Cambrian: Opinion

Drinking in ancient ambience, eating up fresh cuisine

Thanksgiving calls to mind not only the menu, but the blessings I’ve received. Family and faith are the most priceless gifts, but education comes in at a close third. Embellish that with a love of learning instilled in me by my parents, my church and my educators, and stir in a dose of commitment to serve others in the same way, and I have a fine feast!

As we traveled on our October cruise in the Mediterranean Sea into ports not always on the tourist itinerary, my mind was filled with lessons from lonnnng ago, and made me grateful to my fifth-grade teacher, Sister Mary George; sixth-grade teacher, Sister St. Joan; and high school teacher, Sister Augustina, for instilling an interest and respect for world history.

We were walking in the steps of the Phoenicians, Etruscans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Arabs and Normans, as well as all the successive civilizations who conquered and settled the areas we visited.

May all students be as blessed as I, and may all fifth- and sixth-grade teachers and civics instructors be rewarded — perhaps a trip to those very places someday. Who knew as a child that I would ever have had these opportunities for world travel?

I think the most magical experience was sailing into Valletta, Malta, with the dark harbor illuminated by the golden lights on the medieaval fortifications which line it. We took the very first night tour ever offered by the Azamara line up to the highest point to walk the streets of the original capital of Mdina. That is no typographical error, as both the spelling and language of the rocky island just north of Tunisia are a unique composite of abbreviated Italian, Moorish, French and English.

Our small group strolled quietly, mystically wending our way through the narrow maze of huge stone palaces and churches. The blank faces of the homes behind heavy doors with unique handles and wrought iron balconies hid interior gardens and vast rooms populated by only 600 residents, but with nobody about.

The waxing quarter moon with Jupiter gave the walls a satiny, luster-like marble, and the cool humidity felt good on our skin as we sipped champagne on the ramparts overlooking distant Valletta and the harbor. An added treat — an Orionid meteor!  The next day we returned in the heat, and the “marble” was now revealed to be rough limestone. As the streets filled with tourists, the magic was gone.

On the huge island of Sicily we also moored right on the pier at three different bustling port cities, but again took to the high places as in days of old. In Palermo, I rode in the “terror seat” directly behind the bus driver as he maneuvered through the congested traffic. Nobody seemed to have any respect for pedestrians, even the little grandmothers trying to cross streets. One guide joked that the painted lines in the crosswalks were there “only for decoration.”

I guess I will always be the proverbial country mouse, as I felt so much more at home in the mountainous villages. Onward and upward to Erice (air i CHAY), population 250, with its Norman churches and steep cobblestone streets. The rocky route up the mountains yielded grapes and olives from the most meager soil, but our lovely guide proudly spoke of the local products, and a unique olive grown only for home use which is so rich and sweet it is the base for the family’s ice cream! Wheat is no longer a commercial crop since the days of the reformer Garibaldi, because of taxes and reduced work force.

As usual, I asked about the region’s specialty. That is a pasta about the consistency of vermicelli formed in a circlet, and topped with the sweet tomato sauce I describe below. As we literally climbed up the streets in Erice, with me trailing in the rear as usual, we were cautioned to hurry on schedule to see the ruins of the Norman castle, and so do our shopping as we returned to the bus.

With my fast eyes, I spotted only one little shop selling pastas for my stop on the way back down. With relief I had enough time and energy left to browse, and asked for “pasta” and indicated the specialty type with my thumb and forefinger. She gave me one from behind the counter, and when I indicated two, she responded, “Solo.” I apparently got the only one, so proudly carried mine home like a trophy, for use on special occasions

Tomato Sauce a la Erice

1 gallon each Roma tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, pink (heirloom) tomatoes

A little chopped onion, a little sal

No basil, no oregano, no garlic

As related by our guide: “Chop but don’t peel very ripe tomatoes; cook (simmer) in large pots for two hours. Cool, and then pour through a “grater” (strainer). Return it to the pot, add onion and salt to your taste; cook (simmer) another hour ‘until all the water is gone.’ While it’s hot, pour into 60 1-liter jars and seal them.

“Cook the pasta al dente, put in a dish, and pour some sauce over the top, but don’t stir. Shave a little Parmesan cheese over the top, and grill it (broil) until it is bubbling. It’s ready to serve.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune