Michael’s sourdough – and a funny thing happened to me in Palermo

A funny thing happened to me the night I arrived in Palermo. I was staying in a recently renovated bed and breakfast in the centre of town, close to Teatro Massimo. The entrance to the accommodation was through one of those heavy double-height doors, the ones that have a smaller door cut out of them, right in the middle, about 10 cm above the level of the main door, for people to get in and out. It is possible the large door was for horses and carriages to get through, but the small door is for people. Once you realise that there is a smaller door within a door, it was a takes a bit of effort to get your suitcase over the opening, and a bit of care with your head as the door clearance is lower than usual, but still fits the average Palermitano.

old walls-from 4 canti-palermo-iatly on my mind

When I landed in Palermo airport, it was about 9pm on a Friday night. I caught a bus from the airport, hopped out at Politeama, found the BnB and successfully navigated the “trick” door, went up the lift and checked in my luggage. I was given a list of recommended restaurants and trattorie where to eat late as it was now past 10pm (I always ask the locals, “where do you eat when you go out”), got changed, and as it was a warm September evening, put on some three-quarter trousers, a floral shirt, my fancy high heels and headed out, feeling great. It was dark when I got out of the lift, but I could see the small door perfectly well, as someone else was just entering. I waved buona sera, stepped into the door and lifted myself to my full height….bang! I felt a hard knock on the top of my head, felt my teeth crash into each other and crouched down again. You can guess what happened. And if you know me personally you will know that I am very tall, taller than the door clearance, taller than the average Palermitano and even taller with big heeled shoes. I saw stars and then it started to hurt, hurt a lot. I actually cried; silent tears streaming down my face. I started to feel a bit odd and stopped to think about what I should do. I was hungry (having skipped lunch), so I made my way to the closest restaurant on the list I had been given; which was only one street away. I sat down in the outdoor area, ordered a glass of Fiano and a plate of cavatelli. The pain was increasing and I could feel a large tender lump forming. I ordered a bottle of water – I figured that something icy on my head would help; the bottle arrived and it was barely cool. I put it on my head anyway. The Brazilian women at the adjacent table stared at me. I looked down at my phone and continued the long i-messenger conversation I was having with Mark who was back in Australia, who was (sensibly) asking “are you dizzy” and “do you have nausea” (I didn’t have either). I hurried through my meal, leaving half and went back to the BnB. I remembered the small fridge in the room, filled with cans of soft drink, very cold cans, that I applied to my head over the next hour. A couple of Panadol later and I slept soundly. The next morning I had no headache but a very tender lump on the top of my head, possibly making me taller and more likely to hit my head again. I am quite sure that the bump on my head influenced the way the day panned out on the Saturday, my only full day in Palermo. A series of slightly-odd and unexpected encounters makes me think I did have slight concussion.

garlic-serving drinks-palermo-italy on my mind

The next day I got up bright and early, ate a cornetto filled with jam, a coffee and donned a summery wrap-around frock and high heels. I went through the front door very carefully, and gave it a bit of a whack with my hand “maledetta porta” (damn door) I muttered to myself in Italian. I walked straight into a group of older men, having a chat outside the portone. As I walked through them, camera strap around my neck and camera in hand, one of them proclaimed “sei una stella di Hollywood” (you are a Hollywood star); I kept walking, smiling and a few minutes later turned around to wave good-bye. There was no-one there. How odd I thought.

anchovy guy vucciria

I headed to the vibrant and colourful Vucciria Market, and decided to try and find the anchovy man. I had taken a photo of him when I was in December in Palermo (and posted it here), and he had muttered something about everyone taking photos and no-one buying anything. I could not find him, but found another smiling anchovy guy who was all too willing to tell me how he took the salt-packed anchovies out of the tin, cleaned them with tweezers and then stored them in a jar, which he topped with oil. I asked if I could take a photo, and he willingly obliged and dragged his cousin into it, who was standing close-by. I then bought a jar of anchovies (what on earth was I going to do with it? There was no way I would get this through Customs in Australia and what if it broke in my suitcase in transit?) and kept exploring the markets.

