A Sicilian Barbecue Done Right
Today, we take it easy. Amen.
After a 12-hour butchery lesson breaking down Pasquale, the 11-year-old pig from Anna Tasca Lanza‘s farm, we beg for a day to digest everything. (Ha! See what I did there?) We want to honor his life by raising our glasses and saying a toast for him. Because we recognize the animal and made a connection to him, we find great gratitude in his sacrifice.
As we step off the school bus, a tractor passes by with a heap of wood weighing down its bumper. The garden crew, Giovanni and Arcangelo, navigate their way around the courtyard assembling stations for our barbecue: a standing grill, a flimsy stainless-steel cylinder that’s grounded and a 4″ grate sitting on the perimeter of a what should be our fire later but is not quite there yet.
We’re ordered to the kitchen. The strings of our aprons fling around with purpose then gracefully fall into place. Today, we mean business. One team prepares the artichokes, another handles dessert and the third braves arranging skewers of Pasquale’s guts.
Let’s start with the stuffed artichokes: carciofi alla brace —pronounced car-cho-fee ah-la brah-chay — an island favourite. (And now one of mine, too!) During artichoke season, roadsides in Palermo and Catania are covered with thick plums of smoke while these gorgeous, plump, purple-y-green flowers roast in a bed of embers.
Artichokes are prepped by trimming the stem and an inch from the top. Hold it by the base and slam it — BAM! — repeatedly — BAM! BAM! BAM! — on a hard, flat surface until it opens up easily. All of the spaces between the leaves are fed an olive oil marinade seasoned with fresh garlic and parsley. It’s the first item to leave the kitchen and head to the grill.
Giovanni frowns as we hand over the bowl. He isn’t pleased with the amount of oil so he douses them in a second olive oil bath before sandwiching over thirty artichokes in between the burning coals. They cooks for 30 minutes until the outer leaves are charred and crisp, forming a protective layer against the fire. I don’t eat the hardest petals, though — peel them away and you’re left with a juicy, tender heart. ⠀
Next, we work on three types of skewers: liver, heart and lung. (Are you cringing? Because I still am.) Thom Eagle, the charming British author of First, Catch, past Cook The Farm student and part-time butcher, is all too eager to show us the ropes. One of the girls begins rolling heart nuggets in some netting from some intestine, but I spare myself (and you, indirectly) all the details. I give Thom a scornful smirk and walk away. I can’t. It seems a bit too overwhelming after watching Pasquale get sliced all day long yesterday.
I do, however, marvel at the chunks of lifeless lung as they meet oxygen again. They completely transform from boring maroon to an unnaturally bright red — it looks 100% artificial.
These colourful stacks are tossed onto grates, joining prepared cuts from Cottone’s session: salsiccia (sausage), costolette (ribs) and pancetta (belly).
I chuckle watching the men supervise the barbecue while the women rest their feet and chit-chat. This is a familiar scene from my Syrian grandmother’s house at every Sunday lunch. I wonder if this custom is universal.
Almost all of the meat is done when Anna Feldman, one of our culinary coaches and sourdough extraordinaire, decides to throw some dough on the fire. She loves experimenting with flour — it literally gives her life. So, she chooses to try her hand at naan today, only running into a few technical issues when flipping. Otherwise, è perfetto. Straight off the grill, we lather each disc in another herbal olive oil dressing.
As we approach the last few flatbreads, Arcangelo, man after my whole heart, suggests roasting olives on the fire and kneading them into the dough. Genius. Marry me now, please. Obviously, I shotty one. Others top their’s with links of our homemade sausage.
It’s finally time to eat. Enza and Giovanna, the incredible women behind the kitchen’s operations, set up the cutest picnic table, adding an array of roasted vegetables and a wild greens and fennel salad to the spread. Wooden pastelle-coloured chairs skirt a floral summery tablecloth where we all gather to feast in honor of Pasquale.
For the most part, silence dominates the space as we stuff our faces. Of course, an occasional “mmm” slides out here and there. As expected, the artichokes disappear nearly instantaneously and there are only a few, so we fight over the pancetta-wrapped green onions. These are hot-sellers.
The second we polish off our plates, dessert is served. Rain or shine, this is a daily affair. (Mom and dad, I can’t resist — expect me to return home at least twenty pounds heavier than how I left.) And because one option isn’t enough, we have two to choose from: thin orange slices decorated with minced mint and pistachio crumbles and bianca mangiare, a milk custard infused with bitter almonds, a Sicilian treasure. This natural flavouring agent is what lends depth to all the biscotti prepared by nuns on the island. (If you’re interested in learning more, read Mary Taylor Simeti’s Bitter Almonds.)
The fires die down but the smell of smoky wood lingers in my hair and the fibers of my now sweat-drenched shirt. I am grateful to have enjoyed Pasquale for a second time and even more grateful to leave school and hop in the shower.