Sicilian holiday 2016

Saturday 24th

After breakfast we loaded the car up with our bags and set off for Brindisi airport, arriving in good time, although the boarding was early and we had no time for coffee until Rome where we spent four hours in the Diners Club partner lounge before finding our departure gate for the flight to Palermo. Sicily here we come!

 

The flight was absolutely full, plane late arriving and departing, but by 6.45 we had made contact with our driver Giuseppe who took us into Palermo at breakneck speed. We made it in half an hour and were greeted at the front lion door of Butera 28 by the Duchess, Nicoletta, the wife of the Duke of Palma who had inherited the property on the death of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, author of The Leopard. Checked in and taken to our apartment by English student intern Bianca who was enormously enthusiastic, we settled in and realised Alastair and Pat were next door, with a terrace linking the apartments. After their flight from NZ via Rome they had had a sleep and were ready for dinner. We went across the road to Ottava Nota where they fitted us in and we tried our first Sicilian meal with local wines. We had a nightcap and retired to bed.

 

Sunday 25th

We woke late to find the Wrights had got up at 7, been to the market and had breakfast at a cafe nearby. We grabbed a cup of tea and Italian toast and followed our tour guide Pat who already knew the lie of the land. We went back to the market which stretched all the way round a square and had a massive selection of stuff – vinyl records, books, comic strips, old newspapers, espresso makers (I bought one for 20 euros), old candelabra and chandelier pieces (Vanessa and Pat bought some), shoehorns (bought one of those too), glasses and sunglasses, Nazi seals and countless other bits and bobs.

 

Alastair and I went for coffee while the girls continued their forage before joining us. We chose pastries, ordered and paid for coffees etc, then joined the three deep throng at the coffee counter to gain attention for coffee delivery. Ours came, but Alastair had great difficulty in getting his beer. At last he was served at the same time as I succeeded in getting my second long espresso, by which time the queue was down to one row.

 

After coffee we headed up Via Alora to the fountain across the road from the Chiesa Di San Giuseppe Di Teatina where a priest was delivering a sermon to a small congregation. We threaded our way back through the lanes and side streets as it was close to lunchtime. We found the Ristorante Palazzo Tiabucco (?) and I was able to get a Moretti beer instead of the Peroni that seems to be ubiquitous and is like Becks, Heineken, and all the other bland international lagers. We enjoyed sardines, clams, grilled fritta mista, prawns and risotto, washed down with water and a local white wine that tasted slightly corked…but the waitress triumphantly produced a plastic cork. Still not convinced, but hard to prove!

 

We went back to Butera 28 for a well-earned rest before joining Lisa our tour leader at 7 for drinks and dinner. We were invited up to Nicoletta’s apartment for our tour introduction and meeting. Then Lisa led us out to dinner which was a bit daunting after our lunch, but the two different pastas, one with sardines and the other with seafood and tomatoes, were very good. We finished up with a Marsala and coffee. When we returned to our room, there were a lot of loudspeaker speeches outside which suddenly turned into quite a good concert, much better than the one in Lecce. It was apparently a combination of political meeting and concert.

 

Monday 26th

After a breakfast on the run at a cafe opposite the Botanic Gardens we go west from Palermo to the Arab region of Sicily past Trapeni and Marsala, where we visit the Villa Franca for a wine tour and lunch. The main purpose of the estate is to make a ‘perpetual’ Marsala using the same yeast every vintage as well as a very good dry white and Nero d’Avola blend red, as well as a Marsala from grapes dried on the vine, all of which we enjoyed with a beautiful lunch of thinly sliced swordfish and tuna, followed by busiate pasta with Trapenese pesto made with tomatoes and almonds.

 

The estate looks out over salt marshes, as well as two other estates, now with derelict houses, but the one built in the 18th century by John Woodhouse, the founder of the Marsala industry in Sicily, is a beautiful building and could be rebuilt to its former splendour. The Villa Franca has been faithfully reconstructed and restored by the current owners.

