I’ve been invited over for Sunday lunch by my great aunt and uncle in a town along the Ionian coast between Messina and Taormina. Pranzo, as usual, is an abundant affair. A bevy of dishes is served in succession on their outdoor dining table overlooking the surrounding slopes and pebbled coastline. Prosciutto e melone as an antipasto. Pasta with eggplants. A wonderful rabbit stew for the main course. Marinated grilled zucchinis to eat as a contorno. All wiped down with zia‘s homemade sourdough bread, of course. And, to top it off, a pastry covered in chocolate and lemon-flavoured icing known in the area as pignolata is served for dessert. Despite being full already, I agree to having some of the traditional Carnival treat that today’s messinesi can’t resist enjoying year round. The hardened chocolate icing on my slab of pignolata melts in my hands as I slowly nibble at it. The mercury must be in its high-thirties, easily, I think to myself.
Soon after being made to help my uncle finish the unseasonally good pignolata, my aunt suggests making coffee for everyone. I ask for a macchiato with no sugar. My cousin, on the other hand, says something about taking a bottle of coffee out of the freezer to her mother. ‘Fa troppo caldo per un caffé normale (It’s too hot for a normal coffee)’, she mutters as zia walks towards the house and enters the kitchen.
Several minutes later, my aunt emerges with a large tray containing a moka coffee pot, ceramic coffee cups, a jug of milk, a couple of amaro glasses and a perspiring plastic bottle with dark brown, icy shards inside it. My cousin helps her arrange everything on the table. After preparing my macchiato, zia proceeds to pour the loosened iced coffee my cousin and now my uncle has suddenly decided he wants into the shot glasses she has brought along. ‘Ci voleva proprio (I really needed that)’, my cousin says, while sipping at the caffé freddo (literally, ‘cold coffee’) that would later become a constant companion during my three month summer post uni-graduation stay in northeastern Sicily exactly twelve years ago.
The swelteringly hot summer continued. I wasn’t the passionate gastronome that I am now but gradually, I picked up different households’ methods for making this thirst-quenching coffee. There were those like my aunt and uncle who prepared a moka pot of coffee, left it to cool and, when room temperature, transferred it to a plastic or glass bottle. For those who preferred their coffee sweetened, a spoonful of sugar for each portion was often added to the mix. This was then placed in the freezer for a couple of hours before serving so it did not freeze entirely. Before serving, the bottle was shaken to loosen the icy shards that had begun to form, resulting in a consistency similar to another messinese speciality, coffee granita. Others, however, preferred to put the bottle of cooled coffee in the fridge and serve the liquid chilled come pausa-caffè time.
Then, there was the preferred method of many a local bar (i) – the mezzo freddo. A delightfully simple premise, chilled coffee and a spoonful of granita di caffè were combined together in an amaro glass. For a particularly indulgent reminder of this much-loved messinese breakfast food (ii), a dollop of freshly whipped cream was added on top, resulting in a mezzo freddo macchiato. Mezzo literally means ‘half’ in Italian and it’s generally thought that the mezzo in this drink’s name is a reference to the relatively small dimension of the glass (a shot or amaro glass) it is often served in.
Twelve years on and I’m giving you an idyllic impression of the traditions, sights and flavours from the land of my mother’s ancestors. It wasn’t always. As a city-raised girl used to being anonymous, I actually found the small-town culture I encountered to be petty and intrusive at times. The force-feeding on the part of well-intentioned lunch hosts occasionally amounted to gastronomic torture (the pignolata I really didn’t feel like eating is a case in point) and a few unwanted extra kilos. I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time but so many aspects about local life left me feeling scombussolata, which roughly translates to upset or unsettled. The lack of investment in public infrastructure. Stray kittens which emerged from communal rubbish bins overflowing with undifferentiated refuse. People who added unnecessarily to the rifiuti (rubbish) by serving lunch and dinner on disposable plastic plates as opposed to the reusuable ceramic and porcelain that were left to languish in immaculately-decorated vetrine (iii). Young local women who lived for going to the beach, the hairdresser and little else. Older local women who lived for cleaning, going to the hairdresser and little else. In addition, I’d chosen the wrong period to come and visit my Australian-raised cousin based there – a sister-like figure in my life – who was going through a marriage and personal crisis at the time. In my loneliness and need to get to grips with my cousin’s withdrawal and my culture shock, I also formed a relationship with someone I really shouldn’t have.
Twelve years have past now since this often frustrating three month immersion in Sicilian life. Yet, despite some of the regrets and negative thoughts that come to mind from then, I still long to revisit the heady scents and aromas from the sun-drenched isle south of the boot. In fact, it’s still the Italian region (along with Piedmont, of course) which most inspires my cooking. So, when I was informed that Italy Magazine would be devoting the month of July to Sicily, I jumped at the chance to write an article about the coffee granita I often ate there for breakfast. And, when the Cucina Conversations ladies and I decided to devote the month of June (I’m a bit late, I know! Day job commitments have prevented me from writing, photographing and spending as much time as I’d like in my kitchen) to the topic of drinks, it simply had to be the one that had given me the most pleasure (not to mention, relief from the heat and conflicting emotions) while living there. Call me nostalgic, if you will. Anyway, I do hope you enjoy the mezzo freddo as much as I did…
Mezzo freddo siciliano
Ingredients (serves 1)
- 1 shot espresso coffee, cooled to room temperature
- 1 spoonful coffee granita
- freshly whipped (unsweetened) cream ( if making a mezzo freddo macchiato)
Using a funnel, transfer cooled shot of espresso in moka pot to a plastic or glass bottle. Store in refrigerator until chilled. Pour chilled espresso into a glass coffee cup or or amaro glass and add spoonful of coffee granita. Top with a generous dollop of freshly whipped cream if making a mezzo freddo macchiato.
If you’re looking for more summer-drinking or drink-based recipe inspiration, please don’t forget to check out what my fellow Cucina Conversations bloggers are making for this topic:
Carmen from The Heirloom Chronicles has decided to make a semifreddo with her father’s vincotto.
Daniela from La Dani Gourmet has gone Sicilian too this month and has a gelo di mellone or watermelon jelly setting for us in the refrigerator right now.
Francesca from Pancakes and Biscotti has prepared a summery aperitivo (more on this topic in August!) drink, Prosecco all’anguria.
Lisa from Italian Kiwi is making an intriguingly-named cocktail, gamba di legno (literally, ‘wooden leg’).
Marialuisa from Marmellata di Cipolle has gone British after a recent holiday to England and is making Pimm’s.
I also have another drink recipe, one that is very typical in Sicily, on this blog for latte di mandorla or almond milk. Oh, and for a real insight into Sicilian life, I highly recommend checking out Rochelle’s (another Italo-Australian expat) blog, Sicily, Inside and Out.
(i) The Italian word for coffee shop or café, is, confusedly enough for English-speakers, bar.
(ii) In Messina and Sicily’s northeast, it is common in summer to consume a coffee granita garnished with whipped cream and accompanied with a distinctly-shaped brioche col tuppo for breakfast.