This is the story of how a 99 pence Kindle book deal led to a trip to Sicily and the discovery of one of my favourite pasta dishes. Does that sound far-fetched? Maybe, but it's true. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
I subscribe to the Kindle Daily Deal email. Every day, I receive a selection of Kindle books available for purchase at the bargain price of 99 pence. More often than not, the books on offer are of no interest to me at all. Every now and again a book pops up that actively interests me; occasionally I'll see one that piques my fancy and I take a chance on it.
That gamble was one I took with a book called The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camillieri. It was the first in a series of detective stories set in Sicily and featuring a food-loving and slightly idiosyncratic police officer, Salvo Montalbano. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but when did, I enjoyed it. A few months later, I was idly flicking through TV channels looking for something to watch when I spotted a TV adaptation of the Montalbano books on BBC 4. 'What the heck,' I thought, and gave it a try. It was an Italian production, and a good one at that. Before long, the entire family was watching the series and reading the books voraciously. Then it happened. In the grip of a miserable winter, wrapped in blankets and drooling over Montalbano's dinner at Enzo's trattoria in the (fictional) seaside town of Marinella, my mother and I looked at each other and declared: 'Let's go to Sicily!'
Three months later, that was precisely where we found ourselves. We spent ten days touring the island, wandering into trattorie and osterie asking for whatever was good; climbing Etna in the mist; exploring ancient and medieval towns, eating scrumped oranges in a grove near the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento; buying wine from a vat, decanted into a water bottle; and even passing two nights in the very flat inhabited by Montalbano in the TV series. It was a stupendous holiday.
One of those 'we'll have whatever's good' meals that was served to my father—in fact it was the first meal we had on arrival in Palermo—was pasta con le sarde. Pasta with sardines. It's a typical Sicilian dish. Sardines are prevalent in Sicily's waters. It uses fennel, which grows wild on the island. And it's enhanced with sultanas and pine nuts, a reflection of the Moorish influence you see everywhere there. He fell in love with it. Even with the fennel, which is my bete noir, I could see the appeal.
As soon as we came home, bursting with culinary inspiration and not just from the pasta con le sarde, we set about finding a recipe. This is how my mother makes it. I believe that she based her version on one originally by Giorgio Locatelli, but I'd be surprised if it's exactly as she found it (for a start it uses dill and not fennel), and I don't know where that was. I use a copy that she's scribbled on telephone notepaper in a peculiar Italo-English hybrid, photographed on my phone. I think it's about time that it's recorded for posterity.
Start by putting your pasta water on to boil.
Next, heat three tablespoons, or thereabouts, of olive oil in a large pan. I drain the oil from the anchovy and sardine tins into the pan. It saves waste and provides a better flavour. Fry off the onion gently, allowing it to soften but not colour. Then add the anchovies and cook until they dissolve. This sounds odd, but it really does happen after a few minutes over a medium heat.
Pour in the wine and allow it to bubble and evaporate the alcohol. Squeeze in the tomato puree and add enough water to make a sauce-like consistency. I'm afraid I can't give a precise measurement; you have to do this by eye.
As soon as the pasta water has come to the boil, salt and oil the water and then add sufficient pasta for four people and cook until al dente.
Meanwhile back in the sauce pan, add the sultanas, pine nuts, chopped dill, and saffron threads before taste-testing. You'll almost certainly need to add pepper, but go easy on the salt. The anchovies and sardines might well be sufficiently salty.
Allow the sauce to cook while the pasta does, too. If you need to maintain the right consistency, add water from the pasta pan. Just before the pasta is ready, add the sardine fillets, in large chunks, to the sauce and allow them to heat through. Check for salt and pepper and then toss over the drained pasta. Enjoy with a glass of chilled Sicilian white wine, or maybe a Viognier or if you're feeling flush, a Vouvray.