A culinary odyssey through Sicily with Explore

by Sue Lord

Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest island, is a culinary treasure trove where ancient traditions and diverse cultures meld into an unparalleled gastronomic experience. As our guide to the city’s markets, Angelo, explained Sicily has been successively conquered by the Greeks, Normans, Arabs, Byzantines, Spanish, Austrians and even for a short while, the British and each has left their mark on the cuisine, except perhaps the British, for which we can probably be grateful. Embarking on a food tour of Sicily is to journey through time, savoring the essence of its storied past. In this tour we were going to wind our way, well fed, through Palermo, Monreale, Corleone, Agrigento, Modica, Noto, and Ortigia, delving into the island’s rich culinary and cultural heritage.

Palermo: a melting pot of flavours

Our tour began in Palermo, Sicily’s vibrant capital. I was surprised to see as we circled over the surrounding mountains that rose from the sea that the capital was greener than I expected with wide tree lined avenues of golden limestone.

Palermo is a sensory explosion, where bustling markets like Ballarò and Vucciria offer a feast for the eyes and palate. Here, we sampled street food delicacies such as arancini (fried rice balls), panelle (chickpea fritters), and sfincione (Sicilian pizza), which thanks to our guide were cooked freshly for us, rather than been taken from the displays – the only way to eat like the locals rather than the tourists we were told. Each bite told a story of Arab, Norman, and Spanish influences that have shaped Sicilian cuisine.

Monreale Cathedral: a historical interlude

A short drive from Palermo takes you to Monreale. This little town is home to the stunning and huge Monreale Cathedral. Cornily, you could say it is a feast for the eyes, blending Norman, Arab, and Byzantine art. Every surface is decorated in marble, carved wood, golden mosaics depicting biblical scenes, carved pillars and embroidery. Afterwards I took myself off to find a small bar on my own where I could enjoy the sun and watch the world go by with a Caprese Panini and glass of cold white wine.

Agriturismo experience: the heart of Sicilian ricotta

Next, we ventured into the countryside to a traditional ricotta cheese farm agriturismo. Here, we watched the process of making ricotta, from milking the cows to the final creamy product. This hands-on experience culminated in us helping to make sweet pasta for a rustic meal featuring fresh ricotta, showcasing the farm-to-table ethos that defines Sicilian rural life. It was here that we also had an olive oil tasting, a new and surprising experience for me that reinforced for me the reason to use it!

Corleone: beyond The Godfather

From the pastoral tranquility of the farm we journeyed to Corleone, a town steeped in both historical and cinematic significance. Corleone is not only famous as the namesake of the fictional Mafia family in ‘The Godfather’ but also for its real-life struggles against organized crime. A visit to the Anti-Mafia Museum offered a sobering yet inspiring glimpse into the local efforts to combat the Mafia’s influence. Afterwards, we enjoyed a meal of homemade pasta with traditional Sicilian flavour combinations like fennel and sardines at a local osteria which highlighted the island’s rich seafood heritage. We also tried Cannoli, a fried pastry stuffed with sweetened ricotta – one for those with a sweeter tooth than me!

Later we visited the Teatro Andromeda, created by a shepherd artist which was both astonishing and peaceful, we had the place to ourselves and looked out from the hill on which it sits to a great plain below us.

We moved on to a small family owned wine estate for a tasting of the local grapes whilst locals turned up with empty plastic water bottles to buy the wine from the barrel by the litre.

We ended up in Agrigento where the next day we took time out from our culinary adventure to visit the temples of Concordia and Zeus with a guide in an area that was once one of the most prosperous and populated areas in Sicily.

Modica: a chocolate lover’s paradise

Traveling southeast, we arrived in Modica, renowned for its unique cold-pressed chocolate. This ancient Aztec technique, introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century, creates a grainy, intensely flavored chocolate unlike any other. A visit to a local chocolatier offered the chance to taste and buy these artisanal treats, with flavours like tobacco paired with whiskey and lemon and mint paired with Vermouth.

We wandered outside to sit in the setting sun, on the steps of the Duomo of San Giorgio, the Baroque cathedral in Modica, itself an elaborate wedding cake of a church, to watch a wedding party and the late arrival of the bride in her jewel encrusted dress, complete with drone photographer and many attendants.

We ended the day drinking Negronis in another impossibly beautiful baroque village where the Channel 4 series of Montalbano was filmed.

A family affair with tomatoes

The highlight of the tour for me was our visit and lunch with a family on their own tomato farm. This intimate experience allowed us to chat with the farmer and his wife and brother and taste sun-ripened tomatoes both straight from the vine and in various forms – from fresh salads to rich sauces. I even managed to get a recipe from the farmer’s wife for the homemade Caponata, but “be careful,” she warned me, “this has taken me over two hours to cook”, “con amore” added her husband, smiling and giving her hand a squeeze.

Noto another morsel

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat any more, we arrived in Noto, one of many UNESCO registered towns, rebuilt optimistically in the elaborate late baroque style of the 16th Century after one of mount Etna’s many volcanic explosions. We wandered around the honey coloured streets in the afternoon sunshine before sitting in the shade for another delicious Sicilian speciality of granita with brioche, which I somehow managed to finish despite feeling like I had eaten a Sicilian family’s bodyweight in food already.

Ortigia: the grand finale

Our tour concluded in Ortigia, the historic heart of Syracuse. This island, connected to the mainland by bridges, is a maze of narrow streets and stunning architecture. Here, the culinary delights are as captivating as the surroundings. We enjoyed fresh seafood while dining al fresco, basking in the island’s charm and beauty.

Ultimately a food tour of Sicily is more than a gastronomic journey; from the bustling markets of Palermo to the serene landscapes of Noto, each destination offers a unique taste of Sicily’s rich history and vibrant culture. In the company of Fabio our Sicilian tour leader, I reflected that Sicily’s true flavor lies in its people, traditions, and the timeless stories told through its cuisine.

Next steps

For more information on holidays to Sicily and this incredible culinary tour, call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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