Category Archives: Sicily

cook the farm

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I have written about the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school and Fabrizia Lanza before. The school holds a place in my heart and I feel fortunate to call Fabrizia a friend and teacher, to have collaborated with her and Luisa for the first Language of Food Workshop, which we will be repeating next year. It was during the Language of Food this June over merry, boozy dinners and during long conversations at the table in the library that Luisa and I were to witness the bubbling away of a new project. This project has now come to fruition and feels like the culmination and natural progression of Fabrizia’s work as a teacher and educator. It is called Cook the Farm and will allow Fabrizia and others to work intensively with young chefs and food professionals who are keen to bridge the gap between farming and cooking. The project is beautiful and important, which is why I am writing about it here.

As a food writer who –  like many before me – has come to love the food of Italy and become obsessed with trying to find out more about it, I have always felt pulled south to Sicily. This of course is also to do with the fact I live with a Sicilian, for whom the pull home is as fierce as that for a freshly fried arancina filled with ragu , peas and mozzarella. For me Sicily is where the fundamental elements; olive oil, grapes, vegetables, wheat, honey, citrus, nuts , cheese, seem to make most sense, in a complicated way, which is why I go back again and again, which isn’t always straightforward.  Cook the Farm is a residential ten week course in the beating heart of Sicily. Each week will concentrate on one of the elements which flourish in Sicily – wheat, cheese, olive oil, wine, honey and citrus and nuts as well as garden horticulture, culinary anthropology, and a comparative Mediterranean case study on Turkish cuisine. There will be hands-on kitchen and garden workshops, lectures, local field trips, and a one-week culinary journey around the island. Guest experts include professors, culinary and horticultural specialists, local artisans, and if all goes well one of the most inspiring young winemakers on the planet, Arianna Occhipinti. I am biased I know and possibly starting to sound like a bad brochure. If you are interested – truly interested, this is serious commitment in every sense – the best thing is to go over to the site, or talk to Elke or Fabrizia. You could even drop me a note if you want to know more about the school, or simply talk about warm ricotta, tomatoes from Pachino, durum wheat bread dusted with sesame seeds, Sicilian olive oil and a glass of Frappato, nothing technical you understand, just how delicious it all is.

Cook the Farm.

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Meanwhile on another note, does anyone remember egg in a cup, or is it choppy egg? Either way I have written about this delicious thing for the Guardian Cook’s special egg supplement, also Mozzarella in Carozza, you can read both here along with lots of other good ideas for eggs. More soon. R

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Filed under cook the farm, Fabrizia Lanza, Sicily, the language of food

indignant crumbs

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The problem with breadcrumbs, is that they are breadcrumbs. They like to gather in the rubber seal at the top of the fridge door, and in between the tiles, meaning I crunch as I move around the kitchen. Most days I make some sort of attempt at sweeping them up, but it always feels as if I am simply shunting them around our small, awkward kitchen in much the same way you do coins in a shove penny machine: hopelessly. ‘Mum ants are taking our bread‘ Luca said as we pressed our chins to the crummy, sticky floor (the problem with squeezing orange juice is orange juice) in search of a lost car the other day. He was right, under the sink a trail of ants were carrying crumbs towards a hole in the wall. ‘Hungry ants‘ said Luca. Helpful ants I thought.

Our crummy kitchen isn’t just the result of everyday bread cutting and eating – although that plays a part, we are a messy lot. It is a result of cooking more and more with breadcrumbs, which means we are getting better and better at reducing old bread into various sorts of crumbs, in various ways, ready for whatever.

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This isn’t an entirely new thing, while I can be wasteful, I have alway been good at using up old bread. In England this mostly meant toast and more toast, then if I got my act together bread and butter pudding or crumbs for bread sauce (I adore bread sauce). Living in Rome with a Sicilian has meant that I have discovered so many ways with breadcrumbs that they have become a way of life in the kitchen.

