Our adventures on the new Culinary Discovery Tours continued during Riviera’s recent call on Sicily. Guest Chef Francesco Milana and I took 24 students to the bustling market in Catania last week. As the bus left the port that morning, we were lucky enough to catch a view of the steaming Mt. Etna, which is often eclipsed by clouds.
While the market in Catania is referred to as the Pescatore, or fish market, there is a lot more than just fish to be found here. Our students broke into teams with an envelope of 10 euro and an assignment of produce or product to purchase. Our sous chefs, Daniel and Shamal, had brought both our market carts, knowing that they would be completely full after our hour in the marketplace.
Chef Milana, who was born and raised in Sicily, headed out with his group to the fish section. The sea urchin was fresh, and the merchant standing there opened them one by one for us.
We were all amazed by the presentation of a scaleless eel that was curled in a circle. We found out that the way to cook this eel was to sauté it over high heat in olive oil (Sicilian, of course).
It’s mussel season, so there were boxes of fresh mussels for us to enjoy, presented beautifully with sliced lemons. Snails were going for 4 euro per kilo, but I couldn’t find any of our guests who wanted to try them back at the culinary center. Haha! According to Chef Milana, they are quite a popular snack in Sicily!
Swordfish season was also upon us, and I was so impressed with the fresh steaks that were being sliced for the locals. Guess who would like to come for dinner?
Chef Milana explained how the fishing industry has changed so drastically in his lifetime alone. As a boy, the fishermen would leave in the morning with their nets and catch hundreds of tuna as they made their way into the Mediterranean Sea. Now there are quotas, and the number of fishermen and boats has been considerably reduced. But they still use the tambourines to tap-tap-tap the fish into the nets.
I had my eye on some pecorino cheese, so my team and I headed off to purchase a wedge for the arancini recipe we were going to make later that day in the culinary center. We found some great cheese made from sheep’s milk and laced with pepperoncini peppers, which are ubiquitous in Sicilian food. We were also making a caper sauce, so one of the students found this fabulous container of plump capers in a coarse grind salt.
We were also going to prepare one of Chef Milana’s signature recipes, Pasta con Pesto di Pistacchi e Gamberi(pasta with shrimp and a pesto of pistachio), so we were on the hunt for a fresh pistachio that is harvested once every two years in Sicily. And we found it! The pistachio di Bronte is a prized nut and costs, as you can see if you look closely, 70 euro per kilo. That’s $35 per pound! After tasting the final product in class, we decided it was worth the expense. The pesto also called for fresh basil, and we found a young, beautiful green selection at the herb vendors.
It’s still late spring in Sicily, so there were wonderful beans, like the broad bean in the striated red casing here. We opened and cooked these beans, and they were delicious with a little Sicilian olive oil, fresh olives and sundried tomatoes. Chef Milana shared that Sicilian dishes typically have no more than five or six ingredients and are quite seasonal. So we thought we’d try our hand at making up a recipe for the beans – we didn’t do too badly!
The produce was beautiful. Fennel, tomatoes, onions, wild strawberries, long pale zucchini, cherries and lemons were a treat for the senses. The merchants could see our four chefs in whites wandering through the market, and they all wanted us to taste something from their stall.
I finally caved when we came to the stall with fresh melons. The melon flesh was bright yellow, and the watermelon was pink – signifying the beginning of the season. Daniel and I had to sample both melons. Luckily, we didn’t get juice on our clean chef whites!
I came upon the smell of sweet garlic and saw this young man cleaning garlic that had obviously just been plucked from the ground earlier today. The dirt was still on the roots, and the flesh was so soft it could have been an apple. We took the garlic back to the ship and used it in our pasta pesto.
I try to purchase something from most of the vendors when we visit these local markets, as a sign of respect and also in appreciation of their allowing us to photograph their produce, fish, meats and products. Today I made a new friend; he had a stall with fresh string beans. I hope to see him again when we return with another group.
