My glorious Sicilian vacation is over, and I can’t restore a smile back to my face yet. I’ve known what to expect with other life-changing travel experiences, like the famed mal d’Afrique the African magnet that never loses its pull; or how to manage the mystic charm of Mexico; or the height of certain skies and depth of particular chasms; but no one prepared me to this post-Sicily nostalgia.
Thing is, I have been to Sicily many times, since childhood. I’m guessing my mother suffered from the same disease, because she’d take me to Palermo on a regular basis ever since I can remember. We’d spend hours in contemplation in front of Fredrick II’s tomb in the Duomo, or walk – nose in the air in the verdant cloister of San Giovanni degli Eremiti church – gazing at its red Arabian style domes and lush gardens. We trekked the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, admired the pink Baroque architecture of Noto, and dove off the Scala dei Turchi. Back home, she’d always replicate the overwhelming dishes that would punctuate our stay. In our pantry, always a stash of Sicilian basics, still to this day.
A past romance, a portion of my pregnancy a decade ago and many business travels later, I am still visiting la Sicilia, and all the while magically attracted to the blessed isle. Six months ago I first visited the Etna region with Casa Mia, and it left a deep, difficult-to-heal mark. Where to spend my time off work in mid-August was therefore a no-brainer. And this time around – all laundry loads done, and impact of daily life reality dealt with – I’m finding it hard to let go. This time, traveling there with my own child, the incredible feeling of acceptance and love, the warmth and impeccable hospitality of its people, and the powerful draw of the volcano, are very hard to file under arrivederci.
As a home cook, glutton and curious food professional, I still can’t get over how rich and diversified the food and wine culture of Sicily can be, and each visit has surprises and discoveries in store. As a further confirmation of my previous visit with wine expert and colleague Gina in April, learning about vineyards on Etna, this time I finally understood how Mt Etna (Europe’s largest active volcano) influences the local agriculture. Millennia of lava flow, limestone plains swept by warm winds, sunny soils the color of bronze, and a nearby sapphire sea perennially generous with marine life, all conspire to the area’s bountiful cornucopia.
Culinary habits and methods shift to include knowledge inherited by the many dominations that over time inhabited these lands – which impact recipes, dishes and traditions beautifully, providing fantastic alternatives to what we are accustomed to. Just think how different the concept of breakfast is across the Messina strait. Everywhere else in Italy the first meal of the day is normally a caffeinated beverage paired with a sweet pastry. Here, and not only in summer, la prima colazione is enjoyed not standing at the bar, but rather comfortably seated at tables, served warm brioche buns that can be dunked in large cups of granita, topped if you like with whipped cream. How civilized!
In the realm of sweets, my recent Sicilian experience further appointed my cannoli inclination. True to tradition, but also open to innovation, like in the super-size cannoli pictured below, which are made in artisan pastry shops: fried on demand, piped fresh with ricotta cream, lined with a dark chocolate coating, hint of ground pistachio and not a touch of candied fruit: These are in fact substituted with fresh seasonal strawberries and peaches.
The arancini we had in Sicily cannot compete with the worthy ones we find on the mainland. Creamy, rich fillings are concealed in a crunchy, never greasy breaded coating… I’m salivating just writing it.
Home-cooked meals we enjoyed at friends’ homes were abundant and original, yet faithful to tradition. The hospitality and the joy of welcoming us in their homes competed with the taste and genius of each dish. We also appreciated the pride the local population has in regards to the region’s stellar cuisine, which is more than justified.
Personally, I’m already planning my next visit. And not only to take in the culture and to see, learn, enjoy, and savor what has enchanted all those who have ventured through Sicily’s expanses in the past four thousand years, no. I’m going back there to dream, and make brand new memories for me and my enthusiastic little boy, who is enchanted by travel just like I was at his age. I’ll rove the archaeological parks of Piazza Armerina and Selinunte again, just to see my happiness reflected in his thirsty eyes. We’ll witness the sunset in the Greek theater at Taormina, climb up Mt Etna one more time; swim in the crystal Mediterranean like happy little fish.
And eat more granita on the beach.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.