We make two sorts of crumbs. Softish ones from the inside of the bread, la mollica, which are ideal for adding to meatballs, or the various vegetable dumplings I chuck together on a weekly basis (the principle is always the same: boil a vegetable until soft, mash it, add crumbs and grated cheese, possibly herbs, an egg and mould into balls.) We also use the softer crumbs as a crust or sicilian-ish stuffing for fish, meat or vegetables and in various pesto-like sauces. Any soft crumbs I am not going to use straight away I put in small plastic bags that then get lost at the back of the freezer along with the end of a bag of ancient peas and single serving of tomato sauce. Having pulled out the soft crumbs, I then bake the crusts in the oven until crisp so I can smash/rolling-pin them into a fine breadcrumbs, or pan grattato – which is of course nothing like as fine as shop bought stuff, but that is fine by meI use these fine-ish crumbs to dust meat or vegetable balls that are going to be fried, and to coat meat or fish that is going to be shallow-fried or baked. I keep dry pan grattato in a jar, bringing it back to life and crunch with a little jig around a hot pan.

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If Vincenzo, a Sicilian, whose widowed grandmother Lilla ran a bakery (an extraordinary thing in profoundly traditional, rural Sicily in the 50’s and 60’s) had it his way, there would always be a bowl of toasted breadcrumbs on the table for sprinkling on wherever: pasta, veg, salad. I first I thought it a very odd habit, especially the crumbs on pasta, which felt somehow double. Then some crumbs that had been tossed around a hot pan in olive oil until golden and crisp were sprinkled on my pasta with greens and anchovies, others on my spaghetti with oil, garlic and chilli: I was won over. Then I discovered breadcrumbs and anchovies. Which brings us to today’s recipe, one of my absolute favourites, pasta with anchovy breadcrumbs.

Anchovy breadcrumbs are –  I think – inspired. Breadcrumbs (soft or hard ones depending on your preference) are tossed in olive oil into which you have melted anchovies. Now you know how we are often reassured the fishiness of anchovies will slide away like an obedient manservant leaving just the wonderful seasoning: this is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, it’s fishy, saltiness making the golden crumbs taste like nubs of Unami that shout I am an anchovy breadcrumb. Rest assured, if you hate anchovies you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies however, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow.

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This is one of those satisfyingly simple pasta dishes that comes together, with minimal effort, in minimal time. While the pasta rolls and steams the kitchen windows and your face, you warm the oil (I like a little butter too), add the anchovies and then nudge them around the pan with a wooden spoon. Once the anchovies have disintegrated and the edges of the oil and butter are just starting to foam, you add the crumbs, raise the heat and jig them around the pan until they are crisp and golden. Once the pasta is ready, you drain it, tip it into a bowl, tip over most of the crumbs and parsley if you fancy, toss properly and divide between bowls. You finish each serving with the last few crumbs from the pan, before you enjoy your tangle of spaghetti ensnaring an anchovy rubble –  delicious stuff.

Later that day you could well find anchovy crumbs in the seal of your fridge, don’t ask me how.

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Spaghetti with anchovy breadcrumbs

Most recipes – if you can call them that – call for soft breadcrumbs. We prefer an uneven rubble made from old crusts, baked until crisp them smashed with a rolling-pin. Drier crumbs need less time in the pan than soft crumbs. As with so many pasta recipes, you want a little residual pasta cooking water clinging to the pasta – not dripping wet – which lends moisture to the dish. This is why tongs are helpful, allowing you to lift the pasta from the pan into the bowl with water clinging to it. Like so many very simple dishes, the key is practice, once you have made this a couple of times you will get the knack.

serves 2

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a small knob of butter
  • 6 – 8 oil packed anchovies drained or 4 salt packed anchovies, cleaned and de-boned
  • big handful breadcrumbs from good bread that is at least a day, ideally two old (appox 50 g /1 cup)
  • 300 g spaghetti or linguine
  • black pepper
  • a handful of finely chopped parsley (optional)

Bring a large pan of water to a fast boil over a full flame. Salt the water, stir, the add the pasta and cook, storing from time to time, until al dente.

