Friday, November 30, 2012

Wine Exploration from Pantelleria to Marsala

Tracy and I woke up in our little stone house on the property of the Donnafugata Winery on the island of Pantelleria. We would be traveling again this day, but first we were able to tour this beautiful property and see a bit more of this Sicilian Island.

Antonio Ralla, one of the owners of Donnafugata, and Marta, from the marketing department, met us at the cellar to talk about Moscato de Alexandria and the vineyard built on volcanic soil, with sand and light pumice stones. We also discussed the Arab influence on the island (Tunisia is only 20 miles away).

The vineyard was filled with Moscato grapes drying on the vines. Marta took us through and along the way we picked some to eat and they were juicy and sweet. She then showed us the Giardino Pantesco  (a fortress for a tree) Donnafugata. It is one of the most unusual gardens in the world, with an orange tree growing inside a stone wall. The original concept goes back 3,000 years and the winery has kept it going.

We went to meet the grape pickers and watched them take the stems off for the tasty raisins that will go into the wine. The Moscato here goes through a soft press, maturation, fermentation and vinification three times – with the dried grapes added to one. No barrels are used in the process so the Moscato always retains the fruitiness.

Before lunch we took a drive up to a mountain which had capers growing up the slope. I had never seen anything like it, but apparently this system had worked so well over the years the island became famous for capers.

We then had lunch with the men in the dining hall where they had all their meals each day they worked.

Tracy and I sat with Antonio and Marta for eggplant, pasta, steak, melon and pastry, sipping the Nerodiablo, an excellent blend that includes a bit of cabernet sauvignon. 

After lunch we went for another ride. We were able to get some more breathtaking views of the Mediterranean from on top of the mountain at one of the other Donnafugata vineyards.

Before we went to the airport we spent some time relaxing and wading our feet in the water at Cala Gadir Pier and also got to take a look (from the outside) at the Giorgio Armani compound here.

We took a short flight with Antonio and Marta to Trapani in mainland Sicily. We were soon at a wonderful hotel, Hotel Carmine, where we had just a short while to see the rooms and change for dinner with Antonio’s sister and the other owner of Donnafugata, José Rallo.

Jose, who manages to have it all, helps run the winery, spend time with her family and is even an accomplished singer! Most of all, she was great company and Tracy and I thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at Bucanieri, where the chef/owner created a meal just for us after we told him what we liked.

We chatted and sipped the lemony light Anthilipa with a grilled cheese in a sweet grape sauce. It was like nothing I had before – simple, yet very satisfying. It was followed by an eggplant appetizer, which the chef had cooked four hours to tender perfection. We had that with yet another Donnafugata wine, the buttery Chiaranda.

The arancini (rice ball) was just wonderful, as was the freshly made pasta served with salted (not too much) ricotta and a pommedora fresca sauce.

The meal finished with a scrumptious chocolate ricotta cake covered in fudge sauce, served with what had become one of my favorite wines, Kabir Moscato.

Jose took us back to the hotel for a good night sleep before we explored Marsala and more Donnafugata.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Wonders of Pantelleria

I don’t often see the words “free day” on my schedule, but that’s what Tracy and I had for our first full day in Pantelleria.

Unfortunately, a power failure the night before had us to bed very late and oversleeping, but once we got going we were ready to see what this magnificent island had to offer.

The original plan was to have lunch with the vineyard workers at the Donnafugata Winery where we were staying, but when we didn’t wake up until 12:30, we decided to head straight out to explore, enjoying some coffee and biscotti first.

We took off in our little yellow Fiat Panda to try to find Grotta di Benikula Sauna, a natural sauna within a cave. We drove for about an hour and couldn’t find it, but did manage to see some interesting vineyards, a monastery and ancient ruins. I couldn’t believe all this existed on the Mediterranean Sea, just 20 miles from the African nation of Tanzania.

From that area we drove down to Scauri to look for someplace to eat along the towns of the water. We couldn’t find anything open on Sunday afternoon, but we did find what we had wanted to be our next stop anyway – Lago Specchiod, Venere.

Venus Lake, as it is called, is a beautiful lake filled with aqua water that contains natural mud and spa-like baths. Tracy and I enjoyed frolicking in the mud like two school children before taking turns lying in the bubbly “baths.”

