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Volcanoes and vineyards: How Mount Etna inspires Sicily’s food and wine

Volcanoes and vineyards: How Mount Etna inspires Sicily's food and wine

As Alice Bonaccorsi raises her arms and bends her knees in a wide-legged stance, she seems like one thing between a martial artist and a crab. She begins to maneuver in 4 instructions, as if making a sq.: left, again, proper, ahead. At every nook she reaches out to pluck a grape.

It’s late September and every week earlier than the harvest at ValCerasa, Alice’s 18th-century winery on the northeastern aspect of Sicily’s Mount Etna. “These vines have been planted in squares for picking by hand, not in lines, for picking by machine,” she explains.

The solar is heat in a vibrant blue sky, streaming onto the terraced winery’s steps of volcanic rock. The black earth of Etna’s lunar peak looms over our backs, a valley with a sprinkling of medieval homes nestled beneath an outcrop of rock may be seen down the inexperienced slopes, and two sheep lazily decide on the grass. Hoards of white butterflies dot the air, glancing between the vines. “Nobody else has so many,” says Alice, as they flash white towards the black lava rock.

Mount Etna. Photograph: The Considering Traveller

The vines are gnarled, every over 80 years previous, their bunches of Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Carricante grapes small and plump. Alice’s conventional rising methods, together with Etna’s mineral-rich soil, makes her wines concentrated and intense.

Beneath the volcano

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The presence of an lively volcano, and its fixed (if minor) volatility doesn’t simply have an effect on the style of issues grown right here, however what Sicilians do with their produce, too. The subsequent day, I’m within the historic port metropolis of Catania for a road food tour. Previous the duomo constructed from native slate-grey volcanic rock, I arrive in a bustling, elegant piazza, the place information and native archaeologist Alessandra Cilio palms me an arancino – or conventional Sicilian rice ball. It’s spherical at one finish and tweaked into some extent on the different. “This is the most popular shape here,” she says. “It’s like the volcano. When you bite and the red sauce comes out, it’s like the eruption.”

The traditional port metropolis of Catania. Photograph: The Considering Traveller

100 miles northeast of Tunisia and separated from the Italian mainland by the Strait of Messina, Sicily produces flavours, sights and smells in contrast to anyplace else. Its delicacies is influenced by east and west, and is layered by the many individuals who’ve set foot on its shores over the centuries. The traditional Greeks launched olives, grapes and wine-making. The Moors, who dominated from the mid-ninth to the 11th centuries introduced rice and pasta, aubergines, oranges, pistachios, sugar cane, cinnamon and saffron, and rosewater. From their American colonies, the Spanish introduced tomatoes, peppers, chillies and potatoes.

We stroll by means of the sq., previous a statue of an elephant (an emblem of Catania) and a loud baroque fountain, to the town’s fishmarket. The stalls – on giant, uneven paving stones – are under the pavement, a bit like a stage pitched under the stalls. “The spectators stand on these steps to watch the fishermen,” says Alessandra. We be a part of them as I end off my arancino.

Catania is Sicily’s second largest metropolis. Photograph: The Considering Traveller

I had made my very own the day gone by at Rocca delle Tre Contrade, a gorgeous villa 40 minutes north of Catania. Dora, the chef, had slowly cooked veal in tomato sauce earlier than shredding it. Then she laid a layer of sticky risotto rice throughout my palm, adopted by a spoonful of the meat and tomatoes, and a dice of mozzarella. I patted a small quantity of rice on prime to type a ball, which was then fried twice. Dora’s arancini are spherical and seamless; mine have been lopsided and leaky, however when eaten on the massive terrace overlooking the gardens, they have been all scrumptious.

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” alt=”” width=”1700″ />Rocca delle Tre Contrade was inbuilt 1850 by a household of winemakers who lived on the highest flooring in the course of the grape harvest. Photograph: Cristina Faramo

Rocca delle Tre Contrade is perched on prime of a hill, amongst richly scented lemon groves, herb gardens and fig timber. A former aristocratic property, it was inbuilt 1850 by a household of winemakers who lived on the highest flooring in the course of the grape harvest and saved their barrels on the bottom flooring. Its thick partitions are pink from a mix of purple brick and white sand; it’s reached by way of a bridge manufactured from heaped black lava rocks. Each room has a view, whether or not it’s of the Ionian sea, the slopes of Etna, or the rolling Sicilian hillsides dotted with grand agricultural buildings in various states of splendid decay.

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Mountain and sea

My room is on the primary flooring however the ceilings are so excessive right here that you might be three storeys up. The pale ceiling rises right into a cool, excessive dome. From one window, I can see Mount Etna, puffing languorously away. Although the opposite is the ocean, too dazzling to take a look at each morning because the solar rises. Down on the shore is the village of Praiola.