Warm the oil and butter in a frying pan or skillet over a medium-low heat. After a minute add the anchovies and nudge them gently around the pan until they disintegrate and dissolve into the oil. Add the breadcrumbs, raise the heat a little and fry until the crumbs have absorbed all the anchovy infused fat and are golden and crisp. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Drain the pasta and tip into a bowl, sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and parsley if you are using it, grind over a little black pepper, toss and serve immediately with a glass of cold, white wine with enough acidity to hold its own against the anchovies.

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Filed under anchovies, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Sicily

all the orange

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I get by, is probably the best way to describe my Italian. Occasionally I might think I get by very well, but then I trip over a word or tense and see the confusion in the other persons eyes, or someone flips the conversation into English, which always feels like defeat. ‘Da quanto tempo stai qua?‘ How long have you been here? came up in the middle of an awkward conversation the other day. It crossed my mind to lie, but I didn’t, and said nearly 10 years, to which the persons eyebrows seemed to reply oh dear. I responded to the eyebrows with a long, complicated sentence that gave me a headache, but meant I redeemed myself. ‘Dai, parli abbastanza bene italiano!’ I was told. Which means something like, go on you speak pretty good Italian.

Luca is not so convinced. When I asked for ‘Due kili di arance‘ at the market last week my three-year old half English, half Italian son, who I am watching juggle two languages with admiration and envy, looked up at me and pinched his fingers like an Italian. ‘No mum, arance’. ‘Arance‘ I repeated. ‘No, arance’ he said slowly opening his mouth so wide I could see he needs a filling. Shit I thought, but said arance, agitated about the dental neglect and having my pronunciation challenged by a three-year old. We bounced the word back and forth like a ball, half playful, half deadly serious until Luca held his little palm taut’. Mum, just say orange’.

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Oranges had been good this year, especially the tarocco from Sicily, heavy things for their size with shiny leaves and dusty-orange skins some of which are flushed slightly with ruddy pink. Not that this flush is a guarantee of the flesh inside. Even though they are blood oranges, they might not be bloody. Each orange is a surprise, anything from yellowy-orange to bleeding scarlet. I like the surprise. I also like the way the natural oil in the zest sprays as you tear the peel –  if you bring a flame close it crackles like a sparkler –  and the flesh, firm and sweet.

A good year and the steady steam of illness Luca has been bringing back from school along with drawings and other children’s toys, means we have been eating a lot of oranges. There is juice every morning, so a permanently sticky counter and floor. We’ve been eating orange and fennel salad, sliced oranges with mint and dates and the lentil and orange salad I wrote about the other week. On a roll, I opened Jane Grigson’s Fruit book in search of new ideas and recipes. Damn, her writing make me happy, the way she weaves together history, etymology, geography, poetry and humour is simply extraordinary. I particularly enjoyed reading her description of the migration of oranges from China through India to Persia before they were brought to europe along with spices, silk and sugar by Arab traders at the end of the Roman empire. The evolution of the name it just as engaging, from the Dravidian indian, narayam, which means perfume within, to the Persian narandj, Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, which the Italians softened to arancia and the French and English, orange. Luca slips effortlessly between orange and arancia depending on who he is talking too. To me he says orange.

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Jane Grigson not only makes me want to read-on and on (the chapters on pears, plums and quince are superb) she makes me want to cook. From the orange chapter I’ve made her Maltese mayonnaise, which is simply mayonnaise sharpened with orange instead of lemon, and her carrot and orange soup, both surprising and excellent. Although not her recipe, it was her description of cheerful marmalade eaten in France that sent me on my marmalade-making way last week and her description of orange in cakes that made me pull Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food from the shelf.

Do you know the recipe? The one where you take two oranges, boil them whole, pulp them, mix the pulp with eggs, ground almonds, sugar and baking powder and then bake the batter until it sets into a cake. CR describes it as somewhere between a cake and a pudding, which is the perfect description. The use of the whole orange, meaning all of it: skin, zest,  pith, flesh, feels nothing short of brilliant. Once boiled (for a long time which makes the kitchen smell gorgeous) and pulped, you have an extraordinary mixture: sharp, sweet, bitter and deeply flavored. It is then tempered by the sugar, almonds and eggs but the opinionated flavor remains distinct – as do the flecks of bright orange – giving the cake a musky, almost spicy flavour. It is such a good cake/pud, especially when eaten with a dollop of thick cream. I also like it with espresso.

