In Sicily, there's much to please the palate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When driving through Sicily, it's impossible not to notice the country's dazzling wealth of wildflowers.

These sudden jolts of color astonish because most of this Italian island - which is a scant 90 miles from North Africa - appears as dry and dusty as the Sahara Desert.

It's a mystery, then, not only how this land can sprout bright red poppies or purple thistles the size of artichokes, but for centuries also has been a fertile garden for world cuisine.

This is a land kissed by God, Sicilians like to say, and in rich times or poor, they've maintained a fierce pride in their polyglot produce.

Vestiges of Greek civilization remain in Sicily's excellent olives, salted cheeses and wine. During Roman times, the amount of durum wheat grown made Sicily the empire's granary. Arabs cultivated citrus fruit; Spaniards introduced the tomato and fennel.

"Heterogeneous civilizations have left their mark not only on the territory, but the culinary traditions of the island," writes Eufemia Azzolina Pupella in her book, Sicilian Cookery (Bonechi, 2001). "Over time, every domination imported their own seeds and spices."

It's little wonder, then, that lately Sicily has begun aggressively promoting itself as a place to learn about food and wine. There's hope that the country will become a gastronomic tourist destination like the Sonoma Valley in Northern California.

When I spent a few weeks in Sicily recently, Giuseppe Licitra, who oversees an organization that promotes the gastronomic history of 20 Sicilian cities, told me, "The colors of our fields express themselves in the produce. You can taste our food and literally savor the flavor of Sicily.

"We want to preserve the quality of our native products and create a circuit like a wine tour," said Licitra, head of the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia, or CoRFiLaC. "Guests would learn, say, how cheese is made, or olive oil. We call it didactic shopping."

Enchanted by this idea, I decide the rest of my vacation in Sicily would be spent eating to learn (and learning to eat).

I begin in Ragusa-Ibla, a charming hill town in the southeast. Outside its center, I visit one afternoon with Giovanni Gulino, owner of a dairy farm where Ragusano cheese is made. Gulino's is a typical farm in that he has fewer than three dozen cows.

"There is only one bull, because all the ladies are not loving him at the same time," he says, with a hint of a smile.

A short man, Gulino wears a spotless white T-shirt that shows off his powerful frame and, as many Sicilian farmers do, he sports a basil leaf tucked behind one ear, which is believed to be a natural bug repellent. His fingers are each the size of a sausage, and I find myself wondering if years of milking cows can develop manual muscles.

Gulino's cows are cinnamon-colored, and they relax in the shade of carob trees, which grow wild in those parts. What these pasture-fed cattle graze on changes from month to month: fava beans, carob, orange pulp, legumes, poppies, raniculus and lavender. Depending on what they eat, their milk (and the resulting cheese) varies in color from beige to a vibrant yellow.

On a stone patio beside his white stucco house there is a pergola overflowing with fuchsia clouds of bougainvillea. Under this, we eat pork sausage spiced with fennel and focaccia ragusana, which is like lasagna, but has paper-thin slices of bread, not pasta, layered between tomato sauce and flakes of semi-aged Ragusano. The cheese's flavor is marvelously rich; staring out at Gulino's herd, I hope the cows sense my gratitude.

Noticing my gaze, Gulino says, "from the mouth of the cow, to the mouth of man."

In southern Sicily, the dry climate, volcanic soil and cool nights provide nearly perfect conditions for growing grapes. Across the area, in fact, there are archaeological remains of stone grooves - or vinoducts - that carried rivers of wine from ancient vineyards to Roman ships.

Sicilian wines were once dismissed as cheap, overly alcoholic and brutally robust. Alessio Planeta, however, is attempting to change the world's perception of Sicilian wine. At Planeta Vineyards, his family's operation, he's planted 28 types of grape on nearly 800 acres. While the majority are nero d'Avola, a red grape, many fields are planted with white varieties.

I'd always assumed Roman bacchanals were lubricated by goblets full of red wine, but Planeta maintains the ancients more likely drank white - specifically, wines made from muscat grapes. First brought to Sicily in the seventh century B.C., this variety ripens earlier than most, and has a densely sweet flavor like honeyed nectar.

As we share a bottle of his vineyard's Moscato di Noto, a new dessert wine, Planeta sighs with pleasure. "It would be nice if, in the future, this area became the Montepulciano of Sicily, wouldn't it?"

