The witches' sandwich
‘Fair is foul and foul is fair‘ could as well be the prophecy on the evolution of the sandwich. The good things that had to replace the bad ones, well they were bad to start with, while the bad things were apparently good. Allow me in trying to clarify instead of leaving you in fog and filthy air. First to go in the sandwich was the crust: tough and hindering effortless eating. Whereupon the taste and texture of bread was altogether eliminated. Cold meat and finely sliced veggies came accompanied with oily dressings in order to restore some of the lost taste. A simple snack became a ticking time bomb, a quick bite became a full meal. Gradually sauces were reduced, then cured meats were banned and the crust reappeared. The illusion it was a snack was given up and the sandwich returned to it’s origin: pane cunzato.
That what distinguishes the Sicilian way of cooking – culinary tradition if you please – from others is the obstinate resistance to change of any kind. Foreigners often moan and groan about this unwillingness to renovate, to reform. In his book ‘The Leopard’, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa says that Sicilians want to sleep, and hate everyone who wakes them up, even only to bring them the dearest gifts’. While some people look forward and others look back, Sicilians stay where they are, and sooner or later the others will arrive exactly there. Here is di Lampedusa again: ‘Sicilians think they are perfect, their vanity being stronger than their misery’. So you think recipes ever alter?
Primeval sandwich: pane cunzato
The Sicilian sandwich is very distant but still related to the spongy afternoon snack celebrated in England and Northern Europe. Real, preferably fresh baked bread is cut lengthwise and seasoned with olive oil, a handful of cheese, some sliced tomato and topped of with fresh crumbled oregano. Some add anchovies or even salted sardines. It does provide the sandwich with more punch. The harmony among the ingredients is simply disarming, the taste so fundamentally right it will make you smile. Apart from the freshness of the ingredients, the secret of pane cunzato lays in the simplicity: never, ever, add. The necessary ingredients are the ones that are available.
One step ahead
The traditional daily Sicilian kitchen is simple and straightforward; usually plant based dishes, concise in preparation and season bound. It is that kind of kitchen they refer to whenever the term ‘Mediterranean diet’ pops up, Europe healthiest diet. Fresh vegetables, pasta or bread, a drizzle of oil, salad and fruit. Where others would use this as a base to embroider on, the Sicilians are already eating. This tradition is not a rudiment, it is a culinary climax. After a morning or day at the beach there is little as pleasing as sitting down in the shade of a tree and munch a pane cunzato. This is how you cure hunger, not overdoing it.
Recipe of pane cunzato
We are on thin ice here: pane cunzato is typically sold as takeaway food. Bread being the far most important ingredient, it are bakeries who offer the service of ‘seasoning’ it. Every bakery has its own secrets and distinctive differences, varying from adding of seeds -fennel, sesame, poppy – to the use of different flours. The loafs, with a prominent crust, are first cut lengthwise, then in four, after which some of the soft inside is removed. If the bread is not warm anymore, it should be reheated before starting to season. Absolutely necessary is the use of good oil. Then comes the oregano and salt. Traditionally ‘primo sale’ (a young, non matured goat cheese), finely sliced is added. Sliced tomato and anchovies top this wonderful sandwich off.
Who says pane cunzato says Scopello. This pearl on the Northwestern coast of Sicily has become a stopover for many tourist. Rightly so, since it offers beautiful beaches and bays, a picturesque town, a famous tonnara and a bakery that prepares the best pane cunzato in the world. If you are lucky you might find a place to sit in the shade of a big fig tree. Allow me to quote Kurt Vonnegut: “Is this is not good, what is?”