Amuninni (aa-moo-nin-nee) is the Sicilian way of saying ‘let’s go’, much like the often used Italian word ‘andiamo’.
It’s midafternoon on another cloudless day in Sicily and I’m taking a moment. It is day seven on our first Taste of Sicily tour and after another busy day we are in Ortigia for the afternoon.
My resting post is more accurately the stone foundations of the Temple of Athena, built in the fifth century BC. In the seventh century the Normans turned it into a cathedral. Its beautiful Baroque façade was added in the 18th century after the devasting earthquake of 1693. This tapestry of history, which is evident beyond the magnificent buildings, is what makes Sicily a remarkable place to visit, and sometimes you just have to take a minute to let it all soak in.
The fact we are sitting on 2500 years of history is not lost on the group as they slowly join me after wandering around Ortigia. We only have one more day left on our tour, and I’m not alone in my reverent mood (it’s not just the wine we had at lunch). We have seen, experienced, and eaten so much since arriving in Sicily, it’s hard to believe it’s only been a week.
We started in the capital, Palermo, where the chaos of the markets and busy streets was balanced by a beautiful dinner and introduction to Sicilian wines in a perfectly restored private palazzo. We wound our way up the mountain to the charming town of Erice, where we learnt to roll the local pasta and were fortunate enough to meet the famous pastry chef Maria Grammatico (author of Bitter Almonds). We visited the ancient salt pans of Marsala; we took a boat trip to Mozia Island for a glorious picnic. We’ve sped around the narrow streets of Modica in Fiat bambinas; we’ve watched the sun set over the ancient Valley of the Temples. We’ve sampled granita in Noto and visited local cheesemakers, chocolatiers, and winemakers, enjoying their passion as well as their products.
Tomorrow we’ll be awed by the fresh produce and fish in the Catania markets then head up Mount Etna for a sensational lunch at a local winery before finishing at the picturesque town on Taormina.
So here we are in Ortigia, considered the most beautiful town in Sicily. That’s a big call, as it has some tough competition, especially in the Valley de Noto, where a devasting earthquake in 1693 destroyed many towns, most of which were then rebuilt in the intricate Baroque style of the time.
And beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Palermo, which was once full of large private palazzi, was destroyed by bombs in World War Two. Instead of being restored, much was abandoned, leaving a preserved old town with its quilted history from two millennia and many invaders evident in its architecture and faded grandeur. Taormina, recently made more famous by the TV series ‘White Lotus’, is the most visited place in Sicily. With its perfectly preserved mediaeval streets, Taormina is idyllically perched high above the sea with views of Mount Etna making it a true marvel.
Sicily’s strategic position has meant its history is that of wave upon wave of invaders. The resulting melting pot is seen in their architecture, people, and linguistic traditions but most prominently in their food.
The Greeks brought olives and grapes. The Romans planted wheat, transforming the island into ‘Rome’s breadbasket’. The Arabs expanded the island’s palate with flavour combinations like sweet and sour that are now considered typically Sicilian. They also introduced the likes of almonds and pistachios, citrus, and artichokes. The Normans taught them fish-curing techniques while the Spanish brought new world ingredients like chillis, sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and maize.
All these introduced foods flourished because of the island’s fertile volcanic soil and warm breezes from Africa creating ideal growing conditions.
The true flavour of good Sicilian food comes from Nonna, Mother Earth, and this was most gloriously displayed in the markets of Catania where our hands were itching to buy the gorgeously ripe produce. Over the past week, as we travelled across the island, the vistas changed from vineyards and freshly harvested wheat fields to citrus groves and then into acres upon acres of poly tunnels. Olive and almond groves featured everywhere, while prickly pears and capers grew wild.
In each town there was a new taste to discover, with a rich history along with a reverence for the ingredients. We truly experienced this in Erice at a former convent transformed into a boutique hotel and restaurant. Here, expert hands meet curious hands under the tutelage of Benedetta Schifano and the Cumari (an ancient Sicilian word that means godmother or chosen sister). Benedetta is the face of Cucina Siciliana, a not-for-profit organisation reviving and restoring the traditional recipes and food of the region.
After a little history of the organisation, area, and the food from food historian Antonello Filippazzo, we got hands on making a local pasta dish, Trapanese pesto busiate.
The pasta is made from locally grown wheat from ancient traditional grain. Once our simple dough was made, we rolled it by hand into the traditional local shape, busiate. The name comes from the stick or busso used to roll the pasta. These are cut from the toi toi like bamboo plants that grow wild everywhere. The stick is smooth, stopping the pasta sticking to it.
