A Day With The Duchess

Any trip to Italy or Sicily has got to address food. The culinary arts—and I do mean “arts,” in the truest sense—are such an important part of the culture that cooking classes seem like an obvious and essential part of any visit. That’s why yesterday was devoted to a drive to Palermo and A Day Cooking With The Duchess. (If you run a search for that phrase you’ll find the website.)

Our day with Duchess Nicoletta Polo began with a trip to her beautiful rooftop garden, shown in the first photo above, which featured herbs, flowers, turtles, colorful tiles, and a great view of the Palermo harbor. For others, the day began earlier, with a shopping trip to the Palermo market, but we weren’t quite up to the earlier departure time on the morning after the Sicilian CEO Celebration. In the garden, the Duchess selected flowers and herbs to be used in our preparation. Then it was down and into the spacious and well-appointed kitchen, which was home to every kind of pot, pan, utensil, implement, or cooking device you could possibly imagine.

The Duchess is a diminutive dynamo (and, I hope, a fan of alliteration). She speaks six languages, has an easy but total command of the class, and is very much a hands-on teacher. She quickly got everyone involved in each step of the preparation of our meal. Along the way, she shared some of her admirable philosophy about food, cooking, and life, which posits that human beings have a lot in common, that food is a uniting influence, and that people who cook together will necessarily become friends. She also cooks and seasons by feel, and chuckles at the 1/8 teaspoon precision of American cookbooks. Our group of twelve soon functioned like a well-oiled machine. It’s not hard to understand why her cooking class is so highly regarded.

I peeled garlic, chopped octopus, whisked a peach and corn starch concoction, used a two-handed half moon implement to chop herbs, scooped out eggplant, and stuffed calamari, with a welcome wine break thrown in. Perversely, my favorite task was using a spoon to delicately remove the seeds from tomatoes that were destined for the oven. (Of course, I didn’t eat any of them,)

After several hours of food preparation, we took a break so our work product could be cooked, and spent the time touring the Duchess’s home, which is grand and elegant. I was particularly taken with the colorful flooring in the different rooms, which included tile, marble, and parquet woodwork.

Then it was time to be seated in the dining room and enjoy our efforts. As the Duchess forecast, we enjoyed chatting with our newfound cooking class friends. I had the good fortune to be seated next to the Duchess and tried to follow her every move as we savored eggplant, pasta, and stuffed calamari. I was glad to see the Duchess use her fork to twirl the pasta, which is my preferred method. Everything was good, but the pasta dish below was my favorite.

The dessert was a delicate peach gelatin made from peaches bought at the market that morning and topped with a flower plucked from the Duchess’s garden. I’ve never eaten a flower before, but everything else was so good I gladly ate it, and found it was a nice complement to the peach flavor. As we left, saying farewell to our cooking companions, we concluded that A Day Cooking With The Duchess was a day well spent.

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