Sicily: A Feast for the Senses

My time in Sicily was a whirlwind. Eleven days spent on the road, winding through groves of olives, almonds, citrus and carob. The smells alone were intoxicating. They were not smells so much as fragrances; Sicily is an island overflowing with natural perfumes. I am not used to smells-fantastically pleasant smells-knocking me off of my feet, but in Sicily I was surprised at every turn. In the Palermo market it was the bright sweet smell of fragoli (strawberries) that turned my head. In Modica, it was the intense aroma of wild citronella, flanking the edge of a field of Modicana cows whose milk is used to produce the region’s sought-after caciocavallo ragusano cheese. In Noto, it was bushes of rosemary in front of the baroque cathedral that were being trimmed into decorative hedgerows, their woody fragrance wafting through the narrow streets.

The fragrances of Sicily were accompanied by the sounds: men singing in the Catania fish market, church bells ringing on the hour, the wind coming from the sea and through the windmills at Trapani. It was in Trapani that our guide urged us to sit and listen to the voice of the wind.

The wind from the Mediterranean wafted over the Trapani salt flats and eventually made its way to the mountainside, where the sea air mixes with the clouds. In the dampness, men carrying hand-woven baskets dotted the hillsides, gathering snails from the dew-covered ground. Corrado Assenza of Cafficilia in Noto swore by such outings. It is there, in "nature’s grocery store," where he found his inspiration and the ingredients for the complex sweet and savory dishes he creates in his kitchen. Known for his creative combinations of sweet and sour, Assenza shared how he first experienced the pairing as a child. After a swim in the sea, the salt still left on his face, his mother fed him sweet grapes. The flavors swirled together in his mouth. At that moment, the natural richness of his native Sicily spoke to him. Today, he incorporates this ideal into everything he creates.

Inspired by Corrado Assenza and his connection with the land, young chef Carmelo Chiaramonte brilliantly interprets Sicily’s culinary traditions. Chiaramonte, who can be found at the Katane Palace’s restaurant in the beautiful city of Catania, spent months traveling around his native Sicily collecting traditional recipes from farmers and fishermen. He was surprised to discover more than 25 recipes for the ubiquitous Sicilian dish, caponata. Also on his trek, he discovered uses for different ingredients that for ages have been inspired by necessity-poor Sicilians making due, putting each and every ingredient or cut of meat to use. Chef Chiaramonte utilizes these traditions and ingredients in his own culinary creations, interpreting them and making them current. Devouring his almond milk soup with mussels and olive oil was a particularly memorable moment.

Beneath the land’s bounty is a rich volcanic soil that supports the vineyards of Sicily and insists that they flourish. Many varietals come from this region, but it is the earthy Nero d’Avola that is the red grape typical of the region. Acres upon acres of vineyards cover the undulating hillsides like a natural quilt. In many areas, they stretch from the sky almost to the sea. And where there are no vineyards, there are olive groves. And where there are no olive groves, there are almond groves. No almonds, lemons. No lemons, persimmons. And where there are no groves, there are towns, bustling with activity, their ancient markets offering up the bounty of the land-and the sea.

Sicily is at once seductive and elusive. A place so rich in history, its many conflicts and cultures inform everyday life. Still, origins get complicated. But the land, the sea, and the wind - they remain constant. Trailing from the clouds down to the sea is Mt. Etna. She looks over the island of Sicily like a stern grandmother, her ancient wisdom and fiery temper influencing daily life. Mt. Etna is the tallest active volcano in all of Europe - almost three times taller than the most famous of Italian volcanoes, Mt. Vesuvius. More than five million Sicilians live in her shadow, many of them right at her feet. A symbol of both destruction and renewal, Mt. Etna speaks to the volatile history of this island jewel in the Mediterranean. But most of all, she speaks to the food.

The richness of the volcanic soil that covers much of eastern Sicily and the volcanic ash deposits that have landed to the west have been the foundation of the island’s agricultural traditions for millennia. Today, Sicilians still reap the bounty that emerges from this fertile ground. From the most traditional dishes to cutting-edge cuisine, cooks and chefs throughout the region have been, and still are, inspired by the land. But while the people fill themselves with her natural gifts, Etna sits unsatisfied. The ever-present grandmother, grumbling at her flock, is still hungry-hungry for people to know and appreciate her agricultural and culinary richness. Through all of my senses, she calls to me. The voice of the wind calls me back to Sicily.

Note: This entry is from the Worlds of Flavor trip to Sicily.