Claudia Roden, another favorite writer, explains how this cake has Sephardic Jewish origins, as it was one of the dishes brought to the middle east by the Spanish Jews who fled the inquisition in the 14th and 15th century. This and Jane Grigson’s enchanting orange introduction had me wishing I’d been told about the migration of citrus and cakes at school, it would have been much more helpful that the dreary things we were taught in geography and history lessons. The cake also had me wishing for another land of blazing oranges and almonds, Sicily, and the house of Vincenzo’s grandparents that is sitting empty, waiting to be visited, lived in for a while even. But we can’t think about that yet. For now we will make do with cake made with sicilian oranges or arance (depending on who you are talking too).

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Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond cake

From Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food.

A loose-bottomed cake tin make things a whole lot easier. I use one of those John Lewis Anodised satin tins I pinched from my mum, it is 18 cm across, deep and works really well.

  • 1 large orange weighing approximately 350 g (or 2 smaller ones)
  • 6 free range eggs
  • 250 g ground almonds
  • 250 g granulated sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • butter and flour/breadcrumbs or matzo meal for the tin

Wash the orange(s), put it in a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for an hour and a half or until it is extremely soft when picked with a fork. Remove the orange from the pan, let it cool, then cut it open and remove any pips. Turn the orange into a pulp by pressing it through a sieve, mouli or by using a blender – I use my faithful stick immersion blender.

Prepare a cake tin – ideally with a loose base – by rubbing it with butter and then dusting it with flour. Set the oven to 190° / 370F.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the pulped orange, beat again, then add the almonds, sugar and baking powder and beat again until you have a thick, even batter. Pour the battle into the tin and bake for between 40 – 60 minutes. Have  a look at the cake after 40 minutes it should be golden and set firm, I find testing with a strand of spaghetti helps, it should come out almost clean (almost, this is a moist cake), as opposed to very sticky. If the cake does need another 10 mins I tend to drape some tin foil over to prevent it from getting too brown. Let it cool in the tin before turning it onto a plate.

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We might not be thinking of going to the family house in Sicily quite yet, but I will be in Sicily from the 15 – 20th June with Fabrizia Lanza and Luisa Weiss for a week of food writing and cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school and we would love you to come too. Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be extraordinary, beautiful, delicious and perspective changing week, I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do. – R

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Filed under almonds, bitter oranges, cakes and baking, Fabrizia Lanza, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Sicily

the zest of it

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It’s good to be home. At least it is now. The first couple of days were pretty grim, when the fall-out from a hasty pre-Christmas departure, now coated in three weeks of dust, met three suitcases full of dirty washing and a flock of christmas presents. For the first half hour I sat staring at the sink, wishing I had at least done the washing-up (impressive slovenliness, even by my standards) while Luca shook the dry-needles from the christmas tree into the rug.

I am still picking needles out of the rug and the underneath of my socks, but apart from that we have more less got back into a rhythm. I am back in a kitchen rhythm too, and order of sorts, which I find reassuring – my grandpa Roddy called it having your stall laid out. No resolutions or anything like that, just a comfortable rhythm, one that feels like good tights: supportive but not restrictive (and never too loose). I am back at the market most days too, my ordinarily beautiful market, which smells faintly of fish on one side, meat fat on the other and in the middle is January coloured: green, orange and the extraordinary greeny-violet of artichokes which are coming into season. On the first day back my and veg guys shouted Ahò and made the pinched fingers where the hell have you been gesture over the crowd. It was the sort of singling out I know they do for many, but it never fails to make me feel happy. A kilo of oranges, 8 artichokes, a massive bunch of kale that needed to be wrestled into a bag, some parsley and mint shoved in the top of the bag at no cost except loyalty: it is good to be home.

