We shot this episode in May – one of the best months to visit Sicily. I’m a sucker for sunny skies, and this is one of those places where you’re pretty much guaranteed them. Having said that though, the summer storms here can knock you off your feet.
Steve The Soundman and I arrived by Easyjet into Palermo mid-morning and went straight to the hotel to dump our stuff. The afternoon was spent scripting and planning with Mike (camera), Alex (director) and Dave (producer) reporting back on their intensive three-day recce.
I know Italy pretty well. I’m very familiar with Sardinia because we holidayed there most summers when the kids were little. I was slightly less familiar with Sicily but really looking forward to it. And it wasn’t just the food I was excited about. While we were there, Palermo’s football team were facing a key match that could have seen them promoted back into the top division in Italy. You could spot the supporters a mile off in their pink shirts. It was a wonderful atmosphere. Pasta and football…an unbeatable combination!
You wouldn’t know this if you stayed only in Palermo, but one of the fascinating things about Sicily is how recently it opened up. We’re so used to getting everything we want, whenever we want. If you travel inland, people here still talk about how their granny never once left the village or never saw the sea. Tourism has transformed the place, although some of the mountain villages remain pretty inaccessible.
Our fixer, Salvatore, was really keen to show us the churches. We’ve included a few of these in the programme, but there wasn’t time to include them all. It didn’t stop him dragging us inside, whenever I had a filming break. ‘Stunning’ is the word that comes to mind. He also told me about the nuns who lived on the top of the hill and the monks at the bottom – and the recently discovered tunnels linking the two. Actually, it’s a pretty grim story. Look it up if you’re interested.
Palermo - and the island generally - is, of course, famous for a particular brand of politics. Because we wanted to make this food series a little different from the usual, we didn’t want to duck this topic. We met a bunch of producers and retailers who have pledged not to pay extortion money to the mafia and we met the mayor, who is really trying to clean up the place. It’s quite unnerving interviewing someone surrounded by armed body guards. I find it all a bit gob-smacking that this stuff is real. When I asked the mayor how he slept at night, he nodded at his beefy guards and said, “One at each corner of the bed.”
There’s a very smart pedestrianized area in the middle of Palermo, full of all the fancy international brands that seem to pop up in every tourist destination these days. But at night the area comes alive with some typically homely Sicilian places. It was interesting to see the stickers on the doors and windows warning that the owners wouldn’t pay protection money. Many of them had locked doors and you had to knock and explain yourselves to gain entry! Still tasted fabulous, of course.