 

After lunch we climbed up to Erice which was a very touristy town with a Norman castle at the top and speciality Marzipan fruits sold in a convent owned producer. We travelled back to Palermo feeling replete and unable to summon up the appetite or energy for dinner.

 

Tuesday 27th

We meet downstairs for the short drive to the Capa market where Nicoletta will buy all the produce required for our cooking lesson and lunch. Two Americans have appeared much to Nicoletta’s surprise, not having confirmed their participation, but they have to be fitted in the small van with the other seven of us. The wife had already announced herself by pronouncing her skill as a cook and grower of produce which went down like a lead balloon.

 

The market is a fascinating experience, notably for the quality of the produce and Nicoletta’s relationship with her chosen suppliers. We spend 45 minutes sourcing wheels of swordfish, cherry tomatoes, bread and other ingredients, then return for coffee, cooking lesson and tour of the apartment. We don our aprons and are set to work, stirring, chopping and oiling, but it isn’t long before the American Fran has thrust herself into the forefront of jobs to be done, then losing interest and moving on to the next chance to shine. Her husband stood by looking somewhat henpecked.

 

Under Nicoletta’s expert direction, cherry tomatoes are laid out and covered with oil, mint and parsley are chopped and pistachios ground up with olive and peanut oil for the pesto, chickpea flower stirred with parsley and water for the panelle and almond milk mixed with corn starch and sugar for the blancmange. Once all the preparation is done and the dishes are either in the oven or ready to be put in, we grab a glass of wine and go for a tour of the apartment – there are amazing pieces of furniture, three libraries with a large volume of old books, paintings of family members, including three portraits by Picasso and a painting by Miro.

 

We sit down for lunch, seated round the elegantly set dining table, and are served the results of the cooking lesson. The fried panelle followed by the fusilli with pesto, swordfish with caramelised tomatoes and the almond blancmange. For us the pasta with pesto was the standout dish.

 

We have been joined by Giochino, Duke of Palma and adopted son and heir of Giuseppe de Lampedusa who is now over 80 and retired from his various positions as opera director in Rome and Naples, as well as a period in New York. Since their move to live at the palazzo in Palermo, Nicoletta has developed her Dinners with the Duchess business plus cooking classes and apartment accommodation. Most recently she has been filmed with Rick Stein for the BBC who she said was charming, although she had never heard of him. It took seven hours to film the process of making panelle, same as the ones we had helped prepare in a fraction of the time.

 

With many kisses and expressions of delight, we bid our farewells and leave Nicoletta to prepare dinner for 20 for tonight, wondering how she finds the energy. We can now leave the Americans behind as we load up the van for Giuseppe to take us to Cefalu via Monreale where we stop for an hour to see a magnificent Norman 11th century cathedral with mosaics that rival Aya Sofia in Istanbul. We climb to the top of the tower from which there was a panoramic view over Palermo.

 

Back down the hill, through Palermo and along the coast to Cefalu where we arrived at the Hotel Alberi del Paradiso at 5.30, too tired or lazy to make it down the hill to the old town. After a couple of drinks and nibbles we decided to retire to our room to watch BBC World and update the diary. Tomorrow we will make a trip inland and to the Mediterranean Coast at Agrigento.

 

Wednesday 28th

At 9 am Fabio loads us into the bus and we start the 90 minute journey to the middle of the island where our next cooking lesson is scheduled with Fabrizia Tasca Lanza who has taken over the business started in 1989 by her mother Anna. The countryside is quite barren on the way, but once we get close to the vineyard and estate near Vallelunga, it becomes more lush and fertile with sheep, goats and vineyards as well as evidence of heavy recent rain.