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As I said, no resolutions, but after a bloody delicious Christmas and New Year in England, where food came in thick, rich waves, we are craving green, bitter and sharp: kale, raddichio, broccoli, artichokes, lemons, oranges, pasta and lots of olive oil. ‘Mum, I like it when you stink of oranges‘ Luca told me the other day. I like stinking of oranges too, having the zest under my nails, my lip burning hot because I touched it with a zesting finger, the oily scent strong enough to help me forget the sink is still slightly blocked.

I have been cooking from Fabrizia Lanza’s book Coming Home to Sicily, which Vincenzo, my Sicilian, is extremely happy about. It is a beautiful book, but not intimidatingly so: the recipes are too lovely and down to earth for that. The first thing I made was lentils with orange zest and mint, a recipe which transported me back to the case vecchie kitchen last summer where Fabrizia, Giovanna, lauren, Lou, David and I stood chopping onion and mint, and zesting oranges, the combined scent almost seeming an exaggeration of itself. While I chopped in my small Roman kitchen Vincenzo came and sat at the table, noting it felt like a Sicilian bong. As I mixed the pile of mint, orange zest and parley with warm lentils another wave of good smells filled the kitchen.

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I also made zucca in Agrodolce or sweet and sour squash. I have been searching for a recipe like this ever since eating a dish of zucca alla scapace at a good local trattoria called Flavio al Velavevodetto just before christmas. Where Flavio’s Roman version used chunks of pumpkin cooked in olive oil, vinegar and sugar, Fabrizia suggests slices of butternut squash. The slices are griddled until tender and seared with dark lines, then dressed with red onions sautéed until soft and slightly caramelized in extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and sugar.

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The combination of tender, velvety squash and the sweet, sharp onion is excellent. It can be eaten straight away, but is even better after a few hours when the flavors have really taken hold. The lentils, warm with citrus and mint, made a good partner for the squash, as did some ricotta di pecora. In between mouthfuls of lunch and sips of local red wine that reminded me of wild cherries, we agreed that we should visit Sicily in March – after all there is a family house there that is long neglected.

The next day the leftover Zucca in agrodolce was better still. We ate it with boiled potatoes and kale dressed with salt and olive oil. The remaining three half moons were chopped and became orange flecks amongst the leftover potato and kale I used as a filling for the bread crust torta rustica I am going to write about next week. So until next week.

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Grilled sweet and sour squash –  Zucca in agrodolce

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 1 kg winter squash, such a butternut
  • fine sea salt
  • 125 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a large red onion
  • black pepper
  • 60 ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 heaped teaspoons sugar

Cut the squash in half, pare away the skin and scoop out the seeds. Slice each half crosswise into 5 mm thick slices.  Heat up the grill-pan over a medium flame. Cook the squash slices in batches, over a medium heat, flipping them when deep grill marks appear. Once cooked, remove the slices onto a deep plate or shallow dish, season with salt and cover loosely to keep warm.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the red onion. In a small frying pan, over a medium/low heat, fry the onion on the olive oil until  it is soft, which will take about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir and then add the vinegar and sugar and continue cooking until slightly reduced and caramelized, which will take (roughly) another 5 minutes.

Pour the onion and its sticky juices over the grilled squash. leave to stand for about 15 minutes, carefully turning the pieces after about 6 minutes. Serve warm.

Leftovers keep beautifully and it could be argued, improve. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half an hour before eating.

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Lentil salad with mint and orange zest – Insalata di lenticchie con menta e scorzetta di arancia

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 500 g small brown or green lentils (not Puy)
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • a big handful of mint leaves and another of parsley
  • fine sea salt
  • finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

In a medium pan, cover the lentils with a liter of cold water. Bring the lentils to the boil. then reduce to a simmer for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain the lentils and put them into a serving bowl.

Chop herbs and add to the bowl, add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and finally grate over the zest. Stir, leave to sit 5 minutes before serving, stir again and serve (pouring over a little more olive oil for shine if you fancy).

Again, leftovers keep beautifully. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half and hour before eating.

