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On the Trail of Sicily's Best Food, Wine and Fiction

On Italy’s southern islands, every meal is a real page-turner.

Island of Ortigia

Off the eastern coast, the island of Ortigia sheds light on history.

After my love of food and wine comes my love of mysteries, which is why the detective novels of Sicily’s Andrea Camilleri have a special place in my heart as well as my luggage. To call his books police procedurals isn’t quite accurate; his small-town inspector Salvo Montalbano deliberately bucks procedure, detouring off right in the middle of a hot case for an epic meal at a seaside trattoria. The languid descriptions of regional specialties – sweet-and-sour eggplant caponata, beccafico of sardines stuffed with bread crumbs and capers, couscous with eight different kinds of fish, dense chocolate cake with orange preserve – are as much about the local relationship to food as to time. Priorities, people, he seems to be saying, we’ve all got to eat – and let’s not forget where we are here.

Ragusa, in Val di Noto

The winding streets of Ragusa, in Val di Noto, have stories to tell.

There’s no forgetting that Sicilian breeze. It’s so ever-present and so perfect that when it stops, you take notice, as though someone turned off the music. The winds come over from the Sahara Desert, pick up moisture across the Mediterranean Sea and blow in like cherub breath from the edges of antique maps. Stand­ing on the western coast of these Italian islands at sunset, you get why everyone who came and conquered – Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, Germans, Normans – decided to stay a while and leave a little something behind, notably their recipe boxes. I’ve come to eat and drink from Palermo in the northwest to Ortigia in the east. And I’m quickly grasping why Camilleri’s novels come with footnotes: Everything Sicilian – dialects, ­architecture, cuisine – is so layered with history that it requires some explanation.

 

 

Sicily’s past and present coexist

Sicily’s past and present coexist, from windmills near Marsala to wine jugs at Valle Dell’Acate, and from food markets in Palermo to aristocratic estates like that of Marchesi di San Giuliano.

“These are merely six of the 15 different kinds of fritti all’italiana, you understand,” says Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita, popping a perfectly golden crocchette di latte into his mouth. We’re in the salon of Villa Tasca, his winemaking family’s bucolic 16th-century estate located, unbelievably, in the densely historic capital of Palermo. I had momentarily perched myself on a velvet chaise longue – sitting down apparently being Sicilian sign language for feed me – and the butler appeared with a silver tray full of these little perfections. Past the blue and white tiled terrace, the gardens are laid out before us. Redesigned in the Victorian era to “confuse and delight the visitor,” they succeed on both counts; wander the heavily foliaged paths past ponds and follies and you become a character in a story about love and decay. The vegetation in Sicily is like a giant botanical garden with specimens from different custodians over the centuries: from prickly pear cacti brought via Spain from the New World, to palm trees, citrus and olive groves from North Africa.

Cliffs of Scala dei Turchi

In the Agrigento area, the cliffs of Scala dei Turchi, or Turkish Steps, rise above sandy beaches.

Lunch is a local classic, and a Montalbano classic: pasta alla sarde with sardines and wild white fennel. (“We’ve done it with linguine; typically it would be bucatini, but it’s so difficult to eat, I wouldn’t do that to you,” our ever-affable host chuckles.) Next, on tableware bearing the family crest, comes the tenderest pork in a delicate genius of a fennel and mustard-seed sauce. It’s an example of monsu (dialect for monsieur) cooking, named after the French chefs employed by aristocracy in the 1800s (the family’s Regaleali estate offers cooking classes exploring those traditions). Finale: cannoli with pistachios and homemade ricotta, all lightness, crackle and cream. To go with, he’s pouring bottles like Tascante Ghiaia Nera nerello mascalese and a bright white Tenuta Regaleali catarratto made with indigenous grapes that, like carricante and perricone, could be names of Montalbano’s bumbling associates. For a long time, high-volume, high-alcohol wines from Sicily were shipped north to be used in blends. But in the last decade, Sicilian labels have, for good reason, become darlings of private import lists, and the vineyards themselves increasingly destination-worthy for visitors.

Sirignano Wine Resort

The Sirignano Wine Resort boasts all-organic production, a traditional construction called a baglio and a pool overlooking the Monreale hills.

Beyond the estate gates, the capital’s notorious traffic crawls by. Explaining the limited public transportation, my travelling companion Francesco shrugs, “Palermo is 3,000 years old. You can’t dig without hitting some ancient building.” A maze of unstraight streets leads us through the Gothic-inspired core of Kalsa, the old Arab quarter, up from the harbour where Hannibal once moored his boats. I’ve asked Francesco to ferret out some of Montalbano’s favourite street foods. Under a sign that says Keep Calm and Mangia le Panelle, a street vendor is throwing thin slices of chickpea flour batter into hot sizzling oil – panisse in a different guise. On the other hand, all I can say about Montalbano’s beloved pane ca’ meusa is that these bready sandwiches stuffed with organ meat don’t strike a chord. Francesco leads me past the jumble of marzipan, olives, capers from Pantelleria and blocks of tuna bottarga in the markets, past the fountains and foot traffic, to the stillness of the Palermo Cathedral, built in the 1200s. In the hooded light, I catch sight of gold-leaf fragments drifting down from the ceiling to join the kaleidoscopic celebra­tion of geometry on the floor. History in the unmaking.