Leaving him with this happy hope, I head to Sicily's northwest corner, where a coastal town called Trapani (seen briefly onscreen in Ocean's Twelve) has vast sea salt farms, and each year there is the tonnara - a ritual trapping and killing of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea.

During the tonnara, Japanese seafood brokers arrange for this prized tuna to be airlifted to Tokyo, where it commands stratospheric prices in fashionable sushi restaurants. It's said that Trapani's handsome baroque architecture, now being lovingly restored, was built by tuna. "Tuna is the pig of the sea, because each fish has so many usable pieces," said Gaetano Carpitello, a fishmonger I met in Trapani's main market. "We waste nothing."

Under Carpitello's tutelage, I sample bottarga, or dried tuna roe that Sicilians crumble over pasta, salads and scrambled eggs. It's intensely salty and fans of bottarga insist there's no better way to savor sapore di mare, or "the taste of the ocean."

Near Trapani are some of Sicily's finest olive groves. In those parts, the fruit is harvested by hand to minimize bruising and, while pickers once placed goat's horns onto their fingertips, now they use a child's plastic sand rake to gently comb olives off branches. Olives ripen from green to brownish black, in the process becoming mellower in taste. Smaller olives, counterintuitively, have a higher percentage of oil than larger kinds.

As with cheaper wines, inexpensive olive oil is usually a blend of several varieties. Of late, though, there's a vogue in Sicily for artisanal oils that use only one type of olive.

I discover this shortly after arriving at Baglio Fontanasala, a lovely guesthouse near Trapani built around a stone courtyard. Here, my affable host, Gian Cristoforo Galia, gives me a small glass and instructs me to cup it in my hands until the oil warms up and - as when letting a bottle of wine breathe - releases its full range of flavor. Professional tasters, I'm told, let olive oil warm directly in the palm of their hand.

The elongated Biancolilla olive has a delicate, clear taste and is perfect for drizzling onto a white fish like sole, snapper or trout. In contrast, Nocellata, the biggest olive in size, has a mellow flavor with hints of artichoke and eggplant and often is served alongside grilled vegetables, with game or cheese.

"Coraggio, coraggio!" Galia says, as he urges me to try a few more samples of Sicily's liquid gold.

Soon, it is time for lunch. A corkscrew pasta is served with pesto alla antica, meaning made with basil and almonds only. The taste is infinitely more subtle than the heavily garlicky and cheesy pesto with which I'm familiar. Next, grilled tuna is accompanied by a fresh tomato sauce that, surprisingly, is flavored with fresh mint. For dessert - olive oil ice cream! Admittedly, this sounds disgusting, but the oil's silky smoothness melds perfectly with ground almonds and cream.

When I ask Galia for the recipe, he knits his eyebrows in a comic display of anger. "That is absolutely impossible. The CIA tried to get that out of me, and even they couldn't!" He is being funny, but still won't divulge his marvelous secret.

Then, his face softens and he regains the uniquely Sicilian hospitality with which strangers are welcomed to the dining table. "Would you like another bowl?" he asks.

To no one's surprise, I immediately say yes.

Sicilian Orange-Flavored Chicken

Serves 4

one 3- to 4-pound whole chicken

2 tablespoons orange marmalade

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary

juice of 5 oranges

zest of 1 orange

salt and pepper

orange slices for garnish

Clean chicken well, dry and spread orange marmalade all around its body cavity. Melt butter and olive oil together in oven-proof fry pan on top of stove. Add bay leaves and rosemary to butter-oil mixture, and brown chicken on all sides.

When nicely colored, pour in orange juice and zest. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place pan in oven and roast for 1 hour at 400 degrees, basting occasionally with pan drippings. Cook until juices run clear when flesh is forked. Remove bay leaves. Serve garnished with slices of orange.

Per serving: 524 calories; 43 grams protein; 30 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 19 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 141 milligrams cholesterol; 156 milligrams sodium

Sicilian Salad

Serves 4

2 large oranges

1 small Bermuda onion

1/2 cup oil-cured black olives (pitted)

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt

pepper

Peel fruit, carefully removing as much white pith as possible. Halve, then thinly slice oranges. Halve, then thinly slice onion. Mix orange, onion and olives.

Dress with oil, and add salt and pepper to taste. Salad can be enriched with pieces of anchovy and chopped parsley.

- Both recipes adapted from "Sicilian Cookery" by Eufemia Azzolina Pupella (Bonechi, 2001)

Per serving: 129 calories; 1 gram protein; 9 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 147 milligrams sodium

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