In Sicily, there's much to please the palate

January 12, 2005|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When driving through Sicily, it's impossible not to notice the country's dazzling wealth of wildflowers.

These sudden jolts of color astonish because most of this Italian island - which is a scant 90 miles from North Africa - appears as dry and dusty as the Sahara Desert.

It's a mystery, then, not only how this land can sprout bright red poppies or purple thistles the size of artichokes, but for centuries also has been a fertile garden for world cuisine.

This is a land kissed by God, Sicilians like to say, and in rich times or poor, they've maintained a fierce pride in their polyglot produce.

Vestiges of Greek civilization remain in Sicily's excellent olives, salted cheeses and wine. During Roman times, the amount of durum wheat grown made Sicily the empire's granary. Arabs cultivated citrus fruit; Spaniards introduced the tomato and fennel.

"Heterogeneous civilizations have left their mark not only on the territory, but the culinary traditions of the island," writes Eufemia Azzolina Pupella in her book, Sicilian Cookery (Bonechi, 2001). "Over time, every domination imported their own seeds and spices."

It's little wonder, then, that lately Sicily has begun aggressively promoting itself as a place to learn about food and wine. There's hope that the country will become a gastronomic tourist destination like the Sonoma Valley in Northern California.

When I spent a few weeks in Sicily recently, Giuseppe Licitra, who oversees an organization that promotes the gastronomic history of 20 Sicilian cities, told me, "The colors of our fields express themselves in the produce. You can taste our food and literally savor the flavor of Sicily.

"We want to preserve the quality of our native products and create a circuit like a wine tour," said Licitra, head of the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia, or CoRFiLaC. "Guests would learn, say, how cheese is made, or olive oil. We call it didactic shopping."

Enchanted by this idea, I decide the rest of my vacation in Sicily would be spent eating to learn (and learning to eat).

I begin in Ragusa-Ibla, a charming hill town in the southeast. Outside its center, I visit one afternoon with Giovanni Gulino, owner of a dairy farm where Ragusano cheese is made. Gulino's is a typical farm in that he has fewer than three dozen cows.

"There is only one bull, because all the ladies are not loving him at the same time," he says, with a hint of a smile.

A short man, Gulino wears a spotless white T-shirt that shows off his powerful frame and, as many Sicilian farmers do, he sports a basil leaf tucked behind one ear, which is believed to be a natural bug repellent. His fingers are each the size of a sausage, and I find myself wondering if years of milking cows can develop manual muscles.

Gulino's cows are cinnamon-colored, and they relax in the shade of carob trees, which grow wild in those parts. What these pasture-fed cattle graze on changes from month to month: fava beans, carob, orange pulp, legumes, poppies, raniculus and lavender. Depending on what they eat, their milk (and the resulting cheese) varies in color from beige to a vibrant yellow.

On a stone patio beside his white stucco house there is a pergola overflowing with fuchsia clouds of bougainvillea. Under this, we eat pork sausage spiced with fennel and focaccia ragusana, which is like lasagna, but has paper-thin slices of bread, not pasta, layered between tomato sauce and flakes of semi-aged Ragusano. The cheese's flavor is marvelously rich; staring out at Gulino's herd, I hope the cows sense my gratitude.

Noticing my gaze, Gulino says, "from the mouth of the cow, to the mouth of man."

In southern Sicily, the dry climate, volcanic soil and cool nights provide nearly perfect conditions for growing grapes. Across the area, in fact, there are archaeological remains of stone grooves - or vinoducts - that carried rivers of wine from ancient vineyards to Roman ships.

Sicilian wines were once dismissed as cheap, overly alcoholic and brutally robust. Alessio Planeta, however, is attempting to change the world's perception of Sicilian wine. At Planeta Vineyards, his family's operation, he's planted 28 types of grape on nearly 800 acres. While the majority are nero d'Avola, a red grape, many fields are planted with white varieties.

I'd always assumed Roman bacchanals were lubricated by goblets full of red wine, but Planeta maintains the ancients more likely drank white - specifically, wines made from muscat grapes. First brought to Sicily in the seventh century B.C., this variety ripens earlier than most, and has a densely sweet flavor like honeyed nectar.

As we share a bottle of his vineyard's Moscato di Noto, a new dessert wine, Planeta sighs with pleasure. "It would be nice if, in the future, this area became the Montepulciano of Sicily, wouldn't it?"

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