Interview to Toni Lydecker
Last October (2007) we had the great pleasure of meeting food writer Toni Lydecker during her trip around the island doing research for her forthcoming book on Sicilian fish and seafood. She joined one of our groups in Siracusa during a cooking class with Giancarlo Schiavone in Ortigia, then we went together to teh restaurant La Cialoma, in Marzamemi, for a fantastic session in the kitchen with Lina Campisi and finally we met again for a coffee in Modica where we showed her the future permanent location for our cookery courses in Via Ritiro n. 7 right before the restoration work on the building began.
We were fascinated by her interest in writing a book on Sicilian cooking traditions focused specifically on fish and seafood, and pestered her with questions. Looking back at our meeting we then thought that it could be very interesting for our blog readers to know more about it as well, and send her even more questions to answer! She was extremely kind to answer them and here is the interview for you.
When did your first encounter with Sicilian food happen and what captured your interest as a food writer?
I first visited Sicily with my husband and another couple. We landed in Catania and drove to a nearby agriturismo called Casa dello Scirocco. It was mid-afternoon and the kitchen was about to close but we persuaded them to let us eat in the deliciously cool cave that is the dining room. Platters of food started coming. My memory is a bit hazy because of jet lag but I remember marinated olives and luscious cubes of tuma cheese were among the appetizers. There was an oven-baked eggplant pasta (a version of pasta alla Norma, I later realized), braciole, a lovely fennel and radicchio salad dressed only with olive oil and a dessert that managed to be airy and yet intensely lemony. By the end we were stuffed but completely happy, knowing that our Sicilian travels had begun.
How did the idea of a book about Sicilian food come about?
Even before going to Sicily, I was toying with the notion of doing a Sicilian cookbook of some kind. I had done some reading and was fascinated by the islandâ€™s history and cultural traditions, and of course its distinctive cuisine.
Why did you decide to focus on fish and seafood in particular?
Another food writer who had visited Sicily suggested the topic to me. And, once I experienced for myself how central fish and seafood are to the Sicilian way of eating, I took to the idea. From what Iâ€™ve seen, Sicilians feel a passion for fishâ€”and an insistence that it be absolutely freshâ€”that is matched only by their love of good olive oil.
Did you have an idea about specific chefs that you wanted to meet or recipes that you wanted to learn about?
Definitely, there are classic dishes (such as fish couscous and pasta con le sarde) that I wanted to know more about. But I also wanted to cover the whole gamut of seafood cookeryâ€”from grilled sea bass to an elaborate swordfish pie. Iâ€™ve interviewed some high-profile chefs but more than anything Iâ€™m interested in spending time with good home cooks in their kitchens.
What was the most memorable encounter from a food writer point of view?
It is hard to single out just one but I canâ€™t think of anyone who impressed me more than Lina Campisi of La Cialoma in Marzamemi. She is a terrific chef but also embodies the best traditions of Sicilian home cookingâ€”as Lina points out, her cooking is based on her familyâ€™s recipes. There is an authenticity about her that is very striking. Love Sicily arranged for me to meet and observe Lina in action, and Iâ€™m very grateful to Katia!
â€¦and from a personal point of view?
I find the Greek sites really amazing. Agrigento, Taormina and Siracusa, of course, but Segesta and Selinunte are my favorites. I think itâ€™s important to spend a good chunk of time in each one, walking to various parts of the site or just sitting on a rock, to get a sense of what it must have been like to live in one of these settlements.
Did you discover anything unexpected?
I was a bit surprised to see how generously Sicilian cooks use olive oil. Itâ€™s not just a cooking medium but lends flavor to food and thatâ€™s why they insist that it must be â€œolio buono.â€ And the subtle use of garlic is very interestingâ€”it is often cooked just to the â€œblondâ€ stage, not browned, and once the flavor has been extracted, the garlic itself is removed.
Did you have any problems getting certain ingredients in the US and did you manage to find a solution?
In the Northeast, where I live, I can find most of the essentialsâ€”good Sicilian oils and wines, salt-cured capers, good-quality anchovies, etc. In my favorite fish markets, I can also find Mediterranean fish such as red mullet, sardines and orata. But I also believe in adapting Sicilian-style recipes to make use of the freshest and best fish from waters closer to home. For instance, the lampuga everyone was eating when I visited Sicily in October is similar to the mahimahi we find in our markets. Our mackerel is stronger tasting than the Mediterranean variety but works well in recipes and bluefish can also be substituted.
One ingredient I have had trouble finding is any couscous other than instant. In Sicily cooks can use semola to make couscous the traditional way or buy semi-cooked couscous with larger grains and a more interesting texture than instant.
So far I havenâ€™t found these products even in Middle Eastern stores but I know that chefs can get real couscous and I plan to find out where.
Which criteria did you use to choose the recipes to include in your book?
I am trying to cover the spectrum not only of dishes but seafood varieties used by Sicilian cooks. At the same time, I want the recipes to be accessible to North American cooks. There are a few cases where I talk about a dishâ€”for example, pasta with amberjack eggsâ€”but do not include the recipe because there is almost zero likelihood of getting the eggs here. Iâ€™m also including a few recipes for fish NOT widely used in Sicily. For example, fresh salmon is plentiful here and can be very good qualityâ€”so why not prepare it Sicilian style?
Any specific dish that you found particularly interesting for your work?
If I could accomplish one thing through this cookbook, it would be to persuade readers to go beyond fish fillets and try baking or grilling whole fishâ€”incredibly easy and so delicious (for the same reason that chicken cooked on the bone is tastier than fillets). The only work involved is to fillet the fish after itâ€™s cooked, but thatâ€™s a skill that can be learned.
What is the final structure of the book going to be like and when is it going to be on the shelves?
In addition to recipes, the book will cover the history of Sicilian seafood cookery, ingredients, techniques, important species (Sicilian and North American) and more. Itâ€™ll have lots of great photography and will be out in 2009.
What would you recommend to a food lover visiting Sicily for the first time?
Food lovers should definitely make time to take at least a cooking class or twoâ€”thereâ€™s no better way to learn how a dish is put together. In a more informal way, strike up conversations and ask questions of the people you encounter: vendors, waiters, friendly B&B owners, etc. Whatâ€™s this dish called? How is it made? And so on. To jog my memory later, I always take a photo of a dish that interests me.
Which particular recipe from your book you would suggest to those who would like a taste of Sicily right in their kitchen?
My recipes are still in the R&D phase but Iâ€™m proud of my caponata recipe and hope youâ€™ll give it a try (visit www.tonilydecker.com).
Toni Lydecker lived in Florence with her family for a while and Tuscany is indeed the place where her love for Italian food pushed her to learn how to prepare local recipes and experiment with local ingredients. Back in the US, Toni turned her passion into a career as food writer writing also for Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News, Fine Cooking, Better Homes & Gardens, Parenting, Wine Enthusiast and www.dreamofitaly.com.