AROUND THE BLOCK by Victor Block: In Italy, it’s all about the food

By Victor Block

Enjoying my first dinner in Sicily, I told my guide the meal was excellent. His reply was delightful but not surprising. “People can steal my money but not my food,” Alessio remarked, adding, “If lunch or dinner doesn’t have at least five courses, it’s just a snack.”

Those words told me a lot about Sicily, and Italy in general. Food plays an important role in the lifestyle of Italians. Portions approach gargantuan in size. Growing, cooking and eating hold a place of near reverence in the daily lives of the people.
My travels to more than 75 countries have taught me the same holds true throughout the world. Dining customs tell much about various cultures. Of countless repasts at home and abroad, some stand out because of what they demonstrate about the locale and the people who live there. All linger in my memory, if no longer on my taste buds.
Of the meals I enjoyed in Sicily, the most memorable was billed as “A Day in the Life of a Sicilian Farm Family,” and it put members of my tour group to work. The farm’s owners, their parents and other relatives taught us the finer techniques of kneading bread and rolling pasta. Those chores were accompanied by singing, dancing and sipping wine that seemed to flow as plentifully as the nearby river. By the time we left, we were satiated with both food and warm feelings for our new-found friends.
Another do-it-yourself dinner took place in a very different setting, the Village Restaurant in Thit Ael Pin — a tiny town in Myanmar (also known as Burma) inhabited by the Danu people, one of some 135 ethnic groups comprising the country’s population.
As a chef presided over the activity, a personal assistant helped me add ingredients, including vegetables grown in the garden just outside, to the cooking pots. The nine-course luncheon began with vegetables tempura, went on to steamed fish wrapped in cabbage leaves and tea leaf salad, and titillated my taste buds with a dessert of fried banana with honey.
Three centuries ago, the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis was a center of the lucrative sugar producing industry, and wealthy planters built imposing “Great Houses” as the centerpiece of their plantations. The Hermitage continues a tradition dating from that time with its weekly pig roast.
I helped to truss up and skewer the night’s main course — a practice not for the faint-hearted — before it was spit- roasted for eight hours. Accompaniments included local dishes ranging from plantain to rabbit pie, barbecued chicken to curried chick peas and the customary cornmeal flatbread called Johnny Cakes.
Montpelier Plantation is only about a mile from the Hermitage, but in ambiance it offers a different introduction to the life of prosperous sugar planters. Among structures still standing from that time is a stone windmill tower serving as the setting for a romantic candlelit gourmet dinner. After canapés and cocktails are served in the plantation house, guests climb the stairs into the history-laden spire to relish a seven-course meal.
The feast progresses leisurely — on “island time.” My dinner menu included crispy, salt-fish puree, poached mahi mahi and lamb loin, and ended with a dessert setting a new high standard for Tiramisu.
The words “moveable feast” take on a whole new meaning during a leisurely country waterways barge trip along a canal in the Burgundy region of France. Every bite and sip aboard the luxuriously appointed vessel is planned to please the palate of the most discriminating gourmet.
Fresh breads and buttery croissants are brought on board each morning, still warm from a nearby bakery. Lunch and dinner are exquisitely prepared and presented using products from local farmers’ markets. Each bottle of wine is tenderly caressed as its characteristics are lovingly described prior to serving, and comparable homage is paid to the selection of cheeses. After returning home, I almost found it difficult to sip from a glass of wine or taste a wedge of cheese without wanting to know its entire history.
Rather than detailed descriptions, guests at the Chef’s Showcase five-course dinners served at Sunset at the Palms resort in Negril, Jamaica, have no idea what they’ll be eating. Each day, the chef and culinary team develop recipes which will be presented in a delightful outdoor setting. The emphasis is on indigenous Jamaican fare, including dishes cooked in the homes of staff members.
Callaloo pesto snapper and pumpkin puree greens are typical offerings, along with grilled, fresh-from-the-garden herbs and green banana hash. Sweet potato and yam pudding is one of a number of desserts that provide a fitting end to the meal.
After gallivanting and gourmet-dining around the world, I ended with a tiny snack shack right here in Maine. The Pine Tree Frosty has been serving light bites and ice cream in Rangeley since 1964.
The setting alone — perched at the edge of a small lake, the seasonal home for several dozen ducks and an occasional loon — is worth a visit. It’s what I rate as the best lobster rolls I have enjoyed in Maine, after sampling many, which keeps me coming back . and back again.
At the Frosty, the rolls are buttered and toasted, and overflowing with five ounces of claw and knuckle lobster meat (more than the standard three-to-four ounces) dressed with a slight touch of mayonnaise.
Adding to the down-home experience is the fact that owner Ali Fraser’s mother worked there when she was a teenager 50 years ago, the view of Haley Pond and distant mountains from the outdoor picnic tables, and the resident ducks that gather and wait patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, for a sweet hand-out