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Regaleali, Sicilia 20 October 2011

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to Regaleali

Some uncertainty as to where to catch the bus, shared by old-timers, us, and the TrenItalia authorities, but soon our pink ride was squeezing through the insanely crowded streets of Catania and out into Sicily's Autumn-brown center.

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Anything reasonably un-vertical gets tilled, and here as elsewhere in Italy, one crop a year is the rule. Here, clearly, the reason is water. There isn't much. Everywhere we see water works, abandoned aquaducts, new water pipes (less evaporation), and very little evidence of surface water. The soil is a glorious brown color, shading at times toward white or, more rarely, dark brown. Much of the land seems to be tilled but unused. Could this be due to a shortage of farmers?

Many, many abandoned farmsteads testify to the flight to the city and the hardship of making a living off this land. Often in the distance we see burgeoning cities tumbling down untillable hillsides.

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Some fields, we notice, are tilled any old which way, the way Cantanians drive, while others are carefully contour-plowed to limit erosion. We see many tractors out breaking up the ground. The pattern seems to be to reduce it to a soft brown field of heavy clods. 

At Caltanisetta Xirbi (Sir-bee) we are left off at a lonely railway station with a couple of blokes from Oz on their tortuous way to Agrigento across the center. We commisserate about the inadequacy of Sicilian transport, but about then our sweet little train glides into station on the appointed minute, and off we go into the beyond of nowhere.

Some weather is moving down Italy toward us, and the clouds are kodachrome perfect ...for now. We expect rain late Friday. The farmers around here are praying for rain as soon as possible.

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<p>the kitchen garden at Regaliali</p>

the kitchen garden at Regaliali

We arrive on the stroke of one at Vallelunga, the little station near our destination, and are met there by Linda, the intern, who in real life is a chef in New York City. A short drive and we're surrounded by vineyards and intensive land management. "Everything you see is Regaleali," Linda tells us.

We pull up to the Case Vecchie, the old houses, where Anna Tasca Lanza started her cooking school, and her daughter Fabrizia carries on, and are shown our comfortable room. Surprise! We have internet in the common room, so I can keep the story current.

After quickly catching our breathes and meeting the Sicilian dogs that look like Anubis, we join the outgoing group of students, almost all from the San Francisco Bay Area, who have been here to study "health and terroire" for the last five days. "You will have a wonderful time," they all tell us. 

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"We're having a light lunch," says Fabrizia ...and we proceed to have a lunch that could have been enormous has we not controlled ourselves. We are a dozen sitting around a big table in the enormous farmhouse-style kitchen. Rochelle ends up sitting next to Fabrizia's father, the Marquis, a mannerly gentleman who helped us through the delicious meal -- tomatoes in a simple dressing, local sausage of veal and pork cooked in wine "so they don't dry out," cauliflower with a special dressing, potatoes and vegetables, a gorgeous rosé wine from Regaleali that the Marquis proudly explains comes from special grapes meant just for the making of rosé. 

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At the end of the meal, the best foccacia I have ever tasted. "Is this in one of your books?" asks one of the last-session students, who are clearly torn about leaving this magical place. "I think so," says Fabrizia. And then, finally, fruit of the season in parfait glasses. "A little more wine," urges the Marquis with a twinkle in his eye. "Look out for him," says Fabrizia, "he's dangerous."

"Water is our biggest problem here," the Marquise confides. "We have three artificial lakes, and irrigate sparingly. Our rain comes from late October through November and March into May. Now it comes later and too hard to be absorbed, more of a monsoon than before."

After lunch Rochelle asks me, "Have you died and gone to heaven?" Yes, I think so.

A little later Fabrizia tells us, "We start cooking at five." It's 4:30 and I can hardly wait!

We have been given the gift of a couple of sessions with Fabrizia alone, including tonight's delicious dinner with only five -- Fabrizia, us two, Linda (the Cheeky Chef), and the Marquis -- present. It was a lovely meal that we started cooking at five. Here's Rochelle rolling out the ricotta gnocchi -- easy peasy and delicious served two ways, in butter and sage (to show off the delicate flavor of the gnocchi) and in tomato sauce (because it's so delicious.) Most of the products, such as the tomato sauce, the quince preserves for the bottom of the persimmon crostata, are made here at the end of the season when the fruit is all ready.

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This experience is almost too rich to write about ...and there are so many little details and elements that I will not be able to set down here -- Jamie Oliver visits Anna (before Fabrizia is here), Fabrizia being "auditioned" by the chef at Chez Pannisse.

And all the while we are producing wonderful Sicilian food in the best farm to table style. I'm a little scrambled by the delicious wine we drank with dinner -- the Marquis loves to describe and then pour the wine from this winery. "We are, by the standards of the world, only a small winery ...but by Italy's standards, we are very big." 1,200 acres in vines, plus a very attentive ownership and strategy for the making of the wines. The Cabernet we had for dinner was huge, possibly the finest I have tasted. (There are likely to be lots of superlatives here for the next few days. This is definitely a peak experience for me.)

