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Pane con la Milza
by Roberta Gangi

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Spleen sandwich.Spleen burgers? A western Sicilian thing, but there's hardly a region of Europe without its specialty food made from some kind of organ or "variety meat." Scotland has haggis, England has kidney pie, Germany has liverwurst and France has its fois gras. There was a time, long before the days of mass-breeding and slaughtering of livestock and poultry, when such giblets or "sweetbreads" were considered something tantamount to a delicacy. Tripe, made from beef stomach, used to be common in most of Italy, including Sicily. One of the more interesting Sicilian entries in this esoteric culinary category is roasted goat brain --admittedly a bit exotic-- but poultry or calf liver seems to be part of the cuisine of many countries. In western Sicily, and especially around Palermo, a favourite treat is Pane con la Milza, which in strictest Palermitan Sicilian is "pani cà meusa" (the old Sicilian word was vastedda or vastidda) a sandwich made of fried beef spleen served with a slice of fresh Sicilian lemon and perhaps some grated local caciocavallo cheese. Admittedly, this is nothing for the faint of heart --whether that faintness results from a confirmed cardiac condition, a high blood cholesterol level or a mere psychological aversion to eating animals' vital organs.

The neolithic practice of eating the heart of a hunter's large prey (American Indians did this too) may have had a quasi-mystical rationale. None of that here. This is simply folksy food. Yet one wonders how spleen surpassed the more generic liver in popularity. It has to do with the popularisation of the cow.

It wasn't until the fifteenth century that bovine livestock took its place as a principal mainstay of the Sicilian agricultural economy. While it's true that cows had been raised here since antiquity, the deforestation and ever-increasing conversion of country estates to wheat and grass changed the economy, and not necessarily for the better. True, Sicily was the granary of the Roman Empire, but now entire provinces were turned over almost exclusively to grain production. Landholders viewed such agriculture as the most direct route to fast, easy money, and anyway entire forests were being destroyed to support Aragonese (and then Spanish) shipbuilding. Something had to be planted in place of the firs and hardwoods, and arboriculture and conservation were little more that theoretical notions. (Some might argue that they are little more than such in Sicily even today.)

Pork, mutton and goat were the main meats consumed in Sicily for centuries. The occasional hare, rabbit, pheasant or chicken complemented this diet. Fish was popular in coastal cities but people in the rugged interior rarely even saw fish or squid, mussels or other seafood. Goats and sheep were easier to raise than bulls and cows. To this day most Sicilian aged cheeses are made from the milk of these hardy, mountain-loving animals. As a foonote, it's interesting that until the 1960s Americans (for example) consumed more pork than beef, so Sicilian tastes were not entirely eccentric to general trends.

Organ meats waned in popularity only as livestock prices became more affordable following the end of the Second World War. Larger, meatier livestock seemed to make steak more appealing than liver, though much in the shift in preferences is owed to advertising, the new "restaurant culture" (dining in restaurants as a pleasure rather than as a necessity for travellers) and a general evolution in taste. In Sicily the consequences of this development were not always predictable. At one point some enterprising Mafiosi from Corleone actually cornered Palermo's beef market and began to inflate prices to their own advantage. Today virtually no beef, and very little pork, consumed in Sicily comes from local sources. Most of it is imported from France or the Netherlands, or brought in from northern Italy.

It has been suggested that spleen was first popularised by Palermo's Jewish community, but this is not known with certainty. Spleen sandwiches were, in effect, a fast food that gained in popularity in the nineteenth century. Like arancine (rice balls), they were sold at stands around Palermo. One might almost refer to this as "comfort food." The spleen strips are cooked with lard in a giant, circular vat. (Whoever rediscovered the Mediterranean Diet certainly didn't have pane con la milza in mind!) Stirring and straining the meat is something of a ritual, so expect to wait a minute while the chef prepares your sandwich.

What does it taste like? A little like calf liver but slightly more chewy. As I said, it's not for everybody.

Where to Find It: The appropriately-named Pane cà Muesa, at Via Cala 62 (across from the Cala bay between the Gancia and Porto Salvo churches) is a local institution in Palermo and pane con la milza is their specialty. Nearby, on the edge of Piazza Marina, is Franco u Vastiddaru at Corso Vittorio Emanuele 102, where there are outdoor tables on warm evenings. For a slightly more formal atmosphere, with table servce, try Focacceria San Francesco in Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi a few blocks away. At Corso Calatafimi 95, just off Piazza Indipendenza (near the Norman Palace), is Testagrossa, which in addition to spleen burgers also serves arancine and other fried foods.

About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.


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© 2007 Roberta Gangi