From there we headed to Cala Gadir and walked around taking pictures of the rock formations, including Aroo dell’elefante, Elephant Arc.  We were both really hungry by then and remembered Mimma had told us the previous night about Le Calle in Cala Gadir. There we had some spumante and antipasto and watched the sea as the sun went down.

Before we went back to our little house at the Donnafugata Winery, we stopped at La Portella Pizzeria and picked up a pizza and a calzone, which we enjoyed on the patio with a few bottles of wine (who knew Moscato and pizza went so well together? J).

We had one more day to go on Pantelleria, exploring more vineyards, scenic stops, and learning more about the unique way they make one, as well as seeing where they grow the island’s other big import – capers -- before we would fly back to mainland Sicily and visit more of the wineries of Donnafugata.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Exploring Anna Lanza Cooking School and Tasca D’Almerita

I woke up early in my room at the Tasca D’Almerita Winery. I could hear the workers coming in for the day and it was a good feeling to know I was no longer totally alone in this vast place.

After a little work and a quick shower, my ride to go back to the Anna Lanza Cooking School came to get me for breakfast.

I joined my friend Tracy, who had stayed at the school’s villa, for a breakfast that was as wonderful as I had been told it would be. There was homemade marmalade, created from the fruit in the garden; just baked sweet breads; freshly hatched scrambled eggs; and even homemade yogurt, which I enjoyed with a delectable fig tart.

Ragaleali is a picturesque Sicilian town up on a mountain and the area I was in consisted of acres and acres of land that included the winery and the cooking school.  After breakfast, we walked around for awhile before our tour of the vineyards and winery.  I relaxed in the courtyard too, talking with Jim, one of the cooking school guests. He showed me pictures of some of the things he made during the week he was there, including ricotta gnocchi, the fig tart and yogurt, and some very special sardines.

Beyond the garden are the vineyards and there are 1,200 acres that include 50 different varieties of grapes at Tasca D’Almerita. The most famous are grillo and moscato, but this was also the place that produced the first chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon in Sicily.

The large, modern equipment at the winery helps produce over three million bottles a year.  They are using a natural filtration system and love to try new barrels to experiment with taste (Sicilian chestnut barrels are currently holding some perricone, a red varietal).

After the tour, we did some tasting. My favorite was the Sallier de la Tour Le Bianche, actually made at the Pernice Estate in Monreale. It contains three grapes that are among my favorites – viognier, semillion and sauvignon blanc – for a crispy and mineral-filled blend with lots of lemon, as well as tropical pineapple and kiwi.

We headed back to the cooking school for our final meal in Ragaleali and head chef, owner, and amazing cook Fabrizia Lanza made it a fantastic one. The pasta with ricotta was amazing, with the freshly produced cheese and round circles of macaroni. We also had a delicious sausage and potatoes dish, along with just picked broccoli.

For dessert we had a Moorish Head Cake, filled with light ricotta cream, as well as sesame cookies that reminded me of the way my aunt Mary used to make them.

There wasn’t much time to linger as we had a flight to make from Palermo airport. We barely made it on time to hop the airport boss to the small propeller plane to Pantelleria. The flight was a short half hour, which was good because the plane was rather hot.

We could see the beautiful turquoise water as we landed in this spot, just 20 miles from the African republic of Tanzania. Mimma of Donnafugata Wines, our host for the next few days, was waiting for us along with our Yellow Fiat Panda. Fortunately, Tracy knew how to drive a stick shift because that was our only option and I had only attempted it once when I was a teenager.

Mimma escorted us to our cute little stone house on the property of the Donnafugata winery and vineyards, just down the road from the Mediterranean Sea. After we showered and changed, she took us to La Nicchia, a beautiful restaurant on the other side of the island. It was quite a unique place, with what looked like a simple pizzeria in the front and an elegant dining room in the back, with no ceiling and trees growing among the tables!

We started with the Donnafugata Lighea, a semi-sweet blend of zibibbo (Moscato d'Alessandria). We got to know each other as we nibbled on warm focaccia and an outrageous caponata. For an appetizer, I had Ravioli with Ricotta and Mint, and island specialty, and then a beef filet for a main course. Mimma and Tracy feasted on Gambaroni, the largest crayfish I had ever seen

For dessert, we had a flaky and light cannoli and a glass of 2009 Ben Rye, also made from zibibbo, but sweetened from the addition of dried moscato grapes to the taste of apricot, fig and date.

