Seventeen years ago Michael and I shipped a brand new VW camper van to Sicily from Ontario. When it arrived we got on a plane, flew to Palermo and took a taxi to the port. Amidst a sea of containers, we located the one holding our camper and with surprising ease drove off to explore Italy’s southernmost island region in our own small house on wheels. This marked the beginning of an Italian adventure still unfolding, one that eventually led us to Chianti and finally here to Petraia. But that’s another story.
In Sicily, thanks to the food, scenery and history we had no trouble spending the better part of a month. We explored the coastal regions and the spectacular mountainous interior. So much was memorable, but the thing that impressed us most about Sicily was the generosity of the people. We figured it was our Ontario liscence plates that did it. Everyone seemed to have a cousin in Toronto and they treated us like kin, loading us with gifts of home-grown fruit and vegetables and making sure we didn’t want for anything.
At a gas station once, after discovering the owner had relatives in Toronto, we were invited to see his garage. He swung open the door and inside there was nothing of the sort you’d expect to find useful in a filling station’s garage. Instead we found a spotless space reserved for WATERMELON. Floor to ceiling. Help yourself, he said. As we admired his stash of gorgeous melons and picked out a nice one for ourselves he was busy piling dozens more into our camper. We realized he was creating a ” moveable feast” version of his own garage so we began unloading as fast as he was loading, trying to convince him we couldn’t, just the two of us, eat them all and besides, this was our home. Where would we sleep between all these melons? Finally we settled on 3 or 4 beauties that became delicious companions for the remainder of our trip. We ate the last one on the ferry crossing the straits of Messina, throwing the rinds overboard as we left Sicily behind.
Later, at a lonely crossroads in the interior somewhere, a gangly teenage boy was selling a small mountain of freshly dug potatoes. We stopped to buy a few, but he wouldn’t accept any money from us or let us leave with less than a 25 kilo bag. Once more, we tried to explain about our home but he stubbornly shook his head. Michael ended up chasing him around the camper with the potato sack while trying to stuff a few hundred lira in his shirt pocket for the few we had taken.
There were many stories like that. And memories too of intensely flavoured food, the golden semolina bread covered in sesame seeds, tomatoes so sweet they tasted like candy, eggplants, almonds, pistachios, couscous, fresh seafood, chocolate, carob, caponata, pastry and sweets. Also there were a lot of processions. Funerals, saints, weddings, almost every day somewhere there was a parade and we usually got stuck in it. These were often big affairs led by the town’s clergy carrying relics of patron saints who were followed by the local marching band who were followed by everyone else in the town. But sometimes a lonely drummer would appear out of nowhere and collect the odd follower as he went. Once, in a small village in the interior we got stuck in a wedding procession behind a bride and groom who were travelling in a white cadillac from Roy Foss, a well known Toronto car dealership. We knew this because Roy’s sticker was still displayed proudly on the back of the car which, most certainly, had arrived here the same way our camper had. Naturally, we felt right at home.
Every year we said we must get back to Sicily and this year we finally braved it. Earlier this month we loaded another new VW bus onto another boat. This time it was the overnight ferry from Civitavecchia and we too were on board. The next morning we sailed into the port at Palermo.
We spent 10 days revisiting some of the places we loved so much all those years ago. After we disembarked we took a few hours to wander the streets of Palermo before lunch. What I had remembered most about that ancient city was the Vucciria market and the streets surrounding it. This area, bombed in WWII, had revealed to us many ruins still standing and frequently partially inhabited. What struck me most this time was not that the ruins were still there but the impressive graffiti now covering them. There are some serious graffiti artists at work in this city today. Sadly the market seemed to have shrunk considerably and we didn’t see a single carreto, the Sicilain horse drawn carts that were a common sight 17 years ago. It appeared they had been replaced by motorized versions called lapa, which reminded us of Southeast Asian Tuk Tuks . In the next 10 days we’d see these everywhere, laden with fruits, vegetables and sometimes dry goods. In the more remote villages we visited they were frequenetly the only place to buy anything at all, a travelling general store.
We had a wonderful lunch here
And afterwards I wished I’d saved room for some of the street food this guy was making…
One of the goals of our trip was to visit as many pizzo free places we could. These are establishments run by those who have bravely said no to mafia extortion. The Addiopizzo website provided us with a list of restaurants, hotels, bars, shops and more. In the region around Corleone there are many farms that have been seized from the mafia, some operating as agriturismi, offering hospitality to tourists. In our own little COOP grocery store in Radda, I can buy Libera Terra pasta and olive oil and I was curious to see the land where it came from. So after lunch we hit the road and headed inland to Ficuzza, about an hour from Palermo and just a few kilometres outside of Corleone, the town made famous by The Godfather.
