'What'd you buy for me?'
'I'm gonna make you pasta con le sarde, and purpi alla carrettera for after.'
Exquisite, but deadly. Montalbano gave her a hug.
The Terracotta Dog, Andrea Camilleri
There are few characters who eat as well as Inspector Montalbano. While he is out solving murders, his incredible housekeeper Adelina fills his fridge with the most delicious sounding dishes: tender octopus, rich, nutty cakes, fish fresh from the sea. I am hardly surprised: I have never eaten quite so well as when on holiday in Italy. Each time I have been lucky enough to go - a life-changing visit when I was 12, a road trip with a friend ten years later, a wedding a couple of years ago - it is the food I come home speaking about. Food that, despite its familiar components, changes dependent on where in the country we are, making the most of the local landscape.
This pasta is a Sicilian classic - one that speaks of culinary influence from the Middle East (the nuts, sultanas and saffron), and of the Mediterranean sea, never far away when in Sicily. It is the work of no more than 15 minutes, the sort of thing you can come home to after a long day at work, relying mostly on ingredients you might already have in your cupboard. If you have access to fresh sardines, do use them here, but tinned ones work well too. They're a favourite ingredient in my kitchen, great mashed onto toast, and the star in this pasta dish. I know it's not particularly pretty, but it's a dish that has filled me with joy on these cold January days; a nod to a place I long to visit again.
This May I'm returning to Italy with my family. We have much to celebrate: a couple of 30th birthdays, a 60th, my stepfather visiting Europe for the first time since I moved over. We're staying in houses with kitchens, keen to take advantage of local markets. We'll drive around and explore new towns, we'll read books in the sun, and we'll get far too competitive over board games. But most of our time there will be given over to food. It normally is, when we're all together.
Pasta con le Sarde
2tbsp olive oil
1 brown onion, finely diced
4 anchovy fillets
50ml white wine
1tbsp tomato paste
120g sardine fillets (in springwater, or olive oil) OR 150g fresh sardine fillets, chopped
1 small bulb fennel, finely sliced (wild fennel is ideal here, but harder to get your hands on outside of Sicily)
Pinch saffron threads
40g pine nuts
250g bucatini or spaghetti
Knife and chopping board
1. Fill your largest saucepan with water and put it on to boil. Tip the breadcrumbs into the frying pan and toast over a medium heat until golden brown. Set aside.
2. Warm the olive oil in the pan and fry the onion until soft. Add the anchovies, and cook with the onion until they melt. Add the white wine, and allow it to bubble away for a moment. Stir in the tomato paste, until the onion is coated with the anchovies, wine and tomato.
3. Stir in the sardines, fennel, saffron, pine nuts and sultanas. Cook over a low-medium heat for ten minutes, ensuring that you cook the sardines through if they are fresh.
4. Meanwhile, cook the pasta to the packet directions, ensuring you drain it while it is still al dente. Reserve a mug full of the cooking water in case you need it to lubricate the pasta and sauce.
5. Tip the pasta into the sauce and stir it through. If it is a little dry, add some of the cooking water and a dribble of oil, and stir again.
6. Top each portion with the toasted breadcrumbs and serve.