Fabrizia is instantly and completely sympathetic and easy to love. Her teaching style is unselfconscious and firm, thorough, very much (as long as there are so few students) see one, then do five. Here she is putting together the dough for the crostata; she had Rochelle rolling out gnocchi in minutes, and me helping peel the wonderful soft persimmons picked this morning from the trees here on the estate.

Her dream is to be make of this place a permaculture center, with all the food coming from and being consumed right here. She would be an easy boss, and the place is spectacularly beautiful and fruitful. 

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I will not be a very faithful correspondent, in part due to scrambling by superb wine and a loving atmosphere that has me wanting to "be here now" rather than take pictures and remember anecdotes -- a change from the rest of the trip, I'm afraid. Suddenly we have been welcomed gracefully into a family, and made to feel a part of it.

Here are a couple of the labels from the bottles with which I disordered my consciousness this evening ...along with rocotta gnocchi two ways, a delicious chicken, a lovely salad, and the spectacular persimmon crostata -- every bit of which we had a hand in, and which I can reproduce in Caspar.

There will undoubtedly be more delights tomorrow, starting at 9am. For me now, to bed.

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We are out in the middle of nowhere, as several folks have observed. The brown tawny beast Sicily spreads out in every direction, but this place is a little green oasis. In Fabrizia's family for generations, it lost half its hectarage in the post-war land reforms, but is still impressive and very much loved. Its rock walls and careful landscaping are an anomaly in this land.

We have been allowed to feel useful in the kitchen, helping a little with breakfast but providing extra hands, skilled and not-so-much depending on the task assigned, at 10:30 for lunch preparation and again at 5:00 for dinner. In the kitchen with us is Fabrizia, whose attention misses not a molecule, Linda, her intern, who is in "real life" a personal chef and caterer in Ney York, and a couple fo Sicilian assistants who keep the dishes clean and the ingredients flowing.

For lunch today, we had a menu every part of which is replicable in Caspar. Each dish we prepare comes with a carefully thought-out recipe, and so we will not be able to forget these lessons easily.

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Two new students from Chicago were to arrive at noon, and so we prepared Sicilian "street food" that has been served in Fabrizia's family for many years: panelle, chick-pea flour triangles made with a cooked batter spread thin on a plate, cooled, then peeled off and deep fried. A delicious appetizer served with a delicious Tasca d'Almerita white wine.

Fabrizia noted that serving "simple" food like the upcoming pasta involtini and the panelle -- "people's food"  -- was her grandfather's idea. Why not serve simple, good food even if it is made with common ingredients?

Cooking beside it in the lower picture is a rabbit, pieced up and seared gently in onion-flavored oil. Next, red wine is added for flavor and color; the red wine used is a collection of all the unfinished bottles of red wine served to students -- an interesting mix that Fabrizia likes to cook with "but I woouldn't drink it." Since all the wines we have tasted are superb, that works for me. Finally, the wine is diluted and the rabbit is simmered for half an hour with olives, at which point the remaining sauce is reduced, and the rabbit ended up as the second course.

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Eggplant (from the garden, of course) is sliced lengthwise about 5-8 millimeters thick. Consistent thickness is helpful when deep frying to a golden color, to remove extra moisture and soften the eggplant. Stuffed (rolled) deep-fried eggplant with angelhair pasta lightly dressed with tomato sauce (from the garden, put up in wine bottles and corked for storage) and parmesan is apparently a commonplace "comfort food" one seldom sees in a restaurant -- the Marquis noted this at lunch, echoing Fabrizia's earlier comment. We have noticed this tendency before, for example with Greek Avgholemono soup, a great comfort food seldom seen outside the home. 


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Lunch also included a generous platter of broccoli and a dressing of olive oil and garlic -- not a common Sicilian ingredient -- to which we added lemon from the trees out in the garden. Without making much of it, a large proportion of Fabrizia's ingredients come from the garden here or from farms nearby, easily satisfying the criterion for localized food sourcing.

Our two fellow students from Chicago arrived in time for lunch, and we sat in the courtyard and ate the penelle and sipped white wine, then had lunch. Having been here a whole 24 hours, we were the object of considerable curiosity on their part, and I was amazed to notice how completely at home we have been allowed to feel here.

After lunch, Fabrizia took us on a garden tour, at then of which we had a basket overflowing with wonderful ripe ingredients -- apples for applesauce to go with tonight's pork roast, persimmons, and tomatoes.

