Surrounding this peaceful land of orange blossom and citrus fruit are seas full of swordfish and tuna, inspiration for many famous Sicilian dishes: tonno alla cipollata, tuna fried with large quantities of sliced onions; swordfish alla messinese, swordfish cooked in oil with tomatoes, onions, celery, capers and potatoes; and either, with caponata, the sweet-and-sour sauce that features eggplant, olives, capers, tomatoes and occasionally, red capsicum.
The seas also teem with shellfish, calamari, octopus, sardines and cod, so sarde a beccafico, stuffed sardines Sicilian style and cazzilli di baccala, cod croquettes, often feature in antipasto selections.
When in Sicily, one needs not search too far to find a fabulous restaurant serving these delicacies of the sea, just ask the locals, they know best and are more than happy to suggest their favourite eateries. While waiting for a ferry to the Aeolian Islands, we lunched a stone’s throw from the port at Doppio Gusto in Milazzo and were not disappointed.
You might think this seafood bounty requires white wine and, indeed, the island’s white wines based on the varieties Inzolia, Cataratto, Grillo deliver plenty of flavour and character to match. Etna’s white wine, produced from Carricante departs from the others’ robust, occasionally oily style, being crisper and more Chablis like in its youth, but older versions (this wine ages very well) develop full flavours, depth and complexity. Try the Hauner Bianco for the former and either of Pietradolce’s Biancos from Mt Etna - the ‘Archineri’ embodies the latter style.
Then, given the richness that grilled tuna with caponata might have, it’s not uncommon in Sicily for red wine to be consumed with fish and the island has a veritable cornucopia, from the variety Nero d’Avola (Morgante, in Grotte, are masters with this variety), a spicy almost-cross (in terms of flavours) between Pinot Noir and Shiraz; to the very Pinot like Nerello Mascalese from Etna and Messina to the full bodied dark Nocera. Le Casematte from Faro, Italy’s smallest DOC right on the straits of Messina, produces two red wines from an interplay of all these varieties - their tiny vineyard is planted to Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Nero d’Avola and Nocera - and they have just won their first ever Tre Bicchieri for their 2013 vintage Faro.
Speaking of awards, Pietradolce is celebrating winning Gambero Rosso’s (Italy’s leading wine guide) Red Wine of the Year with their 2012 Vigna Barbagalli, an Etna Rosso produced from pre-phylloxera 100 – 120 year-old-vines planted high up in the north-east quadrant of the mountain. This remarkable wine is produced in minuscule quantities and will reward patient cellaring for up to ten/twelve years or so, whilst it develops its Burgundian-like nuances.
Red wine also goes well with Sicily’s typical cheese and meat offerings. Whilst ricotta is famous in the desserts cannoli and cassata, it also features in savoury dishes, as does pecorino, made from full-cream milk from the local sheep and manifesting itself in a number of forms - tuma, when fresh and unsalted, primosale, when salted and canestrato after ageing. Caciocavallo is made from cow’s milk from the province of Modica (Modica also being famous for their high cacao content grainy chocolate). Modicana cattle also supply delicious meat, supporting the more common rabbit and pork.
Butter is generally not used in Sicilian cuisine and why would it be when Sicily produces such great Extra Virgin Olive Oil? There are six DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) classifications, led by the Valle del Belice and the Nocellara variety. But the Biancolilla variety works better with white flesh fish and the locals know it!
A visit to the Mandranova estate - nearby to Agrigento and the UNESCO World Heritage site The Valley of Temples - is a must to learn the intricacies of making and tasting olive oil. Husband and wife team of Giuseppe and Silvia de Vincenzo make a highly-awarded range of mono-varietal oils, as well as operating one of Sicily’s best agriturismo , complete with cooking classes.
Below are some of the recipes we cooked in our class at Mandranova; click on the image to get the recipe.
Finally, Sicily is well known for desserts, a number of which feature almonds, pistachios, honey, blood oranges, mandarins and lemons. Not always sweet - Sicilians are masters of the ‘dry’ dessert/cake/tart (even ‘true’ cassata is a cake, not an ice-cream). Made with ricotta cheese, Sicilian cassata and cannoli are very popular in Sicily and across the globe. These desserts welcome a glass of the sweet or passito Malvasia from the Eolian islands or an aged Marsala from Trapani.