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

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