Sizzling Sicily: luxury culinary workshops in the shadow of Mount Etna
For generations, Sicily has been a byword for two of the most malevolent things in the Mediterranean – the Mafia and Mount Etna. Fortunately, they both appear to be currently dormant, which means tourists are showing an increasing curiosity about what else is on offer in the Mediterranean’s largest island.
In terms of food, Sicily has many of the finest ingredients to be found anywhere in Europe, which perhaps explains why the world’s first cookery writer was a Sicilian, living in Syracuse 2,500 years ago. Archestratus’s philosophy is eerily up to date – always try to bring out the true flavour of produce by consuming it at the right place and the right time and refrain from smothering it with strong sauces.
Following up on this prescient beginning, Merlin Labron-Johnson, a talented young Michelin-starred chef, is planning a week-long culinary workshop this Spring in Rocca delle Tre Contrade, one of Sicily’ finest villas. Labron-Johnson has worked in a number of first-rate restaurants, including In der Wulf, Belgium’s most famous foraging restaurant before gaining a Michelin star of his own at the Portland in London.
Tre Contrade is a 12-bedroom villa conveniently located on the edge of the slopes of Mount Etna with arguably the best infinity pool on the island, not to mention a spa and tennis court. More importantly, it possesses a state of the art 30-foot cube test kitchen plus owners that are obsessed with the local food and wine. Formerly the villa of a local vineyard, the drawing rooms have huge archways which used to lead into the cellars but now lead onto magnificent terraces with panoramic views of Eastern Sicily.
Recently, I participated in a preview of the workshop with Merlin at the Villa. When owners Jon Moslet and Marco Scire first saw the site, it was a wreck, which hadn’t been lived in for decades. In 2013, less than a decade after purchasing it, Tre Contrade has been transformed into one of the most stunning villas on the island, surrounded by olive trees and a citrus orchard with views of the ocean on one side and Etna on the other. It is booked a year ahead in high season by private parties or families but in the other months, the owners decided to open it to individuals who wish to learn more about the food and wine offerings.
Merlin thinks what is special about Sicilian food is the appreciation and respect they have for all ingredients from the humble tomato to the most beautiful red prawns: “Everything is treated with the upmost care but also with the least possible manipulation. Ingredients taste like the best possible version of themselves. There are a lot of similarities in the way that Sicilians eat and cook and the way that I cook. When Sicilians go to the market they don’t go with a shopping list but they talk to people, look at the produce, touch it and smell it, so they buy stuff that appeals to them and take it home to cook.”
Mention should also be made of Sicilian wine, with Mount Etna currently being the most exciting wine region in all of Italy. Isabelle Legeron MW, one of Britain’s most enthusiastic natural wine promoters, will be on hand to take participants on a tour of her favourite Mount Etna vineyards. The workshops will have different themes and will focus on different products.
On one day it might be learning how to craft raw Sicilian prawns with purple kohl Rabi and wild flowers or a salad of salted cod, chickpeas and lemon from the garden. On another day might focus on sweet things - pistachio gelato, fig leaf panna cotta and lemon and polenta cake. There will also be time to work with a local breed of black pig from the Nebrodi Mountains. The upshot of this might be a ragu with pappardelle pasta, pea and lardo bruschetta and perhaps a whole slow roasted suckling pig with lemon and sage.
During our stay, we ate superb regional cuisine prepared by Dora, a local lady who came to help in the kitchen and was so impressive she now works there full time. Dora served us a simple roast rack of black pig, which was outstanding both for its flavour and texture. The most exceptional dish she prepared though, was just spaghetti with plum tomatoes, olive oil and basil - thanks to the Autumn sunshine, the tomatoes were some of the most intense I have ever tasted.
When the week-long workshops begin, participants will be taken on early morning visits to the local fish market in Riposto, where we saw freshly landed Amberjack, sole, red mullet and swordfish. One stall owner showed amazing dexterity in deboning a large Amberjack with a meat cleaver while another deftly filleted small red mullet which we later had raw.
The test kitchen is a hands-on affair and after being shown how to make Arancini, we created our versions of them, complete with pancetta and mozzarella inside the rice ball, which is then deep fried. Others with a sweet tooth were shown how to master the creation of cannoli and Merlin also created a chestnut and chocolate mousse cake sprinkled with zest from mandarins picked in the villa’s orchard.
There is plenty of time for excursions from the villa either to inspect the slopes of Mount Etna or make a foray into Catania, which still has restaurants that serve horsemeat. For those who prefer beef, there is a real treat just north of Mount Etna in the town of Linguaglossa. The local butcher has turned the rear of his shop into Dai Pennisi, a brilliant steak house, which also serves locally cured meats and wine. Other options would be to make slightly longer tours of Syracuse or Noto – nothing seemed to be too much trouble for the owners to arrange.
The price of this weeklong experience is hardly cheap, but when you consider what it costs for a hotel room in a leading Caribbean resort or even at one of the palace hotels in Paris – and that is without any memorable meals – suddenly, it is not so exorbitant. Apart from the sheer pleasure of the experience, you could also come away with some culinary knowledge that can be useful for the rest of your life.
The one-week course is bookable exclusively through The Thinking Traveller and costs from €4,250 per person (based on two sharing) including all meals, transfers and accommodation. For bookings, visit thethinkingtraveller.com/merlin or phone 020 7377 8518.