broccoli-palermo-market-italy on my mind

Still holding my anchovies, I decided to have a quick look at the Quattro Canti, the well-known intersection from which the four main historic zones of Palermo branch from. As I was walking past the doorway to an old, falling-down palazzo, a young Italian beckoned me in, and spoke to me in heavily accented English: ” Would you like to do a tour of this building? There is one leaving shortly”. I eyed him suspiciously – the building courtyard looked like a construction zone, filled with rubble and dust. I followed him around a corner and came across a few other people, a make-shift table and a sign. We were in Palazzo Costantino, currently being renovated. I paid the required amount and followed a group of another ten people behind a barrier and up the stairs of what must have been a gorgeous palazzo, with high-ceiling frescoes, peeling faded wallpaper, and broken floor tiles covered with dust. Hessian curtains were gently lifting in the breeze, revealing the central courtyard from the first floor. The view outside of the windows was directly over the Quattro Canti and breath-taking. I couldn’t believe my luck in finding the palazzo and having this glimpse into what life may have been like in old Palermo.

inside palazzo-palermo

palazzo constantini-palermo-italy on my mind

After a tasty street food lunch, whilst walking through the Ballaro’ Markets, a couple of guys were seated on stools in a small piazza, enjoying a beer. I took a quick photo of them and they waved me over, offering me a plastic cup of their beer. I thanked them and said no, and kept walking and headed down Via Roma. In hindsight I should have said yes – it might have been fun and less alarming than the next encounter.

three guys in palermo

At this point my feet were really hurting and I wanted to kick off my heels and sit down. A tall 40-ish year old approached me and asked me in accented English if I knew where there was a supermarket. He explained he had just moved to Palermo from the North of Italy; he was a physiotherapist. We got talking (in Italian) and he asked if I would like to have a coffee with him. I agreed, thinking I wouldn’t mind a bit of Italian conversation and to take off my shoes; so I hobbled after him. And I was wearing my wedding ring – surely I did not need to point that out to him. We chatted as we walked down Via Roma and then past Teatro Massimo, at which point he turned left. Is this coffee shop much further I asked;  no, just a bit more. A few more minutes of chatting and walking and I looked around – the streets were less crowded than they had been. “Where is this coffee shop?” I asked again; I had begun to feel slightly alarmed, plus my feet were blistered and I told him so. He kept walking and said “look we are nearly at my apartment, I can make you a coffee on my moka, it is just around that corner”. I slowed right down and thoughts started racing through my head – was he going to lunge at me or murder me and then stuff my body in a suitcase? No-one knew where I was, I didn’t know who he was; my desire for conversing in Italian was fast fading. “I guess you may not want to come to my apartment, you barely know me. But don’t worry, you will love it when you see it” he said, slowing down next to me. I looked at him “I am not coming to your apartment. If you want to have a coffee with me, let’s have one there” I said, pointing to a bar on the other side of the road. He shrugged his shoulders and looked disappointed and muttered “va bene“. So we crossed the road, I ordered an espresso, which I made sure took less than a minute to drink, then I said I had to go. “Can we meet for a drink tonight ?” he asked; I looked at him…. this guy was really pushy. Sure I replied, here is my phone number, which I quickly made up and gave to him written on a serviette. “Thanks for the coffee Davide, see you later”, I waved  and hobbled outside, heading back towards via Roma. I turned around every minute to make sure he was heading in the opposite direction, which he thankfully was and I walked as quickly as I could, back to the BnB and through those double-height doors, just managing to avoid hitting my head. Why on earth had I agreed to a coffee with this guy?!

streets-palermo-italy on my mind

palermo markets-italy on my mind

As strange as Palermo had been that day, (and let’s face it, I think I was the strange one, possibly mildly concussed) it is an amazing place and fast turning into one of my favourite cities in Italy – the food and food culture being one of the best I have found. Amazing street food, markets, the freshest fish and incredible sheep’s milk ricotta. And then there is the sourdough starter that Michael, an Irish chef living in Palermo but working at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, gave me. Not that he gave it to me in Palermo, but at the cooking school, later that week. The starter travelled with me in my suitcase from Palermo, to Trieste, to Umbria, to Rome airport, to Hong Kong and finally to Melbourne. It had been packed with a bag of flour and I fed it at appropriate intervals. I figured that a broken jar of starter in a double plastic bag in my suitcase would be easier to deal with than a jar of anchovies in oil.

