Cooking Class

Yesterday morning our group took a cooking class. Our instructor was the head chef at the Barone di Villagrande vineyard, shown above, who proved to be a deft, encouraging, and effective instructor. Thanks to him, I now know how to fill a cannoli (you need to start from the middle and make sure you fill the shell completely) and I learned other skills, too.

We began with an immaculate work station, but it didn’t stay that was for long. Our first task was to take a pounded bit of beef, fill it with a mixture of goodies and cheese, roll it up while tucking in the sides so that it was in the same shape as an egg roll, dip it liberally in olive oil, and then dredge it in panko breading. Each of us marked our effort with a toothpick and note so we could eat our own handiwork. You can see my finished, fully cooked product below.

Then it was on to the pasta. We each got a precisely measured amount of flour and an egg in a bowl. You whisk the egg with a fork, make a kind of volcano shape with the flour, then gradually add the beaten egg into the crater of the flour volcano and begin to knead the mixture into dough. I was a little too quick with the pouring of the egg mixture, which collapsed part of the volcano and required some rapid egg damming and general triage. Fortunately, we had some more adept pasta hands in our group who knew what they were doing. (This did not include the Sicilian CEO, whose dough was so dry the chef had to discard it with a sad shake of his head.)

I ended up with a reasonable approximation of pasta dough and learned how to make gnocchi pasta using just a fork, shown at right in the photo above. I then cut the pasta at left into circles and made cannoli-shaped pasta using the handle of a table knife for shaping. The chef stopped by to demonstrate both techniques, and watching him gently but firmly shape the dough into different shapes was like watching Leonardo da Vinci at his easel.

We left our pasta creations with the chef and the kitchen staff, took a break, then came back later to actually taste the fruits of our labor. The beef roll-up and pasta were good, but the pasta sauce—which we had nothing to do with, incidentally—was exquisite, and probably the best ragu sauce I’ve ever had. We topped off our fine lunch with some great wine and a cannoli, which I am glad to report was fully filled.

New Fruit

The Barone di Villagrande vineyard offers excellent accommodations and a first-rate kitchen that prepares exquisite food. In the morning you check boxes on a little menu to indicate what you want for breakfast. If you check the fresh fruit box, you’ll likely be served a plate that looks something like this.

The peaches, apricots, melon, strawberries, and kiwi are all ridiculously fresh and intensely flavorful. If you’re like me, though, you might not have seen the yellow stemmed item in the middle of the plate. It’s a fruit called the medlar that is grown all over Sicily and Italy. if you grab it by the stem and bite into it, you’ll be treated to a delicate taste that is like a cross between an apple and a pear. Unlike those fruits, however, the medlar has large, Chiclet-sized seeds, so you’ll want to nibble around them.

Imagine! A new fruit! And a tasty one at that. If one of our Columbus grocery stores stocked medlar, I’d buy it.

A Fish That Gave Its All

In Taormina we stopped for lunch at Osteria Rosso di Vino, where we had one of those experiences that make travel wonderful. When we sat down the proprietor brought out a huge, freshly caught red snapper. The fish weighed in at 7.5 kilos—about 16 pounds—and he explained it was large enough to feed all nine of us and provide three distinct courses. Who could resist that offer? That’s the fish, after filleting but before removal of the cheek meat, in the photo above.

We started with a gift from the chef: fried sardines with mayonnaise. The mayonnaise wasn’t at all like often-cloying American mayonnaise; if was made only with whipped egg whites and locally grown lemon and was light and delicately flavored. The sardines dipped in the mayonnaise were scrumptious.

Next came snapper tartare over local greens. It was bright and firm and reminded me again that fresh fish is the only way to go. Our titanic snapper was starting to have an impact.

Next came homemade pasta served in the traditional Sicilian style, in a light sauce with capers and potatoes and mint. It was excellent, too. One of the members of our party did not want pasta, so the osteria dipped some of the fish in a light batter and prepared fried fish for him, shown below. It looked and smelled and tasted terrific.

The last course was poached snapper covered in a fabulous broth. It was one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had. The broth and vegetables were so good I asked for seconds, and I used my spoon to finish every drop. And the proprietor was right: the one fish did it all, and in face produced leftovers for the osteria staff.

I’ll always remember that awesome fish lunch.

In Taormina

Yesterday we visited Taormina, a cliffside town that is a short drive from our vineyard lodgings. Originally founded by Greek settlers in the B.C. period, the town is a melange of Greek, Byzantine, Moorish, Norman, and Italian influences, with bright colors and patterns everywhere you look. The town square shown above, with its fabulous tile inlaid floor, is a good example. You get a sense of Taormina’s cliffside status from the steep hills immediately behind the church.

The town square also affords a sweeping view of the cliffside and the Mediterranean Sea far below. Those are prickly pear cactus plants in the foreground, and you can see a few boats on the bright blue water.

The buildings in town are colorfully painted, and many feature second story railings with plantings and traditional figures. The streets in the town are narrow—being built into the hillside means space is at a premium—and you get a close-up view of the buildings as you stroll along.

From the town square you pass through an arched gate in the wall that leads to an older part of town where the streets are even narrower. The archway features a beautiful traditional Madonna and child mosaic, shown below, that is set into the wall for all to enjoy and that attests to the Byzantine influences in the town.

Part of the fun of visiting Taormina is taking a peek at the tiny alleyways that branch off from the main street. You’ll see lots of stairs leading up and down and planters, too. The stairs also can serve as seats for the footsore visitor looking for shade. Stopping in the beautiful local churches also is a good way to beat the heat.

There was an amazing variety of plants along the passageways, with the kinds of deep color you expect to find in tropical settings. That should come as no surprise in a seaside town on an island off the coast of southern Italy.

Taormina is a popular tourist destination, and it is not hard to see why: it is a charming and interesting place with some very dramatic views.