Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bella Sicilia - Parte Due

Buon giorno! Thanks for joining as we continue our journey through Bella Sicilia!

As I mentioned at the top of Part 1, a big reason for wanting to make this trip was to explore the land where my maternal ancestors hailed from. My mother had told me when I was young that her parents had emigrated to the US from Palermo, and that earlier ancestors had been dukes and duchesses in the Italian royal court. 

Prior to leaving for our trip, I researched the family name (Librizzi) in and also did a general search for the name in the Palermo area. I found the Ellis Island immigration records, but little else. I was disappointed but decided I would ask our trip leader once we got to Palermo to see if he could help. More about this later.

Caffe Macchiato
First, I have to tell you about the rest stops/gas stations in Sicily! You might think this is a strange entry, but these are not like US highway rest stops. No, no. Most of them have fabulous espresso and wonderful pastry, like the light & delicious vanilla creme stuffed bomboloni (doughnut) pictured above. And no matter what kind of coffee you order (cappuccino, caffe macchiato, or Americano), it is served in a real cup,  no paper cups for my Italian brethren. Just another custom we should adopt in the US (IMHO).

Pannettone with Oro di Manna
We spent a day visiting the beautiful seaside town of Cefalu, and the hill town of  Castelbuono (“good castle”), which is so charming that it looks like it was plucked directly from the MGM backlot. Besides the castle which overlooks the town and dates from the 1600s, the town’s main street is lined with ristorantes and shops, my favorite being Fiasconaro, a lovely pastry shop. One of the products they are best known for is their panettone. You are probably familiar with the stale, dried-out panettone sold in the US around Christmas. Forget all you know about supermarket panettone - this sourdough-based cake was amazing! Moist and redolent with fresh candied oranges and raisins, and moistened with Marsala, it was a revelation. To top it off, they served it with a dollop of the most decadent thing I think I ate the whole trip: Oro di Manna. A cocoa and hazelnut creme that I fell in love with (of course, I brought a jar home!). 

Pasta Verdura
Fresh Ricotta
The next day we said good-bye to the Palermo region and made our way to Mazara del Vallo, a town along the coast with a large Tunisian population. One of the highlights during our stay in this area, was hiking near the very well preserved ruins of  Segesta, a temple thought to have been built around 420 BC. We had lunch at an agritourismo where the hosts served fresh ricotta, and pasta with zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and pumpkin topped with ground pistachios. By law, everything served at an agritourismo must come from the farm and it must be organic. More on another one of these later.

Dancing Satyr
There is a small museum in Mazara that showcases the “Dancing Satyr,” a bronze statue brought up from the sea by Sicilian fishermen in 1998. Experts date the statue somewhere between the fourth and second century BC. Although the statue is missing both arms and one leg, it is remarkable to see. The head is thrown back, in what archeologists say, is a kind of orgiastic trance. In Greek mythology, these half-human figures, were the escorts to Baccho, the God of wine, which would explain the creature’s pose of delirium. Well worth a visit.

It made sense that our next stop was the Pellegrino Winery , a company specializing in Marsala wine. Like me, you probably associate Marsala wine with the very sweet, almost syrupy types we have in the US. Read on. 

As a quick primer on this subject, Marsala actually means “port of Allah,” Mars (port) and Ala (Allah). Marsala wine is “fortified,” which means that more alcohol is added at the end of the fermentation process, when the appropriate amount of residual sugar is reached. The English invented this process in the 1700s because they wanted to transport the wine home and it had to be stabilized for shipping. They had experience doing this with other wines such as port and Madeira, so this was a natural extension.
We sampled four different Marsala wines during our tour (the company produces twelve in all). The wines age at least one year in oak. Wines older than ten years are considered “aged,” and interestingly, only older Marsala wines have the year on the bottle. We tasted a 1980 vintage (19% alcohol)  that had been aged 25 years - it was delicious - very dry, and similar to cognac or sherry.

Before the next tasting, our host offered us “tarralles,” a hybrid cookie-cracker that I’ve enjoyed in the US. I think I might have to try to make these at home to use at aperitivo time (which my Italian friends have got down to a science). 

The last tasting was their “Rubino,” a dessert wine with 18% alcohol and goes wonderfully with dark chocolate (a specialty of the Modica region which we also visited). 

Pellegrino Winery, founded in 1880, is the largest family owned company in Sicily. 

In this general area, we next visited the salt flats of Trapani. This was a fascinating tour, discovering the process for extracting the delicate “fiore del sale,” which hasn’t changed much in centuries. We visited after harvest season, but a short video provided insight into the backbreaking work done by generations of men. As you approach the flats, you start to see what look like small mountains of snow, of course this is salt. An ancient windmill, no longer used, was built approximately 500 years ago to grind the salt. Inside the windmill, you can see the complicated machinery (including  an Archimedes screw, which would drive the grinding stone). 
Salt flats of Trapani

Vecchia Masseria
Vecchia Masseria
We spent the night at the gorgeous Agriturismo Vecchia Masseria in Piazza Amerina. This was my favorite hotel of the entire trip, sadly we only spent one night here. Definitely off the beaten path, but if you are in this area, I highly recommend staying here. The property has been lovingly restored and it is absolutely beautiful. Besides nice rooms (some with kitchens), there is a wonderful tavern and restaurant (the property owner and his son are the chefs). A lovely pool area is available for warm days, or you could visit the resident goats and horses, accompanied by “Frank,” the adorable and very friendly, Rottie, who we fell in love with. 