Once I arrived home back at home (and it was looking quite sad and flat after the last feeding in Hong Kong), I fed it twice a day for a couple of days then three times on the day I used it. And the bread turned out beautifully. I have even passed on some starter to four other people, so the family of this Palermitano starter is growing. If you are at all interested in making sourdough bread, this page has great information on how to revive a sad-looking starter. The bread recipe I have been using is Michael’s who believes that you shouldn’t be a slave to sourdough; it needs to fit in with your lifestyle. So this recipe isn’t a drain on your time – under 2-hours of alternating between working and resting the dough in the evening and then get up early the next morning to bake it – so much easier than my previous sourdough recipes, that seemed to last 36 hours from start to finish.

sourdough-italy on my mind

Michael's sourdough bread

100g plain white flour
335g superfine semolina (semola rimacinata)
275g water
150g mother/sourdough starter
12g salt
extra superfine semolina for dusting

Mix the two flours and water together in a bowl and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Tip the lot into the mixer bowl and add the sourdough starter. Mix with a dough hook on low speed for about 3 minutes. Add the salt, mix for another minute with the dough hook. Leave the dough in the bowl, cover with cling film and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Return the bowl to the mixer and mix for another 3 minutes with the dough hook (low speed). Cover and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Remove the dough from the bowl and “air mix” it for 2-3 minutes (hold the dough in one hand, grab the dough with the other hand and given it a good stretch until it is 40-50cm; form it into a ball and stretch in the same way repeatedly) or until it starts to firm up and become less sticky. Stretch the dough onto the table into a large rectangle and then fold it onto itself like an envelope. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the folding process. Then “air mix” for another 2-3 minutes. Place the dough on your work surface. Dust your hands with some semolina, rub them together to remove the excess dough, then start shaping the dough into a ball, rotating it as you shape for about a minute. Cover and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Repeat the air-mixing, folding and shaping process described above (without using any extra semolina) twice more, including the shaping and resting.

After the last “resting” period, prepare a proofing basket (or a bread basket or a large colander) by lining it with clean tea-towel. Dust generously with semolina then place the dough seam-side down in the prepared basket. Place the basket in a plastic bag, seal it and place on the shelf overnight.

After 8-10 hours, preheat the oven (or stone if using) to 250C. Generously dust a wooden transfer board with semolina and transfer the dough (which should have increased in size), flipping it over onto the board. Make incisions as desired in the top of the loaf and slide the dough onto the hot stone and bake for 10 minutes (steam oven setting – you can put some water in an oven proof jar in the back of the oven to mimic this). Reduce the temperature to 200C and bake for another 25-30 minutes until it is a deep golden brown. If using a Dutch oven (lined ceramic pot), heat the pot in the oven instead of the stone. Carefully remove the pot from the oven after 20 minutes, carefully lift the loaf of dough, turn it over and drop it into the pot. Make the incisions (if desired) and cover the pot with the lid. Bake for 15 minutes at 250C, then open the oven, remove the lid careful and reduce the temperature to 200C and bake for another 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

in palazzo costantino-palermo-italy on my mind

8 Comments

  • pblevitt says:

    Paola, thank you for this wonderful tale of magical, mystical Palermo – you did justice to each detail. So sorry for the knock on the head, I have been there and the combination of pain, stun and a tad of embaressment come together in a frightful way.

    • thanks Paula – after the knock on the head I kept muttering under my breath – you try to take back that moment and you can’t; so frustrating. It made a good story for a bog post though and it is easy to log back on it and laugh (over 3 weeks alert that is)

  • Emma says:

    A great post, thank you. I was interested as I was in Palermo just a few weeks before you and found it to be an exciting, fascinating, tasty and unexpected city. I don’t know how you did it in heels though! Glad your head is better now (ouch, I felt the pain through your words!)

  • paninigirl says:

    What a great story! Glad that you didn’t have a serious injury. I want to make this bread-yours looks beautiful.

    • thank you! And I am also so glad the injury was not serious, it would have put a serious dent in my trip. The sourdough starter is quite amazing – it has slowed down in the last few days though – that first loaf I made was the best.

  • What a day! You must be part Calabrese with a testa dura! Beautiful photos. Ciao, Cristina

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