 

We arrive at the Tasca Lanza property, Casa Vecchie and Villa Regaleali, to be greeted by American intern Elissa, Rosella and then the Marchesa, Fabrizia. We prepared the ingredients for a timbale, sardine benafico and choux pastry sfinci, like profiteroles but expanded three times in the oven and coated with honey. Lunch was preceded by some deep fried sage leaves and the estate white wine and we then sat down in the kitchen/dining room to lunch joined by Fabrizia, Michael the Irish chef and Ashley, the new gardener from South London. Another very enjoyable lunch was followed by copious buying of Fabrizia’s book Come Home to Sicily, all personally signed, group photos outside and departure for Agrigento overlooking the Mediterranean.

 

We drove straight through the shoddily built town with amazing views to reach the Valley of Temples just after 4.30, but the queues were horrendous, so we were dropped at the end of the valley so we could walk back to the beginning avoiding the worst of the crowds. Stunning Greek temples from the 5th century BC, including ruins dedicated to Castor and Pollux, Hercules and Juno and the fully intact Temple of Concord which had avoided destruction by earthquake because it was built on a layer of soft clay which absorbed the tremors.

 

We had a two hour trip back to Cefalu and it was well after dark when we made it to the hotel, after arranging a meeting place in town for the next morning, so we could walk round the old town before we leave.

 

Thursday 29th

Up early to get round the town after breakfast before a 9.15 collection in the piazza by the waterfront. We followed directions and ended up on the corso before taking the fork to the duomo which was a 20 minute stroll on a supposedly traffic free road, but the exterior of the duomo was worth every step, a perfect Norman 12th century frontage with towers at both corners – the nave and apse were hidden from easy view, but could be seen clearly from the water. We took a short cut and found ourselves just above a beach from where it was only a short walk to our meeting point.

 

Faithful Fabio and Lisa arrived with our bags and we headed for the fishing port to meet Pascuale, his son Nino and the other Nino who took us out fishing on Pelicano on the harbour. There were marvellous views of the duomo’s profile which confirmed the beauty of the building’s design and construction under King Roger II nearly 1000 years ago (Alastair is less enthusiastic about Norman architecture than I am, but I grew up near a Norman church, so it brings back memories of my childhood in the Cotswolds). Cefalu from the water was very attractive with its muted palette of yellow, pink and off white. We arrived at a fishing spot and the team of fishermen let out 100 metres each of rope and netting before hauling in the first load of small fish including an octopus which kept climbing out of the bucket. Dissatisfied with the first haul, the net went out again and they were happy with the catch for lunch.

 

We headed back to the wharf to pick up anchovies for our entree before finding a swimming spot near the seven brothers rocks close to the shore. Three of us had a swim before the first glass of Vita Nuda wine with anchovy bruschetta. Then the first course of Pasta Norma (in case we caught no fish) was served – it was delicious, containing tomato passato made by Pascuale’s wife, eggplant and topped with salted ricotta. Then came the fish, mainly mullet, cooked in oil on the back of the boat. It was the freshest fish any of us had ever eaten, washed down with plenty of wine, fortunately a conservative 11.5 degrees ABV.

 

In a holiday of highlights our fishing trip with Pascuale and team on Pelicano was right up there with the best. Fabio then drove us east for 90 minutes to catch the ferry to Salina. We arrived about 7 pm to be met at the port and driven to Malfa where we checked in to the lovely Hotel Ravesi. As usual we had very little appetite after our lunch, but spent several hours drinking wine with Alastair, Pat, Chris and Lee before Lisa joined us, somewhat unwisely, since Pat was determined to organise her life for her. After a great day we went to bed about midnight which was very late for us, but slept well.

 

Friday 30th

We had a late start with no tour events till 7 this evening, so breakfast was a leisurely occasion outside the bar and breakfast room. Then there was time to check out the spa (fully booked out) and wander down to the village to the chemist and to get a coffee next door. After that we stretched out by the pool for a couple of hours before going for a short walk to find somewhere for a small bite to eat. The choice was very limited, as the Ravesi’s pizza place was shut till evening, and we crossed the road to the Bar Malvasia where we had a sort of pizza with tomatoes and mozzarella. After that it was time for a read as Commisario Brunetti and Venice were calling!

