The Strait of Messina is always busy – especially in July. Ferry boats – some carrying cars and lorries, others deconstructed trains – go back and forth between Villa San Giovanni in Calabria and the port of Messina, 168 times a day, apparently, if you count all the different companies. We tell the same story every time we make the 7km journey: that Vincenzo’s grandmother, Lilla, once swam the strait. Although, if that is true, and we hope it is, she probably crossed the narrowest point, between Capo Peloro and Cannitello, which is still 3.2km and a bottleneck of strong tides and whirlpools. We also talk about the greatest suspension bridge never built and what we should have for lunch.
Greek colonists named the city of Messina Ζάγκλη, or Zankle, because its natural harbour is shaped like a scythe. It does feel like sailing into an embrace and is a good way to arrive in Sicily. The harbour is also a way of keeping your bearings §in the city. Lose the smell of the sea, and you may get lost on your way to lunch.
We were desperate by the time we arrived, late for lunch, and I asked for a table, any table, telling the man who seemed like the owner that we would eat anything they brought us. It was a relief for everyone when I stopped talking and two mats and sets of cutlery were laid on a table outside a place called Casa e Putia. A few minutes later, two squares of frittata – one plain, the other green with spinach – arrived, and the same man reassured us that, while the kitchen was still open and that we could order whatever we wanted, he suggested the swordfish. Moments of joy are often a combination of relief (a table), satisfaction (frittata) and letting others decide.
The swordfish had been fished the night before, from the strait just a few hundred metres from where we were sitting. A thick, square steak, it was grilled, and the most satisfying swordfish I have ever eaten. Just as good and memorable were the vegetables – griddled courgette and aubergine. But, rather than being large slices dressed with olive oil, salt and red-wine vinegar, they were cut into 1cm ribbons, a little (ordinary, but great) detail to be copied more than once.
It has been four times now, and having made the recipe my own, it has changed a bit, which is also thanks to the various different caponata and sweet-and-sour aubergine dishes we ate in Sicily this summer. While the vegetables depend on what is available, courgette, aubergine and red or yellow pepper is my favourite combination. You do need a cast-iron griddle pan, or a wire rack balanced (carefully) on top of the gas hob or a barbecue, because the contact with the metal and searing is important for both flavour and texture.
You may well have a little sweet and sour syrup left. Keep it, because after sitting for a while, the vegetables may take a little more. Four times in, and I can confirm that sweet-and-sour grilled vegetables are not only good with fish, but also with chicken, cheese and bread, and with the pork and lemon polpette from last week.
Sweet-and-sour grilled vegetables
Prep 10 min
Cook 20 min
1 red or yellow pepper
3 tbsp red-wine vinegar
2 tbsp caster sugar
Cut the courgettes and aubergines lengthways into 5mm-thick slices, and the pepper into large, flat-as possible pieces, discarding the stalk, seeds and white pith: it doesn’t really matter how you do this, so long as they are of a similar thickness. Put them all in a bowl and toss with olive oil.
Heat a ridged griddle pan and, working in batches, lay the strips on the hot base and cook until they are soft, cooked through and branded with lines, then turn and cook on the other side. Lift on to a plate.
Meanwhile in a small pan, heat the vinegar, sugar and a tablespoon of water and boil a little to make a sweet-sour syrup.
Cut the grilled vegetables into 1cm-wide ribbons and put them in a bowl. Add three tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt, then add the syrup gradually, tasting repeatedly, until the level of sweet and sour suits you. Serve while still warm, or at room temperature.