For many tourists, Sicily’s selling point is its sleepy pace of life. But, says ANDREW CATCHPOLE, for wine and food lovers, the island is a melting pot of exciting flavours and discoveries, not least in its ever-improving wines.
Thankfully I don’t breakfast on boiled spleen every day, but when I show a little too much curiosity over a steaming cauldron of unidentifiable grey stuff in Palermo’s rambling Il Capo market, my generous guide, chef Antonio Carluccio, insists on treating me to this rather feraltasting Sicilian workers’ snack. Essentially, it’s veal offal in a bun. Fortunately, this milza proves no more than a chewy aside to the superb seafood, seasonal vegetables and punchy wines I discover on my trip to find out why Sicily is being tipped as the hot new gastronomic destination for both food and wine. An island of unpretentious, robust, honest flavours, Sicily’s cucina povera and the growing stature of its leading wine producers makes it one of the great – and largely undiscovered -gastronomic regions of Italy. Within Il Capo, piled on rickety stalls along the meandering labyrinth of narrow streets, are purply-young artichokes, rudely twisted red peppers, wild fennel from the hills, knobbly lemons and blood oranges, buckets of gently bubbling clams, large, semibutchered carcasses of swordfish and tuna. Toothy old timers proffer plump capers from Pantelleria, salty tubs of anchovies and oily yellow cured herring, plus olives, oils, pistachios, almonds, raisins, freshly gathered basil and mint, pungent spices including cumin and saffron and much else besides. It’s the freshness and seasonal quality of such ingredients that define Sicilian cooking.
‘You can read all of Sicily’s history in her food,’ smiles Carluccio, who is here to meet Diego Planeta of Sicily’s most famed wine estate in preparation for a Sicilian-themed Festa del Vino, matching Sicily’s dishes with Planeta wines at his eponymous cafès back in Britain. ‘The Greeks brought honey, olives and the vine, the Romans cultivated wheat and beans, the Arabs brought citrus fruits, almonds, couscous, aubergine, pasta and pastries, the Normans introduced dishes like salt cod, and the Spanish Bourbons came with tomato sauces and stuffed vegetables,’ says Carluccio. ‘The cuisine that evolved here simply adapted to all these influences.’ As it did in the Bavette con Triglie, Mandorle e Finochietto (local linguine, red mullet and wild fennel), the dish we ate together at ristorante Sant’ Andrea the previous evening. Fleshy red mullet from the Sicilian channel, spiked with delicately pungent wild fennel fronds and scattered with almonds, raisins and roasted cumin added up to a very Sicilian flavour. Arab and Italian influences delivering something truly Sicilian is a theme Carluccio himself later plays on at Planeta’s house, notably in a robust blood orange and smoked herring salad which we wash down with a vibrant Grecanico. ‘In Sicily everyone, whether rich or poor, can eat like a king,’ says Planeta. This gastronomic melting pot is echoed in the island’s architecture and people. From the baroque extravagance of towns such as Ragusa Ibla and Noto in the beguiling southeast, by way of the incredible Greek temples of Selinunte and Agrigento, plus the extraordinarily well-preserved Roman amphitheatre at Taormina, to the couscous eating, hubba bubba pipe-sucking African descendants in Marsala and the fishing ports of the west, this is a land of stunning contrasts. In Palermo itself, Norman churches sit cheek-by-jowl with Saracen and baroque architecture, and the genetic hotch potch reveals itself via the occasional blue-eyed, light-haired local in the otherwise darkercountenanced crowd. Of course, past invaders were drawn by Sicily’s pivotal position at the strategic centre of the Mediterranean. However, the richly fertile volcanic soils – reflected in this island’s prolific production of food and wine – ensured that colonists stayed until another shift in power inevitably brought further bloody change. I drop in on one of Sicily’s large landowners, Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita, at his Palermo home – an aristocratic pile with its roots in the 13th century – to talk about how this varied landscape defines Sicilian food and wine. ‘We need to show people the huge diversity of Sicily,’ he says, proffering restorative espressos and cigarettes. The Tasca d’Almerita estate – high in the mountainous interior – and its exemplary Regaleali wines straddle both international varieties (the family produced the first Chardonnay in Sicily in 1989) along with indigenous varieties and blends such as the fresh, floral Regaleali Bianco (Inzolia-Gataratto-Grecanico) and intense, damson and pepper L’Amuri (Nero d’Avola), with other blends peppering the portfolio. Along with other leading producers including Donnafugata, Planeta, Cottanero, Firriato, Cusumano, Benanti, it represents the modern face of Sicilian wine. ‘There are over 40 indigenous varieties here in Sicily, with many, such as the almost Nebbiolo-like Nerello Mascalese, which has adapted to grow at altitude, producing very good wines,’ Tasca continues. ‘Take Nero d’Avola, for example, which we can make in six totally different styles because of different variations of the vine.’ He argues that there is a place both for varieties such as Chardonnay and Syrah, but also the indigenous vines that ‘really express the terroir of our land’.
