From Living Within, June 2016
A creature of habit as a rule, travel-wise, I have just returned from a rare trip off my beaten track, meeting old friends in new scenery. SE Sicily is Montalbano country (you would be AMAZED how much he gets about there); the commissario, so urban legend has it, has almost single handedly rejuvenated the local tourist industry by highlighting the Baroque architecture (molto barocco), fabulous scenery, and sublime food of the region. It is hard to get food wrong in Sicily; great ingredients are plentiful, Sicilians know what they like, and what they like is very, very good.
We breakfasted on granita and brioche in Modica, we dined on seafood on the beach at Marina di Ragusa, where the locals found our English voices exotic (something that has never happened to me before). They also laughed as we laughed at hand towel tablets that enlarged when anointed with a little water (viagra translates directly) - some reassurance there that they were laughing with and not at us.
One of our most memorable lunches was the one we had sitting on a traffic island - not an uncommon place to eat in Sicily apparently, but perhaps only in a quiet corner of a seaside Sicilian town could such a venue not only be almost entirely devoid of traffic, but also utterly charming in every detail; I long to go back for more.
We ate, among other things, sardines flavoured with oranges - stuffed; rolled; tails fetchingly pointing upwards; bookended by orange slices - a little bit moorish, in every sense of the word. I have tried to recreate a feeling of them for you here although oranges, I will caution, are just ending their long season in Sicily about now; you can, of course, always ignore that fact or substitute lemon instead. We may not be within striking distance of a charming fishing village, but we do have Williams and Bunkell on The Parade in Claygate who can provide the necessary in terms of fresh fish of high quality prepared by experts - which is, perhaps, the next best thing.
You’ll need about a kilo of sardines - heads removed, cleaned, deboned and opened out butterfly style. Marinade them in the combined juice of one orange and one lemon (or either, or even neither, as you prefer) while you prepare the stuffing. Zest the citrus before you juice it, and keep to one side.
For the stuffing: finely chop one medium onion and leave to soften gently in some good olive oil over a low heat. Roberta, who looked after us and whose husband Antonio was our chef, explained that you should not be able to easily recognise onion as one of the ingredients - they need to sweat down so that they are almost melted before they are ready to play their part. “Sudare” is the Italian verb denoting, in this case, a sensuous dissolve over plenty of time and a low, slow burning flame, as opposed to a frazzling experience played out with any sense of undue heat or urgency. Add in a small handful each of breadcrumbs, pine nuts, and sultanas and cook until the former are beginning to look golden around the edges and the last is softening and sweetening the mix. Finally stir in the reserved citrus zest and some chopped fresh parsley and mint leaves - combine well and adjust the seasoning (NB: it’s nearly always best to season gently as you add ingredients, then all you will have left to manage at this stage is minor adjustment).
Lightly oil a gratin dish and take your sardine fillets from their marinade - dry as best you can with kitchen paper, season very lightly if you think your stuffing is not seasoning enough, and add a spoonful of stuffing to what was the head end; roll carefully and as tightly and tidily as possible, and place into the prepared dish one by one so that all are packed together in traditional sardine style. Sprinkle with a little more oil, or with some more breadcrumbs first (or the remains of the stuffing) if you want extra texture on top, and bake in a hot oven (at least 180ºC or equivalent) for about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm from the oven or at room temperature, as antipasto, with citrus slices tucked all around.