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This June 15 – 20, Luisa Weiss and I are going to be leading a 5 day food writing workshop we have called the Language of food at The Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily. The idea is that before we arrive we will share and collectively read six pieces of food writing including Gabriele Hamilton, Mary Taylor-Simetti, Laurie Colwin and Molly Wizenburg. These pieces will form the basis and starting point for our discussions before we begin to look at how we can develop our own writing voices. We will of course also be cooking with Fabrizia, walking, exploring the estate and Fabrizia’s garden, taking excursions and drinking campari and eating panelle in the camomile scented courtyard together. I think it is going to be a creative, thought provoking, inspiring, beautiful and delicious five days and I really hope some of you are able to come. – R

If you would like to know more, you might like to read the post I wrote last year having just come back from Sicily. Melissa also wrote beautifully about the school. The calendar and details are here.

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Filed under antipasti, butternut squash, Fabrizia Lanza, In praise of, lentils, Sicily, The Wednesday Chef, winter recipes, Workshops

on red and white in Sicily

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There is a photograph in one of the rooms at Case Vecchie that I keep thinking about. It is of the late Anna Tasca Lanza making estratto di pomodoro, tomato extract, using her hands to spread the bright red sauce onto a door-sized wooden board that will then sit in the August sun until it dries and reduces into a concentrated paste. There are countless other pictures of Anna around the house, some with her family, others of her giving cooking demonstrations or lessons, always elegant and aristocratic, her hair swept into a flawless bun. It is the estratto picture however that lingers in my mind, the one in which she is captured wearing a yellow and orange dress, straw hat and deep easy smile, her hands stained with tomato.

Fabrizia, Anna’s only daughter, used some of last years estratto in the braised rabbit she cooked for supper on our second night at Regaleali. We tasted the dark-red concentrate straight from the jar, deeply flavored with an almost sunburnt sweetness it was truly the essence of tomatoes grown in fertile soil and then dried under the Sicilian sun, you could say the essence of Sicily itself. Then while the Rabbit simmered and with the taste of the estratto still discernible, I crossed the courtyard to look at the picture of Anna again.

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Like many before me, I fell in love with Sicily the first time I visited nearly ten years ago. In Rome I fell in love with a Sicilian called Vincenzo who laughed at my romanticism and idealism about the Island much of his family had left 25 years before, but at the same time understood and promised we would return one day. In the meantime we visit, usually because Vincenzo and his band are playing a concert or for a family celebration. Or on this occasion because of serendipity, a conversation struck up at an airport with a young woman called Lena who was working with Fabrizia who in turn invited me to spend four days at her house and cooking school at Regaleali near Vallelunga about 90 minutes from Palermo.

Once you leave the autostrada, the uneven road that leads to Regaleali curves through landscape that grabs your breath – golden fields of wheat, hillsides of gnarled vines, olive trees and pasture dotted with sheep, all fringed with a tangle of wild flowers, herbs and fennel. At times the landscape seems soft and tamed, at others impenetrable and utterly wild; it is clear even to naive eyes like mine this beautiful, fertile land is not easy land. The house and cooking school are in Case Vecchie one of the most handsome stone buildings on the estate that sits on a hill. The blue gates were open when we arrived allowing us the first glimpse of the cobbled courtyard the cracks of which are filled with matted camomile and wild herbs. Over the next few days we would spend hours in the courtyard  choosing our spot according to the position of the sun, our morning coffee finished at the table in the right hand corner, aperitivi at the table in the cove, dinner at a table in another corner. My Luca, the youngest and noisiest member of our group, ran tirelessly across the cobbles shouting then tangling himself in the aprons Giovanna had hung on the corner washing line. Wherever you sat the smell of camomile curled from the ground and the scent of mint lingered in the air.

