TASTES OF SICILY
What a surprise! A heavy box arrives in the mail. I thought I ordered a book on the history of sea salt but when I opened the box, it was sea salt from Trapani, Sicily. In September 2010, Phil and I visited Sicily using Palermo and Taormina to explore the surrounding areas, including Trapani.
Roman mosaics, Greek temples and archaeological sites dot the island of Sicily whose history can be traced back over 2000 years, dominated by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Norman and Spanish. The sun drenched island is filled with fragrant citrus groves, stark granite mountains and magnificent ruins. Sicily's shores are washed by the Ionian, Mediterranean, and Tyrrhenian Seas.
The Grand Hotel Wagner, named for the composer Richard Wagner who once lived on the street is in the heart of Palermo. Built at the beginning of the 20th century in neo-classical style, Phil and I stayed there while we were in Palermo. Nearby was the Teatro Massimo (Opera House) opened in 1897 with elegant Corinthian columns gracing its entrance. Also within walking distance was the baroque Quarto Canti (Four Corners) Square that has the Piazza Pretoria Fountain. Sandra, our guide told us that when the fountain was unveiled in 1575, the people of Palermo were outraged because thirty naked or near naked figures adorn it and. in time, the fountain became known as the Fountain of Shame.
Monreale is a hilltop town five miles from Palermo, renowned for its Norman cathedral. Built in 1174, the cathedral's gold detailed mosaics depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, including Noah's ark and the life of Christ. The gleaming mosaics, completed in the 12th and 13th centuries, completely cover the cathedral's interior.
In the evening, Phil and I went to dinner at Taverno Siciliano in Palermo where I chose a Sicilian specialty, Pasta alla Norma. Named for a 19th century opera composed by a Sicilian, Vincenzo Bellini, eggplant portions were combined with a robust, herb infused tomato sauce served with spaghetti. Phil enjoyed his calamari (squid) and a fresh tomato salad. The smooth red Sicilian wine, Nero d'Avola, complemented our dinner and as we walked back to our hotel we were accompanied by warm sea breezes.
On our way to Marsala, located on the western tip of Sicily, we went by the salt pans of Trapani, home of our surprise box of salt. In the middle ages, windmills irrigated and drained the salt lagoons. By the 19th century, an international trade in Sicilian sea salt had developed as the salt's reputation grew. The salt works continue to produce the salt known for its delicate flavor that is high in iodine and magnesium and low in sodium chloride.
Marsala's name originated from the Arab "Marsa Allah", port of Allah. Our guide told us the history of Marsala wine. In the late 1700's, John Woodhouse, an Englishman, was sailing to Sicily's southern shore when a violent storm forced the ship to take shelter in Marsala's port. The crew went into town to dine and at the restaurant Woodhouse was given a sample of Marsala wine. He was so impressed with the wine that he bought vineyards there and started his own company. In 1833, Vincenzo Florio, a Sicilian, began exporting Marsala throughout the world.
We chose Cucina Papoff for dinner on our last evening in Palermo. Named for its Bulgarian founder, the restaurant is housed in an 18th century building with high stone walls and graceful arches, offering Sicilian dishes of stuffed rice balls and rabbit in wine. We were less adventuresome, choosing caponata, an olive based Sicilian specialty of eggplant, capers and celery tossed with tomatoes. The food was flavorsome and our usual bottle of Nero d'Avola wine appeared at the table.
Situated on a bluff above the Ionian Sea is Taormina, known as the "Jewel of Italy". Visible in the distance is Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. Phil and I stayed at the Grand Hotel Timeo for four nights, enjoying the view from our balcony of the third century Greek Amphitheater (Teatro Greco-Romano) and Mount Etna looming in the distance.
Syracuse, located in the southeastern corner of Sicily, was our next stop. Jutting out on the Ionian Sea, Syracuse was the birthplace of the mathematician and engineer Archimedes. For 2700 years, the city was a major power in the Mediterranean world and for a time it rivaled Athens, Greece as the most important city of the Greek world.
In Syracuse we walked to the largest theater in the ancient world, the Greek Theater (Teatro Greco) and to the Ear of Dionysus, an artificial limestone cave recognized for its perfect acoustics. Shaped like a human ear, legend says that Dionysius I of Syracuse used the cave as a prison for political dissidents to eavesdrop on their plans. From Syracuse, we went to Noto.
One of the finest Baroque towns in Italy is Noto, known for its bold, opulent houses, piazzas and churches. #4 photo here. In 1693, an earthquake reduced the town to rubble. Restoration began in the late 1800's and in 1996 Noto was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. At Noto's elaborate main square (Piazza Municipio), Phil and I stopped at the Caffe Sicilia for a granita. The flavorful, semi-frozen ice made with sugar, water and flavoring is based on the Arab art of sweetening fruit juices with ice from Mount Etna. Phil had a smooth pistachio and I chose a lemon granita. Refreshed, we returned to Taormina for dinner.
On our last evening in Sicily, we went to La Buca Restaurant for dinner, sitting at the outdoor terrace, with the sea and mountains in the background. Warm sea breezes accompanied our dinner of risotto with seafood and our usual bottle of Nero d'Avola wine.
Back home we use the salt from Trapani regularly to enhance our food and remind us of our Sicilian trip. The wine connoisseur, Andre Simon, said, "Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized". We enjoy the Nero d'Avola wine at home with dinner and friends often recalling Simon's words.
Photos taken by T. Perenich