to upstate New York, and Christmases with my husband and two boys. Decorating the tree, watching the children dressed as angels and sheep in the Christmas pageant, waiting for Santa, leaving cookies and milk for him by the fireplace and a little something for the reindeer. One Christmas morning, the boys discovered a fresh hoof print pressed into the small bowl of oats.

Now, we wait for two young men to come home for the holidays. We have a wonderful time, and the holidays are over way too soon.

If you’d like, leave a Christmas memory in the comments below.

Quote from Elizabeth David’s Christmas, edited by Jill Norman. David R. Godine, Boston: 2008.

Evergreen photo by M. Hallinan

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