Wine, food and water in Sicily

My “Swartland Revolution” shoulder bag has been my constant companion in my Neapolitan and  Sicilian perambulations – it suddenly occurred to me to wonder if it had been noticed by anyone to whom it might be meaningful, or at least if anyone might have wondered about it…. I daresay not. (The picture of it also shows a rather small fraction of the Mediterranean.)

I’m in the last few days of my visit – the days in which I’m joined by a foodie friend from London, and we’re planning on an orgy of fine (or at least good and interesting) eating. As to the wine, I’m not sure what’ll be on offer. I’m unimpressed so far with what I’ve found available at modest restaurants, where the selection is usually minuscule and dull, compared with the large range of good wines this amazing island is now producing.

And very little good stuff in the shops. This being predominantly a poor part of Italy, the street markets are particularly important (and a source of great pleasure to tourists, if not always to housewives grimly doing their shopping), and many stalls offer one or two cheap wines; the same goes, on the whole, for the little permanent food shops.

Supermarkets are very rare (which is a good thing, if quality and genuine variety are what you want, as shown by comparing what’s available there and in the markets), but I came across one today in Palermo and went in to have a look. Plenty of wine, but all of of it cheap (and all Italian, by the way, except for bloody Mateus Rose and the usual few bottles of champagne). I can’t judge the quality of it, but of the cheapness there is no doubt: on the whole, a wider selection of wines that are cheaper than in South Africa, I’m pretty confident, which gives pause for thought. Also, all in bottles with corks (or at least stoppers of some kind).

Finding an actual enoteca (wine shop) even in Palermo, where I am now, has proved challenging – though I got a lead this afternoon – from a Russian-born, English-speaking Palermitan standing next to me and equally munching at one of the shops selling street-food (now there’s something the Sicilians do superbly – all food, in fact!). And this morning, when I made a temporary break from Palermitan grime and chaos  to a charming, touristy seaside town called Cefalu, I found a shop with by far the best selection of quality wines I’d come across in southern Italy.

Why the scarceness? Is it just because I don’t know how to look (nor does Google, then, nor do hoteliers). I’ve wondered specifically about Sicilian wine-drinking before, in fact. The gritty, appealing detective stories of Andrea Camillieri, which are set here, feature a detective somewhat besotted with good and serious eating. Detailed accounts of his wonderful, usually traditional and often quite simple meals are given – but there’s virtually never any mention of wine.

This bewildered me somewhat, until I suddenly realised the likely truth. Inspector Montalbano was almost certainly drinking wine with his meal, but the wine was nothing more than a suitable accompaniment – rather like a superior version of water, in fact. My Russian-Italian friend this afternoon rather confirmed my suspicion. He himself was clearly a serious eater, but all he demanded of wine to go with his food was that it be dry and not too bold. Fussing like anything over what he’s eating is good, but the care and discrimination taken there has no equivalent in the wine. He also waxed a little nostalgic about a Russian habit of drinking vodka with food – a combination which he thinks can work very well. But now, living in Sicily, he does what Sicilians do, and drinks wine like water, for mere refreshment.

On the whole, it’s probably only the occasional effete tourist who wanders around worriedly looking to find the good stuff. The local afficionados (who must exist) presumably already know where to go. But I think that the equivalent of fine retailers like Vaughan Johnson, Caroline Rillema, Carrie Adams  or Luwig Maske could surely do some good – for the local standards of drinking, as well as placating the wino-tourists.

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