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Pantelleria

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

Well, what can I say? After everyone telling me so much about Pantelleria. I didn’t quite get it when I arrived. But when it was time to leave, it was hard to go.

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

On the day after I landed, by the time afternoon rolled around, I had curled myself up on a cushioned chair with a book I’d been looking forward to delving into. Then suddenly, I found myself waking up a few hours later, realizing that I had collapsed into a deep, profound sleep.

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

It was the combination of silence that’s nearly impossible to find nowadays, and soft sunshine with a lazy breeze, which were no match for my hyperactive nature. It was one of the soundest slumbers I’ve had in the last few years.

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Capers in Pantelleria

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

There were two things I heard repeatedly about Pantelleria before I got there. First: every person in Sicily told me I would love it; second: I had to try the capers, which wasn’t difficult, considering they were everywhere.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

And I don’t mean in shops or on restaurant menus. I mean, they’re growing everywhere on Pantelleria; on the sides of roads, around stores and buildings, on craggy pathways, and next to the stone walls that run up and down the hills of the island.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

A long time ago, an uncle in New England told me a pretty funny story. He was making a recipe that called for “pickled capers.” But he decided that he’d improve the recipe by using fresh. He looked in shops and grocers for fresh capers all over town, and couldn’t find any.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

While capers grow in several countries around the world, and there may indeed be a plant tucked away in some greenhouse in Connecticut, I don’t think you’ll have much luck finding them fresh, as you so easily can, in Pantelleria.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

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Making Cassata alla Siciliana, in Sicily

Cassata alla Siciliana

I didn’t want to cause a ruckus by sharing pictures of such a spectacular cake without a recipe. But on the other hand, it’s quite a chore to make a Cassata alla Siciliana and although Fabrizia Lanza sailed through it without breaking a sweat, between using the right pan, mixing up your own almond paste, finding ricotta as good as the ricotta in Sicily, and getting the candied fruit (including the squash, which is the translucent white brick on the platter), it might be classified as one of those things that’s better left to the Sicilians.

(Nevertheless, if you want to give it a go, Saveur printed her Cassata recipe, and it’s also in her book, Coming Home to Sicily. I linked to additional recipes at the end of the post.)

Cassata alla Siciliana

According to Italian food specialist Clifford A. Wright, the word Cassata is derived from the Arabic word quas’at, or qas’at, which refers to a wide bowl. There is actually a special pan to make the cake; it’s a mold with sloped sides and a groove around the bottom so that when Cassata mold is lined with strips of almond paste, and overturned, there’s a rim to create a neat guard against the icing from running down the sides.

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Konza Kiffi: Sicilian Agricultural Estate

cucunci capers

Well, that was quite a day! After a much-delayed plane ride to Pantelleria, an island off the coast of Sicily (it’s technically Sicily, but — let’s hold off on that discussion for another day…), I was told to be prepared to be seduced by the place. But it didn’t hit me until day #4.

harvesting oregano

We’d spent yesterday morning watching people harvest capers (…more on that in a later post), and tasting wine. Then had a below-average lunch, which was barely mitigated by the restaurant’s setting, just on the edge of the ocean. After a heaping plate of wan pasta, all I wanted to do was head back at the home where I’m staying, where there was a hammock waiting for me.

oregano

But my friend Giovanni said to me, “Daveed – it’s going to be very special.” And when a Sicilian talks with such gravity it’s best to listen.

pantelleria

So we found ourselves after lunch, driving on a winding street, high above a spectacular blue lake with the ocean in the background, with rows of grapes and oregano baking in the hot Sicilian (or Pantellerian) sun.

oregano in sicily

The welcome we had from Giancarlo and Cristian Lo Pinto, the two brothers who own the farm, was as warm as the sun.

oregano harvest

With the wind in our hair — well, in one of my traveling companion’s hair —

anissa

— we found ourselves in a field surrounded by massive bunches of oregano, offering an aroma as strong as the fields of za’atar in Lebanon: a powerful, astringent scent that bordered on medicinal. Although lots of oregano grows in Sicily, locals tend to use it dried. And here was where the best of it came from.

oregano field

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Case Vecchie and the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School

peach crostata

My life seems to have, as they say in modern-speak (or whatever you want to call it), a “long tail.” Which means that what I do today, or did in the past, will continue to have meaning. Fortunately, that’s not true for everything (I can think of a few incidents in the past that are better left back there…), but something that’s stayed with me forever was getting to meet some of the great cookbook authors, cooks, and chefs from all over the place when I worked at Chez Panisse.