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Day two, and our third cooking lesson, is preparation for dinner. We are joined by two lovely ladies from Chicago who love food and love to cook, and who fit in easily. Rochelle and I miss the immediacy of private lessons with Fabrizia -- but more of that would be asking too much. We have had long enough that we are "advanced" students in the sense that Fabrizia has evaluated our skills and assigns us tasks accordingly. We are to be joined at dinner by three potential investors in the winery, and so we are preparing dinner for thirteen. I am allowed to pipe out the paté choux for the back-up Turk's Head for dessert.

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Besides Fabrizia, Rochelle and me, Suzie and Helena, there are two able and quiet Sicilian ladies who keep the dishes washed and pick up the pieces. Miraculously, everything always works out right on time and in exceedingly good order despite the want of skills on the part of the students. 

Dinner is delicious, although the Turk's head doesn't dry quite enough and is a little fragile -- it doesn't matter, because after it is baked and dried it is sliced in half and filled with a delicious sweet ricotta filling, then reassembled and cut into slices. The final effect is quite impressive as well as thoroughly delicious -- a show piece. Were I to attempt this in Caspar I would likely make it less than 30 centimeters (a foot) in diameter.

Sorry, but I was much too busy eating to take a picture of the finished masterpieces.

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At breakfast, after the Chicago ladies appear, in troop the late-night arrivals from Scotland, a family of six, Guy, Georgina, Molly, Nancy, Kitty, Angus. Even Angus, aged perhaps 14, is instantly engaged and eager to learn. I am quite impressed with the quality of focus and attention that all the children bring to the party.  


<p>Linda, Molly, Angus, Nancy, Kitty</p>

Linda, Molly, Angus, Nancy, Kitty

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Day three, and lesson four: lunch preparation. Ten eager learners gather around Fabrizia, who is impressive in her ability to include and inform everyone. This is not an easy task, but I get a sense that no one feels left out or neglected. Linda is brilliant, easy, and humorous, a perfect foil for Fabrizia. The five professionals (including the three graceful Sicilian ladies who do the back-up work and all the heavy lifting) make it look easy to prepare lunch for thirteen.

We are preparing the dish that caught our attention originally in an old chestnut of a TV show starring Tyler Florence and Anna Tasca Lanza: caponata. Fabrizia makes the point that the secret of a satusfactory caponata is that the ingredients are cooked and included according to their special needs. The eggplant, for example, is cubed, deep fried to a darkly caramelized brown, then added to the mixture last because it is the most fragile ingredient. A dozen busy hands go to work preparing ingredients, and before long, the caponata is assembled and happily marrying flavors.

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The finished product is colorful and amazingly complex. It is agro-dulce, that is to say sour and sweet at once, due to sugar and a goodly amount of vinegar in its sauce. Of course Fabrizia's preparation uses vegetables all from her garden, along with the delicious tomato sauce already mentioned, prepapred and bottled in wine bottles and then used generously throughout the year. "It all tastes so different here," says Molly; earlier she had encountered her first persimmon and had straightaway declared it "my favorite fruit." 

Here and now I am declaring caponata my second favorite eggplant concoction. Lunch is all vegetables and pasta, and I confess that the delights have begun to blur a little for me. We keep learning things we can bring home. That's the really important thing.

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<p>Molly and Angus look in as Fabrizia infuses oil with onion flavor</p>

Molly and Angus look in as Fabrizia infuses oil with onion flavor

Fabrizia speaks disparagingly of the American prejudice about Italian food and garlic: "We hardly use it here, or at least, I use very little. I don't know where the idea came from that Italians cook with a lot of garlic -- maybe when the Italian immigrants encountered tasteless American produce, they felt the need for garlic? But we never burn it in oil, because that makes a terrible taste ... as here," and she showed us how she was gently sweating the onions Guy had carefully chopped, not trying to caramelize or darken them, but cooking to infuse the oil with their flavor.

The time here was priceless because of just such insights into Sicilian cooking, and Fabrizia's (and I assume, her mother Anna's) cooking style. There was quite a bit more deep frying than I expected -- never with olive oil, but with sunflower oil, and there is none of the concern here that we have with using poly-unsaturated oils. Likewise with salt: enough is used for good taste, particularly in the pasta waters, without much thought for those who need reduced salt diets.

A difficult aspect of this is that folks with gluten issues find that their food choices are fewer here. Fabrizia notes that she just had a student, in the Food, Health, and Terroire workshop, who was intensely "celiac aware" and made a bit of a fuss over it ...and was quietly accommodated. I wonder if such allergies and diseases are less common here, or just less likely to be diagnosed? Under the circumstances, I would have appreciated seeing how to make a gluten free pasta, for example.

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Salt is a big part of Sicily's story, having been a major source of wealth in the days of sail, and a means for raising funds for those who controlled the trade. Part of Sicily's independent habit comes from the fact that it was always more than self-sufficient in salt, and so could qiggle out from under the oppressors' thumbs.

