English language books are hard to find on the island.
I carefully select those to bring with us, focusing on books we’ll both enjoy and want to reread. After several years, most books recede far enough into memory that rediscovering them is a pleasure. Since airlines have cracked down on weight limits, prudent book selection is more important than ever.
Two years ago my parents sent us the first six volumes of Andrea Camilleri’s wondrously good Inspector Montalbano series, set in Sicily and skillfully translated by poet Stephen Sartarelli. A few pages into the first book, I realized the series was perfect for the island. I quit reading and put the Camilleri books in my “bring to the island” corner.
Then my head exploded and I was off reading for longer than I’d planned. Shortly before we left for Greece this year, to my great joy, I finally was able to read books again. I dug out the Montalbano series and packed them for the trip.
I began getting to know Inspector Montalbano our first day on the island. One week later, thoroughly captivated by the cantankerous, world-weary, enigmatic inspector, I finished the last of the six books. I’m already looking forward to rereading them, but first I’ll track down and devour the rest of the series.
Here’s Camilleri/Sartarelli describing the inspector in the opening scene of The Terra-Cotta Dog (book 2):
To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be a very iffy day – that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind – one of those days when someone who is sensitive to abrupt shifts in weather and suffers them in his blood and brain is likely to change opinion and direction continuously, like those sheets of tin, cut in the shape of banners and roosters, that spin every which way on rooftops with each new puff of wind. Inspector Salvo Montalbano had always belonged to this unhappy category of humanity.
Camilleri’s prose brings Sicily’s people, and its highways and byways, vividly to life. In the original Italian, Camilleri uses Sicilian dialect to create colorful characterizations and bring humor to stories that might otherwise be overly dark. Sartarelli effectively captures the dialect’s essence in his creative translation.
Inspector Montalbano loves to eat, and insists on doing so silently, the better to appreciate every nuance in the dishes set before him. He thinks poorly of those who cook badly, and when forced to eat bad food (“… shamefully overcooked pasta, a beef stew conceived by an obviously deranged mind, and dishwater coffee of a sort that even airline crews wouldn’t foist on anyone…”), he heads out for a meal good enough to lift him out of the gloom into which bad food plunges him.
In the course of investigating a disappearance in The Snack Thief (Book 3), Inspector Montalbano interviews a “well-dressed seventy-year-old lady … in a wheelchair.” When the interview is over, the woman invites the inspector to lunch:
“Well, signora, thank you so much …,” the inspector began, standing up.
“Why don’t you stay and eat with me?”
Montalbano felt his stomach blanch. Signora Clementina was sweet and nice, but she probably lived on semolina and boiled potatoes.
“Actually, I have so much to –“
“Jesus!” said Montalbano, sitting back down.
“And braised beef for the second course.”
“Jesus!” repeated Montalbano.
“Why are you so surprised?”
“Aren’t those dishes a little heavy for you?”
“Why? I’ve got a stronger stomach than any of these twenty-year-old girls who can happily go a whole day on half an apple and some carrot juice. Or perhaps you’re of the same opinion as my son Giulio?”
“I don’t have the pleasure of knowing what that is.”
“He says it’s undignified to eat such things at my age. He considers me a bit shameless. He thinks I should live on porridges. So what will it be? Are you staying?”
Although food plays only a supporting role in the Montalbano books, Camilleri’s descriptions of traditional Sicilian dishes are inspirational. I read the above passage just before lunch and, coincidentally, had the ingredients on hand to make Pasta alla Norma. So I did.
Montalbano was right to stay for lunch with Signora Clementina. Eggplant and Tomato Sauce with Spaghetti is absolutely delicious.
Serves 4 - 6
Pasta all Norma comes from Catania, a city in eastern Sicily, and is named after Catania native Vincenzo Bellini's famous opera, Norma. Traditionally, eggplant for Pasta all Norma is fried, as described by Signora Clementina. Because fried eggplant absorbs a lot of oil, I oven-roast it instead. If you want to fry the eggplant, sprinkle the eggplant slices with a lot of salt and let drain for an hour or so (salt collapses eggplant’s cell structure and helps reduce its oil absorption). Rinse off the salt, pat the eggplant dry, fry in olive oil until the slices are golden brown, and drain on paper towels.
2 pounds ripe tomatoes or 2 15-ounce cans whole tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 cup roughly chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or mint
1/4 olive oil
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper or 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
2 globe eggplants
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 - 2 garlic cloves, grated or finely minced (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 – 1 cup grated or crumbled ricotta salata or myzithra
Make the Tomato Sauce: Put the tomatoes, onions, basil and salt in a large pot and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Put the tomato mixture through a food mill to remove the skins and seeds. Return the tomato mixture to the pot with the olive oil and sugar. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring regularly. Taste and add salt, as needed.
Make the Eggplant: Preheat the oven to 450°F. Slice the eggplant into 1/2” cross-wise slices. Brush the slices on both sides with olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bake the eggplant for 15 minutes or until the eggplant slices are golden brown, remove from the oven, and let cool. Cut into 1” wide slices. Add the eggplant to the tomato sauce and stir gently, being careful not to break up the eggplant slices.
Make Pasta alla Norma: Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until it is al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot and stir in the reserved pasta water, olive oil, garlic, and freshly ground black pepper. Add all but 1 cup of the Tomato and Eggplant Sauce and toss with the pasta. Pour the sauced pasta into a large bowl and top with the remaining sauce and crumbled cheese. Serve immediately.
This is my entry for Novel Food #5, hosted and created by Simona of Briciole and Lisa of Champaign Taste, both of whom love Inspector Montalbano. You can find the Novel Food #5 round-ups here and here.