September 25, 2011

Sicily: Same and Different

This September's program in Sicily was our first in two years, and in many ways we were unsure about what we would find. We were pleasantly surprised to see how Fabrizia Lanza is tending her mother, Anna Tasca Lanza's exquisite garden and cooking school. This was the first trip since the passing of Anna Tasca Lanza, great friend and renowned cookbook author, whose estate, Regaleali was—and still is, the centerpiece of our program.

We found some things changed, as things often are over time, and other things we found to be as expected. In the end, we left re-invigorated about Sicily and its future. The island's deep flavors and rough landscape is still unlike any other in Italy, and we were pleased to find that a younger, innovative generation is now carrying culinary traditions forward. We are excited to be on the crest of this new Sicilian wave, and look forward to bringing you, our guests, along for the ride.

One of my favorite global expressions is, "same, same but different." Here are a few examples of what we found:

Palermo was cleaner than I'd remembered and the view from our third story apartment revealed the myth that Palermitani eat way into the night. At midnight the streets were still lined with table after table and the grill was smoking away with large tenticled species.

Ristorante Francu e Pescatori is still alive and well. Still hard to get to, but well worth the trip into the underworld to find it. Chef Franco is as generous as ever, and passionate about his cooking and his ancestry. 

The mythical landscape of the Regaleali wine estate is the same "as it ever was."

Fabrizia set a table outside under Anna's Palm, and a blanket of stars. Dancing to live music in the barn on our last night, was a "first" at Regaleali.

Anna's garden is even fuller of forgotten fruits, pistachio, figs and flowers, than it was before. A legacy she left to Fabrizia who is caring for it and sharing it generously.

Modicans have always had a good sense of style. Good friend Innocenzo Pluchino, has put a simple, classic touch on his Beach Club, where the food equally matches the aesthetic in taste and to the eye. Bingo.

Bonajuto is still mixing and melting chocolate, but not just any chocolate and not just to any temperature. New flavors to us are being developed from recipes from the 1700s. Stay tuned.

Our new friends, the Padovas at Mastri Di San Basilio, showed us the simplicity of "materia prima" with the unadulterated tasting of their prestigious extra virgin olive oil, and the fine restoration of their country house, surrounded by 450 acres of verdese and maresco olives.

Wonders never cease at Catania's ancient Fish Market. Still alive with fresh starry-eyed fish, whole and separated into hunks of fresh flesh ready for a cooks able hand. Sights of purple cauliflower, mounds of melanzana, compact and shiny, ready to fry, grill, or put into a parmigiano. Fruit, innards, and various forms of cacciocavallo cheese, line the old market's streets.

We were delighted by our cooking class at Katane Palace. A fine place to stay in Catania's historic center. Smoked ventresca (which we smoked right in the kitchen, see photo above), fish stock, seafood risotto and tomato emulsion with gamberi crudi was just right. 

The home-made chocolate gelato helped the sun go down...

Join us next year to taste a bit of the old and the new in Sicily: September 6-13, 2012

* Photos by Merete Mueller

September 20, 2011

Catania, Sicily: An Endangered Market, Alive and Well.. for Now

The Fontana di Amenano, built by sculptor Tito Angelini in 1867, owes its name to the underground river it takes its water from. The jet that causes the water to cascade is nicknamed "the fountain of the blanket-like water." From here, one descends beyond the veil, down the stairs, into the belly of the Catania fish market.

Old men and young, stand behind make-shift stands in old clothes and rubber boots. The stone street is wet with water and the occasional fish gut. Fish of all kinds are huddled together in blue plastic tubs, wooden crates and buckets, and spread along tables in colorful forms of fishy madness, with the slaughter and sadness of a funeral parlor.

Bright eyes and bloody heads sit beside exquisitely butchered torsos of tuna and swordfish. Tiny schools of fish lay one dimensional on ice, next to neonatal neighbors of baby squid, whitebait and minuscule clams that squirt. Piles of ricci (sea urchin) lay on top of each other looking like spiky black stones, used for  Medieval hand grenades. When opened they display thin channels of briny gonads that we like to slurp up raw with a bit of lemon.

Lampuga is in season—beautiful grey and yellow mahi mahi. I can't say that I haven't enjoyed eating them as this week alone I've had them prepared raw with pomegranates, baked with tomato, red onion and capers, and pan fried with breadcrumbs.