Modica goes for Baroque

Carved into the hills of Val di Noto, Modica goes for Baroque.

“The seeing and the doing!” exclaims our good-humoured driver Riccardo, once again translating an untranslatable local ex­pression, as we careen past vineyards and craggy bluffs southwards toward Menfi. Touring around Sicily’s regions – from Val Di Noto and its baroque hotbed of Siracusa province to the Arab-influenced Di Mazara to the black volcanic soil of Mount Etna in Val Demone that every winemaker wants a piece of these days – is like putting together pieces of a puzzle and accepting that they don’t quite fit. Tertiary roads often dead-end in a field, rendering the GPS apoplectic. What can we do but laugh – after all, there’s something ridiculous about rushing to get to ancient ruins. And Sicily has no shortage of monumental ocean-lapped sites like the island of Mothia, where someone may gently correct you: “Not the ancient Greeks, dear, the ancient Phoenicians; they came earlier, around the seventh century BC.” Shards of terracotta pottery crunch beneath my feet as I walk past vestiges of past civilizations. Under the arid sun, details are strongly etched. Those deep grooves in the paving stone? They were made by the wheels of Roman chariots. Across the lagoon, salt is still harvested as it has been for more than 500 years; after windmills pump the water out, it’s collected into peaked mounds along the shore. I purchase a bag to bring home, and read the ingredients on the label. Mare, sol, vento. Sea, sun, wind. That about sums it up.

Man walking in Porto Empedocle

Time waits for no man in Porto Empedocle.

Agrigento, on Sicily’s less-trodden south coast, is full of uncanny déjà-vus for the Camilleri fan. Illustrated Penguin covers come to life before my eyes. There’s the Scala dei Turchi, blindingly white-stepped marl cliffs, brilliant and strangely lunar between the turquoise sea and sky. And there’s the statue of the fallen Icarus at the Valle dei Templi, a massive collection of ancient Greek ruins better preserved than most in Europe; the sea-dampened afternoon sunlight on the Temple of Concordia is enough to make me want to set up an easel and single-handedly found a New Romantic painting movement. In seaside villages, beneath dusty peach-painted facades with shuttered windows and wrought-iron balconies, streetside cafés unhurriedly cater to customers continuing conversations that started 50 years ago (Sicily is a country for old men, with nicer shoes than yours). The scenes here are so epic, and the storytelling so foundational, the line be­tween myth and reality is easily blurred. In fact, Camilleri’s hometown of Porto Empedocle briefly appended Vigàta to its name, after the fictional counterpart he de­scribes so well. Finding his character’s statue on the main street – across from that of the writer Pirandello – I know I’m not the only mystery geek to have grabbed his bigger-than-life bronze hand for a photo op. Montalbano-themed tours, catering in particular to British fans of the televised BBC series, wend their way through here these days.

Chiesa dell’Immacolata Concezione

God is in the details at Chiesa dell’Immacolata Concezione, off Palermo’s Il Capo market.

At the opposite end of the island from Palermo, in Siracusa province, the world headquarters for the anti-minimalism movement might be a bedazzled bijou of a town called Noto. Razed by an earthquake some 300 years ago, it was rebuilt in a fanfare of flair and flourishes: It’s as though the beyond-baroque cathedrals and wildly ornate Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata dare to ever be destroyed. After a morning of sightseeing, all I want at Caffè Sicilia is an espresso, just one espresso. But Corrado Assenza, the third generation of unrestrained bakers to run this 1892 institution, instead brings on six kinds of granita, made with milk from local almonds, fruit from local figs. “It’s just water!” he insists, bustling off in his apron to get more things, all the things, for my friends and me to eat. To go with an array of exquisitely earthy pastries topped with glazed seasonal fruits, he proffers stemmed glasses of nutty, amber-toned Vecchio Samperi from Marco de Bartoli, a legendary producer near the city of Marsala. “I know you wanted coffee, but this is better!” As we sip the nutty-sweet wine, he tells us that he writes poetry in his spare time. Of course he does.

Town of Acate in Ragusa province; vineyards in the Vittoria region

Left to right: It’s coffee in the morning and cerasuolo di Vittoria at night, in the town of Acate in Ragusa province; the slow road gets slower between vineyards in the Vittoria region.

Sicily is one mystery it’s a pleasure not to solve: You may get lost, but you won’t go hungry. The dining room at La Foresteria, the agriturismo of La Planeta, one of the wineries that put the region on the world map in the 1990s, opens out onto a stately patio that itself gives way to a landscape of vines and trees at the root of so many Sicilian specialties. The recipes in the open kitchen belong to the Planeta family’s grandmothers, reinterpreted by talented chef Angelo Pumilia. Along with winks like a savoury cannolo as a crouton in the bean soup, there’s a deconstructed Montalbano standby, pasta alla Norma, presented so that we DIY the mixture of eggplant, tomato and salted ricotta. Dinner conversation turns, of course, to Camilleri, and estate director Cristina Gionfriddo says the popularity of the detective series, and the author’s way of capturing the constrasting elements that create the islands’ enigmatic personality, reopened interest in old ways of doing things – a pride in what came before. “But not everyone in Sicily eats as heartily as Montalbano every day!” she laughs, as we proceed to eat as heartily as Montalbano, just like every day of this trip.

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FOOD & DRINK     FOOD FEATURE     ITALY     RESTAURANTS     SICILY    

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