We were exhausted by the time we got back to the house and did not expect the night and day ahead of us. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

From Ragusa to Regaleali

It had been a long time since I’d slept in a twin bed, but I had been so tired from the previous day of travel that it didn’t matter. With the shutters shut and the alarm off, my friend Tracy and I had even slept until 9:30 at Locanda Don Serafino.

We dressed and packed up quickly and headed downstairs for a great European breakfast of breads, muffins, yogurt and cheese. Unfortunately, we forgot we weren’t in Starbucks when it came to ordering coffee and just asked for “lattes,” forgetting to specify “café” before it. We enjoyed the glasses of warm milk before playing it safe and requesting cappuccinos!

We had a bit of time and went for a short walk in Ragusa Ibla before Francesco Ferreri picked us up and took us to the Valle Dell’Acate winery.  The drive seemed a lot more interesting after a good night’s sleep and we identified the almond, orange and olive trees along the way, as well as the green houses filled with tomatoes.

It was starting to warm up and it was a beautiful scene as we walked around the winery and vineyards.

At Valle Dell’Acate we were able to see some of the original wine-making equipment from “back in the day,” including a crushing pit that reminded me of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy and Ethel were crushing grapes in their bare feet!

In that same museum area was a picturesque window that looked out into the vineyards. This winery was well into the 21st century, though, using solar panels for 50% of its energy.

After we learned about the variety in the soil and land at Valle Dell’Acate (which means valley to river to sea) that produces the difference in the wines, we were able to taste quite a few. The 2011 Zagra, a blend of 60% grillo and 40% insolia, was my favorite for its ripe peach and apricot notes.

We also did a vertical tasting of the Bidis (chardonnay and insolia) and could really taste the difference between the years and the aging.

Before we left Valle Dell’Acate we had a lunch of fresh cheeses, calzone, breads, olives and fruits. It was the kind of meal I could eat every day, especially with the wine.

Nunzio had come to pick us up to take us to Regaleali. It was a long trip up the mountain on bumpy dirt roads. There were times when I looked down and couldn’t believe the incredible views and other times I was afraid to look down. At one point we had to stop the car on a cliff and wait for a herd of sheep to cross!

When we finally arrived at the Anna Lanza Cooking School I realized it was worth it. The villa was just as I pictured small town Italy to be, with a courtyard filled with chickens heckling and laundry hanging, and the addition of vineyards and sweeping views of the valley below.

Visitors to this villa and cooking school have included celebrity chefs (like Mario Batali) and people from all walks of life. Joining us for the visit were Jim, a movie producer from Hollywood, and Rosalinda, a banker from New York. There was also a group of interns and visiting chefs joining in.

Fabrizia Lanza told us about the cooking school her mother started (in the land of her family’s winery) while she instructed all on how things should be prepared. We even got to take a long walk through her garden which had the most extensive collection of flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits I have ever seen.

We had some delicious Pizzelle and chickpea fritters with Tasca d’Amerita Sparkling Rose as we sat in the courtyard and enjoyed the warm night.

Dinner was eggplant, rabbit, salad, pasta and fruit. All from this area and freshly made. We drank a 2007 Rosso del Conte with dinner, made from the local Nero d'Avola, which blends so well with the Sicilian cooking.

Dinner was just wonderful, as much for the food as for the company. We all sat around the big table and ate the freshest fruits and dishes as we shared stories about ourselves. My thoughts came back to the big dinners my Aunt Mary used to make, but the American-style version had left you more stuffed than satisfied.

We ended the meal with sweet and light cream puffs, and a glass of Diamante d'Almerita, a late harvest mixture of moscato and traminer aromatico that is heavenly.

Since there was a full house at Fabrizio Lanza’s villa and they only had a single room left, I volunteered to stay up at the winery about a mile away. I got a ride up to the property. It was almost identical to the other villa and my room was cozy. It was a bit strange when they said goodnight and I realized I was the only one left there, but I closed my eyes in the big four poster bed and reminded myself of the adventure that came to the lone woman in Under the Tuscan Sun!