I recently went on holiday with my Wife to Sicily. A gorgeous wonderful Island that we fell in love with four years ago when we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. This year saw our third visit there and during the four years since that first trip, my obsession with cooking has grown and grown so it comes as no surprise that when the opportunity came up to have a cooking lesson in a Sicilian restaurant, we (I) jumped at the chance. Actually, my wife didn’t resist too much knowing that I would probably have become one of those petulant children you always see with other families whilst on holiday.
And so the morning after a sunset trip to Etna, we woke on another hot Sicilian morning. When I say hot, it was absolutely scorching and you do think to yourself, why am I deciding to go cooking on a day like this. We took the short walk from our hotel up the hill towards the archway that leads into the main town area of Taormina. Just up to the right before you enter the Gateway is the unassuming entrance to Licchio’s. We see a delivery taken by a man who turns out to be Angelo, Head Chef. We approach the restaurant and are introduced to Angelo. A warm friendly welcome and even more welcome is to find that the cookery lesson will take place in their garden area. No heat of the kitchen. Outdoor stoves are set up and we take a seat in the sun as we wait for the other participants, yes you guessed it, eager as ever we were first.
There are eight of us in total, two Americans, one Hungarian and five British. First we take a walk to the local market to look at the produce Sicily and produces. It’s a small market with a surprisingly large range of products. The fish counter contains eel, swordfish, mussels, clams, squid, octopus, anchovies, cod and other fish that I cannot remember the name of now, obviously not fish you get readily in the UK. The meat counter looks much like most butcher counters here except for that there is a bigger range of veal than you see in the average butcher. Half of the market is taken up with fruit and veg, the highlights being wild fennel, I can smell it still, and the silk aubergine (egg-plant) which Angelo assures us is something that only seems to grow in Sicily. It looks similar to the normal purple aubergine, the colours are more vivid and the skin is like silk, hence the name.
We head back to the restaurant and the scene is set, two benches set up with outdoor stoves, I suddenly think Rick Stein and Keith Floyd (only we’re not allowed wine, not until we’ve finished using the knives). We start by making Maccheroni, by hand, from scratch. The chefs, Massimo (on our bench) and Andrea pour some flour in front of each student, no measurements, just a pile of semolina flour and then white flour, we mix together with a pinch of salt, make a well and put an egg in the middle. Now the mucky part, making the dough. We then are given a round needle, yes we really are making this by hand, the dough is made into thin sausages and cut into small pieces. Each piece is wrapped round a needle and rolled, gently release to form the Maccheroni. Believe me, this took a while.
Next onto Caponata. A typical Sicilian dish, influenced by the Arabic history of the island, is what they call a sweet and sour. The basic ingredients are courgette (zucchini), aubergine (egg-plant) and peppers. These are all fried off separately until golden brown. Two key lessons here, one don’t move the veg too much as you fry it so not to release too much water, the second is by frying everything separately then combining at the end it brings out the flavour of each ingredient. Then into a pan we fry a little chopped onion and chopped celery until golden, the already fried veg are reintroduced and with a few capers, chopped olive, raisins, pine nuts, sugar and white wine vinegar. Actually a third lesson here (anyone thinking Monty Python and the Spanish Inquisition or is it just me?), apparently the best tasting is at room temperature so the flavours really come through and so the Caponata is left to rest.
Next up Anchovies Beccafico, basically stuffed Anchovies and these are fresh, not the tinned variety. We are presented with a plate of whole anchovies, again images of Rick Stein are in my mind following his latest series showing the ladies that fillet these fish for a living. We do a fairly good job of this, snapping the head off which takes most of the guts with it, then running a thumb down the belly to split the fish and simply pulling out the back bone. The stuffing is made from breadcrumbs, pine nuts, raisins, parsley and seasoning, simple yet tasty.
Another fish dish next, Fish Giotta. Basically for this dish you can use most white fish, we used a local fish to Sicily. First we made the sauce, a tomato sauce with capers and olives, that’s it, simple. Then onto the fish which we took turns to fillet, this proved quite amusing but a great lesson which I will definitely take on board when next doing a fish dish (as long as I can find a decent fish monger).
We saw courgette flowers in the market and a few commented that they’d seen Jamie Oliver’s programme wear he stuffed them with ricotta and coated in tempura batter. So guess what came up next. We made the batter, a little beer in the batter and somehow I was given the job of whisking the batter with what has to be the biggest whisk I have ever seen. After making my arm ache somewhat, the batter was done. adding a pinch of salt to the ricotta, we piped this into the flowers. This is something you can play around with, adding herbs to the ricotta or, as Angelo suggest, blended anchovies.
And that’s it, all over, well apart from the tasting. So let me tell you this, Angelo is not telling any lies about the Caponata, we can taste every single ingredient, the veg is still crunchy and after trying this dish several times during our stay, it was by far the best I had tasted. The Maccheroni was a little erm, how shall I say this, it was inconsistent as between us we had made pasta of varying thicknesses so it hadn’t all cooked evenly. It still tasted good but we definitely need more practice. The fish dishes, both excellent which is saying something for a man who doesn’t like anchovies.
Of course we had wine to go with the dinner, the first being a white which was 100% Inzolia grape, the only one we tasted in Sicily and as a medium dry white it’s pretty good stuff, perfect for the Caponata. The second wine was a Orlando Nero D’Avola 2009. The Nero D’Avola is probably the most common red wine in Sicily and varies on quality. Usually it’s quite acidic but easy drinking. This one was smoky, smooth and full of fruit. A great wine to go with the tomato sauce on the fish.
It really was an excellent day, a brilliant finish to our holiday in great company. Unfortunately having only discovered Licchio’s on the last day, we were unable to dine there but next time we’re in Taormina we will be making a booking. I have to give a heartfelt thank you to Angelo and the team for making us so welcome and teaching us so much. I also have to thank Maxine, our rep from Thomson, who offered the excursion. If you’re going to Taormina via Thomson, get in touch with Maxine or if not, just pop along to Licchio’s for a lesson or a bite to eat.
Licchio’s website www.licchios.it
Excursion purchased via Maxine at The Ariston Hotel, Taormina via Thomson.