The sauce or salsa, which was equally delicious slathered on fresh bread as it was tossed through pasta, apparently varies depending what part of Trapanni you are in. In Erice the almonds are roasted, in Trapani they are raw, and in Marsala the are omitted altogether. The version we made, by pounding the ingredients in a mortar and pestle, started with pungent local garlic and 5–6 roasted almonds, to which we added salt, basil, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes.
Our Trapanese pesto busiate illustrated how even on this small island there were regional variations. The love of ricotta spans the whole island, although in Palermo and surrounds it will be made from sheep’s milk, and closer to Catania it will be made from cow’s milk.
You can enjoy ricotta in the famous Sicilian cannoli, which is thought to have originated by the Arabs but adapted by nuns and now found throughout Italy. We tried our first of many in the beautiful courtyard of Saint Catherines convent pastry shop in Palermo, before attempting to work off a few of the calories with a climb to the roof of the church for 360-degree views of Palermo.
Ricotta also plays a crucial part in the cassata, the queen of traditional Sicilian pastries, which consists of sponge with layers of ricotta and candied fruit and marzipan. In Catania, we enjoyed a gorgeous version of the Cassatella di sant’Agata, locally known as the Minni di Vergini, which means virgin breasts. This smaller version is covered in green marzipan and topped with a single red cherry and was made for the festival of Saint Agatha, a local saint who when she refused to marry had one of her breasts cut off, hence the resemblance to a nipple.
You’ll find delicious ricotta filled fritters (crespelle) in the markets, and on restaurant dessert menus, ricotta baked in savoury dishes or salted and added to pasta. We were lucky enough to visit a local cheese maker in Valle del Belice and watch how they made the local stretched cheese from sheep’s milk, Vastedda della Valle del Belice (DPO), where the whey was then turned into fresh ricotta.
The Greeks introduced wine to Sicily over two and a half thousand years ago. With ideal growing conditions the island quickly became the workhorse for the Italian wine industry, producing bulk grape juice for the mainland to create into wine.
That was until a few decades ago when some innovative and proud Sicilians began to reinvent Sicilian wine, with an emphasis on organic production and lesser known, uniquely Sicilian varieties.
In Menfi we visited the first of Planeta’s five vineyards and learnt how this family, whose history on this land goes back five centuries and seventeen generations, has been researching indigenous grape varieties found across Sicily’s varying terroirs, including varietals now forgotten. While applying their strong sustainability practices, they have also looked at the different terroirs to introduce international varieties that suit.
Describing themselves as a young company with ancient roots, long-sighted but vigilant guardians of the land and its traditions, the company is known for their hospitality. We enjoyed this firsthand with a flight of their wines spanning the five terroirs of Sicily before enjoying lunch under the ancient fig tree.
In Marsala we visited Baglio Donna Franca, the home of Ansaldi wines. This relatively new winery is making wine from grapes grown in fields once owned by the Florio family that helped make Marsala wine famous the world over. Wine maker and historical researcher Giacomo Ansaldi is making wine exclusively from native varieties, such as Zibibbo, Grillo, Perricone, and Nero d’Avola, following strict organic principles.
Here, we headed down to the cellar to learn more about the Ansaldi wine making philosophy as well as see the gigantic perpetual wine barrels. Perpetual wine, or the original Marsala wine, is an eternal wine, handed down from generation to generation. This wine, which is a minimum 30-year investment, is testament to Ansaldi wine’s vision.
As we emerged from the cellar, the sun was setting over the vineyard and the Egadi Islands, the perfect opportunity to enjoy some of the estate’s wares, including their own marmalades, almonds, bread, olives and, of course, wine.
On Mount Etna we visited Barone di Villagrande. Here, 700 metres above sea level on the eastern slopes of Europe’s most active volcano, overlooking Taormina and the Ionian Sea, the autumn and winter rainfall can be 10 times that of the rest of Sicily. In winter the temperature can drop to 0°C while in summer it can rise to 30°C with little or no humidity due to the sloping, well-draining soil and lack of rain in the summer months. Here, the Nicolosi family have been making wine since the start of the 17th century.
From the moment they broke ground on this unforgiving territory the family have been innovators, and this continues today. After taking in the breathtaking view of the vineyard, we sat down to a glorious five-course lunch paired beautifully with their wines.
The wine of Sicily was a revelation! I discovered techniques for growing and making wines along with new varietals. We encountered wine makers transforming their industry and reputation by taking varieties and traditions and applying new world thinking to create truly unique and delicious wines that not only reflect the terroir but the passion of Sicilians. I can’t wait to go back and discover, learn, and taste more!