Sicily

I decided today’s a good day to relive a time when there was no COVID, because we’re heading into another lockdown and we’re tired of this shit and it’s just that kind of day, folks. So, let’s enjoy some escapism!

Sicily is way up at the top of places I’d like to visit again (one day). Located in the center of the Mediterranean and layered in the rich history of past Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Arab and Norman civilizations—apparent in the island’s architecture, language and most obviously, its food—Sicily is not a place that can be fully appreciated in one trip.

Back in May 2018, my dear friend and co-collaborator, Stef Ferrari, and I embarked on a culinary adventure on the east coast of Sicilia. On behalf of Life & Thyme, we were invited by Katty Garcia of La Cook Agency to cover Cibo Nostrum—a grand festival celebrating Italian cuisine. That year, the event was taking place in the heart of Taormina, an enchanting town overlooking the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea, a mere 54 kilometers north of the bustling city of Catania.

Now, this already sounds amazing enough. But the icing on the cake was our accommodations. Just below the town of Taormina, tucked into the Sicilian coast, is Taormina Mare and the Villa Sant’Andrea (a Belmond Hotel). Our home away from home was magical to say the least. If there ever was a time to thank the universe for a free luxury workcation, this would be it.

I think about this property often because of its beauty and tranquility, but also because I’d love to go back and just be in it. The thing with working festivals is you’re constantly on the go. Press is expected to cover the events and culinary delights, not lounge seaside in a cabana. The time we did have at the hotel was usually to shower, grab a bite, take stock of what we’d covered, work on our book, A Woman’s Place (while sitting at a table overlooking the water), and be lulled to sleep by the sounds of the sea. OK, so all in all, it was still pretty glamorous.

Taormina has all those delights you’d expect from an Italian town that also caters to throngs of visitors. We sampled gelato, arancini and fresh seafood; we strolled by old churches and the ancient Greek theater; we joined locals and tourists in navigating cobblestone pathways, breathing in all of Taormina’s rustic charm. We also had the chance to visit our Belmond Hotel’s sister property, the Grand Hotel Timeo, and took in the breathtaking views of Mount Etna and the sea from its terrace. This definitely did not suck.

The festival lasted for three days. We tasted offerings from a variety of producers and winemakers, and observed many chefs—donned in their chef’s whites and pleated toques—passionately describe the food from their regions. The immense pride they have for their craft and culture was undeniable.

The last event for Cibo Nostrum was at Il Faro Capomulini, about 15 kilometers from Catania’s city center. Nearby, we visited a blood orange grove, a staple in Italian cuisine with Sicily producing half of the country’s citrus. The farewell lunch was another opportunity to eat, eat some more, bask in the Sicilian sun and be refreshed by the salt-tinged air.

After the festival concluded, press was invited for an intimate dinner by Chef Seby Sorbello at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Sabir Gourmanderie. Located in the town of Zafferana Etnea, near the base of Mount Etna, the meal felt both relaxed yet elevated. Each dish was as delightful and magical as Etna. Nearly every ingredient was sourced from the volcanic area and poetically put together. An experience like this would be virtually impossible to replicate outside of the region. Chef Sorbello’s love and care for his home was on full display in each plate he prepared.

Just like Zafferana Etnea is known for its honey (jars of this deliciousness were stuffed into my suitcase), the Mount Etna town of Bronte is known for its pistachios. Stef and I became obsessed with them. Bronte pistachios will forever change your idea of what a pistachio should taste like. Tinged purple and smaller than regular pistachios, Brontes are more intense and fragrant. They also have the Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Designation of Protected Origin (DOP). Our precious little packets of nuts were ferociously guarded even after returning home. We made these little suckers last!

Thanks to our hosts, Katty and her husband Gus, our culinary tour was capped off with a trip to the baroque town of Noto. Here, at the famed Caffe’ Sicilia, we sat down with master chef Corrado Assenza who humbly answered our questions and filled our heads with knowledge of Sicilian ingredients and heritage.

Remember what I just said about Bronte pistachios? That’s how insanely good almonds are from Noto. We were presented with a chilled glass of latte di mandorla, also known as almond milk. Nothing fancy, right? Wrong. The flavor was astounding. There’s a nutty sweetness unlike anything I’ve had in the U.S. When I asked if sugar was added, Chef Assenza replied with a simple “No, it’s only the almonds.” My mind was blown. Since returning home, I haven’t bought almond milk because I know how badly I’ll be disappointed.

A variety of flavored granitas graced our table, as did scoops of gelato and plates with traditional Sicilian pastries. But I had my eyes set out for one thing in particular: Caffe’ Sicilia’s cannoli. Crispy, delicate and filled with sweet ricotta, the simplicity of this pastry was heavenly. I don’t know if I’ve ever savoured anything with that level intensity before in my life.

In a short week, it was time to say goodbye to the island we barely got to know, but longed to be back in its presence. The people of Sicily are warm and inviting. They’re grounded in who they are. They take pride in their mixed heritage and pleasure in sharing their gifts with visitors. It’s no wonder Sicily is getting the attention it deserves. I’m excited to peel back the layers of this enchanting land once more.

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