You may be wondering what these three things have in common. You will soon find out! My first real foodie adventure was not a press trip but a holiday with my husband to the west coast of Sicily. It is not one of the most touristy areas in Sicily but that is what we like. We decided to spend four days in Trapani and three days in bustling Palermo. As we approached Trapani you could not fail to notice the walled mountain town of Erice towering over it but we put off the journey up to it by cable car until we had settled in and got our bearings. That night I fell in love with Sicilian food. Aubergine seemed to be the vegetable of choice here and it is one of my favourite vegetables. I also discovered Pasta Trapanesi. Made from the local pesto which is made from almonds rather than the usual pine nuts I found it hard not to sample it every night I was there.
Waking up to blue skies and a day to be filled with adventures we decided to drive up the coast to Marsala, a town famous for its fortified wine and its place in history as the location where Garibaldi kicked off his campaign. As we drove up the coast we stopped for a while to gaze at the salt pans. The Phoenicians discovered that this area was perfect for salt making 2,700 years ago and it is still going on today. Back in those days salt was a hugely important commodity for the preservation of food and so the west coast of Sicily was a very important region in its production. Salt production here reached its peak just after the Unification of Italy in 1860 when 31 salt pans produced over 100,000 tonnes a year. Now demand is much less but there is still a niche market for a 100% natural salt which contains a higher concentration of potassium and magnesium than common salt but less sodium chloride. Midway between Trapani and Marsala is a fascinating salt museum explaining the history of the area and how the salt pans developed and functioned over the years.
Arriving in Marsala we decided to explore before looking for some of its famous fortified wine to try . It is situated on the westernmost tip of Sicily and is closer to Africa than to the rest of Europe and therefore has rather an exotic atmosphere. Indeed it takes its name from the Arabic Marsa-al -Allah , harbour of God. Its greatest fame comes from the Marsala wine which is universally known and loved. Its history is fascinating and involves Englishmen as well as Italians. A merchant John Woodhouse arrived in Marsala and sampled the local wine. Although more accustomed to the liqueur wines of Spain and Portugal his palate detected their similarity and prompted him to send a consignment to England (blended with alcohol so to withstand the journey.) to sound out the market. It turned out to be very popular and he set up his own company in Marsala. A while later another English merchant arrived in Marsala called Ben Ingham who was a connoisseur of fortified wines,. With his intervention the quality of the wines was improved using blends of different grape varieties. His business then passed to his nephews the Whitakers. In 1833 the entrepreneur Vincenzo Florio bought land between the largest Marsala producers and set to making his own vintage. By the end of the 19th century several other growers joined the competition including Pellegrino. In the early 20th century Florio bought out Ingham and Woodhouse and retained the two labels before being taken over himself by a large conglomeration. There are two types of Marsala, sweet and dry. Dry is typically used for savoury dishes where it adds a nutty flavour and caramelisation to beef, mushrooms, turkey and veal. Sweet Marsala is used for sweet sauces and is found in desserts such as zabaglione. Veal in Marsala is one of my favourite dishes and one of my husbands specialities.
We set off back to Trapani anticipating another mouth watering meal and an evening passegiata around the streets of Trapani. Sitting over our Limoncello later we decided to visit Erice the next morning to explore its narrow streets and try out its famous pastries and marzipan fruits.
We travelled up in the Funicular rather than by road, .It was much more exciting and gave us a panoramic view of Trapani, the Egadi Islands and on a good day the distant coast of Tunisia. Unfortunately as we got higher and higher it got mistier and mistier. The town was enveloped in cloud which was most bizarre travelling up from a baking hot Trapani to a misty Erice. However it didn’t dampen our sprits and we set off to explore this tiny medieval walled town. I was eager to visit the Pasticceria Maria Grammatico and buy some of her delicious pastries. Her story is a fascinating one and is chronicled in a book called Bitter Almonds by Mary Taylor Simeti. In the early 1950’s she and her sister had been sent to San Carlo, a cloistered orphanage in Erice because their mother was too poor to keep them. It was a miserable existence but it was here that Maria learned to make the beautiful handcrafted pastries that were sold to customers from behind a grille in the convent wall. At 22 Maria left the orphanage with nothing, but today she is the successful owner of her own pasticceria in Erice, which people flock to from all over the world.. Her counters are piled high with home made biscotti, tarts, cakes and jams and I couldn’t resit buying a selection.
Down back in Trapani we savoured our last evening meal in the atmospheric old part of town.
The next morning we set off towards Palermo . I was eager to learn about and try the street food that Palermo is famous for but that is another story….