Pasta with salted anchovy sauce (Pasta con salsa di acciughe salate)
Portions: Serves 6
Put the currants to soak for 5 minutes in hot water so they soften, then drain. If fresh fennel is available and you wish to use it, wash it, chop it roughly, and cook it for about 10 minutes or until tender in abundant boiling water. Lift the fennel out with a slotted spoon and use the same water to cook the pasta. Chop the fennel into small pieces. Drain the pasta when it is cooked, reserving some of the cooking liquid. In the meantime, in a small pan (here too I use one that will fit over my pasta pot) sauté the garlic and the parsley in the olive oil. Discard them when they begin to colour, and add to the oil the currants, the pine nuts, and the anchovies. Cook over steam until the anchovies disintegrate, add the oregano, and place the pan over a very low heat, stirring constantly, for just about a minute. Toss the pasta with the fennel if you are using it, the sauce, and the reserved liquid if needed. Serve accompanied by the toasted bread crumbs. If nowadays the Sicilians prefer to use pasta rather than whole grains as a vehicle for anchovies, fennel, and other ancient seasonings, they are still passionately fond of something very similar to the sweet gruel of spelt (a particular variety of wheat), which Apicius calls apothermum. Boil spelt with pine nuts and peeled almonds immersed in [boiling] water and washed with white clay so that they appear perfectly white, add raisins, [flavour with] condensed wine or raisin wine, and serve it in a round dish with crushed [nuts, fruit, bread, or cake crumbs] sprinkled over it. Apicius, Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, first century A.D. The modern Sicilian equivalent is cuccìa, a sweet pudding of boiled wheat berries that is made once a year, on Saint Lucy’s Day, when only unmilled wheat is eaten and all food made from wheat flour is banned. This observance is said to commemorate a great famine that came to an end on the feast of Saint Lucy, when grain-laden ships arrived in the harbour and the starving populace boiled up the grain without waiting to mill it. The grain in contemporary cuccìa requires three days’ soaking, however too slow a process to fit the story of the famine, which is no doubt a Christian myth fabricated to cloak pagan antecedents. Saint Lucy, whose feast day in the Julian calendar fell on the shortest day of the year, is the protectress of vision and the bringer of light, who reassures us in winter’s darkness. The whole grains of the cuccìa are seeds, and as such bear promise, too that of future harvest. The ancient Greeks had something similar, a ritual dish of boiled seeds known as panspermia, which they prepared twice a year in honour of Apollo, to mark the coming and the going of the summer sun. Cuccìa can be prepared in a number of different versions. The most archaic calls for vino cotto, a thick, molasses like syrup made from sieved grape must boiled down to a third of its original volume, which is the “condensed wine” of the Apician recipe, and which, together with honey, was a basic sweetening agent in classical cooking. Later versions require that the soaked and boiled wheat berries be mixed with ricotta cream or with a corn flour pudding known as biancomangiare, and liberally decorated with bits of chocolate, candied fruit, and abundant cinnamon. In either case the result is as sweet and as gooey as only a true Sicilian could wish.