Book review: Palmento – A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (At table)

As the holiday season in Europe slowly starts to come to an end, one starts to think of the cooler months but also about what books to read to remind oneself of the summer.

Palmento, A Sicilian Wine Odyssey has been earmarked as one of my summer reads after I read Corkscrewed by Robert V. Camuto about wines in France (I will review the book later).

But I can imagine myself reading this book on a cold winter evening, with the rain knocking on the windows maybe with a glass of wine to accompany the reading. In fact, I am sure that this coming winter, I will come back to read this book given I have rarely read a book so beautifully written about the subject of wine, the region and its people.

Now, I may be biased because as you may have seen, my interest in wine more than 15 years ago came from the discovery of Sicilian wine and its many facets.

As the author itself wrote, Goethe wrote in the eighteenth century “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”

The same can be said about its wine. For many years, Sicilian wine was sold up north to add more body to Northern Italian wines and even French wines. Over the past years, however, Sicily has developed into one of the most interesting wine regions in the world, with many winemakers describing it as a ‘continent’ because of the many terroirs which one can find on the largest island in the Mediterranean.

The book starts with a dinner at Sakalleo in Scoglitti (a fishing village in the very south of Sicily) which is probably the closest point that can be reached by boat from Malta. And again, maybe it is for nostalgic reasons or because the memories of eating at this place (probably the finest fish restaurant that I have been to) but the author describes the meal he had there in perfect detail reminding me of the three times I have been to this place.

Camuto says “Even before the arrival of the sixth dish – sweet steamed mussels – Sakalleo had earned a place in my personal pantheon of most remarkable restaurant meals ever eaten… The most inspiring food, I’ve learned, comes in simple packages without the self-consciousness that accompanies critics’ stars. Sakalleo was turning out to be an orgy of the sea in an impossibly plain brown wrapper: not so much comfort cuisine as it was comfort itself.”

This is pretty much my philosophy about food so as soon as I started reading the book I knew that I was in the right company.

Camuto has a deep passion for wine. He visits Sicily when he turns 50 and spends a year chronicling his journey from Ragusa to Palermo, Marsala to Pantelleria with trips to the rugged interior of Sicily and the heights of Mount Etna.

Here he stops to meet winemakers, Sicilan and not, including the renowned Belgian winemaker Frank Cornelissen who has taken Sicilian wines by storm making natural wines from the Mount Etna region which are world renowned.

Camuto captures the personalities and flavours and the traditions of this old world which is Italy’s largest and oldest wine region but the world traveler’s newest discovery. He goes to among others, Azienda Agricola COS, Benanti, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Marco de Bartoli, Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita to mention just a few.

A full immersion into Sicilian wines and cuisine, Camuto portrays Sicily at its best. He speaks to some of the largest wine producers in Sicily as well as to the small producers which are experimenting with traditional methods of winemaking which have  to a certain extent been lost.

If you love Sicily or are curious about getting to know more about Sicilian wines, then this is a must read. If you love wine, this is also a must read. I actually wish there were more books like this about other wine regions in the world.

Two quotes from the book:

“To be Sicilian is not to be a son of consumerism. It is to be direct and human – a son of real life. Sicily tells us: You can be rich from a noble family or poor. We are all the same.”

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Originally from Il Gattopardo and quoted many times by Sicilian wine producers.

 

 

 

 

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Recipe 4: Pasta with fresh tuna and slivered almonds

IMG_0327The good fresh fish shops in Mediterranean countries are a joy to visit. When you have a kitchen available, all you need is to just follow your instinct and choose what is fresh and appealing.

A visit to my favourite fish shop in Malta led me to fresh tuna, which at the moment is available in abundance and incredibly cheap.

What I miss most about the Mediterranean is sea urchins or what we call in Maltese rizzi and in Italian ricci. I have been dreaming of a Spaghetti ai Ricci for a rather long time now. It is the thing I probably miss most from my home country

But alas it was not available at my fish shop and it seems unlikely to be available anytime soon (probably the restaurants at this time of year buy whatever they can find given it is peak tourist season).

There was an incredible choice but given the fact that the fresh tuna looking incredibly good, I opted for penne with tuna. The following is the recipe.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

  • 500 grammes fresh tuna diced
  • 500 grammes pasta (I choose penne but you can also opt for something else)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 green olives chopped
  • 4 fresh tomatoes
  • 60 grammes slivered almonds
  • 125ml of white wine
  • A handful of fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar.

Method

1. Boil enough water for the pasta. I normally calculate around 1 litre for every 100 grammes of pasta.

2. When tuna is in season, fresh tomatoes are also in season therefore use fresh tomatoes for this recipe. I normally pierce the tomatoes and place them in boiling water for 30 seconds. They can then be peeled very easily. Remove the seeds and then chop finely.

3. Chop the garlic. Pan fry the garlic in around 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Just before it starts to colour add the tomatoes and stir. Add the sugar and salt and pepper to taste and stir occasionally for around 10 minutes.

4. While the tomato sauce is cooking, finely dice the tuna and slice the olives. Add the olives to the sauce after around 10 minutes.

5. In another pan, brown the slivered almonds making sure they do not burn. If you are using a non-stick pan you do not need to add anything. (You can also do it in a grill but make sure they do not burn). Once they have a golden colour remove from the heat.

