Nearly five weeks to the day, I did what I try and do every time a birthday comes around – (OK, this year I admit, as a leap year, it wasn’t a real one) – escape the cold, wet and bleak February weather and exchange it for winter sun. One destination neither my far better half nor I had visited was Sicily, and after a bit of last minute searching, we managed to secure a very reasonable priced week away. The joy of being able to travel off season is simple – far less crowds to battle through, cooler weather, and some heavy discounts in terms of travel and accommodation to boot. We were very much in our element for the duration of our stay, and it was fair to say that the holiday blues had started to kick in before even reaching Catania airport.
We decided upon spending a week on the small island of Ortygia, or the Città Vecchia (Old City) of Syracuse – and landed in what could best be described as a foodie’s paradise. Not only did we dine in some genuinely excellent restaurants – Ortygia has an fantastic range of places to eat to suit all budgets – but we were equally blessed by the diversity of first-rate local ingredients which gave us the inspiration to ‘get creative’. The imagination and passion for local and fresh ingredients truly inspired me to try new things – and having tried a combination of anchovies with fresh orange was the inspiration for this dish.
Not only were the daily market and a number of excellent delicatessens pure delights to muddle thorough, the experience was also a highly pleasurable attack on our senses. I have never seen so much fresh fennel, raddicchio, freshest tomatoes, olive oils, nuts – the list of fresh and great value ingredients goes on and on. I love making salads, and when back home – sad to say – depend entirely on what my local supermarket stocks. Seeing such great produce to experiment with made us think – let’s prepare some of the meals ourselves so we can truly enjoy the entire market experience. As we were staying in a hotel – the very pleasant Des Etrangers Hotel & Spa I might add – I hadn’t factored in the requirement at the time of booking for a food preparation area and fully equipped kitchen. To be honest, I am glad I did not have my usual kitchen tools and equipment at my disposal – it put my improvisation skills to the test and made the challenge a lot more fun.
I brought with me my trusted Gerber folding knife and we then went on a hunt for two other essentials – plates and forks. We are talking absolute ‘basics’ here ;o) After a few failed attempts, we found by chance a Chinese store which sold pretty much everything – and for less than €3.50 we left as proud owners of two ceramic plates and very reasonable quality stainless steel forks. With the basics taken care of, the next challenge was to figure out what to make as we were so spoiled for choice.
Whilst there was fresh fish and seafood at the market to die for, due to lack of cooking and refrigeration equipment, I did not want to make something to die from! In the end, I went with a handful of ingredients which were all available and more appropriately, in season and could be all consumed on the day. Here was my first attempt of my homage to Sicilian ingredients – a fennel, orange and anchovy salad on a bed of Radicchio, drizzled with local olive oil and lemon juice. I must admit, I have made several iterations since coming back home with no equipment limitations – but, if I had to choose, the more simple original made with the best local and Mediterranean ingredients is hard to beat.
As a final note, I will be first to admit that my opinion of Italian food had, until our trip to Sicily been along the lines ‘mostly pleasant but overpriced and overrated’ – however I really need to point out the following – experience of ‘Italian food’ was not on home soil. I have been to countless Italian-themed restaurants and in most instances walked away heavy in the stomach region, a lot lighter in the wallet department- and concluded that yup, pizza and pasta is pretty filling but much the same.
I have since converted. Sicily, WE LOVE YOU and will definitely be back. Next time, we’ll swap the hotel for an apartment and cook to our hearts’ content. This time round, I’ll not be overlooking the fish stalls and enter Pescatarian heaven.
Fennel, orange and anchovy salad
- 1 x radicchio, shredded (or red chicory if hard to find)
- 1 x small red onion, peeled and cut into fine wedges
- 1 x handful large radishes, trimmed and finely sliced
- 1 x medium fennel bulb, cleaned and finely sliced
- 1 x small orange, peeled, pith removed and cut into chunks
- handful of ripe, vine tomatoes sliced
- 1 x tin or jar of anchovy fillets, drained
- Juice of 1 x lemon
- Drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
- Scattering of salted almond and Pistachio nuts, optional
- Assemble the salad on each plate. The sequence is entirely up to you.
- Personally, I started with a bed of shredded radicchio, then added thin slices of fennel bulb (and immediately drizzled over some of the lemon juice to prevent discoloration).
- Next scatter the red onion, radishes, vine ripened tomato, and orange pieces.
- Then, carefully layer the anchovy fillets on top, and scatter the salted almond and pistachio nuts.
- Drizzle the remaining lemon juice followed boy a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.
- Serve immediately.