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When we weren’t in the courtyard we were mostly in the kitchen, either around the stove watching or helping Fabrizia cook or sitting at the square table that dominated the end of the room. When not in the courtyard or kitchen, I was in the garden started by Anna and now continued with all-consuming passion by Fabrizia. It is an enchanting place, a scented maze of flowers, particularly roses, clouds of white blossom, great deep clumps of lavender, mint and sage, fruit trees and an extensive vegetable patch. The garden, like the surrounding land, is both soft and hard, tender flowers growing in formidable soil which Fabrizia uses to her advantage cultivating particular plants and most notably a variety of tomatoes that are never watered forcing their roots to work hard at getting water from the deep. Enormous cactus-like fico d’india with their prickles and orange-red fruit juxtapose roses grown from English seeds the packets of which are pinned to a notice board in the shed. Butterflies flutter from plant to herb. One morning Luca and I went onto the garden at 6 30 and lay in the hammock listening to the cockerel and eating strawberries while reading the same story book about a lazy ant 12 times.

I live with a Sicilian and have spent enough time in Sicily to understand a little about its food, this however was scant preparation for the ingredients we were to touch, smell and eat, most of them grown on the estate, others sourced from all over the island. It began in the morning with the 8 or so jams made with fruit from the garden, lemon, Tarocco orange, grapefruit – each one more delicious and opinionated than the last. There was also fig and lip staining mulberry jam that we stirred into fresh yogurt. Around the kitchen were bowls of just picked lemons, cherries and apricots, bottles of olive oil, jars of estratto, the fattest anchovies I have ever seen, onions, garlic, capers and caper berries, bunches of mint and oregano, each thing seemingly more intensely flavored than the next, ingredients that tasted so brashly and boldly as they should it was unnerving. One afternoon Fabrizia, Lauren, Lou, David and Gabriella stood chopping onion, garlic and mint and grating orange zest while I,  too stupidly shy to join such confident hands, just let the scent rush at me in the same way Luca does, pure and uninhibited. On another occasion the same group were rolling pastry, slicing peaches and crumbling purple tinged pistachio nuts for tarts, words and movements moving across the work surface.

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As intense as the flavors were the colours: burnt red, fleshy pink, sunflower yellow, inky purple, every conceivable shade of green and the purest white in the form of ricotta di pecora. Ricotta which meant I finally understood what Vincenzo is imagining when he talks about the ricotta or cavagna they would collect from the local shepherd when he was a boy in southern Sicily, curds so soft and gentle they could almost be drunk.

Filippo Privitera milks his 400 sheep by hand twice a day in order to make pecorino cheese. The by-product of his cheese making is cloudy white whey which is then re-heated with rennet until it curdles and coagulates into ricotta. We stood in a white tiled room for about an hour, the steam rising from the pot heated by burning olive stones, Filippo stirring with such ordinary calm it was hypnotic. It was of course part show for us, but a genuine one that takes place every single day. Filippo’s five-year old son insisted on staying and as the soft, ethereal ricotta wobbled on the plate he opened his mouth like a cheeky little bird and his mother spooned some in. In that moment I saw Vincenzo aged 5 on his grandparents farm, then as I tasted the milky curds, ambrosial yet ordinary goodness I understood what he imagined when he spoke about the ricotta of his childhood.

We brought ricotta back for lunch along with beans with anchovies and breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese, salami, and warm potato salad with mint. That night we sat in the courtyard and ate another sicilian specialty panelle, fritters make from chickpea flour thickened into a paste, smeared onto a plate to set into a pliable disc, sliced into wedges and deep-fried. After there was rabbit braised with wine, estratto and finished with grape must syrup, beside it hand rolled cuscus scented with mint. We finished with caramel and pine nut ice-cream made by David, a ricotta and lemon cake by Pille and sweet wine.

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Something was up though. Amongst all the cooking and the talking there was a rumble. A rumble of activity and a calm rush as members of the family and locals who work on the estate crisscrossed the courtyard with sacks, piles, poles and great rolls of thick fabric. occasionally we would catch a sound from the fields behind the house dig, thud, grind?  Soon the kitchen joined in too and huge pans of rice, lentils and chickpeas steamed the windows, chicken was roasted and rolled, ricotta whipped, all preparations for the lunch.

