I promised myself I would return soon. From the moment our plane landed, certainly not on time, but earlier than expected, I felt a connection to the island, its people, and its food. We rushed to the bar for a quick caffe; an intense coffee with a thick crema followed by a dark liquid gold. It was everything you would expect from an authentic Italian caffe (never referred to as espresso).
The following morning we began our immersion of all things Sicilian. The olive oil of Sicily is some of the worlds most celebrated, and now I know why. The terroir is rich in minerals and nutrients benefiting from both the coastal plains and mountainous airs. I visited with several producers and each was committed to producing premium quality extra virgin olive oil. There was no desire to market any lesser grade and mass distribute olive oil. When the conversation went to terms such as “virgin” or “light” it was as if the earth had stopped rotating. These were serious producers who took pride in their products, and the rest as one produced said was “marketing at its best.”
Among them Frantoio Torre Di Mezzo is producing a fantastic extra virgin olive oil using state of the art technologies. The entire production process was computerized leading to minimal human error. My favorite of their line was the Valle Trapanesi D.O.P, which used a blend of Cerasuola and Nocellara olives. The oil produced a mild fruitiness with notes of green tomato and artichoke. We were fortunate enough to have Albeto Galluffo give us a personal tour of his facilities. Mr. Galluffo is a world-renowned olive oil taster and certified olive oil master. We left the farm with a sample of his latest press.
I was pleased to visit a long time favorite of mine Frantoia Cutrera located in the heart of southern Sicily on the Iblei Mountains. The Cutrera family has been producing olive oil for generations. Their oil is known throughout the world and has won countless awards in prestigious international competitions. They use 100% Tonda Iblea olives for their Primo oil. This is full-bodied oil with notes of herbs and fresh cut grass. It was an ideal time of year to taste olive oils as both oils tasted where from the 2011 crop which just finished their production in late October.
When we reached Ragusa I found some old friends and new favorites. I have met Francesco Padova digitally, but never in person. I have also heard of just how delicious his almonds were, so I was pleased to finally get a chance and try them.
Pizzuta Di Avola by Mastri Di San Basilio have an earthy taste similar to mushrooms, with a clean finish of milk (almonds like these produce the wonderful summer beverage of Latte Di Mandorla by Condorelli.) The almonds were not as thick as their California counterparts and the skin was a dark brown color. These almonds are one of Sicily’s most unique products.
Traditionally produced Ragusano by Ragusa Latte is made using unpasteurized cows milk therefore allowing for the milk to produce a pleasant, sweet, and delicate tasting cheese. These cows are allowed to roam freely and graze exclusively on fresh forage from the Iblean Mountains. A tasting of this cheese as well as a cow’s milk ricotta was one of the highlights of the trip. The producer was extremely passionate about his products and committed to producing cheese using unpasteurized milk, as is the traditional method.
The wines of Sicily were as diverse in flavors and productions as the foods. Mirabella offered a Marsala DOC Superiore Riserva 1989 that was a unique balance of sweetness and tart, and as my travel companion Charles Scicolone recommended the wine would pair perfectly with almonds as an aperitivo. Planeta winery showed well with a Comet 2010, a fresh, crisp and refined white wine.
All of our hotels and resorts showed us a different side of the island. Some offered picturesque views of the mountain plains and countryside. Others in the heart of Catania offered access to the vibrant fish market and downtown life of the City. Speaking to other members of the tour I discovered that the hotels of Sicily have come a long way in the past decade.
The island and its cuisine has a rich history balancing influences from all over the world including Italian, Greek, African and Middle Eastern. This combination has created a vibrant island full of diverse food, wine, and people. On our final night we toured the beautiful streets of Taromina, which were more quiet than usual due to the time of year. Overlooking the Ionian Sea I could spot the tip of Calabria, my ancestral home, back on the mainland. It was then that I knew I would have to return, at the very least for a new bottle of olive oil.