THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
When Giuseppe Garibaldi landed in the port of Marsala, western Sicily, in 1860, he was in a hurry.
Coming ashore with just 1,000 men, the revolutionary leader fought his way across country to unite Italy as a new nation state.
Yet had he chosen to stay in this corner of the island a while longer he could have enjoyed some of its fine food and wine, beautiful rugged coastline and abundance of ancient sights. Of course, if he had then modern Italy would not be celebrating its 150th birthday this year.
Once king and country had been established, Garibaldi did return to Marsala, paying a visit to the town’s famous Florio winery in 1862 – as a plaque on the wall testifies. “Some people say this place is like a museum, I say it’s more like a cathedral,” says Florio’s director of exports Marcelo, as he gestures towards its lofty ceilings while looking at me. Giant 100-year-old casks tower above us, giving off a mellow aroma of oak and ageing wine.
Marsala made its way onto the world stage in the 18th-century thanks to the ingenuity of British merchant John Woodhouse. A fortified wine similar to Port, its ability to withstand long ocean voyages made it ideal for export, and Marsala was soon being stocked on the ships of Nelson’s navy.
However, in recent years producers have had to work hard to rescue Marsala’s reputation as a mere cooking ingredient and even an energy drink (when mixed with eggs and sugar).
“Those days are over,” tells me Marcello proudly. “No young Marsala is a true Marsala. We age our wines for at least four years.” Available in varying levels of sweetness, Marsala goes perfectly with Sicilian almonds and cheeses, and the dry, complex aged wines we try make a delicious digestif.
Enjoying the wine in the place where it’s made, it’s easy to imagine the British taking the drink and this corner of Sicily to their hearts. Prosperous families like the Whitakers and Inghams arrived and built their villas and estates around the town. On the nearby island of San Pantaleo, the Whitakers’ summer residence is today a museum, which stands amid the remains of a vast Phoenician settlement – an ancient staging post and center for salt extraction that remains to this day.
TRAPANI AND BEYOND
All along the coast from Marsala to the provincial capital, Trapani, lie row upon row of salt pans, each pool a different hue according to its salinity. Boats to San Pantaleo leave from outside the Ettore e Infersa salt works, where a beautifully restored Dutch windmill operates each summer. The local industry is now mechanised, but workers here still bring in the harvest by hand, heaping the salt into conical mounds by wheelbarrow. It sounds like tough work but then Trapani salt is considered to be the best in Italy.
In fact it’s so good that some Sicilians eat it for breakfast. At Pensione Tranchina, in the fishing hamlet of Scopello, owners Marisin and Salvatore serve a spread of fresh local products, which includes bread for dipping into their homemade olive oil with a liberal sprinkling of the coarse crystals. Haven.
Guests gather each night in the dining room for home-cooked meals, which include calamari marinated in Marsala and stuffed with pine nuts, currants and pecorino cheese. Marisin explains the nifty way the locals land their catch. “The calamari are attracted to the light, so the fishermen use flashing bulbs on their lines to get them to the surface,” she says.
Traditions are never far away in these parts, and neither is nature. The most popular swimming spot in Scopello is down by the old tuna fishery, where parts of Hollywood crime caper Ocean’s Twelve were shot. It’s part of the Zingaro nature reserve, boasting hidden coves for snorkling and a cornucopia of plants and wildlife.
Back in the city, Trapani offers a compact old town, with baroque facades and ancient churches to discover. It’s a town steeped in traditions, one of which can be observed at the Chiesa del Purgatorio. This church is filled with huge religious figures that are carried on the shoulders of the faithful during the city’s fervent Easter processions.
Once you’ve seen Trapani, investigate the nearby countryside. The landscapes here are ethereal, with mountains capped by whisps of cloud framing sweeping valleys of fertile farmland. It’s not normally advisable on any trip to leave the highway and attempt to get lost, but in western Sicily it’s well worth going off the beaten track – and you won’t find a car or soul in sight.
Various farmstays and villas offer a great way to wake up to this kind of vista each morning. Just off the main road between Trapani and Palermo we drop in at Cantine Virzì, a winery and boutique hotel run by some friends of us, the Spadafora family. Their former sharecroppers’ apartments overlook fields of vines, harvested each summer by hand. With space for just 14 guests and a location literally in the middle of nowhere, it’s a peaceful escape for a few days swimming in the pool and drinking the wines – they even left a free bottle in my fridge. Cant beat that.
Crowning the tip of the Golfo di Castellammare – a vast sweeping bay on the north coast – is the pretty town of San Vito Lo Capo. The fine sandy beach here “feels like Rio” (according to our Brazilian friend André), thanks to its backdrop of brooding mountains. The residents also go crazy for couscous – restaurants serving the dish line the beach, and the annual Cous Cous Fest (20–25 September) draws chefs from around the world for carnival-style cook-offs.
It may seem an odd bedfellow of lasagne, but that’s because this North African dish was brought over by the Arabs who ruled Sicily from 965 to 1072AD. Today the steamed semolina is a staple of western Sicily’s diet, taking pride of place in homes and restaurants.
One such place is Trapani’s Cantina Siciliana, where delicately spiced couscous is topped with fish and drenched in a warming fish broth of cinnamon, garlic, almonds and tomatoes. It’s total comfort food. This authentic trattoria also stocks over 500 Sicilian wines. Another local dish is the tuna, arriving in a variety of guises – from salty cured bresaola to the more acquired bottarga (eggs). Usually only served fresh in season (May to June), it’s one of the world’s most highly prized species and is coveted by everyone from Sicilian mammas to Japanese sushi chefs.
SEGESTA AND ERICE: SWEET SIGHTS
Sicily’s winemaking traditions date back to the Greek communities that once dominated the island. To glimpse into their past, head to Segesta and some of Sicily’s best classical remains. A well-preserved temple crowns a picturesque hillside of wild flowers, while on an adjacent peak an amphitheatre and Norman castle ruins offer views to the sea. It’s like a slice of Athens dropped in Italy. Although some believe the Elymians, an ancient tribe that built the temple around 2,500 years ago, may have been refugees from Troy.
The Elymians also populated Erice, a walled city perched on a mountaintop overlooking Trapani. Phoenicians, Arabs and Normans also made their way up this 750m-high peak, which today you can reach by cable car. The beautiful, narrow streets have an almost eerie medieval feel, and here you’ll see fairy-tale castles and stunning views that stretch out as far as Tunisia.
In ancient times Erice was the centre of the cult of Venus, but today your best vice would have to be the sweets of Maria Grammatico, known throughout Italy for her sugary almond treats. One thing’s for sure, if Garibaldi – whom the Brits named a biscuit after – had been tempted by anything like these it could all have been a different story.