Early this Summer I enjoyed my first wine trip to Sicily. I had never visited the island before and was thrilled by everything I saw and almost everything I tasted. Our little group were all members of The Circle of Wine Writers and we experienced some breathtaking scenery and visited some wonderful producers which demonstrated to me what fabulous wines this beautiful island can produce.
It seems pretty much the norm that wine regions are beautiful places, or at least dramatic, which must be to do with the conditions that grape vines need to grow, but I thought this island was especially lovely. Sicily is of course in the Mediterranean Sea and so I expected it to be wild and rugged, like Southern Spain. Some of it is like that, but over all the place struck me as being amazingly lush and green – it helped that while we there the island was ablaze with wild flowers adding colour and softness to every view. The trip was a constant surprise with stunning vistas of dramatic mountains, rolling hills, ancient ruins and enticing towns that made the whole trip a delight.
Sicily is mainly the bulk wine producing giant of Italy, but we were there to see the finer side of what Sicily does. Being so near North Africa I would have expected Sicilian wines to be robust affairs, full-bodied and hot with little or no acidity, but it seems that I was very wrong. The good wines that I tasted all offered elegance, freshness and good acidity, with nothing flabby or hot about them – which was just as well as the local cuisine seems to be largely based on vegetables along with some stunning fish – all of which cries out for lighter, fresher wines and more white wines than most consumers (UK ones anyway) associate with Southern Italy, which is a shame as the whites from this part of the world have become generally very good of late and also have some true flashes of brilliance – which I saw in Sicily.
It was the freshness of the wines that thrilled me I think and made me realise just how wise the Sicilians are. They cheekily describe their island as a continent because – although it is very small in terms of landmass – there are many different soil types as well as climatic conditions from the different altitudes and proximity to the sea, all of which allows them to harvest over a three month period and so produce a bewildering array of different wine styles, delicate dry whites, fine sparkling wine, medium-bodied dry reds, concentrated dessert wines and fine fortified wines were all amongst my favourites on this trip. Look up variety in the dictionary and there really ought to be a picture of Sicily there.
The local food of course echoes these conditions just as the wines do, with great emphasis placed on the wonderfully juicy tomatoes – Pomodoro di Pachino is an I.G.P. – lemons and oranges – the local speciality blood orange Arancia Rossa di Sicilia is also an I.G.P., artichokes, aubergines, olives, olive oil, almonds and pistachios are all important and widely used. I was thrilled to see pistachios growing, the best apparently come from the Pistacchio di Bronte D.O.P., in Lord Nelson’s old Sicilian dukedom of Bronte near Etna, which is why he signed himself Nelson & Bronte – if you have ever wondered. I saw plenty of prickly pears growing and they too are a speciality with the best coming from the Fico d’India dell’Etna DOP – D.O.P. – P.D.O. prickly pears, who would have guessed it!
Every meal we had was beautifully simple and made from stunning ingredients, everything seemed delicious and fabulously fresh and was often totally unexpected – one of the very best things I have eaten all year was the sage leaves that we enjoyed at Tasca d’Almerita. They were fried in a soft eggy batter – I cannot find the words to tell you how good they were and nor can I tell you why they were so good, they just were!
And on the subject of the food, I had never really known what do do with Ricotta cheese before I went to Sicily – now I know, you serve it fresh with anything and on everything.
All the seafood that I had was fabulous too, perfectly fresh and simply cooked – it is that simplicity and reliance on really good ingredients that always lifts good Italian food and makes it seem so much more than the sum of its parts. Everything I tried in Sicily seemed to epitomise this.
I did not realise it, but one of my favourite bits of comfort food is originally Sicilian, the Arancini. These are rice balls deep fried in bread crumbs so that they resemble an orange – arancini in Italian – they are usually stuffed with ragu or Mozzarella and are quite wonderful, I first came across them on the website of jazz / swing musician Ray Gelato, of all places, and have loved them ever since. We had a great many of them and every bar sells them, even street stalls and cafés in the airport – I brought a few back and have since become very excited that I can buy rather good ones from the Arancini Brothers outlets in London and now in Waitrose too!
Sicily is also home to a stunning dessert – which is served everywhere in varying qualities, but is always at least nice – Cannoli, crisp pastry tubes filled with creamy sweetened ricotta are traditionally Sicilian and utterly delicious.
Add to all that the excellent coffee and a gloriously refreshing aperitif called an Aperol Spritz then the only surprise is that I came back at all!
I hope all this got you in to a Sicilian mood as I will be posting about the exciting wines the island produces very soon, so do come back for more.