Ficuzza is a very small town tucked under the side of this mountain. It was built as a hunting palace in the late 1700’s by the Bourbon King of Sicily, Ferdinand III and later it was connected to Palermo by rail so that wealthy residents of the city could reach it easily to take the cool mountain air. It became a climactic retreat for Palermo’s aristocracy.
We had a dinner reservation at the Antica Stazione di Ficuzza, the original train station which has now been turned into this lovely restaurant and inn. For €27 each we enjoyed one of the best meals of our trip. The price included a huge selection of antipasti, 2 different pasta courses followed by 2 meat courses, dessert, water, a delicious house wine, coffee and a glass of the local Don Corleone digestivo. The setting here is truly magical reminding us of Petraia, tucked by itself just under the peak of a mountain. And the dinner we had that evening was, also like Petraia, a celebration of authentic ingredients. We climbed into our camper blissfully stuffed and slept until early the next morning when we were awoken by serious gunfire. We looked at each other in disbelief. Were we too close to Corleone for comfort? But then we heard a pack of dogs barking and understood. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and the hunters were out, just like we knew they would be at La Petraia that day.
The old railroad tracks from Ficuzza have been converted into a walking trail and Michael and I spent some time hiking it that morning before heading out. I was astonished to see so much growing at that time of the year. Helichrysum italicum (curry plant) grew wild along the side of the trail as did fennel, wild mint, chrysanthemum, oxalis, malva and much more. The eucalyptus trees lent their intoxicating scent to the morning air, and that became the smell of Sicily for me.
After Ficuzza we drove across the island visiting Trapani and Marsala, Agrigento, Modica and Noto. Modica is a city known all over Italy for its chocolate which is still made using the same techniques learned from the Aztecs by the Spanish conquerers. I made the pilgramage to the Dolceria Bonajuto where I sampled more chocolate than I care to mention and left loaded down with even more samples. In Noto we revisited the Caffè Sicilia to eat cake and gelato like we had done 17 years ago. Over those years, the fourth generation owner, Corrado Assenza, has become to pastry as Rene Redzepi is to cuisine. I’ve heard Corrado speak a few times at various chef’s gatherings. In Milan in 2009 after hearing his presentation at Identità Golose I had written “Corrado says nature is not fixed, that it evolves with time and he says we need to hand over our clients to the splendor of this nature”. Those words rang true to me because its what I try to do at Petraia. And that morning, sitting in this simple yet noble pasticceria eating cake made with Noto almonds and honey I felt this was what he had accomplished. He had delivered me to the splendor of Noto’s nature. These are the moments in food I live for and that experience alone was worth my trip to Sicily. But there was more to come.
Having begun our lunch with dessert we strolled through Noto’s splendid centro storico to start our meal properly at Trattoria Crocifisso. Following Corrado’s lead, we were once again fed from the heart. Crocifisso’s cooking is careful, using the best quality local ingredients elaborated by a gifted chef with a light touch. The meal began with a homely amuse, a mini panelle, the chick pea fritter sandwich that is Palermo’s street food. It melted in my mouth. Pure, deceptively simple and definately not easy to achieve. The meal progressed that way through several antipasti, a couple of different homemade pastas and then a miraculous peice of tender, juicy pork from Sicily’s famous black Nebrodi pig raised semi-wild in the mountains. It was coated in pistachio nut flour from Bronte and fried to crispy perfection. If it found itself in any of the world’s major cities Crocifisso would have at least one michelin star and I’d give it two. It would be the talk of the town and take months to get a reservation. Our lunch that day, with no reservation and a beautiful bottle of a local red Frappato was only €78.
I had remembered Siracusa as having the most bountiful display of local produce I’d ever seen and was curious to see how it would stand up all these years later after having lived in Italy and visited hundreds of amazing markets since then.
And after lunch, we realized we’d picked a special day to visit Siracusa. It was the Feast day for the city’s Patron Santa Lucia. Roads on the island of Ortygia where we were staying were closed and the whole place was on parade. We decided it was best to hunker down and checked into a hotel for a much needed bath, a long sleep and our first and only bad meal of the trip.
After Siracusa we drove around Etna which happened to be erupting, then across the Nebrodi mountains looking for black pigs and manna. But I’m saving that for my next post. Stay tuned.