Last month, I went to a relatively poor part of Southern Sicily, staying in a hillside town located near the stunning temples that dominate the hills South of Agrigento. These well preserved Greek temples provide a stark contrast to the concrete apartment blocks which now surround modern day Agrigento – once the important city state of Akrigas.
The small, medieval town of Naro, perched on a dominating hilltop easily accommodates its 7,000 inhabitants, down from a population four times that size 50 years ago. As an agricultural centre, work is at a premium and many younger people have drifted off to the cities or to work abroad. An influx of workers from Eastern Europe, mostly Rumanian, helps meet seasonal demand from the grape, olive and citrus fruit growers while the surprisingly lively cattle sector (doesn’t fit my Med Diet stereotype!) needs few employees.
The Castello di Chiaramonte at the town’s summit, reveals a vista of fertile land marked by rich, dark soil and crops extending in all directions. The only blight on the magnificent distant views of Mount Etna comes from elevated poly-tunnels, used to prolong the sales season for their slow-ripening grapes.
Here surely, in these agriculturally rich hills with distant sea views, I would find many elements of the famous Mediterranean diet.
Where to eat out in Naro?
With the exception of one local ‘traditional’ restaurant and the two Agriturismo on the road North-East to Canicatti, the only places to eat out are now all branded as ‘Pizzeria’. I counted 8 in total and while there’s also a McDonalds and a KFC on the coastal road, that’s a discussion I’ll leave for now.
In these Pizzerias, you can observe the younger diners eating mostly pizza or pasta dishes. Families though enjoy mixed antipasti of olives, cheese, salami, ham and octopus, but I watched in amazement as their younger kids were given French Fries and deep-fried arancini (tasty deep-fried rice balls)… followed by pizza.
I must admit… the pizzas taste great, being made from local durum wheat, cooked to perfection in wood-burning ovens and providing simple fast food.
There is one small restaurant up the hill, famous for its offal and specializing in traditional dishes, but on the occasion I ate there, the average age was decidedly elevated! The meal was excellent though.
Being also lucky enough to be invited to one home-cooked meal, I dined on sliced meats, tomatoes and cheeses, a delicious sardine and spaghetti pasta dish followed by roast veal in a tasty gravy. No vegetables were served but they assured me that seasonal veg are served with the antipasti from time to time.
… Or you can eat in.
In Naro, there are three small ‘supermarkets’ each possessing tiny entrances yet providing Aladdin’s Cave like space on the inside; Dr.Who’s Tardis provides a fitting analogy. Apart from the weekly Thursday morning market, these provide the main opportunities to purchase dry goods, liquids and freshly sliced ham, salami and cheeses.
Much of what you will find there is similar to any general goods store across Europe. Nestle seem to be the main supplier and low-fat options are the norm when it comes to milk, yogurt and pre-packaged desserts. I had to drive into Agrigento to buy regular milk and yogurt. It’s all too easy to imagine how after pigging out on pizza and pasta, younger purchasers then select a low-fat option to snack on… but I digress.
Two or three bakers and butchers complete the shopping selection with open air market stands providing fresh local vegetables and fruits. One day when preparing a ragu sauce, I purchased meat from the butcher before he minced it as a matter of course. His fresh sausages were also wonderful on the BBQ.
Access to fish is limited, but the market provides a weekly opportunity to buy fresh shellfish and octopus; I also bought the fresh sardines on display. Tuna is available in May and June (when the fish migrate past the Southern coastline) but apparently, it’s a short season and most quality fish gets sold on the export market.
The bread is good, predominantly made like pasta from Sicilian durum wheat. On the occasions when I ate it, my digestion did not suffer – a testament to the quality of the ingredients and the naturally leavened approach used locally.
Where did this leave me?
In Sicily, I observed a growing generational divide between a modified Western style approach to eating and older traditional values. This is impacted by our Western Dietary Guidelines which certainly influence the availability and choice of processed and packaged food, but as lifestyles change, 'eating' is speeding up.
The younger people I spoke to are still proud of their culinary heritage, they just don’t choose to eat that way most days, except at family get-togethers. Funnily enough, they eat more and more like the tourists whose diet of high-carb pizzas and pasta provides an affordable way to feed families on holiday.
If we just managed to get rid of our current high-carb, low-fat guidelines, we would at least remind them why their diet used to be so good.
"FAT IS OUR FRIEND" ADVOCATES A DIET:
Sammy Pepys was the pseudonym used by James Capon when writing this book. He is not a doctor or a nutritionist but has studied nutrition and holds an MPH from Edinburgh University. Over the years, he has become increasingly suspicious of today's conventional wisdom about diet and health. When it comes to what we eat, he has helped many learn to eat more healthily.