Yet, I can't help feeling that we are raping the sea of its bounty and delicate balance. To think this happens nearly every day is astounding. Yet, it seems the Sicilians are partial to fish. It can be economical, throwing nothing away. One uses the bones and head with fleshy cheeks for broth.

We could tell the real fishermen from the ones who were not, as they only had their small catch of the day. They were few and looked hungrier. Their dialect strong and their faces, ruddy and weary.

And you may ask yourself... so why does she write about it so poetically?

The last time I was there, the tables were wooden. Now the EU demands stainless steel. The old, the new. Who will remain? The fishermen who fish? Or the fishermen who buy from other fishermen?
Or will there fish to fish? 

At least one thing is for sure, there will always be fish-kisses..

September 14, 2011

Sicily: Beach Club Bingo

Twenty minutes from downtown Modica is a golden beach with sand as fine as flour.

The Mediterranean sea lapped warm and shallow close to the boardwalk where I was met with open arms by my old friend, Innocenzo Pluchino, entrepreneur and chocolatier, who was once just a curious young Sicilian who loved to travel.

Now, he is a successful young man, who takes a keen interest in creating quality products and experiences. His Beach Club is a white washed building with an open porch with simple tables,  not unlike some of my favorite places on Bar Harbor Island in the Bahamas, or Barbados in the Caribbean.  There were no dunes on the beach, just a flat horseshoe bay that reflected blue sky and a tourmaline sea.

Francesco, my gypsy driver, stripped down to his speedo before leaving the bus, walked through the Beach Club and out the back door to the sea like he owned the place. He stuck his cigarettes in the sand and took a dive. Merete and I fell into the sea like a baptismal. We lolled for the longest time in what seriously felt like salted bathwater.  The Sicilian sun is strong. A rest under the umbrella brought a nice reprieve.

Innoncenzo invited us in for lunch.  I had asked only for a taste of a few small plates. They started arriving with poetic names like, Involtino di pesce spada in sfoglia di melanzana con cuore di ricotta all menta. "Sword fish rolled with a leaf of fried eggplant stuffed with ricotta and mint."

Tuna tartar with specks of orange zest.

Two types of spaghettini—one with ricci, sea urchin, and tomato.

The other with clams, green lemon from Siracusa, and whipped ground toasted almonds.

The taste of the sea was in our mouths, in our vision and under our nose. Tasca d'Almerita's "Leone" vino bianco was the perfect date—a chardonnay and Insolia blend—it gave a bright fruit forwardness to dance in tandem with fellow Sicilian flavors.

I was really impressed by the Beach Club. The chef is young and passionate, previously a pastry chef by trade and by family. Innocenzo recognized this passion and put him to work. You could feel his heart in the food.

I can recognize a certain note of happiness in myself when the stars line up around people, place and taste and today hit a high note. Bingo. An unexpected aria. The day was splendid—and free.

* Photos by Merete Mueller

September 11, 2011

A Poem, Under Anna's Palm

Here in a Sicilian courtyard,
under a palm
we speak of times past with Anna
in the garden and her beloved
forgotten fruits

the sorb apple, quince and mulberry

we bloody our hands with juice
and pick less forgotten figs high up
in the tree

we are surrounded by 1000 acres
of vines and olive trees with a canopy

of blue sky that fades slowly into
dusk with a pink blush that matches
the Rose' that we drink

for an aperitivo with a crostino
of fresh ricotta and anchovy

the night is as quiet as the moon that
promises to be full, for tomorrow will
bring more flavors to the forefront
to fulfill our Sicilian dreams.

Written in Sicily at Casa Vecchie, Regaleali, the wine estate of Tasca D'Almerita.

I have been visiting Anna Tasca Lanza for 15 years. Her daughter Fabrizia came on the scene a few years ago, to work in tandem with her mother. Unfortunately, Anna died a year ago, July, unexpectedly. I had last seen Anna in 2009 and had not been back to Sicily until this September. I felt quite sad to be without her there. Yet, Fabrizia filled her shoes so brilliantly, I thought surely that I must keep coming back, if nothing else to see how far Anna's trees had grown and taste the fruit from year to year. This simple poem is a tribute to her.  Anna not only left her trees to us, she left Fabrizia to carry her muse forward.