One such person was Anna Tasca Lanza, who not only had the noble title of marchese, but also was an acclaimed Sicilian cook. I’d met The Marchese when she came to Chez Panisse. Her philosophy of cooking — mostly farm-to-table, relying on local producers for most of what she cooked — is a natural way of life on this rugged island.

Sicilian countryside

And in spite of her lofty credentials and sophistication, she was a big proponent of country cooking and the Sicilian way of life, following the seasons, using what the local land produced, in her cooking.

white wine

She planted gardens with pistachio, lemon, citron, and mulberry trees. Peppers grow abundantly, as do cardoons, eggplant, zucchini (and their bright yellow flowers), and artichokes.

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Sicily, Again.

Crostata

The tone was set when I let my airport pick-up in Palermo know that the entire French rail and transit system was going to be on strike the day I was set to fly to Sicily, and she replied with something along the lines of, “It’s not a trip to Sicily without a little travel chaos.” And boy, was she right. On top of the transit strike, the Paris taxis had decided…heck – why not go on strike, too?

Sicily

But instead of taking a day off, the taxi drivers were planning to instigate “Opération Escargot,” which essentially means driving en mass, as slow as possible, to cause as much disruption as possible. (Whatever happened to fraternité?) In addition to blocking highways and city streets, the taxis were planning to surround the airports, making access difficult, if not impossible.

So my perfect partner said he’d drive me to the airport, which required us to leave at 5 A.M. (for my 10 A.M. flight), because any later, and Opération Escargot would be in full-on move-like-a-snail mode. To make a long story short, I made my flight to Rome just fine, but my flight from Rome to Sicily was inexplicably cancelled. And inexplicably, the airline didn’t have a ticket or customer service office inside the airport.

wheat field in Sicily

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RAP Épicerie

RAP Italian Epicerie

Due to our closeness to Italy, it’s fairly easy to find an Italian épicerie in almost any Parisian neighborhood. (Although locating an authentic Italian espresso is a little more elusive.) I’m fortunate because there are two excellent Italian épiceries (speciality food shops) close to where I live, but most of the places get their items from a distributor, which means the selection is somewhat narrow. Few places have farro, and I’ve never seen anyone selling farina polenta taragna, the mix of polenta and buckwheat that I first had in the mountains above Milan, and I’d never seen it anywhere outside of Italy. (So I’ve been making my own.)

RAP Italian Epicerie

That’s not a complaint – it’s great to be able to find Sicilian salumi and pasta from Tuscany. And Cooperative Latte Cisternino, an excellent Italian dairy cooperative, is a terrific place for Italian cheeses and other products. (Although they always seem to be closed when I go there.)

RAP Italian Epicerie

But artisanal products, items from small producers, are a little more challenging to find. So I was charmed when my friend Terresa and I took a field trip to discover RAP, which offers rarely seen Italian foods, imported directly by Alessandra Pierini, who curates the selection in her jammed-to-the-rafters shop in the 9th arrondissement.

RAP Italian Epicerie

I haven’t seen such a varied and curious selection of products all together outside of Italy since, well – ever. (Eataly, eat your heart out.) Granted RAP is tiny; imagine if someone pushed eight phone booths together, and you’ll get some idea of its size.

RAP Italian Epicerie

Yet I was incredibly excited to be surrounded by shelves and shelves holding many of the foods I love from Italy, including unusual chocolates, citron soda, and pure, unadulterated pistachio spreads, which were in danger of being eclipsed by things that I’d never seen or tasted.

RAP Italian Epicerie

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Modica (Sicily)

Cannoli

The good news about my trip to Sicily is that it wasn’t all eating almond cookies and cannoli, looking for parking spaces in Palermo (and paying one of the fellows lurking about to keep an eye on the car), gorging on fresh ricotta, and wiping and everything you possible can in generous drizzles of the amazing olive oil produced there.

There was “pasta” – made from almond paste, a plate that’d fool even those with sharper eyes than I. We had the aforementioned spleen sandwiches, which I was relieved to hear were not made from pancreas, and we ate salumi (charcuterie) because it was so good that it would have felt like a crime not to. (And I didn’t want to get into trouble in Sicily, if you know what I mean.) Since I only had one week on the island – two days of which were travel days, and two other days were dedicated to work that landed in my Inbox right before the trip – we managed to make the time for a quick trip to Modica.

Sicily pictures-76

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