Pietra Lavica - Cooking on Lava
The first of May - and the traditional celebration of workers rights and achievements - is celebrated by most Italians by taking a well-earned break and enjoy a day in the countryside, since the date also coincides with the first really sunny and warm days of the year.
As we do on most such occasions we headed for our little cottage in Noto Antica. After negotiating the tight streets over sharp cliffs that form the last bit of the journey we were surrounded by an explosion of wild flowers that benefited from the rains of April and were in their best form.
The traditional menu for the day is a simple BBQ with some fresh salad. BBQ are not a complicated matter in Sicily, where most people simply go for good cuts of meats and local sausages, whose taste is marked by the use wild fennel seeds. There is no overdrawn preparations of sauces, no complicated salads. A drizzling of olive oil, some rosemary or oregano, lemon juice and you are ready. A "contorno" of a simple salad, bread and lunch is ready.
So, I guess we had to add a twist in there somewhere! The twist for us this time was the use of a lava stone grill on which to cook the meat. We were sold the idea after a visit to Etna earlier in the year and this is the first time we would try it. We were not really sure what the benefits would be but it sounded interesting enough to have a go. It just seems to make sense that cooking over stone that was the result of molten lava would have to add something to the whole dish!
The sacrificial lamb was goat in our case - another of those "this is really special, I saved some just for you" sells of our wonderful butcher.
The first thing one notices is how heavy the stone itself is. About 5cm thick, and 45x30 cm in length and width it weighs at least 15kg so ever just getting it over coal is an enterprise. We let heat up over flames for about 30 minutes and then set the meat on it.
It quickly sealed the meat, which is quite good. The worry was that it would then go on to burn the meat but that did not happen. It took about 30 minutes for the meat to cook through, and it was still juicy by the end.
We added some lemon juice and rosemary for flavouring and, of course, some salt.
With the sausages the whole affair was over in about 12 minutes.
And there you have it. Lunch in a wonderful spring setting.
So what is the verdict? Well, the lava stone can certainly cook. It is extremely resistant. It does not burn the food despite the fact that it was over a live flame the whole time - something not that easy to do when you are going straight over coal. It does stop the deep smoking of the food however, which you can either consider a good thing if you are more health conscious and a bad thing if you love that smoky taste meat over charcoal can get and it does provides a nice working surface to move things about. So overall a mixed bag really. We can't put hand on heart and say this way to cook offers something much more than others.
Nevertheless, there is that sense of completeness of cooking with the lava of Etna in Sicily that overcomes any of the disadvantages!