Mushroom Ravioli
We had a wonderful dinner at the hotel that evening, consisting of ravioli with fresh mushrooms, and veal in Sicilian orange sauce, accompanied by plenty of fabulous wine. We slept very well.

Tomorrow, we’re off to amazing Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples - spectacular!


Agrigento - Temple to Hercules

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bella Sicilia!

Pasta con lo Sarde

I just returned from two weeks on the beautiful island of Sicily, a trip in the making for almost a year. A year that I’ve been calling a “milestone” year for several reasons:

  • a “decade” birthday for me
  • a trip to awesome Alaska in May (on my husband’s wishlist for at least 20 years)
  • visiting Sicily as an opportunity to explore the land of my maternal ancestors
  • and, finally, the impending retirement at the end of the year from my pharmaceutical career

I hesitate to use the word “retirement” because I’m not retiring in the traditional sense. But I am retiring from this part of my working life. Many people have asked me “what will you do now?” The honest answer is, I don’t know. Travel is certainly on the list. Perhaps expand my passion for writing about food, baking, and travel. The slate will be wiped clean and ready for a new chapter!

About halfway through every long trip, I get this overwhelming feeling that I don’t want to go home. I want to keep going - I want to keep walking through the ancient streets, through the bustling cities and quiet hill towns, rolling past the beautiful countryside. This sense first came over me during our 2015 Croatia/Slovenia/Bosnia-Herzgovinia trip. I know many people have experienced this. I guess it’s the definition of “wanderlust.” 
Monreale Cathedral

Listening to our trip leader and bus driver speak to each other in Italian (or Sicilian) with Italian folk music playing in the background as we traversed the island, this trip was a true cultural immersion.

We flew into Palermo a day early and after settling into our hotel, we had dinner at a nice restaurant close by. The photo at the top of the post is of the famous Sicilian dish -- pasta with sardines and fennel (both plentiful in Sicily). Made with fresh sardines and anchovies, and topped with toasted breadcrumbs, it is absolutely delicious and was the perfect first meal for our trip.

The next day we kicked off with a street food tour in the Sicilian capital. Run by Streat Palermo (not a typo, that is the name of the tour), this fun four hour tour walks in, around, and through the busy outdoor markets, all the while sampling delicacies (some of which are unique to Palermo), and learning about the sights along the way. Did you know that Palermo has 365 churches (for a population of 60 million)?! One for each day our tour guide told us. 

Not unique to Palermo (I’ve had them here in the US) are the wonderful little “arancino,” otherwise known as rice balls. These delicious treats can be stuffed with ground beef, peas, and cheese. You may notice the absence of tomato sauce from that description. That’s because authentic Sicilian rice balls omit it. And, interestingly, they can be referred to in two different ways: “arancina” (female), or “arancino” (male, from the Arab influence prominent in Sicily’s history).

BTW: Palermo has the third largest concentration of street food in the world (after China and India). Who knew?

Chickpea Fritters
On our way to our next taste destination (addictive chickpea fritters), we stopped at Monreale Cathedral, built in the 12th century by King William. The cathedral took 30 years to complete and includes 4,000 pounds of mosaics! In fact, this is the largest display of Byzantine mosaics in the world. 

Another delicious legacy from the early Arabs, is “sfingone,” roughly translated means “sponge.” Here on the East coast of the US, we would recognize this vaguely as Sicilian pizza. Thick, soft squares of tomato, caciocavallo cheese, breadcrumbs, and onions. There is one producer in all of Palermo who makes the dough and then individual vendors season it and toss it on a flattop griddle to warm it. 

Pane ca' Meusa cooking
If you’re doing a street food tour in Palermo, eventually you are going to come across a sandwich known as “pane ca’ meusa,” (bread with spleen), or “frittola” (butcher waste). Not a very appetizing description. Developed ages ago by enterprising Palermitanos (who waste nothing) after Kosher Jews discarded certain organ meats (spleen and lung), this is one of those things I think you either love or hate. The cooks slice the meat paper thin, fry it with olive oil, bay leaves, and cheese, season with salt and pepper, and serve it on a brioche roll. Well, I was there so I had to try it. Let’s suffice it to say, I am not in the “love” camp. I can’t even describe the taste. It was so unappealing to me, I didn't even take a picture. Enough said, let’s move on, shall we?

After our adventures with animal organ meats, we were in desperate need of a “digestivo.” Luckily, our guide, Francesca, had just the ticket. At a kiosk, the handsome man behind the counter makes fun drinks (alcoholic or non) for people on the go. He mixes orange or lime syrups, water, and just before you drink it, adds a fizzy tablet to make it bubble up. The trick is to drink the whole thing before the fizz evaporates (and without it exploding all over your clothes) - no easy feat! But it definitely gives your stomach a much-needed break. And, as Francesca told us, it is not considered bad manners to burp out loud after drinking it!
Digestivo Man!
Drink fast!

From there, we headed directly to the crown jewel of this tour: cannolo! Again, not a typo. A singular pastry is known as a cannolo, more than one is cannoli. This is now the cannolo by which all cannoli shall be judged! With a shell so crisp, it shattered into a million pieces when I bit into it, and filled with fresh, fragrant ricotta sprinkled with crushed pistachios, candied orange zest, and chocolate chips, it was magic!

All this history and food and our actual two week tour had not even begun yet. I had a feeling this vacation was going to be epic, for many reasons.

Tomorrow, part two, in which I’ll take you with us as we start the official trip and visit the beautiful towns of Castelbuono, Cefalu, Erice, and more! And you won't want to miss reading about our lunch at the fabulous (two Michelin star) Duomo in Ragusa!

 Ciao for now!