This September, I had the privilege of not only attending a magnificent culinary adventure in southern Italy, but also serving as an assistant on said trip. I work for Peggy Markel who has conducted food tours all over the world for over 25 years, and is a culinary itinerant at the forefront of the Slow Food movement. Her trips aim to connect culture and cuisine – exposing her guests to the essence of life wherever they go – be it Spain, Morocco, Italy or India. I was lucky enough to be brought on board as an intern, and was offered the opportunity of a lifetime — to experience the magic of Peggy’s adventures firsthand.
Buon viaggio, and off to Italy I went!
I begun my trip to Italy with a stopover of a few days in Rome (here is the link to my blog post on my experiences there, as this post is dedicated purely to my time in Sicily). After a few short days of acclimating to the time change and indulging in a few (okay, a lot) of Roman treats, it was time to jump on the flight to Catania and meet up with our group.
DAY ONE – CATANIA and ETNA
After devouring one final pastry and cappuccino at the Roscioli Caffè in Rome, we scurried to the airport (“we” = my dad and I; he came with me to see me hard at work!!)
At the foot of Mount Etna, a saucily active volcano, sits many small villages and farms on the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea – Sicilia. We arrived to our hotel for the first evening – the Donna Carmela – a charming, eco-chic hotel overlooking both Mount Etna and the sea – the perfect mix of earth and sea.
Since the guests were arriving at different times and from different time zones, we had a relaxing aperitivo overlooking the sunset. The salinity of the olives and the minerality of the wine were the perfect introduction to the landscape of Sicily and our culinary adventure – volcanic rumblings, crashing waves, and the sweet, salty air of the coastal waters… all embedded within the flavors of the island’s products.
It was only the first few hours on the first day, but I could already tell this was going to be special. I had that tickle in your gut feeling that something right was happening. The hotel was perfect, the food was divine, and the company… a hodgepodge collection of single travelers, couples, and families — I felt a sense of kindred friendship creeping in… Whether it is Peggy’s beautifully handpicked and meticulously crafted itinerary, all the wine… or an act of fate, I knew we had arrived… and something great was about to unfold for all of us.
DAY TWO – FERRIES and ISLANDS
Off to the races… our first full day in Sicily was spent leaving Sicily… and starting toward the fabled Aeolian islands… the sun was out in full force, dancing in between clouds, welcoming us to the island life that awaited us on Salina – our Aeolian home for the next week. With ginger candies in tow, we boarded the ferry. It wasn’t the most pleasant segment of the journey for a queasy stomach like mine, but we made it in one piece.
After waddling off of the ferry with luggage in hand (now I truly understand the word luggage – after LUGging those darn things all over the place), we headed to a cute little seaside cafe for our inaugural meal on Salina, and enjoyed local beer and pizza while soaking in the afternoon sun and views. Next, we were headed to our next abode for the next two days (and my favorite locale that we visited – hence the one million photos) – Hotel Signum. The decor was absolutely dreamy – old world chic meets minimalist luxury… simple and elegant, yet rustic and authentic… sort of like Sicily itself. Check out the photos — will be modeling my home after this place (stay tuned).
We settle into the hotel for the night and our room was most magnificent – it overlooks the infinity pool that overlooks the ocean. Yeah, tough life. The air is perfumed with the scent of citrus from the lemon trees that surround the pool area, and a perfectly conducted symphony of crickets hums in the distance. A slight chill clings to the air as I lay outside, drinking in the moment and enjoying the last few wisps of sunlight as the sun slinks behind the volcanic islands visible on the horizon.
DAY THREE – MICHELIN STARS AND CATS
Day three was a special one.. we had the distinct opportunity of cooking alongside Hotel Signum’s Michelin star – and female – head chef, Martina Caruso and her most humble father, Michele. We learned how to make elegant yet simple (seemingly, anyhow, if it’s done by a Michelin-star chef) Sicilian dishes that we later got to try for dinner (of course they let us nibble during the lesson.. that would have been plain rude if not!). We made the most delicious potato salad with lemon, eggplant upon eggplant dish (not a complaint), and the very traditional caponata with local prawns on top. All/most of the produce they use is either grown on their land or sourced locally. Too good.
Quick aside — let me just say that the Italians / Sicilians / probably the rest of the world is seemingly miles ahead of the whole “farm to table” situation that is oh-so-trendy here in the States. The Slow Food Movement began in Italy, which basically aims to incentivize small farms and producers to do what they do instead of supporting mass production. (You’ll see a lot of this in the remainder of the post also as we visit many places that fall under this category of slow food). Agriturismo – also a novel concept to the US – is the concept in which a hotel also has farms/vineyards/gardens on their grounds — which was the case with all three of the hotels that we stayed in while we were in Sicily.
