Visiting Sicily is like stepping into a different world. As you walk through the orchestrated chaos that is Palermo’s Ballarò market remember that you are closer to Africa than Rome. The island has always been strategically important, dominating sea trade in the Mediterranean as it does, and many peoples have left their mark here from the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans through the Arabs, Normans and Germans to the French and Spanish. In fact, Palermo claims to be the most conquered city in the world and there is ample evidence of these different civilisations still visible today. Perhaps the most stunning is the combination of Norman French, Byzantine and Arabic art and architecture visible in the cathedral of Monreale, close to Palermo, with its interior literally covered in mosaics, in total 68,000 square feet of glittering artwork.
Less obvious but just as important are the foreign gastronomic influences that have produced a particular Sicilian cuisine. One of the best-known and favoured dishes is caponata for which there are many recipes but they generally all contain aubergines and raisins, both introduced by the Arabs during the time they ruled the island. Another Sicilian delicacy not to be missed is cannolo, a tube-shaped shell of fried pastry normally filled with sweetened ricotta – remember Clemenza in The Godfather? “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Yes, it’s that important… The majority of towns are on the coastal strip which means that fish is a very important part of the cuisine so look out for sardines, tuna and swordfish.
To accompany all this sublime food, of course, we need some wine. Sicily is Italy’s fourth biggest wine producer by volume but some of the grape varieties particularly popular on the island may not be familiar to you. Names like Zibibbo, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio are not well known away from the island.
Travelling west from Palermo you will arrive at Erice. High up, overlooking Trapani, this historic town is well worth a visit for the incredible views and historic castle. When you look out to sea you are looking at the site of a huge naval battle, the Battle of Aegates, fought between the Romans and Carthaginians in 241BC. Continuing in an anti-clockwise fashion, the road along the coast brings you to Marsala, home of the eponymous fortified wine first made famous by an Englishman, John Woodhouse, in the 18th century.
Heading along the south coast, past the Greek glories of the Valley of the Temples, the road leads to the Baroque splendour that is Ragusa, a town with no less than two two-starred Michelin restaurants. Here we are close to the area of the only DOCG wine on the island, Cerasuolo di Vittoria.
Continuing past Syracuse – definitely worth a visit – with its cathedral constructed from an ancient Greek temple and round towards Taormina with its famous Greek theatre brings us into the looming presence of Mount Etna. Etna Rosso is a wine currently in the ascendant in Italy as more people come to recognise its quality, due in no small part to the rich volcanic soils that produce exceptional wines and wonderful fruit and vegetables.
If you are heading back to the mainland across the Straits of Messina why not pause to try the local Mamertino di Milazzo before boarding the ferry?