On Sunday mornings during the long spring and even longer summer, the streets of Gela smell of laundry hanging out to dry. It is a scent so clean, so bleached and laundered that it almost, but not quite, masks the smell of the rubbish quietly fermenting in the plastic bags that hang from hooks, suspended from balconies, waiting to be collected. Then, by Sunday lunchtime, once the churchbells have stopped their electric peels, the streets in this industrial southern Sicilian town often smell of sausage.
Generally sausage in Sicily is singular, la salsiccia, or sosizza in dialect; a single length of about a metre to be wound into a spiral and secured with long, wooden skewers – an effect rather like the wheel of a ship. It is ordinary and expected that butchers make la salsiccia express, under the gaze of the buyer, chopping the pork and fat by hand, then seasoning it with salt, pepper and fennel seeds. It is the seasoning – specifically the sale (salt) – that gives the name to all salumi (cured meats), including salsiccia. The skill of preserving meat with salt before stuffing it into natural casings – intestines, bladders or stomachs – seems to have been taught to the Romans by the Celts. Many south-Italian recipes date back to Roman times, although these days, casings are most likely to be cellulose or collagen. At the butchers at the end of our street in Gela, the seasoned meat shoots into the casing and out of the machine at speed, almost like a possessed snake that is then tamed in waxed paper, ready to take home.
Ancient, too, is the art of cooking meat over hot coals, known as alla brace in Italian; for example, abbacchio alla brace – lamb cooked over hot coals. Such cooking usually requires a grill, so it is also known as abbacchio alla griglia. Since most houses in Gela no longer have wood or coal stoves, alla brace is often done on the small fornacella – little furnace; a metal box for charcoal sitting on four long legs most commonly the size of a standard kitchen drawer. There is something slightly comical about our fornacella; its legs seem too slim, like a newborn foal, about to buckle at any moment.
Growing up, my partner Vincenzo remembers how families would set the fornacella up in the street; these days it is more likely to be the balcony or, like us, on the flat roof that opens life up to the sky.
Sausage in Sicily is celebratory, which is why it is eaten on Sundays and feast days, either as part of a ragù or alla brace; the spiral having significance in various ways – abundance, sharing, a spiral without end. In England, the beautiful Cumberland sausage feels and tastes much the same, especially when cooked over hot coals, whether they be glowing in a car-sized barbecue, hand dug pit, or five-quid foil thingummajig.
As well as bread, la salciccia needs dishes that contrast and complement, and that will satisfy those who don’t eat meat – half our table. I like thick ribbons of roasted and peeled red peppers, the red velvety flesh dressed with olive oil, salt and a red-wine vinegar. Or waxy potatoes that have been boiled in their skins, then, while still warm, peeled and tossed with capers, olives and red onion (soaked in water and vinegar to take the edge off the bossy pungency). Or chilled yoghurt, cucumber and mint tzatziki; or simply cucumber, peeled, sliced, tossed with mint, flecks of red chilli, olive oil and sherry vinegar. Alternatively, room-temperature tomatoes, chopped and dressed with olive oil and enough salt or salted ricotta to create a puddle of juices, or Sicilian sweet-and-sour celery and aubergine caponata, as much a relish as a stew.
The smell of pork sausage well studded with fat, sputtering and hissing over hot coals, is the one of the most evocative I know: close my eyes and a roof in Gela could almost be a beach in Pembrokeshire on a hot May bank holiday, or in our Hertfordshire back garden in August 1982 when dad still had a pom-pom of curly red hair, and one of our neighbours did something cheeky with the barbecue tongs that may have precipitated a divorce.
Grilling outside is the hallmark of warm days: New York Times cookery columnist Molly O’Neill calls the smell of grilling “the base note of summer dining”. I couldn’t put it better than that: a deep, smoky base note that fills the air and, like looking at something from upside down, makes cooking and eating feel entirely different.
- Food styling: Ellie Mulligan. Prop styling: Anna Wilkins