 

We joined the Wrights for a glass of wine outside their room before it was time to join Lisa for the walk to the restaurant which was in a part of the village we hadn’t realised existed. It was called the

PInnatta and we sat on the terrace where it was pleasant despite the cooling breeze. Dinner was a very interesting collection of vegetable and seafood dishes including a caponata. After dinner we had a brisk walk back up the hill past a ceramic place and along the main village road to the hotel.

 

Saturday 1st October

After our lazy afternoon, we were determined to get up in time to have a better look at Malfa after breakfast, as our departure wasn’t until 10.45 to catch the ferry back to Salina. We walked past the church and branched left at the cafe, being overtaken by the mushroom man in his Ape and a dog chasing him and his dog down the road and across a short cut.

 

Excitement over we went up a cutting and discovered a sign advertising ‘io bibo Salina’ which turned out to be a small winery with Malvasia grapes on racks drying for 15 days outside the storage and sales shed. We were invited in by the owner for a tasting before 10 am which we agreed to out of curiosity, although we refused the offer of tasting the red having sampled the Malvasia. We bought a bottle as well as a small packet of Salina’s capers to bring home. After this exciting interlude and chance to practice Italian, it was time for a coffee at the cafe where we discovered Alastair and Pat doing the same thing.

 

Check out completed, we were picked up from the Ravesi and conveyed to the port on the other side of the island. The hydrofoil was on time and an hour and a half later we were back on the mainland where Fabio met us to drive us to Taormina which is a very picturesque tourist town on a hill above the coast from which a gondola operates return trips. We checked out the language school before finding a restaurant along a lane where we had a beer and a pizza.

 

Next we walked to the Greek Theatre which was in an impressive state of preservation and still used for performances. We then wandered down the Main Street which was pedestrians only, joined the Wrights for a drink before meeting the van for the trip to Siracusa where we were booked to spend two nights at Henry’s House, a charming boutique hotel on Ortigia with eccentric paintings in every room and antique furniture. Luckily for us our room was served by a lift, unlike the Wrights’ which was up another staircase altogether.

 

We were booked for dinner at Sicilia in Tavolo on the Via Cavour where we were due to enjoy fresh seafood (vongole, cozze and gamberi), pasta and an excellent tiramisu, all washed down as usual with beautiful local wines and finished with a digestivo. Before dinner, as it was raining, our table wasn’t ready and in fact the people must have sat there for an hour waiting for the rain to stop, so we went back up the road to the Bar Al Sud where we had drinks and bruschetta. On the way out I discovered Baffo d’Oro in the fridge, so decided to go back there on my birthday to have one in celebration.

 

Sunday 2nd October

My birthday morning was cloudy but dry and we had a very pleasant breakfast on one of the terraces which had a view across the harbour to Siracusa new town on the other side. After breakfast we set out for Ragusa in the south eastern interior where we were due to attend an agricultural show, the 47th annual occasion, because Lisa’s food suppliers were there for the day. There was a long queue to get in, but by the time we arrived the weather was warm and sunny. We were met by the artisan donkey milk producer’s daughter and went, inevitably for a coffee and pastry near the cattle stalls, before going in search of the food hall. There were lots of cheese stands, selling Ragusana DOP Cariocavallo which is a very local hard cheese produced and matured in large blocks, ancient grain pastas and wines.

 

We climbed in the van and drove to Chiaramonte Gulfi in the Iblei mountains where the Ristorante Majore upstairs from the original butcher’s shop specialises in traditional pork recipes including a superb risotto. Pigs in the area are fed on acorns and broad beans as an important part of their diet. At the end of a very filling and liquid lunch, including birthday bubbles, my 70th birthday cake was brought in and the whole restaurant joined in singing Happy Birthday. As we got in the van, a local appeared at the door, pointing at me and saying I looked like Bobby from Dallas which I think was a compliment.

 

Our day was still far from done. The next stop was the Fantoi Cutrera olive mill which was in full swing processing the olive harvest, using the most modern pressing machinery. After our lunch, the olive oil tasting was a bit hard to get through, but we were also able to buy some of their pestos.

