Sunday, March 20, 2016

On serendipity and Sicily, unpacked.

The Confidentials are taking a holiday in Sicily this November, and therein lies a brief tale of fortuitous convergences.

Starting at near the beginning, I've never been scientifically inclined, but in grade school, there was a brief (dare we say explosive?) period of fascination with volcanoes. One might say that this interest has remained dormant for more than forty years.

Much later I visited Italy several times, though not since 1989, and always in Rome and points north.

Last year the reading rotation led to a book called The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples, by David Gilmour, and I could feel something stirring. Gilmour's primary point is that in spite of 140 years as unified country, Italy has remained a place defined primarily by regional identities.

Another book I started but didn't finish is a biography of the painter Caravaggio, written by a British art historian named David Graham-Dixon, of whom I knew nothing at the time.

While reading Gilmour's history, I made friends on Facebook with Fabio, the owner of a specialty beer bar in Arezzo (near Florence). Social media might be a crock, but having a pen pal is a timeless thrill. I began plotting to someday go to his city, meet up with him, and have a beer or three. This will have to wait, though I'm sure it will happen eventually.

In early 2016, at loose ends, and as part and parcel of a strange process of catching up with personal interests perched on the back burner during 25 years of the beer business, I became obsessed with YouTube documentaries about writers and artists. This brought me to Graham-Dixon's various BBC series, including one about Caravaggio.

Finally, a few weeks ago, an inexpensive package to Catania, Sicily bobbed to the surface. At first I was disinterested, but due diligence rectified my rusty geography. Catania? That's where Mt. Etna is, and Mt. Etna is a living volcano, which emitted spectacular fireworks as recently as last December.

In turn, this travel decision led back to YouTube, and Sicily Unpacked, a travelogue from 2012 starring Graham-Dixon (the art historian) and Giorgio Locatelli, the latter a "cook" who owns a Michelin-starred eatery in London.

Because ... food, and wine, and even a couple of "craft" breweries in Catania.

Near the end of the duo's Sicilian journey, they're at a vineyard in the shadow of Etna (screenshot above). While the winemaker discusses his work with Graham-Dixon, Locatelli steals away to the kitchen with a handful of grape leaves, which he dredges in a batter of eggs, beer and flour, then fries in a pan. They accompany with unique local white wine.

That's what I'm saying. The Sicilians also have a regional specialty of pasta with fresh sardines. It is both painful and ecstatic to watch, but you must.

Such was the success of Sicily Unpacked that the series has been followed by three further installments under the title of Italy Unpacked. That's nine hours of further viewing, and I'm looking forward to it.

You can link to Sicily Unpacked's first episode here, then figure it out for yourself.

Sicily Unpacked succeeds where many travelogues fail, by Emma Lundin (The Guardian)

Just when we thought there was no life left in the TV travelogue, along comes one that is so good it could revive the whole genre. Sicily Unpacked – BBC2's Friday-night road-trip starring art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli – might have looked like another celebrity-led vehicle, but it has proved to be inspirational.

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