Palermo crept into conversation on three separate occasions this week. First, a conversation with a Sicilian over the delights of arancini, second to recommend Palermo for a romantic escape, then in conversation over Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’. Romance, culture and food, but Palermo would never be mentioned in the same breath as Copenhagen and Vienna as a ‘green city’.
The city is beautiful. This is the first thing which you notice. A respectable guidebook informed me that Palermo “lacked green spaces”. The untruth in this is immediately obvious. From every tree-lined avenue you can spot the arid peaks of the mountains which cradle Palermo. In the harsh backstreets, shrubs sprout perilously from baroque adornment. Not apologetically green like Milan, but sprouting sub-tropical decay, as though it’s leafy innards are creeping out. Hidden spots like the Giardini Garibaldi offer all the aesthetics of a South American rainforest from a park bench. As with everything else in this city, it is ancient and neglected beauty. The hippy snobbishness which passes judgment based on the number visible trees misses what really makes a city ‘a green space’. If you want ‘green spaces’ then you only need to look at the local’s plates.
I ate at a back-alley restaurant on local recommendation, hidden down a moped-lined lane, ‘PerciaSacchi’ redefines ‘hidden gem’. The majority of its menu in fact is not food, but locations. The locale of every ingredient is attested down to the flour in the pizza dough. The provenance of food here has become an obsession, DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) is the trend. Protected goods from specific geographical regions: Campanile Cheese is from Palermo, Pork from the Nebrodi mountains, Marsala wine from Marsala etc. There is some irony that a culture formed by the reaches of far flung civilisations, seems to be presently leading the way in championing local ingredients.
The chef in Palermo is the medium through which the spirit of Sicily speaks. The sweetest Aubergine parmigiana, made firm with almonds and herbs. Fish served in a blanked of tomato sauce with yet more herby stuffing and delicious humble panelle (chickpea fritters) on the side. The Palermitans don’t leave all the good stuff to the restaurants either. The ‘Il Capo’ market is a showroom of produce: green zucchini like the fingers of some vegetable giant, wine from the foothills of those looming peaks and ricotta from the flocks which graze there. Tomatoes, aubergines and wheat from the fragrant fields whose circumspect hedges yield branches of oregano.
The scale of this farm-to-table movement is vast when you compare the Palermitan to your average northern European city-slicker. My jeans are from Japan, I like my steaks from Argentina, my shoes are American, even my Highland Malt has further to travel than most of the produce on which Sicilians exist on a daily basis.
A 2017 study in Elsevier Journal on the Ecological Footprints of cities found: ‘’the largest Footprint category is food and its share tends to increase in cities with low EF values.’’ Palermo has a low Ecological footprint, but also emerges with only 30% of that score based on its food footprint, whereas other in the same vein such as Tunis, Istanbul and Venice, weigh in far higher. They really do have ‘green spaces’ on their plates.
All the new Palermitan eateries eagerly exhibit their closeness with the farmers and the land whose produce they put on their plates, and I am not naive enough to believe that they do it without thought for the eco and agro-tourist types who flock there. However, their inbuilt consciousness of provenance only requires you to amble down any street there and pick up the signature Cannoli, The pasta flour will be from Sicilian wheat, the ricotta from those sheep in the hills and if you are lucky then one end will be dipped in sweet pistachios from the slopes of Etna. Perhaps, not because they care about the environment, but rather that those are simply the best ingredients. The food really is a part of what makes a city ‘green’ and, in this case, it is eco-friendly on the accident that local produce is the best in the world. When did a low carbon footprint ever taste so good?