Last week I arrived back home from Sicily, back from my second Flavours of Sicily workshop at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School, on the Regaleali Estate. This year we had nine lovely participants: Judy, Joanne, Margaret, Dain, Rocella, Deb, Tanya, Cindy and Katy. Judy and Joanne had come to the 2016 workshop and Deb and Tanya are friends from Melbourne (and salami-making). We got to know a bit more about each other on the first night, over aperitivi, dinner and dessert, prepared by Mike and the staff in the kitchen (ably lead by Giovanna, Giusi and Enza) and accompanied by Regaleali wine.
It was October, and the vines were bare of fruit, with yellow leaves starting to turn a deep shade of red. The fruit trees were heavy with quinces and persimmons. Each of the days were filled with different activities, meals and cooking lessons, focusing on what was in season, and visiting local producers and artisans.
Participants stayed at Case Vecchie, which is where the cooking school is located, or at nearby Case Grandi, which is adjacent to the winery. Both have the same sandy stone walls and the iconic blue window and door frames. Since last year a pool has been built in the gardens at the front of Case Vecchie, looking out onto the vines. Its pale green water looking tempting but feeling too chilly for a swim in the late October air.
Breakfast was served in the cooking school and included the creamiest home made yoghurt, home made preserves, bread, eggs or prosciutto, a cake (usually made by Enza), fresh fruit, fruit juice and strong coffee. After our daily morning feast, we were ready for the activities of the day ahead. On day two we met Filippo, a local shepherd, who with two helpers, milks some 200 sheep by hand daily. In the cheese room, he explained and demonstrated the art of making sheep’s milk ricotta and tuma (the first fresh pecorino cheese).
The olive harvest had just started, so we visited a local olive press, watching watched olive oil being made and tasting the newly made green-tinged oil straight from the stainless steel spout from which it flowed. It is a busy time for the presses, as once the olives are picked, they should be processed as soon as possible as delays can affect the quality of the oil. Every time we drove past the same frantoio (olive oil press), no matter what time of the day or night, you could hear the clatter of the machine press.
We took a trip to the hilltop town of Polizzi Generosa to visit the ceramicist Giovanni D’Angelo in his studio. He makes tiles, vases, bowls and many other pieces using local clay; he also paints them all by hand. The business is family run: the studio belonged to his father before him and Giovanni hopes that his son will one day want to follow in his footsteps. We later walked through the town to D’Angelo Ceramics shop, which is run by his elderly mother and bought a multitude of vases, platters, plates, cups (and even a nativity scene).
Another day we had a day trip to Catania, past snow-capped Mount Etna. We explored the historic and vibrant fish market, bartering for the fish we would be cooking with the following day and laughing at the fish vendors (in particular the one who decided to eat the tentacles of a cuttlefish he was cleaning for us). We spent time taking photos of and exploring the town which, for me at least, is rapidly equalling Palermo in its charm. We shared a boisterous seafood lunch at a restaurant adjacent to the market, sitting at a long table with glasses of white Cataratto wine. When our order was taken, the chef realised he would require more fish, so he walked out of the shop and returned five minutes later holding a rather large unwrapped whole fish (to much applause).
In-between meals prepared by the staff, there were cooking lessons, using the elements we had explored during our days at Case Vecchie – ricotta, oils and seafood. Everyone pitched in during the lessons, learning how to make sweet ricotta-filled cannoli, ricotta gnocchi, arancini, panelle, fried polpettine, and seafood dishes with sardines, mussels and cuttlefish. We had a cheese-tasting lunch and a wine-tasting dinner; a garden tour led by Hans, who is a font of knowledge when it comes to Mediterranean plants. We even had time for some rest and relaxation in the lounge chairs and mattresses under the garden pergola. Fabrizia Lanza, the owner of the cooking school (and an inspirational proponent of the “arm to table” approach to food) was there for several days, joining us for dinner and telling us stories of the cooking school and of her mother, Anna Tasca Lanza who had started the school.
It was such a fun workshop, filled with excursions, learning about the Sicilian countryside and its food and traditions, and lots of laughter between all the cooking and eating. The Americans learnt Australian words like “dodgy” (it means “of low quality”) and what an “esky” is (it is an ice box); and the Aussies invited the Americans to visit them in Australia. For those five days we all felt part of the Case Vecchie family, contributing to the stories and memories of this very special place.
I feel so very fortunate to have the opportunity to run workshops at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. I cannot wait to return at a time when it will be warm enough to spend time by the pool. The dates for my next workshop there (hopefully 2019) have not been set yet, but when they are, I will be posting it on my website.
Here is the recipe for one of the dishes we made at the workshop, sarde a beccafico, a typical Sicilian stuffed sardine dish. One of the workshop participants, who hated sardines, was a complete convert after making and tasting these. We filleted the fish ourselves at the cooking school – buying whole fish ensures you can see how fresh they are. But you might be able to find them already filleted at your local fishmonger, making this dish simpler and quicker too. This recipe is from my cookbook Italian Street Food (Smith Street Books 2016) and makes an ideal appetiser at any time of year, but especially when the weather is warmer. The inherent saltiness of the sardines is balanced by the sweetness of the orange juice and the currants, plus the crunch of the breadcrumbs and garlic. If you can find some Cataratto wine to go with it, then you might like to imagine that you are in Sicily.
sarde a beccafico - stuffed baked sardines
Makes 8 skewers of sardines (to serve 4)
24 large sardines, gutted, filleted but keeping the tail intact if possible
2 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
75 g bread crumbs from day old bread, finely minced
1 tablespoon of fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
sea salt to taste
extra virgin olive oil
30g currants, soaked in 1/4 cup warm water
30g pine nuts, toasted
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
1 lemon, zest only
2 small oranges, skin on and sliced
1 lemon, skin on and sliced
8 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 tsps freshly squeezed lemon juice
Wash the sardine fillets in water, pat dry and set aside.
Place the EVOO in a non stick pan. Put the heat on medium and toss in the garlic, breadcrumbs, parsley and a good pinch of salt, Toast for a few minutes until the garlic is fragrant and the bread crumbs have taken on a bit of colour. Tip the lot into a small bowl, then add the drained currants, toasted pine nuts and lemon zest. Lastly add the orange juice and give it a good stir.
Preheat the oven to 160C.
Prepare your first skewer by threading a slice of orange (cut in half if the orange is large). Lay a sardine fillet onto your work surface and place a teaspoon of filling at the wider or head end. The filling may fall out a bit at the sides if you have smaller sardines. Roll up the fillet and thread onto the skewer. Thread a slice of lemon on the skewer. Then roll up another sardine fillet and thread it onto the skewer, then thread a bay leaf, a final rolled sardine and finally an orange slice. Place on a baking dish. Repeat for all of the skewers. Drizzle them liberally with olive oil then place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven, drizzle a squeeze of lemon juice on them and allow them to rest about ten minutes until serving.
* Group photo and photo of me with Fabrizia Lanza by Sam McKeown at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School