Salt is also a constant understated theme in the food preparation here. Fabrizia urges us to visit the salt pans on Isola Grande off Marsala, and I expect we will go there if the weather allows. The salt in Fabrizia's kitchen is kept in a large crock -- "Sea salt," she emphazies, "has many more minerals and flavors in it than regular salt." I can't help thinking that if we kept salt like this in our humid climate, it would soon be one large stubborn block.

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Fabrizia made pasta again for lunch (and again for dinner; the ladies from Chicago had accepted, by the third time 'round, that making pasta from scratch really is something done as a matter of course.) Here we have three of the indomitable Rowan-Hamilton's busily breaking up the firm Regaleali broccoli (indistinguishable from cauliflower) for the sugo(sauce) for the lunchtime pasta.

Fabrizia's method for blending pasta and sugo is to choose the serving platter, seed it significantly with the sugo and olive oil, correct the consistency, then add the pasta, add half of the remaining sugo, and again toss gently. At this point there is an opportunity to correct the consistency with a bit of pasta wate reserved for the purpose. Finally, the rest of the sugo is added gracefully over the top along with a healthy dose of the lovely Regaleali olive oil.

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There has been rain for a few weeks -- not alot, the Marquis says, but early. And it was cloudy today, enriching all the colors. We walked up through the vineyards toward the winery, and on the other side of the valley we could see a tractor painting a great oval of newly turned soil. This is the essence, in my mind, of the beauty of this place: the soil, the dry weeds, the olive trees and abandoned homestead, and on the far horizon, windspinners (that cannot be seen in this photograph.)

I am working on a "painting" -- electronic, of course -- of this view as I see it now in my mind's eye. If it's worth showing when it's done, I will post it.

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Dinner included panella, refined Sicilian street food (garbanzo bean fritters) and squash blossoms (from the garden ...where else?) breaded in light beer batter and deep fried, but the main events were ravioli and profiterolles. As already noted, Fabrizia favors a less eggy pasta, one egg for 200 grams of flour, because "it's not about the eggs, it's about the semolina." She uses the hands-in-well method to make pasta, and after blending in the eggs she adds water gradually, slowly including all the flour, and then proceeds immediately to the pasta machine while the dough is still lumpy and hasn't relaxed. The first batch or two resists and requires a few extra passes through the machine at #1 to attain the silkiness and strength needed to proceed to the thinning and lengthening steps. 

For ravioli, each strip is laid out and folded in half, the midpoint marked, then unfolded and teaspoon-sized balls of seasoned ricotta and parmesan filling spaced appropriately. After folding the top sheet back over the lower with its little mounds of filling, the rounded side of a smaller cutting ring is used to stretch the dough, remove the air, and make a provisional seal. Then the cutting side of a larger ring is used to produce the round ravioli. Since the pasta on the margins is twice as thick as that on the top and bottom, it is gently squeezed by hand to complete the seal and this the pasta. The cut-off dough can be sent back through the pasta machine once. Our goal was to make five ravioli each, a total of 55. We made 49. They were boiled and served with a simple sugo of butter and sage.

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The profiterolles began with Fabrizia's fail-safe paté a choux, piped into 20mm balls. She started with the fluted tip and was immediately worried, since she uses a smooth tip for profiterolles ... but when they baked up with little ridges, I think think they held the custard covering better. The fun part was piping the whipped cream into the little balls. Then Angus covered each ball with a delicious dark chocolate custard and assembled them into an impressive tower.

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I have mentioned the Marquis, Fabrizia's father and husband to the founder, Anna Tasca Lanza. He is the grand sommelier to the school, and ambassador of the family's wonderful wines. When everyone else headed out on Sunday, he, Rochelle and I were left behind (with two able kitchen assistants to care for us). We too were bound for our next destination after a leisurely lunch, and that is exactly what we enjoyed, over a bottle of superb champagne. None of the fuss of a classic Italian meal, but superbly prepared fava beans, roasted potatoes, slices of pork roast, and a massive platter of yellow and red tomatoes dressed with olive oil and basil. And for dessert, guess what? profiterolles!

Vinceslao, the Marquis, well into his eighties, is a delightful conversationalist (as well as a dangerous man with a wine bottle!) A student of Sicilia his whole life, as his family's holdings are just south of Caltanisetta, the local "big town." He had known his wife, Anna, since she was seven, and was married to her for 57 years. When her fame began to spread and she started travelling, he was happy to stay home and care for the family interests. They have always lived in Palermo or Rome, coming to the country only to oversee seasonal processes. He now comes to Case Vecchie "whenever I am needed" because his presence adds a gentle dignity and humor to Fabrizia's proceedings ...and the two clearly enjoy each other. 

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