Whether she meant to be provocative, I wasn’t sure. As we stood admiring the vibrant art nouveau fascia of a long-gone bakery in one of Palermo’s bustling food markets, our guide smiled sweetly. “Your bombs did not destroy this,” she said. We smiled sweetly back. After all, we didn’t want to fall out, for our guide would also be preparing our lunch. And this wasn’t just any old guide. Nor would it be any old lunch. This was the Duchess of Palma di Montechiaro, no less, who in the curious tradition of Sicilian nobility, has turned herself into a cookery teacher.
We met the duchess at the Capo market at 8.30am, to give her time to shop for the ingredients that we would then cook and eat at her seafront palazzo. There were five of us: my wife, two sons, my mother and myself, and the challenge of our extended cookery lesson, indeed of the whole Sicilian holiday, was to keep everyone happy. My mother is in her late eighties, my younger son in his early teens. So, how do you unite an octogenarian and a teenager for four days out of season in Sicily? Why, with food, of course. We made our trip a quest for fantastic Sicilian produce; not only eating it, but also finding, buying, preparing and learning to cook it.
The duchess noted our challenge and rose admirably to it. A petite, attractive woman in her early sixties, she swept through the market with my captivated mother on her arm, and at her favourite fish stall, pointed out to the boys the nonnata – the newborn fish that are illegal to catch, illegal to sell, yet are openly caught and sold every day. The same rather beguiling lawlessness also applies to parking in Palermo, we were pleased to find. Otherwise we’d be driving round even now looking for a space.
When the duchess had completed her shopping, we headed back to her home, the 17th-century Palazzo Lanza Tomasi just behind the old city ramparts, and there met her husband, the duke, cousin and adopted son of Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, celebrated author of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). Alas, the prince died in 1957, a year before his only novel was published, never knowing the acclaim that would be heaped upon it.
I’d have liked to learn more about The Leopard, which Sicilians of a certain age will tell you is the greatest Italian-language novel of all time, but we were there to expand our culinary rather than our literary knowledge.
The centrepiece of our lunch was a mint-flavoured swordfish wheel, which I suspect sounds more appealing in Italian, but either way it was a revelation, a vast 3kg round chunk of fish into which, to the delight both of my sons and my mother, we were instructed to press holes with our fingers, pushing into them a gloopy mixture of mint, pistachios, pink peppercorns and olive oil.
This was then baked and served in slices, rather like a cake. Served, moreover, at an elegantly venerable dining table by a white-gloved butler. The duchess gets lots of American customers and they must love it, as long as the quietly spoken but talkative duke doesn’t share with them his conviction that General Patton should have been put on trial for war crimes for the 1943 bombing of Palermo, as he did us. And even if he does, surrounded by the trappings of old European nobility and full of swordfish wheel, they will probably understand.
We got rather used to those trappings, for we were staying in Villa Tasca, an imposing mansion on the outskirts of Palermo, where the present Duke of Kent once dropped a glorious clanger. At a grand if rather stiff dinner, he stood up to reply to his Sicilian host’s official welcome, politely enthusing about the marvellous hospitality he had enjoyed, and concluding by bidding everyone to drink a toast to “this wonderful island of Sardinia”.
The duke’s faux-pas brought a flush of embarrassment to the royal cheeks, and yet broke the ice perfectly. After that, the formality evaporated as if sucked away by the fat little cherubs on Villa Tasca’s many splendid frescoes, and a general bonhomie descended that was rather more typical of the parties for which Villa Tasca has been known in Palermitano society for 250 years.
Indeed, for all the magnificent antiques, and however evocative the music room in which another guest, Richard Wagner, composed Parsifal, it was the two battered visitors’ books that really fascinated me. They go back to 1877, and bespeak a tradition of party-giving that attracted generations of wealthy visitors from Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and the US.
We could not have had a better base than Villa Tasca, which once stood in open countryside but has been rather enveloped by modern suburbs, making the house and its extensive, exotic gardens even more of a sanctuary than they were in Wagner’s day.
The aristocratic Tasca family have been renting the place out to holidaymakers since 2001, complete with household retinue. To my mum’s great amusement, we even had a white-gloved butler, a handsome Sri Lankan called Bandara, whose English was only marginally less limited than my Italian, and with whom I had a memorable misunderstanding at the breakfast table, thinking he was asking about the air-conditioning while he thought I was ordering boiled eggs. The Crawleys of Downton Abbey never had such difficulties.
Giuseppe Tasca, happily for us, spoke excellent English. As well as managing the ancestral home, Tasca – the future Count Tasca D’Almerita – also runs the family’s long-established winery, Regaleali, in Sicily’s mountainous hinterland. He drove us up there one day for a memorable lunch, concluding with the freshest, finest cannoli – Sicily’s famous dessert of fried pastry tubes filled with ricotta – I have ever tasted.
