Andrew Graham-Dixon and Giorgio Locatelli on exploring Sicily

The art critic and chef talk about their revealing journey in Sicily Unpacked

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Sicily is Europe’s most cosmopolitan region. In its long, complicated history the Italian island has been a Greek colony, a Roman province, an Arab emirate and a Norman kingdom – it’s a fascinating mess of influences. But the success of Sicily Unpacked, a new three-part TV travelogue, hangs on the relationship between its two presenters – art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli.

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Graham-Dixon was nervous. “I thought, ‘Giorgio’s going to make me look bad. He’s far too handsome’.”

And Locatelli was nervous about Graham-Dixon’s wealth of experience. “I Googled everything Andrew had done,” he says. “It was just too much. I know that was the worst thing you can do – I was about to meet the guy for real. But it didn’t matter. We liked each other straight away.”

The pair soon learnt to bring their different interests – and experiences – to bear on everything they saw around them. Whether it was the politics, the society – or the views.

Locatelli first visited Sicily 16 years ago – just after the birth of his daughter. He was planting an olive grove for some friends, “and we all loved it,” he says. “Every year after that, we took a house on the Sicilian coast. I would buy food fresh from the market and cook from scratch every day. The island may have suffered invasions – and malgovernance – but the ingredients have always been absolutely fantastic.”

There’s the fresh ricotta, for instance, and the famous tomatoes. As well as the aubergines, the almonds and the pistachios. And they’re all brought together with a touch of Arab – and a dash of Spanish. “Yet it’s all so simple,” says Graham-Dixon. “Giorgio cooked me tuna on a leaf. And caponata. You’re aware of eating 1,000 years of history in Sicily. And that it’s taken 1,000 years to get it just right.”

The series begins in Palermo, the island’s capital. “London is my favourite city to live in,” says Graham-Dixon. “But Palermo is my favourite place to be.” There’s an authenticity to it that both men adore. “Every city feels the same these days,” Graham-Dixon adds. “With its own ‘London Dungeon’. But Palermo feels different. It’s like travelling to Italy 50 years ago. Those faces – the people are a museum.”

Sicily isn’t as famous as the rest of Italy for its art, but Graham-Dixon wants to change all that. In Palermo he takes Locatelli to see one of his favourite buildings – a typical Sicilian chapel hidden away down one of the capital’s many narrow backstreets. Created by the Palermitan sculptor Giacomo Serpotta, for Graham-Dixon it’s a stunning example of the Sicilian approach to art.

“I’m saying to Giorgio, ‘You don’t know anything about this art,’ and he’s saying the same to me about the food. Like the unfamiliar sweet-and-sour taste of the pasta con le sarde we ate in Palermo. When he explained that it was because of the Arab influence, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s why I haven’t had it anywhere else in Italy.’ Food is like art. When it’s explained to you, you’re more likely to think, ‘Yes, I really like that.’”

The pair travel round in a Maserati. The only problem was deciding who got to drive. “Andrew drove it hard up a twisty, turny mountain with a member of the production team in the back,” says Locatelli. “When we got to the top, I looked at her and she was white. I said, ‘Are you OK?’, and she said, ‘No, actually. Can we stop? I feel sick’.” Graham-Dixon laughs. “We arrived more than an hour before the rest of the crew.”

Locatelli got to drive Graham-Dixon to Modica to see the cedro – a huge, lemon-like fruit that features in Italian art. They saw the locals eat the whole fruit and – because they’re Sicilian, and they experiment – dip it in chilli and salt. But it was Easter Sunday. “So we were eating cedro, with the head of police, while the Madonna was going past in a procession looking for Jesus,” recalls Locatelli. “It was surreal.”

The pair met some real characters along the way, including a philosopher of ice cream. “His recipes were Proustian,” says Graham-Dixon. “He only writes one every three years.”

But language was never a problem. “Andrew was good at talking to the intellectuals,” notes Locatelli. “The guys in the museum were in awe of him – he used long words that not even Italians use. But he found it more difficult on the streets.”

Locatelli and Graham-Dixon took in Etna. Its status is mythical – literally, because the island is a place where a lot of the Greek and Roman myths originated. “There’s this myth about Cyclops, a one-eyed monster, throwing rocks into the sea in the direction of Odysseus’s ship,” says Graham-Dixon. “That’s Etna. That’s what Etna does all the time. The myth is just a story about the real geology of the mountain.”

And they had to look at the Mafia. But, as Graham-Dixon found out, Sicily Unpacked had its own resident Mafia expert. “If Giorgio was on Celebrity Mastermind, the Mafia would be his specialist subject,” Graham-Dixon reveals. “‘Name the assassin – and the time of the assassination.’” But the islanders are trying to detach themselves from their Mafia past. They have even built an anti-Mafia museum. Things are changing.

It’s all part of Sicily’s renaissance. The islanders are recognising what they’ve got – in terms of their food and culture – and they intend to look after it. “Everywhere we went they were excavating things,” says Graham-Dixon. “Like the largest Roman villa in the world. They are realising that history might be their way out. A way to a better economy – a way to have more control over their own lives. It’s inspiring stuff.”

Locatelli’s favourite Sicilian dish
Locatelli says that each of Sicily’s nine provinces has its own signature dish. Enna, for example, is the granary of Sicily, and is known for frascatula di polenta di grano con verdura – a maize that’s cooked like polenta, left to cool and mixed with vegetables.

But Locatelli’s favourite dish is pasta con le sarde, the trademark dish of the province of Palermo. “It’s an expression of north African cooking applied to very Sicilian ingredients. It uses pine kernels, sultanas and saffron – a very important ingredient for Arabs at the time. The end result is an amazing dish of sweet and sour.”

Graham-Dixon’s favourite Sicilian painting
“I took Giorgio to see a beautiful Caravaggio of the Nativity in Messina. It’s not on the beaten track. And it’s not well known – partly because Messina was never on the Grand Tour. It was only in 2004, when we had the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery, that people really saw it for the first time.

“It’s a very tragic painting because Caravaggio was on the run. He’s in extremis, and feels that things are going to go wrong in his life – and they are. He’s painting Mary and Jesus, but he’s also painting his sense of himself. Not long after he was born all the men in his family died from the plague, and this is a picture of a mother and her child with four men, as it were, held back from the child by a forcefield. It’s a very moving painting.”

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Andrew and Giorgio start their three-part adventure tonight at 9pm on BBC2 and BBC HD in Sicily Unpacked.