6. Throw the pasta into the boiling water (that has been adequately salted) and cook according to instructions. (For al dente pasta, I always stop the cooking at least one minute before the instructions since I mix the pasta to the sauce and continue cooking for around a minute).

7. Once the pasta is cooking, add the tuna to the sauce and the white wine and increase the heat to medium. You should make sure that the tuna is not overcooked. Once the tuna has coloured keep the sauce warm. Add the slivered almonds and shredded basil and season to taste.

8. Drain the pasta and then add to the sauce and continue cooking for around 1 minute. Serve immediately with an additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to taste.

Wine suggestion: It is summer and this is a summery pasta dish with fresh Mediterranean ingredients. Tuna is a versatile fish which can even be enjoyed with a light red wine. However my recommendation would be a nice Sicilian white wine. A blend of Chardonnay and Insolia (the Angimbe from Cusumano for example) would work wonders with this dish. Most pasta dishes marry well with Italian wines. Another option for a white wine would be a Falanghina from the Campania region. A Vermentino from Sardegna or Tuscany would also work well.

The wines of Sicily – a wine region like no other

The fishing village of Scoglitti which believe it or not triggered my passion for Sicilian wines

Maybe it is because of Malta’s close affinity to Sicily, or because of the fact that I have been there so many times, but I find Sicilian wines to be extremely interesting. True, they might not compare with the finesse of Barolo’s from Piemonte or Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany but still they are extremely fascinating.

Sicilian cuisine to me epitomises what is best about Mediterranean food. Take simple, sometimes humble ingredients and within minutes you have the makings of a great meal. Like my home country, Sicily is a hotpot of different influences from the Mediterranean. Some of the most memorable meals I have experienced were in Sicily whether it was a menu free restaurant in Scoglitti serving just one fish dish after another of what their fishermen had caught earlier in the day, to some of the best pasta creations. Nothing beats their spaghetti with sea urchins or pasta with prawns and pine nuts or pistachios which are so common in Sicilian cuisine.

But this post is not about Sicilian food but rather about its wines. Sicily came rather late to the wine connoisseurs attention and for various reasons. For many years, Sicilian wine producers made wine which were transported to the North of Italy to be blended with other more well known wines. There were also a few large producers who mainly focused on quantity rather than quality.

But a handful of winemakers, also spotting the potential of this island, decided to take matters into their hands starting from the 1990s and began to make their own wines under their own labels. This has led to a major reversal of fortunes and many now consider Sicily to be one of the most interesting wine regions in Italy.

Some winemakers like Cusumano call Sicily a continent because of so many terroirs that this island has to offer. The variety of wine styles that have emerged in recent years ensures that this may indeed be the case.

There are parts of Sicily which are further South from Tunisia and therefore extremely hot for wine making. Nevertheless, the wines produced, despite their intensity also have the right amount of acidity which makes for balanced wines when aged well. I can assure you that a 10 year old Nero d’Avola can give you as much pleasure as more renowned wines.

The Nero d’ Avola is the most well-known grape from Sicily and it originally comes from South-East Sicily (Avola) close to Pachino which is world famous for the cherry tomato variety of that name. Nowadays, Nero D’Avola is grown pretty much across the whole island.

Then there are wines from higher altitudes or those from the volcanic region of Etna which offer great examples of the potential that wines from volcanic regions have. Here, the most interesting grape is the Nerello Mascalese which is traditionally grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. The wines from the Etna have an exceptional minerality mainly because of the volcanic soil.  One of my long time favourites from this area are the wines from the long established Benanti. Many Sicilian wine makers have now invested in this area including Tasca d’Almerita, Cusumano and Firriato. One of the most innovative in the Etna region is Belgian winemaker Frank Cornelissen who has established himself with his natural wines which use no sulphur whatsoever. His are considered to be cult wines.

The main white grape variety of Sicily is the Insolia which is a very fruity wine but when well made has great balance in terms of fruit and acidity. It also blends well with international varieties such as Chardonnay.

The first time I discovered Sicilian wines was thanks to a passionate wine lover who had a great Enoteca in the small fishing village of Scoglitti. He had a small but very interesting selection of wines in his enoteca. He guided me years ago to some of the best winemakers the island had. My fascination with Sicilian wines grew from there.

Among my favourite winemakers are Benanti, Cusumano, Morgante, Firriato, Tasca d’Almerita, Ceuso and Planeta. I will write about these and many more wine producers in future blogposts. There are many other winemakers worthy of a mention. So watch this space for more blogposts in future.

But if you find any one of the Sicilian wines from the above producers try them out. You will not be disappointed. One tip: Sicilian wines in comparison to wines of similar quality are cheaper so I would recommend that you try to acquire the higher end wines. You can find exceptional quality for wines between 10 Euros and 30 Euros.

Among my long time favourites are Cusumano’s Noa, a blend of Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cusumano’s Sagana, 100 per cent Nero d’Avola, Rosso del Conte from Tasca d’Almerita, the Nero d’Avola from Morgante, Harmonium from Firriato and the Pietramarina from Benanti.

Siciliy is also home to one of my favourite ever wine shops, the Enoteca Picone. It has an amazing selection of wines from Sicily as well as many of the best Italian wines you can find elsewhere. If you are ever in Palermo, then this is a must visit.