The ceilings are so excessive that you might be three storeys up. Photograph: Cristina Faramo

I go to the village with Merlin Labron-Johnson, a British chef whose first restaurant, Portland was awarded a Michelin star when he was simply 24 years previous. Final month he introduced that he’d be opening a brand new restaurant in 2019. He’ll even be main a culinary expertise at Rocca delle Tre Contrade that may embrace guided journeys to close by villages, Catania, the encompassing vineyards, and out to sea.

Our first cease within the village is the fishmonger, a blue tiled store on the seafront. Its counters are full of ice, octopus, swordfish, shiny sardines and slippery eels. We attempt the shrimps uncooked, their flesh pink and candy. Merlin selects an amberjack and a capone fish, and the fishmonger cuts the center and gills in three clear sweeps with a tiny knife earlier than wrapping it in white paper. Merlin is impressed. “That knife looks like it cost 50p from the supermarket. He’s like a ninja.”

A Sicilian fishmonger. Photograph: The Considering Traveller

The subsequent cease is the native vegetable market, the place he selects fennel, oranges, pumpkin, and tomatoes. “Italians go to markets and talk to the farmers or fishermen, then decide what to cook that day,” he says. “When the produce is this good, you don’t want to manipulate it, but just make it taste the best it can.”

Merlin Labron-Johnson and Rocca delle Tre Contrade’s resident chef, Dora. Photograph: Cristina Faramo

Merlin is impressed by Sicily’s bigger than life components, he says, whipping them up within the villa’s Masterchef-like kitchen. I, in flip, return house full of inspiration for Sicilian cooking, dreaming of the gnocchi with pumpkin and hazelnut and fig leaf pannacotta Merlin taught me to make. Unsurprisingly, on a drizzly October Saturday in London, it doesn’t style fairly the identical because it did within the villa’s sundrenched backyard. At the very least there’s all the time subsequent yr.


When to go

Spring is the most effective time to go to, with snug temperatures from March to early June. Keep away from July and August – it’s very popular and crowded, on account of peak season. September and October are pretty, too – the ocean is heat from the summer time, it’s nonetheless fairly scorching, however a lot of the vacationers have gone.

How to get there

EasyJet flies from London Gatwick to Catania yr spherical from £70 return, with further seasonal flights from Luton Manchester and Bristol. TUI has seasonal providers from Manchester and Birmingham.

What to see

Mount Etna is the very best volcano in Europe, and certainly one of most lively on the planet. Hike in the summertime or ski and snowboard within the winter. visitsicily.information/en/mount-etna/

Sicily’s most well-known historic website is the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento, the place a UNESCO-rated archaeological park has a clutch of eight historic temples.

The Greek theatre in Taormina has spectacular views throughout the bay. Go to when the solar is setting for max splendour.

The place to eat

Pasticceria Ficarra Luigi is likely one of the hottest bakeries in Catania. Attempt a Cassatella di Sant’Agata (Saint Agata cake), full of ricotta and pistachio cream, and coated in marzipan – within the form of a breast. Saint Agata is Catania’s patron saint – her breasts have been amputated after she refused to marry a strong man.

Fratelli Burgio, a delicatessen out there at Syracuse, has heaps of Sicilian and Italian cheese, prosciutto, do-it-yourself dried tomatoes, caponata and extra. Mains from €12.

The place to remain

Lodge Centrale Europa has small however practical rooms proper on Piazza del Duomo, subsequent to Catania Cathedral. Doubles from €85 (£76), B&B. 

Wine Relais Feudi del Pisciotto is a set of farm buildings unfold over a small hill on the sting of a protected pure park in south east Sicily. The terrace overlooks the encompassing vineyards and an outside pool. Doubles from €104, B&B.

Extra info

The culinary expertise at Rocca delle Tre Contrade led by Merlin Labron-Johnson and Grasp of Wine Isabelle Legeron runs from Saturday 30th March – Saturday sixth April 2019. It prices from €four,250pp and consists of fullboard lodging, cookery demos, seven classes with Merlin and excursions.

To rearrange a go to to ValCerasa winery, e-mail [email protected]

Catania food excursions value from €55, relying on group measurement, and embrace food and wine,

Ask an area

Alessandra Cilio, tour information

“Modica has the best chocolate in Sicily. People have been making it there using Aztec recipes since the Spanish conquistadors introduced it in the 1500s.Try “mpanatigghi” (pastries full of minced meat and chocolate) and “liccumie” (pastries full of eggplant and chocolate) from any of the outlets on the primary road.”

