On the Culinary Trail: Savoring the Gutsy and the Sublime in Sicily

When reading Adam Sachs’ own take on his wine and culinary travels to Sicily to produce Guardians of the Sicilian Miracle, the latest podcast from S.A.L.T. Lab Radio, pretty much the last thing you expect to read is about a sandwich. This hooked me from the get-go:

“I’m not one to pass up a good sandwich. Especially a sandwich you won’t find anywhere else; one that makes you feel like you’ve really arrived in that place….” Yup. On the Culinary Trail: Savoring the Gutsy and the Sublime in Sicily is a fascinating inside look at Sachs’ adventure, and is a companion piece to his Guardians of the Sicilian Miracle. Listen to the podcast…and read on.

When the S.A.L.T Lab Radio team landed in Palermo to record an episode of the podcast about the food and wine traditions of Sicily, I dragged everyone to Vucciria market so we could have a late-morning snack of this literal hot mess of a sandwich. We were headed to the soft rolling fields of Regaleali and Tasca D’Almerita, recently named European winery of the year by Wine Spectator under the direction of the affably suave former race car driver Alberto Tasca.

So what does down and dirty street food have to do with a stunningly beautiful wine estate run by a noble family? One of the timeless clichés of writing about travel is to highlight the “highs and lows” of a place—but what else can you do in Sicily, where everyone is obsessed with food and ready to debate which vendor has the best pane con la milza and which town is known to fry the best arancini?

Pane con la milza in Palermo, Sicily/Howie Kahn

Yes, the wine at Regaleali is the draw, but so was the fact that the Tasca family—between Alberto helming the wine operations and his cousin Fabrizia running the famous Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, farm and agricultural research center down the road—is seriously passionate about the food of this fascinating island. There are centuries of layered history to be passionate about. The island has been settled and its tastes expanded and altered by the conquests of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs. 

“The fame of Sicilian chefs mainly from the city of Siracusa was known throughout the classical world,” the food writer and historian Mary Taylor Simetti told us. “They were the Parisian chefs of that period. When you read these incredible descriptions of the banquets in Imperial Rome, many of those were dishes invented in Sicily by Sicilian chefs.”

Between recording sessions, we ate well.

Preparing pane con la milza in a traditional market in Palermo, Sicily/Howie Kahn

There was a beautiful dinner served in the Tasca family’s private dining room, where Alberto talked about the tradition of master chefs attached to aristocratic Sicilian families, known as monzù. We ate perfectly fried artichokes and panzerotti filled with ricotta and salami, and a pasta made from the estate’s own wheat with a pesto-ish green sauce of wild herbs plucked from the vineyard. One evening, on sofas by the fire, we had a simple-seeming soup of pasta and dried fava beans that stopped all conversation. Though a dish with peasant roots, pasta con le fave is pure understated elegance: a world away from that robust flavor bomb of a spleen sandwich served in a lively Palermo marketplace.

The beauty of a place like Sicily is that combination of gutsy and sublime, of technique honed over centuries and a persistent high level of quality of raw materials.

As Simetti told us: “Apart from the absolutely fantastic quality of the products of Sicily and the real sophistication with which they combine very simple things into an amazing taste experience, it’s a tradition that goes way, way back and there haven’t been any abrupt breaks in it. It’s always been an adding on. Certainly in the Western world, it is the oldest continuous culinary tradition.”

We were lucky enough to have great hosts and guides to this unforgettable land and we’re excited to share some of their stories on this, our first of two episodes exploring the culinary and cultural bounty of Sicily.

Another wonderfully inspiring companion piece to the Guardians of the Sicilian Miracle is the accompanying Sicily in a Dish: Pasta con le Fave. It’ll inspire you to cook your own pasta with fava beans in true Sicilian style.