ONE evening several years ago the missus and I found ourselves at a loose end in the Sicilian city of Catania. We had arrived at the nearby airport that day (to be ripped off royally by a taxi driver), and were spending the night at a hotel before travelling to Taormina, where we were renting a villa for a week at vast expense.
When we asked the receptionist where best to have dinner, she directed us to a street half a mile away which she said was full of restaurants. Indeed it was, each one equipped with a massive barbecue belching out fragrant smoke. They were all packed but a young couple said they were happy to share their table with us. He was Italian and she was American.
As we perused the rudimentary menu, the girl asked if we ate meat. When I confessed to carnivorous proclivities, she said: ‘You must have the horse.’
Now I have always maintained that if you are prepared to eat animals you go the whole hog. I tend towards the attitude of the London chef Fergus Henderson, pioneering ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking at his restaurant St John, where I once had a most delicious starter of bone marrow on sourdough toast. However, the only time I had ever eaten horsemeat was long ago when I bought some for Kevin the dog, cooked it and had a sample. It was dry, tasteless and difficult to chew. I mentioned this to the American girl and she insisted: ‘You will love it.’
And she was right, bless her. A huge plate arrived covered completely in meat which had clearly been marinated at length in something wholesome. It was truly one of the best steaks I have eaten; lean and juicy, somewhere between beef and venison in flavour. What a pity that we Brits shun such a delicacy when much of the rest of the world tucks in with gusto. After all, what can be the moral difference between eating chicken, cow, sheep, pig or horse?
Sadly, we were unable to enjoy the evening fully because the owners of the Taormina villa, a pair of dope-addled German hippies, had comprehensively failed to keep in touch with us, not even acknowledging our considerable rental payment. We had contacted them via an owners’ website and dealt with them personally so there was no one we could turn to for help. We didn’t even know the villa’s address. When we asked them by email to confirm that we would be picked up at the hotel, answer came there none. We phoned many times but nobody picked up. So we spent the night in suspense.
As it turned out, a driver arrived on time the following morning and was charm itself. He duly dispatched us to Taormina, handed over the keys and left us at the foot of a long flight of stone steps (I think we counted 60) because, as he informed us, the villa was inaccessible by road. It might have been useful if the owners had told us that.
So we had to lug our heavy cases up a mountainside to reach our destination. We were pretty knackered by the time we got there.
The villa itself was good, with a garden full of lizards always ready to nibble on a proffered banana, and a view of Mount Etna smoking gently in the distance. However its location was a practical disaster. We could find only one tiny food shop nearby whose prices were scandalous. The sole supermarket was a mile away on the other side of town, accessible only by pedestrian walkways.
So we found our aged selves staggering through the streets lugging bottled water and other provisions, constantly impeded by hordes of cruise ship passengers following their guides who held aloft numbered colour-coded notices telling them where to wander. There were 20 or 30 such groups during the day, each comprising a hundred obese Americans, unwilling to surrender the way to a pair of old Brits wilting under the weight of their shopping bags.
Between us and the supermarket were hundreds of designer outlets selling all manner of bling, plus swish restaurants whose prices made us flinch. All we could afford was a takeaway which did arancini – rice balls which are apparently a staple of Sicilian cuisine but managed to be dry and tasting of wallpaper paste at the same time.
Taormina wasn’t total crap. A colleague had been there with his wife a few weeks earlier and told us about a little bar on a long flight of steps toward the top of the town. It served Aperol Spritz, of which we had never heard. At this particular place, it combined Aperol, which is an orange liquid reminiscent of Campari, plus fizzy white wine and soda water. On a warm evening in Sicily it was the perfect aperitif, although attempts to recreate it in soggy Lancashire have since proved underwhelming.
To accompany the spritzes, the genial owner provided a saucer of salted nibbles mainly comprising sunflower seed husks and some kind of nut lethal to those such as myself with dodgy dentition.
On our return home, having left the villa cleaner and tidier than we found it, we contacted the owners to request the return of a 200-euro deposit levied in case of damage to the property. This was ignored. When we persisted they said we had given them wrong bank details, which was nonsense. After several more emails we gave it up as a bad job. So that was our Sicilian experience – fleeced from start to finish. Makes you feel like leaving a horse’s head in somebody’s bed.
Old jokes’ home
If you’re being chased by a pack of taxidermists, don’t be tempted to play dead.
A PS from PG
As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me. It’s one of the advantages I get from being a bachelor – and, according to my nearest and dearest, practically a half-witted bachelor at that.
PG Wodehouse: The Inimitable Jeeves