Merlin Labron Johnson’s Sicilian recipes

Merlin prepares in fish in Rocca delle Tre Contrade’s kitchen. Photograph: Cristina Faramo

Uncooked Sicilian seafood platter

  • 400g Sicilian purple prawns
  • 400g amberjack fillet
  • 400g dolphinfish fillet (“capone”)
  • 1 younger kohlrabi root
  • Three oranges
  • Three endives
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 diced apples
  • 2 mature peaches
  • zero,5l vegetable oil
  • 500g strained yoghurt
  • mint leaves
  • basil
  • wild garlic flowers
  • lemon verbena

First, clear the prawns. Toss the prawn heads in a pan with the vegetable oil, slowly warmth and then simmer for 30 minutes till the oil has absorbed the color and flavour of the prawns. Pressure and depart to chill.

Subsequent, put together your different elements as follows:

Thinly slice the filleted fish into broad strips.

Phase the oranges and hold the juice.

Clear the kohlrabi and slice as thinly as attainable.

Cube the apples and sprinkle with lemon juice, then combine into the strained yoghurt with a pinch of salt.

Thinly reduce the peaches.

Reduce the endive leaves into lengthy strips julienne type.

To serve

For the pink prawn tacos: place a slice of kohlrabi on the plate, prime with a spoon of yoghurt and apple combine, then add 2-Three  uncooked prawns on prime. Garnish with mint, verbena, basil leaves and wild garlic flowers.

For the amberjack: Place the uncooked fish on a plate, garnish with orange segments and strips of endives. Prime with a French dressing constructed from olive oil, a couple of drops of orange juice, salt and sugar.

For the dolphinfish: Place the uncooked fish on a plate, garnish with the sliced peaches and basil leaves. Add a couple of drops of prawn head oil on each bit and end with freshly grated lemon zest.

Merlin’s pumpkin gnocchi

  • 480g flour
  • 1,5kg baked floury potatoes
  • Three eggs
  • salt
  • 2kg ripe pumpkin
  • 250g salted butter
  • recent sage leaves
  • roasted hazelnuts
  • 100g grated pecorino cheese

Place the entire unpeeled potatoes on a mattress of rock salt in a baking tray and bake within the oven at 200°C for approx. 40 minutes. Whereas nonetheless heat, slit the potatoes and empty them with a spoon, discarding the potato pores and skin. Cross the potato by means of a potato ricer or sieve into a big bowl and combine in flour, eggs and a pinch of salt. Knead collectively on a floured floor till reaching a clean velvety consistency. Roll into half inch sausage form and minimize into 1 inch gnocchi items. Place on floured baking paper.

Subsequent, clear the pumpkin and minimize into 1 inch cubes. Toss right into a scorching pan with 1/2 inch olive oil and let it prepare dinner till the pumpkin disintegrates (approx. 20 minutes). Stir to keep away from burning and sticking. In a separate pan, soften the butter and prepare dinner at a low warmth till the color turns hazelnut brown. Add the sage leaves midway via, so they may tackle a crispy consistency, however watch out to not burn the butter.

To serve

Drop the gnocchi concurrently into a big pan of boiling salted water. When the gnocchi bob as much as the floor, they’re prepared. Take away with a slotted spoon. Layer the smooth pumpkin and gnocchi on a big serving plate. Garnish with melted butter, crispy sage, hazelnuts and grated pecorino cheese. Serve whereas scorching.

Merlin’s Sicilian fig leaf pannacotta

  • 750ml milk
  • 1.5l cream
  • 240g sugar
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 10 younger fig leaves
  • 11g gelatine
  • 12 recent figs
  • 12tbsp orange or lemon bloom honey (mild colored)

Minimize a cross via the highest of the recent figs, place in an ovenproof pan and prime with honey. Bake at 180°C for approx 20-25 minutes till cooked via and smooth. Pour off the honey syrup and hold in a coated container. Depart to chill.

Deliver the milk and cream to a boil, with the sugar and seeds from one vanilla pod. Take away the stems from the fig leaves and roll every fig leaf between your palms to launch the important oils earlier than you steep them for 10 minutes within the boiling milk. Within the meantime, soften the gelatine sheets in chilly water. Pressure the recent milk combination by means of a sieve to take away the fig leaves, squeeze the gelatine sheets dry (they need to be mushy by now) and add them to the recent combination, stirring to steadily soften the gelatine. Fill 12 pannacotta moulds with equal portions of the combination and depart to chill. Let the pannacotta solidify within the fridge for no less than 5 hours earlier than serving.

Serve with the baked figs and garnish with the honey syrup