After finishing our shopping, we all met back at the elephant statue outside the market to walk to our next spot – where we would make cannoli! The shop was called I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza, which translates to Grandma Vincenza’s Sweets, and the tagline was “Amore per la Tradizione,” or love of tradition. When we entered the quaint shop, we were greeted with a little tray of confections and warm, friendly smiles from the family, whose matriarch started the business 50 years ago. Her photo is on the brochure, and they tell us she stops by sometimes to check on her children and grandchildren, who manage the shop today.
Being Sicilian, Chef Milana takes charge and works with the pastry master to show us all how to make the cannoli shells and then stuff them. Not too much time had passed before our students had mastered the skills of filling the cannoli – and enjoying them! What fun we all had with the different fillings: pastry cream, ricotta and chocolate as well as pistachios and chocolate shavings to touch up the open ends of the cannoli. Our guide, Caterina, was delightful. Here she is inspecting the baked cannoli shells.
After enjoying a tasting of the cannoli and some local liqueurs, we were back on the bus and off to our winery visit. Benanti is one of the premier Mt. Etna wineries, and we were excited to see the winery and taste the wine. We arrived in the lovely village of Monte Serra and walked to the facility through a beautiful tree-lined canopy. I was struck by the many things in bloom. The prickly pear, which is abundant in Sicily, was flowering, and the petunias in a wine barrel were already hanging down and abundant.
I was also fascinated by the tiny vintage Fiat in the driveway. Thinking it was meant to be on display, I was promptly told it belonged to one of the winemaker’s sons, who had driven it to work today!
As we entered we were greeted by our knowledgeable winemaker, a sommelier who impressed us all with her knowledge of wines and her passion for the grapes of Benanti and the unique soil and growing conditions on Mt Etna. We sat down in a beautiful stone-walled room to enjoy a tasting of two wines paired with cheeses and salamis, olives and sundried tomatoes, and of course, freshly baked bread. The wines we sampled were Pietramarina, made from the indigenous Carricante grape that is grown only on Mt. Etna, and Serra della Contessa, a Negrello grape variety harvested with intense minerality and best paired with the kinds of mature cheese and meaty salami we were served.
After our snack we were treated to a walk through the vineyard on this beautiful, sunny day. We also had the chance to visit the old winemaking house, where many decades ago the grapes were pressed by women in their bare feet. Apparently there are still occasions at the winery where the old traditions can be observed, but we were assured these methods were not used to produce the bottles we were served! I was reminded of the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethyl stomped the grapes. I’m sure many of us have enjoyed a hearty laugh watching those reruns – although I have to admit, I do remember the originals as well!
With our bellies full and our spirits high, we returned to the culinary center for our Sensuous Sicily class. We arranged all of our purchases on the main countertop, so we could discuss them and have Chef Milana share his knowledge of Sicily and the cuisine of this beautiful island. We had purchased some zucchini flowers, so we made chickpea fritters with them in the traditional Sicilian way. I think they will be the last of the zucchini blossoms we will see this spring, and we were delighted to find them so fresh and well kept. We used the pecorino cheese we had purchased to prepare arancini, the delicious fried rice ball snack from Sicily.
We also enjoyed Chef Milana’s pasta with shrimp and pesto, as well as calamari from the market that Shamal stuffed and sautéed for us.
We always have such a wonderful time in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. After spending the day together, we all become good chef-buddies and enjoy exchanging our favorite foodie adventures and must-see recommendations. And everyone was quite proud of the delicious Sicilian food they made.
In this class we also enjoyed an additional treat. Chef Milana is known as “The Singing Chef” so he treated us all to a song at the end of class (and a few times during class), which was enchanting.
What fun it is to have a guest chef who can share his passion and knowledge about his boyhood home with our students and guests.
Our deepest thanks to Chef Milana, and we look forward to seeing you again soon on Riviera!