I don’t understand why it is such a new and novel idea to support the little guys – the guys who make an honest living doing what they love and what they are absolute experts on. Often, these businesses are owned and operated by families, so the workers are most literally born to do this job. If everyone was more willing to spare a single dollar or euro toward an artisanal product instead of seeking the best deal, the world would be a better place. Alas, we live in a world where discount trumps quality and pretty much everything else — so we have to work harder to make food that is done the right way more universal, and not just a luxury. Food is a right, not a privilege — my life’s motto! Anyway, back to the life of a lifetime….
We wandered around the town of Santa Marina and all I can say is: cats. Here are some pictures. We had a few hours to meander and I spent all of my time with le gatti. Miao.
DAY FOUR – BOATS AND LIGHTHOUSES
After two glorious evenings at the Hotel Signum, we were on our way to our next destination – but not until after a relaxing boat ride around the island of Salina, taking in its glory from the sparkling blue waters. The sun was shining beautifully that day – with hardly a cloud in the sky. The thrill of the boat and the salty, sunny air lightened everyone’s mood, putting a little extra spring in our step. We had a pasta lunch on the boat and after a sunny, cheerful afternoon, we alighted for the Capofaro – a Tasca family 5-star resort – sure to be filled with 5-star experiences.
We arrive and are welcomed with a wine tasting and tour of the vineyards (pull my arm — wine tasting!!??) I really loved their wines – the whites – minerally and bright, the reds – full, moody and sharp, but I was surprised (and downright mesmerized) by my favorite — the dessert wine. I’m a total sweet tooth so this isn’t a huge surprise, but most dessert wines, I find to be absolutely vile and sickeningly sweet. But this deliciousness… I still dream about it. The Tenuta is the Tasca’s desert wine made from malvasia grapes and oh boy is it luscious and wonderful… it is sweet, but not overly so, and is like drinking velvet and honey and love all at once. Do yourself a favor and buy 50 cases of it. Drink it all. Bathe in it.
We follow with a dinner from the young chef Ludovico — a sassy young fella with a taste for the traditional and the avant-garde. And just like that, the culinary adventure was half over.
DAY FIVE – CAPERS AND CELEBS
We begun our day with a tour at a caper farm to learn where those briny delicious things come from. They are the pickled or salted bud of the caper plant, so there is a very narrow window of when you can harvest the bud. It then blooms and produces a beautiful pink flower, which then becomes the caper berry, an oblong fruit that is treated similarly to the bud and is pickled, salted, etc., and eventually finds its place on an hors d’oeuvres plate. The plant is a vine and it loves to grow into the craggy volcanic rocks of the Sicilian landscape, so the harvest is a job that has to be done by hand – not by machine. Because of this, prices are high and labor is slim, so it is unfortunately considered to be a dying and endangered crop simply due to the lack of incentive to produce the product. Enter Slow Food and the wave of Sicilians concerned for the preservation of traditional agriculture! And thank god, because capers are delightful. Only being sprinkled atop lox bagels and peppered throughout putanesca — I now have a million more uses for the salty morsels — pesto, fried as a garnish, and ice cream! Yes– it’s awesome.
The caper farm was a delightful experience, and it was very interesting to meet with a local producer. The farm itself was messy at best; there were buckets and a pile of old broken machinery and garbage – nothing like the glamorous third wave farms in the Californian valleys. It was rustic. It was REAL. This farm was this man’s livelihood and destiny, not a bored Harvard-educated midlife crisis.
The manmade rubble and disorganization may not have been aesthetically appealing to the Edison lightbulb, succulent-loving, bespectacled snobbery of the farm-to-table chic society, but the wild disarray of the natural world at the farm could be marveled at unanimously. Walking through the grounds, your nose would key you in to the next discovery. Wild fennel was everywhere — perfuming the air with its licoricy sweetness, the yellow (expensive!) pollen dusting the grassy paths. Next up were the gravity and Darwin-defying pomegranate trees: boastful, weighty crimson fruits being held by straining, thin wisps of branches.
Just like any museum or exhibit, we ended the tour in the shop, where I gladly purchased as many caper products as my purse could fathom. Salted capers, caper pesto, medium capers, small capers, caper salt… overkill? Never. Caper berries in Italian: cucunci (“coo-COON-chee”). Aka my unsuspecting bae’s new term of endearment. (Sorry.)
That evening we enjoyed another cooking class with Fabrizia, trying our hands at making traditional Aeolian dishes including stuffed squids and ravioli. I loved rolling out the pasta and forming the ravioli – definitely a lot of work but worth it. Stuffing the squids was strange but weirdly exciting. We were given whole squids (named mine Squidward) and had to cut off the tentacles, eyes, pull out the ink pen put the stuffing inside, and skewer the top so it wouldn’t spill out. It sort of looked like stuffing bladders and was very odd, but it was fun trying to butcher this slimy creepy sea creature. The cavity was a perfect place to put our stuffing of eggplant, breadcrumbs and tomatoes. Not sure if I’m allowed to say this so I won’t, but we had a celeb singer in our midst that we got to cook with (think 90s, think the song “Torn”…) She was absolutely dear and wonderful and such a sweet human. Plus my 4 year old self was really excited.