We also visited, just over the hill from the vineyard, the cookery school run by Giuseppe’s cousin, Fabrizia Tasca Lanza, whose late mother Anna was Sicily’s answer to Delia Smith, or perhaps Elizabeth David. The school, in almost laughably photogenic 18th-century buildings around an old courtyard, gets a steady stream of mainly American and Australian clientele. But no Italians, ever. No self-respecting Italian, we were told, would admit to needing cookery lessons.
Fabrizia explained the monsù style of cooking that was imported to Sicily by the French chefs hired by hers and other noble families (monsù being a corruption of monsieur), but also introduced us to indigenous street food, showing us how to make panelle, the chickpea fritters that are not Sicilian or even northern Sicilian but specifically Palermitano specialities.
The next day in Palermo we spotted labourers queuing for panelle at roadside stalls, as we made our way to the 700-year-old Vucciria market, described by Peter Robb in his captivating book Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra as “the belly of Palermo and the heart too”. But that was in the early 1980s. The Vucciria now is evidently a dismal shadow of its former self, though no less atmospheric for it, especially once you know about the mafia slayings that took place there in broad daylight, and call in at the Taverna Azzurra, once a favoured mafioso hang-out, and still the roughest and readiest of bars, for a quick, a very quick, bicchiere di sangue (literally a glass of blood, but in this instance a gutsy local liqueur).
There is an old saying in Sicily: “Quannu s’asciucanu i balati dà Vucciria.” It translates as “when the streets of the Vucciria run dry” but means “when hell freezes over”. As it happens, hell is freezing over. The Vucciria is dying, crowded into terminal decline by the cheap mafia-funded construction projects that have blighted a city already badly damaged, as the duke and duchess reminded us, by sustained Allied bombing. The noble couple would undoubtedly concede, though, that neither the mafia nor those bombs have robbed Palermo of its abundant character.
Brian Viner was a guest of Think Sicily, which offers a week at Villa Tasca, sleeping up to eight, from €15,730. A full-day cooking course with the Duchess of Palma costs €150 per person. Book via www.cookingwiththeduchess.com or through Think Sicily
Sicilian specialities: Locatelli’s list of dishes to try
The two sides of Sicily are quite different in terms of food, writes Giorgio Locatelli. So what you should eat when you go there depends on whether you fly into Palermo, where the influences are more Arabic, or Catania, which is more Greek. Each has special dishes you can only get in that town, so try and find out what they are before you leave. It’s a place that can really celebrate its food, an old society that has been invaded over and over again – they’ve only been Italian for 150 years, and before that were invaded every couple of centuries.
They are considered a traditional dish of Messina, in eastern Sicily, but you can get arancini everywhere and at every level – from self-service cafés at the airport to Michelin-starred restaurants. In the north of Italy, they stuff arancini with mozzarella but not here. To cook them you make risotto, then let it cool and rest, then shape handfuls into little pockets and stuff them – they often use meat ragù with peas, anchovies or a little piece of cheese. Finally you roll them in egg, flour and breadcrumbs and deep fry.
Panino con la milza
This is probably not for everyone. It’s a sandwich made with spleen, boiled, then finely sliced and fried. It is served in a panino, or bread roll, sometimes maritata, which means married, with cheese. It’s something you’ll only see in Palermo – asking for it anywhere else might get you a blank look. You can get a good one at the Antica Focacceria di San Francesco (Via Alessandro Paternostro 58, Palermo).
Pasta con le sarde
Pasta with sardines is served all over Sicily but different cooks do it in slightly different ways, and the sardines are smaller than the ones we have in London. Originally it’s a dish from the Palermo side, so of Arabic descent, and it is made with wonderful little punchy sultanas, pine nuts and saffron, and the pasta is boiled in the same water as wild fennel, so it has a wonderful, subtle fennel flavour.
Pasta la Norma
This is classic Sicilian, a pasta dish from Catania named after the opera by Vincenzo Bellini, one of the city’s most famous sons. Made with ricotta salata, a pressed sheep’s milk cheese, aubergine and tomato sauce, it’s served with short pasta tubes so fat you can stick your finger inside them.
Sicilians are crazy about sweet things. You can have a village of 1,800 people and it will support two cake shops. Two sweets, cassata and cannoli, are particularly important. Cannoli are tubes of fried pastry, stuffed with a sweet creamy filling, sometimes with added chocolate or nuts, candied peel or sultanas. Cassata are cakes made with ricotta and often decorated with almonds or almond paste, or made with the peel of the sweet Cedro lemon.
Giorgio Locatelli is chef-patron of Locanda Locatelli in London and author of ‘Made in Sicily’ (Fourth Estate)