Get out there
To fully understand the complexity and potential of Sicily’s landscape you need only travel about the island and eat and drink in the local trattorie and osterie. The southeast presents an almost pastoral scene, with rolling hills dotted with olive trees, vines and dry stone walls. Planeta has been busy here developing new Nero d’Avola vineyards – it’s said to be the best place for the variety on the island – and also producing a luscious, fresh orangeyintense sweet wine in the tradition of the local Moscato de Noto. To the north, accessible from the vertiginously perched and appealing resort of Taormina, lies Etna, which dominates the countryside for miles around. It was snow and ice from this brooding volcano that the Saracens first used to perfect sorbets and ices, but the black flows of lava that criss-cross the small holdings and vineyards, plus the occasional pyrotechnic show leave you in no doubt that this is still a dangerous and active volcano. The best wines, from producers such as Benanti and Cottanero, reveal a nervy, minerally tension. Benanti’s Pietramarina Bianco and Nerello Mascalese-dominated red Majora are excellent examples of terroir-driven wines, as are Cottanero’s Mondeuse-driven L’Ardenza and the concentrated, structured spice and dark fruit of Sole de Sesta Syrah. As we look out over the black soils towards Etna a few kilometres away, Cottanero’s Vincenzo Cambria explains why winemakers cling to the side of this geological time bomb. ‘Everyone knows volcanic soils are incredibly fertile, but what is less well known is that each eruption and lava flow throws out totally different combinations of minerals and materials,’ he says. ‘This means that wine from only a few small plots can vary greatly in character.’ These soils also produce some of the best pistachios and almonds in the world. An altogether more pastoral scene at first presents itself on the train journey from Taormina to the one-horse Vallelunga station that serves the rambling Regaleali estate. It’s another lesson in Sicily’s agricultural wealth and, in the springtime at least – before the heat of summer parches the land brown – is verdantly green. Broad groves of orange and lemon fold into hills where sheep and shepherds vie with rolling fields of wheat. Pecorino, too, is produced in the villages here. Further into the interior, dramatic mountains rise, capped with snow, and the fortified hilltop town of Enna marks the highest pass on the route to Palermo. Here, the vines that produce the fruit for Regaleali wines benefit from the large fluctuations between warm sunny days and cool air at night. Aside from the raw natural beauty, a draw to this remote estate is Anna Tasca d’Almerita’s cookery school, just across the courtyard from her family home. ‘There is no great secret to traditional Sicilian food,’ she says. ‘It’s merely a question of using simple, seasonal ingredients and understanding and respecting these.’ Back in Taormina my stay coincides with the annual Sicilia en primeur event, which sees producers from among the 65 members of Assovini Sicilia showing the most recent vintage of their top wines. Sicily, with 118,000ha under vine, has long laboured under a not unfair reputation of mass-producing bulk wines. Assovini Sicilia and the en primeur event are designed to showcase the island’s best producers, and the tastings clearly show the quality and progress being made. Moreover, while Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon are much in evidence, so are exemplary samples of indigenous varieties – the mood is one of needing to protect the heritage of Sicilian vines. At the tastings I ask Marco Sabellico, a senior editor for the Gambero Rosso Italian wine guide, whether both will continue to exist side by side. ‘There is a place for both,’ he says. ‘A guide like ours helps because we taste and treat all varieties and styles equally, so an internationally obscure variety can achieve three glasses.’ Finally it is time to head back to Palermo and indulge in a little more eating and drinking before eading home. Due to the nature of Sicilian cuisine, with its simplicity and bold flavours, it’s best to rely on local recommendations of where to eat. Michelin gives a broadly accurate picture of some of the top restaurants, better still Slow Food’s recommendations, but the best way I’ve discovered to eat your way around Sicily is to ask the locals or simply take pot luck. Typically affordable, and often with a great-value list of mainly Sicilian wines, it’s the best way to discover why the locals live for their food and wine.