We also made caper ice cream that was surprisingly so, so good and served it in a Sicilian chocolate “roof tile” (molded to look like a roof tile used in a lot of Sicilian homes). Sicilian chocolate is also very unique, due to the way it’s made. It is never heated high enough to melt the sugar, so the turbinado sugar stayed in its grainy form, giving the chocolate tiles a gritty texture that I really loved. On Peggy’s May adventure to Sicily (not to Sicily and the Aeolians), she visits Antica Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica, the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily. If you can’t make it to Sicily, you can buy the chocolate online and see what this yummy chocolate is all about!
DAY SIX – CAN YOU DRINK ANY MORE WINE?
This was out last day at Capofaro and our last night on the lovely island retreat of Salina. And what to do on your last day of island life? Go to a winery at 11am, that’s what. We sauntered through the olive grove to where the grapevines were, and there waiting for us was a table full of wines to try and food pairings, built into a little nook in the side of the volcanic mountain. The vineyard is built on the slope of the mountain overlooking the sea. The salinity of the ocean and the volcanic soils surely show up in the flavor profiles of the wine – a perfect balance of earth and sea. It was pretty special to sample the wines in the exact location of where the grapes were grown; it was quite the holistic wine experience.
As with every other tour, we headed to the gift shop off-site to let our lovely guests pick up some wine souvenirs (96 euro dessert wine, anyone?) and the most lovely thing happened. A neighbor of the vineyard brought us beautiful mint and pomegranates to say thank you and to express his gratitude to us, completely unprompted. Sicilian hospitality and gratitude is pretty incredible; he told us humbly, “I don’t have much to offer you, but I climbed my trees to bring these to you.” We were grateful, humbled and we ate his offerings in our dessert that night.
DAY SEVEN – TAORMINA and the RETURN TO THE MOTHERLAND
We said goodbye to Salina and took the ferry back to the port of Messina (cue Much Ado About Nothing) back on Mother Sicily. We explored the town of Messina and marveled at Calabria and mainland Italy– you can see it from the town — it is only a short ferry ride away.
We then went to Taormina, a (touristy) oceanside town on the cliff, for lunch and shopping. It was cute and a nice place to stretch our legs after being in a ferry and a van for a while. I purchased some painted pottery as a souvenir and soon enough we were whisked back to our first hotel, the Donna Carmela.
DAY EIGHT – WATER, WINE and FISH, but not to Biblical
Saving the best for last — I think our last day was one of my favorites. We woke up bright and early and headed into the town of Catania to witness the fabled Catania fish market – a bustling food market full of hollering fishmongers, vendors and shop owners. In addition to all of the fish and sea creatures one could ever want to buy or eat (live snails trying their best to escape, swordfishes, octopi, oh my), there were stands full of spices, meat and fruit. I was given some money and had to put my Italian and Sicilian knowledge to the test — and order us some fruit and other things! A little scared, I muttered my way through the Italian transaction and garnered us some pears, prickly pears (fichi d’india), some spices, and whole roasted onions (so darn good, peeps).
On our way out (to the best vineyard ever) we went to a classic Catania cafe and got sweets and espresso. My favs: cappuccino and a tart made with tiny fresh wild strawberries. After a few hours in the van, we finally arrived at our destination: Terrazze dell’Etna Winery – high in the mountains outside outside of Catania. I was about to be grouchy about being in the car for that long, but the views instantly made up for it. At the base of Mount Etna, we were surrounded by volcanic fields, and miles (kilometers?) of rows and rows of vines. See pictures below — it was amazing. We got to tour the fermenting and bottling facilities, buy some things (of course), and enjoy a yummy home-cooked meal with some of their wine pairings. (They gifted me a bottle of my fav wine – a 2010 Cirneco – that I enjoyed over Thanksgiving this year!) Amaze, amaze, amaze. Some of their varieties are available in the States. Look ’em up.
Alas, we had arrived to our final “gala” dinner — enjoyed at the Donna Carmela. We gave our final words, gave gifts to our guests, and gave our best wishes for the future — vowing that it wasn’t goodbye, but see you later, as it goes.
The next morning, it was time to go, say goodbye to my dad in the Rome train station, and head onto my next adventure — Tuscany.
Ciao, and just like that !!!!!! I was on my way to Florence – for two culinary adventures back to back… I had to empty my suitcase (thanks dad for being a mule and bringing all of my Sicilian treasures back home with you!) and loosen my belt… up next on the blog. Andiamo!!
**ALL PHOTOS ARE MINE UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED**