The fertile west

The fertile west

Manuela Darling-Gansser
6 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Simon Griffiths

The coastal plains of west Sicily between Trapani and Marsala are bursting with carefully-tended agriculture. Close to the sea there are vineyards and olive groves, while further inland the valleys are full of wheat fields, carob plantations and more vineyards and olive trees. Driving through these valleys in springtime you can understand why Sicily was such a magnet for invaders through the centuries. It is a picture of fertility and fruitfulness.

This area is well-known for its production of olive oil. It has to be said that Sicilian olive oil has had a mixed reputation. In some areas large co-operatives with poor agricultural and oil-making techniques have delivered a very ordinary product. More recently, though, a number of producers have begun to produce exceptional oils, using strict quality control and attention to detail.

One particular olive oil from a farm near Trapani had been judged very highly in blind tasting tests, so I arranged a visit. The oil is called Titone, which is the family name of the father and daughter who own and manage the business. Titone oil is produced organically showing yet again that you should seek out organic produce not only because it is healthy but also because it tastes so good.

The Titone family have been pharmacists in Marsala since 1837 and boast Garibaldi as one of their early clients.The current patriarch, Dr Nicola Titone, and his daughter, Dr Antonella Titone, both trained as pharmacists, and it was their technical knowledge that enabled them to devise ways to organically control pests such as the olive fly in their groves. The Titone’s attention to organic quality is apparent everywhere. Neither the olive trees nor the ground around them are sprayed, the fruit is hand-picked at precisely the right moment and the processing area is as meticulous and spick and span as a dairy. The oil itself is blended so that it is broadly similar from year to year. It is green and grassy, slightly sharp with a touch of pepper and a whole noseful of other wonderful aromatics.

We tasted the Titone olive oil in the best possible manner – drizzled onto a fresh crusty loaf of local bread, sprinkled with a little salt (perhaps from the nearby salt pans), and topped with a ripe tomato and a few basil leaves. It was sensational. To finish we each had a cannoli with a light ricotta filling, fresh from the local baker. This simple meal was as memorable as any we had in Sicily.

After lunch we headed down the coast towards Marsala where we had booked to stay at an agriturismo, a rural bed-and-breakfast. You can find these family-run operations all around Sicily. They are usually run as an add-on to the business of farming. When you stay, it is like staying with a family, but because they are farmers there is the added advantage that they can tell you all about the local produce. Although some agriturismi are strictly bed-and-breakfast, many will also cook dinner for you in the evening. Some of the most enjoyable dining we had in Sicily was in agriturismi.

The agriturismo we were staying at was called Baglio Vajarassa, and is run by a local character called Nardino Argate. From our upstairs bedroom we had a view across a field of vines that had been planted so close to the sea that they had to be cut low to avoid salt spray. Beyond them we could see a shallow bay with the island of Mozia in the distance. Off to one side we could see the windmills of the nearby salt pans and behind the two-storey house was a large paved courtyard with shade trees – the ideal spot for drinks and dinner on a hot evening.

Nardino had promised to make me his fish couscous and that is what we ate for dinner. The couscous itself was steamed over fish broth and accompanied by a plate of small fish freshly caught from the bay. With local wine and a glass of Marsala to finish, it was everything that local eating should be.

The following day we drove to the city of Marsala to visit the cellars of Cantina Florio, the largest producer of Marsala wines. The city is surrounded by old walls and is well preserved and cared-for. The sand-coloured stone buildings and streets give it a distinctive character. During our visit we learnt that the city has a distinguished modern history – it is where Garibaldi landed to begin his successful campaign to win Sicily for the new united Italian state. He is celebrated everywhere.

The history of Marsala wine is also fascinating. Like port, sherry and claret, it was a wine developed in a foreign country for the English market. It was actually created by an enterprising English merchant called John Woodhouse, who wanted to fortify the local wine so it would keep when exported. As luck would have it, the British fleet in the Mediterranean, commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson, was deprived of wine from Spain because of the war at the time. So they ordered 500 ‘pipes’ (about 210,000 litres) of Marsala from Woodhouse and the British sailors quickly developed a taste for it.

Lord Nelson, of course, went on to famous victories, a scandalous love affair with Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British Ambassador to the court in Naples, and was eventually rewarded for defeating Napoleon with the Sicilian title of Duke of Bronte and vast estates of land close to Mount Etna.

Another English merchant, Benjamin Ingham, developed techniques for greatly improving the quality of Marsala. The wine became fashionable in England and was eventually sold all around the world. Woodhouse returned to England but Ingham and his nephews and heirs, the Whittakers, went on to make a fortune and built palazzi in Palermo and Rome.

The Woodhouse and Ingham companies subsequently merged with the Sicilian Florio company and have recently been taken over by an international drinks conglomerate. Today the wine is produced at the Cantina Florio, which is situated in a large walled compound on the seafront just outside the city of Marsala. In times of trouble (and there seems to have been a lot of them) the Woodhouses, Inghams, Whittakers and Florios would retreat to their palazzo compounds for safety, waiting out any danger there.

Marsala wine is still made by the solera method, following the techniques developed by Ingham. This is the same way sherry is made, which is how Ingham got the idea. A quantity of old wine is used to start fermentation in the barrels of new wine and the famous yeasts live on. The process can be repeated and repeated – in fact the Marsala-style digestivo we enjoyed so much at dinner in Trapani was the result of twenty repetitions.

The cantina, or above-ground cellars, are oriented to get a gentle sea breeze to control temperature. Additional cooling comes from the seawater table, which is just below the hard yellow earth floor. Humidity is seen as important to promote the growth of the moulds and yeasts that mature the wine. In the cantina, rows of huge oak barrels hold the wine as it ages. In the small museum attached to the cantina, the original contract between Nelson and Woodhouse is on display (dated 18 March 1800), together with bottles of Marsala dating back to 1868, the year Garibaldi launched his campaign.

Marsala is commonly thought to be a sweet wine, but like sherry, it can range from very sweet to bone dry. As an aperitivo or a digestivo, I particularly like a fairly dry Marsala; these tend to be deep amber in colour with lots of interesting aromas. As I found in Trapani, a dry Marsala is also an excellent accompaniment to a very sweet dessert. I often use a medium–sweet Marsala in cooking for a richer taste.

For recipes that remind me of my time in Marsala and the countryside nearby, there is no better place to start than our lunch at the Titone Olive Grove. For pane cunzatu (seasoned bread), as it is known locally, all you need is some fresh crusty bread, good olive oil, salt, tomatoes and basil. Bread can be seasoned in many ways but this is probably the classic combination.

I have also included two vegetable dishes, involtini di melanzane (rolled eggplant) and peperonata, made from red and yellow peppers and spiced with the full array of Sicilian ingredients – olives, anchovies, capers, pine nuts, mint, garlic and chilli.

Of course I have to include a recipe for fish couscous. Eating couscous is a bit like eating a fondue – it’s a communal activity with a central plate and accompanying dishes that are passed around the table. It is best eaten with a number of people, as conviviality is an important ingredient.

I have also included a rabbit recipe, coniglio con mandorle, (rabbit with almonds). Sicilians are not great meat eaters, but you find wild rabbits in these areas and locals enjoy both hunting and eating them.

Perhaps the most famous Sicilian pastries are cannoli: deep-fried thin pastry tubes that are filled with ricotta. The ricotta is sweetened and can be flavoured with candied fruit or chocolate. One of the nicest versions we found were the ones we ate for lunch at Titone’s, and I have included a recipe here.

Recipes in this Chapter

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