Cooking and wine tasting adventures in Sicily
"Perhaps it was something about the light that morning on Vulcano. Or maybe the sound of goat bells tinkling across the hillside. Something made up Laura Panico’s mind. She had been here all summer visiting friends. It was too lovely to leave to go back to Britain. But how was she to earn a living? Five years on, Laura has a business bringing visitors to Vulcano - one of the Aeolian islands, a confetti trail of volcanic outcrops off the north coast of Sicily. Her guests spend a week learning to cook the way her friend’s grandmother does, pulling squid from the sea and cooking them on the boat, and savoring the unique aroma the volcanic soils give to the local wines. We reach Vulcano by hydrofoil, jetting across a shimmering sea from Sicily, then step out on to a quayside of one-storey shops and restaurants that looked like it had been that way for ever. No time to look around though: we need to start on lunch. Local taxi driver Santi drives us past soaring views of the smoldering volcano to Maria Tindara’s trattoria up in the hills. In the days when Maria did the cooking, there was no electricity, and produce came up the track by donkey. Things have changed - there’s a Tarmac road, gas and electricity, and daughter-in-law Rosi and grandson Gilberto run the kitchen now. But the recipes are much the same. Rosi came to work here as a teenager, and Maria’s son Angelo took a shine to her. “I thought, ‘She’s the one for me’,” he says, eyes twinkling under bushy brows. And he married her. “I still work in the kitchen,” laughs Rosi. “They just don’t pay me now.”. She shows us how to roll narrow maccheroni tubes. The secret tool? An old umbrella spoke. Cut a knuckle-length of dough, push the spoke down into it, join the sides up. And roll. It sticks to the board and my fingers, but slowly I find the right balance of pressure and rolling action and mine start to look vaguely edible. Sharing a rolling board is a great ice-breaker, and I quickly get to know the others on the trip. There’s Brian and John from New York, Barbara and John who live in France, John’s son Matt and his partner Louise, all the way from Australia, and Monica and Nick from London. We cook a sauce of sardines, fennel and sweet tomatoes to go with the pasta. Pudding is a tangy tart made with milk, crushed almonds and lemon. The secondo piatto is slivers of beef, which we stuff with breadcrumbs, capers and cheese then deep-fry in olive oil. It’s a truism for a reason - food tastes better if you’ve cooked it (or helped cook it, anyway). Lunch lasted long into the afternoon. If family recipes tested through generations are a key ingredient here, fresh produce is another. Without doubt the freshest came the following evening. Filippo has fished totani - large brown squid - in these clear waters for 15 years. We sit on his boat’s roof, dusky sunlight stretching a pool of orange towards us across the waves. A fisherman called Billy drops flashing lights with scary-looking hooks over the side. We spy a pod of dolphins. It’s idyllic, but Filippo isn’t happy. “Cheeky dolphins,” he mutters. “They steal the squid. We might have to see if they’ll deliver pizza out here!” They haul up the first light 20 minutes later… nothing. Filippo began the evening in jovial mood, but now he is serious, barking at us to keep the noise down. A second light comes up, empty. We watch in awkward silence. Will we catch anything? And if not, what will we eat for dinner?As they haul up the third, Filippo is suddenly animated, and the other fishermen cast lines into the sea. Whoosh! A slithering squid flops over the side, almost landing on my foot. More follow. Billy gives me a line, motioning me to pull. I haul and haul, and finally, splat! Up comes my squid, in a spray of water. The squid is gutted, chopped, dusted in flour, then cooked in hot olive oil. We eat it with our hands, hot and fresh with hunks of bread, salad and a tumbler of dry, local white. It’s late, and we are starving, but the food tastes spectacular. The bounty of these islands is everywhere. Pretty much every ingredient we cook with has come straight from the ground or sea. Laura brings fresh ricotta-filled pastries for breakfast each morning at our cozy rural hotel, Villa Saracena, and one day takes us for a stroll just a mile up the road to see where the gorgeous curd cheese is made. We find Fabrizio pouring goat’s milk into a large aluminium vat. His 350 goats are milked by hand every morning. I’m not remotely surprised to learn that his dad showed him how to make cheese as a boy. It’s a simple process - heating, cooling, adding rennet, spooning off curds. He shows us pots of creamy ricotta and harder, dried cheese, too. Family recipes, fresh produce… the final magic ingredient is fertile volcanic soil, which is great for goats and also for grapes. We often hop on boats to visit other islands during our stay, and on nearby Salina we visit the Hauner family’s vineyard. Racks of local malvasia grapes are drying in the sunshine. “Drying increases the sugar content, which makes them perfect for dessert wine,” says Andrea, as he shows us the cellar where wines are gently mellowing. His great, great grandfather planted many of their vines. Three generations of the family taste the wines each harvest and decide the blend for perfect flavors. Andrea’s mother brings out frittata, salty cheese, figs, tomato marmalade and capers to complement the wines. By the end I can’t remember which I like most. They are all splendid. On the way back, we stop in a shallow cove. I pull on my trunks and plunge into the sea. Floating on my back, full of fine wine and food, I decide I’m rather glad Laura chose to share her slice of paradise. Then I wonder what will be for dinner."
The Guardian, edited
"Hi Laura, I just wanted to say thank you so very much for a fabulous week. I really enjoyed my time in the Aeolian Islands - from our explorations, the introduction to Sicilian cooking, and all the wine sampling! It was all so wonderful and I really appreciated all the time and effort you took to ensure it was such a smooth and memorable experience for us. I especially appreciated how you tried to tailor the week around everyone’s interests and changing whims - no easy task at the best of times and you achieved it admirably with the utmost patience and ever smilingly! Thank you for accommodating my requests. The highlight for me was the last day, in particular seeing Stromboli’s nocturnal eruptions under a star laden sky - totally magical and a once in a lifetime experience. Thank you for helping to fulfill a childhood dream. It all seems a long time ago already - work has a habit of getting in the way of travelling! However, photos are a great reminder and we have lots of superb memories to draw upon."
Aeolian Adventures website, edited
"I just wanted to say thank you so very much for a fabulous week. I really enjoyed my time in the Aeolian Islands - from our explorations, the introduction to Sicilian cooking and all the wine sampling!! It was all so wonderful and I really appreciated all the time and effort you took to ensure it was such a smooth and memorable experience for us. I especially appreciated how you tried to tailor the week around everyone’s interests and changing whims - no easy task at the best of times and you achieved it admirably with the utmost patience and ever smilingly!! Thank you for accommodating my requests. The highlight for me was the last day, in particular seeing Stromboli’s nocturnal eruptions under a star laden sky - totally magical and a once in a lifetime experience. Thank you for helping to fulfil a childhood dream. It all seems a long time ago already - work has a habit of getting in the way of travelling! However photos are a great reminder and we have lots of superb memories to draw upon. Hope to catch up soon."
Aeolian Adventures website, edited
"I want to belatedly thank you immensely for the wonderful time you produced for us in Sicily last October! All of the activities you planned were memorable and not to be competed with! John has gotten many miles out of his telling of the calamari fishing expedition! I cannot pick one single favorite moment... so, so many stick out ! One thing is sure, I do not remember one bad or even ‘less’ then meal! The incredible food, drink and experiences were incomparable! We are having thoughts of a Sicily return this October... would be interested in your thoughts about where to stay/eat in places like Ragusa / Modica / Noto or Marsala... right now those are the places that are holding our interest and by the way is Agrigento worth a visit all the guides say it is an ugly city! All the best and stay in touch."
Aeolian Adventures website, edited
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