Lemon, caper and red onion salad – I left my heart at Case Vecchie, Sicily

After the night we spent at Masseria Mandrascate in central Sicily, we headed north towards the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school. Although I knew the approximate location, we got utterly lost. Firstly we had not been able to look up the directions on the cooking school website as there had been no wifi (or 3G network) at the Masseria. Secondly, by the time we were approaching Scillato, which we believed to be the closest freeway turn-off to the school, the 3G signal dropped out. We kept driving slowly on a rather mountainous stretch and came across a road block due to a frana, where the road had fallen away. It was impassable. So we reversed the car and started driving back towards the freeway as the sun started setting in the distance. 

Once back on the freeway I called Fabrizia at the cooking school and she gave us directions and in spite of it being close to pitch black, we arrived, over 2 hours later than planned. We had not realised there was quite a fancy dinner being held that night at the winery on the property (Tasca D’Almerita). So we tucked into some delicious Sicilian food and tumbled into bed a few hours and many wines later.

When we awoke the next day, I opened the blue shutters on the upstairs bedroom window. I not only found a brilliant blue sky, but a magnificent garden and park bench directly below the window and vines that stretched almost as far as the eye could see. It was breath-taking. Case Vecchie is a series of buildings arranged in a square with a central enclosed courtyard and a narrow driveway leading into it from a stunning arched entrance. The accomodation is on one side and the cooking school, where breakfast was being held, is on the opposite side. Camera in hand, I crossed the picturesque courtyard, snapping photos of the rows of  terracotta pots and the roosters that were roaming about freely. The breakfast table was covered with a striped table cloth and on the table there was cake, fruit, freshly squeezed blood orange juice, a vast array of homemade jams and that same hypnotic blue in the crockery, glasses and tablecloth. 

On the second night we were there, the chef, Mario, prepared a meal that I think about to this day. It demonstrated the simplicity that is italian cooking, with very few ingredients – seasonal and so very fresh. We started off with maccu, which is a soup made with broad beans (I have just planted them in my mother’s garden – I can’t wait for them to be ready so I can make it). The soup was thick, hearty and we added some dried chilli to give it an extra kick. Mario then pan fried some triglie (red mullet) and served them with a simple and refreshing lemon, caper and red onion salad. I LOVED the salad, which was dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar. It had the same vinegar that I had read about in Fabrizia’s book “Coming home to Sicily” where she describes the “gelatinous blob” that she found in her bottle of Cirio (an Italian brand) red wine vinegar. The blob is a vinegar culture that forms on the surface and converts wine to vinegar and is often called the “mother”. It was about 20 years ago that Fabrizia extracted “the mother” and put it in a jar, adding some red wine, herbs and a few pieces of dried pasta (which apparently accelerates the process) . After a month or so, red wine vinegar had formed. She still uses the same “mother” and continues to make red wine vinegar at Case Vecchie. I love the fact that the vinegar that I enjoyed so much that night was derived from the same “mother” she had spoken about in her book.

I tried to make the salad at home, using lemons I had just picked from the two lemon trees in mamma’s backyard. I had to guess at the ingredients and proportions (though I had taken the photo below which was very helpful in reminding me exactly what was in it). As I didn’t have any capers from Salina (one of the Eolian Islands where we stayed on our trip and where the best Italian capers are grown), I used Long Lane capers, which are grown in Victoria’s High Country. The secret to the salad is getting fresh lemons and making sure they are sliced very thinly. I was more than happy with the taste and it would go really well with some grilled or barbecued fish.

I loved my time at Case Vecchie and cannot wait to get back. Although we are in the very early planning stages, it is likely that I will be running a 5-day workshop with Fabrizia at her cooking school in Sicily in September 2016. It is early days yet but is so very exciting! I will share the plans as they develop but for now I can enjoy my little bit of Sicily in this salad and the memories of Case Vecchie that it brings.

Lemon, caper and red onion salad (insalata di limoni, capperi e cipolle

serves 4 as a salad accompaniment to fish
2 large lemons, preferably organic, finely sliced, pips removed and slices quartered
1/2 large red onion, finely sliced
1 tblsp capers, rinsed
1 tblsp parsley, leaves only, chopped
pinch sugar
red wine vinegar to taste
extra virgin olive oil to taste
Toss together all the ingredients and allow to stand at least 5 minutes before serving.


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