On saturday at 1 after panelle and wine in the courtyard we walked through the farm to a single table with a white cloth laid for 160 that cut through a field of vines and vegetables. At about 1:30 we ate a lunch to celebrate 25 years of the cooking school, the work sourcing ingredients Anna began and Fabrizia continues and the collaboration between the different parts of the Tasca family. The heat broke at one point and it rained for a few minutes, puttering on the fabric canopy above our heads. At the same time the light faded sharpening colours, textures and the edges of the hills surrounding us making them darkly beautiful until the sun reappeared as bright as ever. On such big occasions you focus on the detail: the handmade plate we could take home, the fact the table was flanked by a row of fantastic cabbages, the hum and clink made by 160 people, the hair of the man across the table, Fabrizia’s green dress, the fact the wine tasted like wild asparagus, the sweetest tomatoes, chestnut like lentils, plump rice and almond pudding, the fact Luca managed to eat three cannoli.

Back in Rome I have been telling Vincenzo about the red and the white, about the swordfish baked with mint and garlic, pasta with sage, the baked pasta with aubergine, the majestic cassata Fabrizia made that I know he would have liked so much. In turn he talked about his grandfather’s farm in southern Sicily, a very different world, harder and poorer but a world that shares the same riches: fertile earth, sun, flavors, essence, traditions, rot, cracks, sweat and the bleeding red estratto and pure white ricotta I had tasted over the four days. I told him we were going to live in Sicily, ‘Which Sicily’ he asked, then laughed and agreed.

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And so back to the picture of Anna making the estratto, the picture of a woman from an aristocratic family who was only expected to be beautiful, marry well, have children and certainly not work. A picture of a woman who in her fifties surprised her family by creating a cooking school that celebrated traditional Sicilian cooking, traveled the world, planted a garden, wrote books about wild flowers and herbs and joyfully smeared estratto on a wooden table.

Now to a picture of Fabrizia in her garden checking her plants or better still in her garden shed amongst the seedings, the daughter who single-mindedly built a life far from Sicily as an art historian, but then realized she needed to return home 25 years later to work alongside her mother and eventually take over the school. An extraordinary woman who is embodying the values of her mother while bringing her own to a unique cooking school: her resourceful determination to protect and share Sicily’s reservoir of taste and traditions, a belief in deep edible education and to reinvest in the land and people, an ability to make cooking feel both poetic and practical and the above all the desire to bring people together at the table to eat, drink and talk.

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Which brings us to the recipe, my interpretation of the one of the puddings we ate on Saturday sitting at a long table cutting through a field; an apricot and pistachio nut tart made with apricots in light syrup from Leonforte and pistachio nuts from Bronte. The simplest sort of tart, sweet short crust, brushed generously with jam or marmalade, topped with apricots in syrup and chopped nuts. You could also use peaches and make small tarts in individual tins as Fabrizia did.

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Apricot or peach and pistachio tart 

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g butter
  • 30 g fine sugar
  • a small egg
  • some peach or apricot jam or orange marmalade
  • 120 g tinned or jarred apricots or peaches in light syrup
  • a handful of pistachio nuts

Butter and flour a small tart tin. Set the oven to 180°

Make the pastry by rubbing together the flour and diced butter until they resemble fine bead crumbs. Add the sugar and the egg and then use your hands to bring the ingredients together into a consistent ball. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so.

On a floured surface roll the dough into a circle a little larger than your tin. Lift the dough into the tin, press gently into the corners and then prick the base with a fork. Spread a little jam on the pastry, cut the apricots into quarters and arrange them on the jam, sprinkle with chopped pistachio and  put the tart on a baking tray and into the oven for about 25 minutes. Let the tart cool and the jam set firm again before serving.

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Thank you Fabrizia, Gianni, Costanza and the Tasca Family, Giovanna, Pompeo, Salvatores, Guiseppe, Lauren, Lou, Peggy and the women in the kitchen and men and women who work on the land. Thanks too to David, Pille, Johanna, Elizabeth and Domenico, Marrick and my mum who came to look after Luca so I could concentrate and he too could eat cannoli. The project archiving Sicilian food traditions is called The sacred flavors of sicily. The cooking school is called Anna Tasca Lanza and this is a magnolia.

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Filed under almonds, apricots, chickpea flour, In praise of, pies and tarts, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Sicily, supper dishes