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by Carole Kotkin

Unique cooking, warm people, beautiful landscape,
and a sunny, lusty climate with foods and wines to match..

If you ask a Sicilian if he is Italian, the answer you are bound to get is, "No, I'm Sicilian."

Sicily is one of the Mediterranean's most intriguing destinations, unique unto itself rather than a mere "part of Italy." It's a blend of ancient culture, zestful traditions, and cordial hospitality.

The mild, sunny Mediterranean climate makes traveling in Sicily pleasant all year round. Even in winter you can take time out from sightseeing to sunbathe on golden beaches. It's a land of breathtaking coasts and lush tropical greenery, of layered cultures, fallen empires, and ancient myths.

The most spectacular feature of Sicily is Mt. Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. It is said to be visible wherever you are. You can combine excursions into the countryside with visits to fascinating archaeological sites.

Nowhere in Italy did the Greeks encompass the country so completely as in Sicily. Siracusa's Teatro Creco, built in 5th Century BC and Agrigento's Doric temple, are just two examples some of the best-preserved Greek outdoor ruins that rival any in Greece or Rome.

Cheese Art, a thousand year-old cheese making tradition

Recently, Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a non-profit educational organization whose mission it is to preserve the art of traditional cooking, offered me the opportunity to travel to the Baroque town of Ragusa to attend Cheese Art 2004, a biannual event showcasing traditional cheese making. It was sponsored by Corfilac, a dairy research center founded in 1966 to preserve artisanal cheese making methods by bringing technological and research assistance to small farmers.

Cheese Art was held in the ancient Donnafugata castle outside Ragusa. In 1630 this scenic hill town in Southeastern Sicily was split in half by an earthquake. Several bridges now connect the newer part of town, Ragusa Superiore, to the older lower Ragusa, built on the ruins of the ancient city of Ibla. The two parts of the city meet at Piazza della Repubblica. Stone staircases link the two levels. Walking down to the old town center is fun, but you might want to find a taxi to come back.

The conference focused on Ragusano cheese because it is a remarkable example of the preservation of a thousand year-old cheese making tradition. Large rectangles of this cow's milk Provolone-style cheese, about four times the size of a bread loaf, are tied in the middle with heavy rope and suspended in caves to. During this time (from 6 to 12 months), it is regularly rubbed with a mixture of oil and vinegar. The result is a strong, savory flavored hard cheese that can be eaten young and smooth or aged and granular. Among other Sicilian cheeses are Pecorino Siciliano, made from Ewe's milk, goat and cow's milk cannestrato, and cow's milk Caciocavallo Palermitano. Cheese stamped with D.O.P. (Protected Designation of Origin) is the highest form of recognition for agricultural products and foodstuffs. It means, for example, that the cheese is produced only within certain officially recognized production zones, using milk collected in the same area. Wine is designated with a similar D.O.C. certification.

Food and Wines

With cheese, you must have wine, and there is never a Sicilian meal without wine. It's as vital an ingredient as olive oil or pasta. Sicily's warm, dry climate, sloping hillsides and rocky soil make it ideal for growing grapes-on par with California's Napa Valley. A new generation of Sicilian winemakers from such family-owned estates as Planeta, Donnafugata, Spadofora, and Fazio is gaining worldwide recognition for their excellent mid-priced and premium wines.

If you like good food, you will find the island a gastronomical paradise. The cuisine is a reflection of the island itself. The cooking of Sicily, known by the term cucina povera (cuisine of the poor), is an earthy and flavorful mixture that encapsulates 2,800 years of invasion and conquest. The island has always been a crossroads where many different civilizations have met and left a heritage of extraordinary cultural variety. Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, French, German, and Spanish all have contributed to the province's delicious culinary tradition.

During the Bourbon occupation at the end of the 18th century, the aristocratic families of Sicily wanted professional French chefs in their homes. A refined "Monzu" (from the word monsieur) cuisine developed from this; distinctly different from cucina provera.

Recipes vary from village to village and are passed down verbally from mother to daughter, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. The signature dishes of Palermo are different from those of Catania, which are again distinct from those of Trapani. There are also classic dishes that are widely popular island-wide: pasta con le sarde (with sardines), pasta alla norma (with eggplant, ricotta salata, and tomato), caponata (sweet-and-sour eggplant stew), couscous alla trapanese (with fish and chicken) all manner of swordfish and tuna, cassata (a rich ricotta-based cake), and cannoli.

The island is surrounded by the blue waters of the Mediterranean teaming with swordfish on the east, and red tuna on the west. Sardines and anchovies are found everywhere. The best known Sicilian seafood dish is spaghetti con sarde, tossed with sardines and olive oil. Most fish is simply grilled or roasted, perhaps drizzled with a little olive oil or marinated first with white wine and herbs, perhaps garnished with olives or a wedge of lemon. You'll find red mullet cooked in an orange and lemon sauce.

No single ingredient, not even tomatoes, dominates the food. Dishes are perfumed with cinnamon, anise and clove and scented with basil, rosemary and garlic. Wheat, along with some other grains, has been the mainstay of Siciclian agriculture for 2,000 years.

Scholars believe pasta was created in Sicily 1000 years ago. It is usually served with vegetables, seafood, cheese or meat sauce and can be the first course or the whole meal, but it's always present. No Sicilian meal is complete without a loaf of bread, usually made from semolina flour or a bottle of olive oil. Sicilians take their olive oils very seriously.

Just ask noted Italian cookbook author, Giuliano Bugialli, who says, "Bread, wine and olive oil are the heart of Italian regional cooking." Olive oil, a true artisan product, that Bugialli calls "a gift from God" is an indispensable ingredient in the kitchen. Besides being used for cooking, a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil sits proudly at the dining table to drizzle on salads, toasted bread, pastas or soups.

Sicily's second most important crop is citrus fruit, especially lemons, that show up in many Sicilian desserts. The infamous Sicilian sweet tooth dates back to the cultivation of sugarcane, without which there would be no cannoli, no marzipan, no nougat, no candied fruit, no cassata, and no gelato. Sicily's ubiquitous almond-based cookies and sweets are well-known.

In particular, frutta martorana, colorful marzipan fruits originally made in the fifteenth century by cloistered nuns in a Palermo church called La Martorana, are among the islands most popular treats. Sicily also grows an abundance of almonds, figs, capers, prickly pears, and carob.

One of the things about Sicilian cooking that I learned is that there is nothing complicated or fancy about it. It's about getting simple cooking absolutely right. I'll have wonderful memories of the unique cooking in this region, the warm people, the beautiful landscape, and the sunny, lusty climate.

Carole Kotkin is co-author MMMMiami-Tempting Tropical Tastes for Home Cooks Everywhere, syndicated food columnist The Miami Herald, Manager of The Ocean Reef Cooking School, and co-host Food & Wine Talk, WKAT

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