 

It was quite a long drive back to Siracusa which we didn’t reach until after 7 pm. We had no room for dinner, but I was determined to go in search of my birthday Baffo d’Oro at the Al Sud. We had a quiet couple of drinks there and retired to bed after a very enjoyable day.

 

Monday 3rd October

This morning we have our final cooking class of the tour which requires a drive to Catania, Sicily’s second largest city about 45 minutes north of Siracusa. We were met by our cooking tutor in front of the Duomo de Sant Agata, built in baroque style from traditional black lava stone combined with white stone. We then toured La Pescheria fish market and the vegetable sellers, buying produce for lunch, which was to be prepared and eaten in the house belonging to the Catanese Historical Society. The kitchen was true to the principles of the historical society and lunch was served in the elegant dining room hung with old paintings and photographs of historical figures. A notable dish was the Pasta Norma, previously enjoyed on the fishing trip and named after the opera by Bellini, Catania’s most famous son (not sure our pasta was acceptable, so it might have been replaced by a more professionally made pasta), and the cannoli for which we had created the hollow pastry cornets, subsequently filled with pistachio cream.

 

The final visit was to a winery on the southern slopes of Mount Etna where the owner Michele Murgo gave us a tour of the bottling plant before a tasting of their range of wines, both white and red, accompanied by olives, bread and olive oil. Unfortunately we weren’t able to do full justice to the tasting, but I did buy a bottle of Mt Etna Nero d’Avola/Carricante to take home. We said goodbye to Fabio who was leaving to drive back to his home in Cefalu. On our return to Henry’s House we all sat on the terrace looking out over the harbour to enjoy our final evening on tour.

 

Tuesday 4th October

We got up and went for a walk round the shore line of Ortigia including the Jewish quarter and Temple of Apollo before returning to the hotel for breakfast. After a leisurely breakfast, we took our cases downstairs and checked out, before heading up the street to the Aretusa Fountain where Vanessa had some shopping to do while I sat at a table on the street drinking a lungo expresso. We had a wander past the Duomo and along Via Cavour where we found the Tami stores which had some excellent items for Christmas presents. Finally we joined the Wrights for a beer in the Piazza Duomo while we waited for Lisa at 1 pm and had a quick tour of the Duomo which was part baroque, part 19th century and part Greek with columns that survived the 1693 earthquake.

 

We walked to Ortigia’s market and Fratelli Burgo’s La Salumeria for a last look at the amazing range of fresh produce and delicatessen products before sitting down for our last lunch at a restaurant around the corner where we were able to order what we wanted from the menu. There was a superb selection of antipasto dishes for sharing, including baccala, anchovies and prawns, followed by spaghetti con sarde for me and pasta con vongole for Vanessa (magnificent).

 

Our transport arrived, having picked up our bags from the hotel, and we set off for Catania where the others were all due to catch planes to Rome while we had our last night at a hotel in Catania on the Via Etnea. We checked into the San Max which was clean and comfortable, although not palatial, booked our taxi for the morning and walked down the street in search of a last drink and something to eat, although we probably didn’t need anything. I had a pizza which was very good, but too big to finish.

 

Wednesday 5th October

The taxi arrived at 5.45 am to take us to the airport and check in was slow, including being stung with an excess baggage charge for our extra suitcase bought a couple of days ago. The plane left nearly on time and we arrived in Rome with plenty of time to find our check in, although we had two espressos while waiting for the check in counter to show on the screen. We found the Cathay counters and checked our bags through to Auckland before remembering we had kept nothing out for the Hong Kong stopover.

 

Then it was time to go through immigration before finding the Alfore lounge where our Diner’s Cards permitted entry. We had an hour and a half to kill before boarding, which I used to start writing my column on Sicily for Farmers Weekly, in the hope it would be needed for this week, to be finished on arrival in Hong Kong.

 

We flew out at 1.10 and our wonderful Italian holiday was over!

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