Exploring ancient Sicily

DonQui not only loves his food and drink, he is also a bit of a history fanatic, particularly when it comes to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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Mosaic of a late Roman soldier

Fortunately for him the Greeks and Romans left lots of stuff behind in Sicily. The Arabs and Normans also left their marks. There are even a few traces of the Carthaginians which is pretty rare as the Romans did their best to eradicate everything Carthaginian they came across.

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Carthaginian and Greek foundations of ancient Lilybaeum

In Marsala (ancient Lilybaeum) there are traces of the early Carthaginian city. This probably looks like a pile of old rocks to most people but DonQui gets quite excited by it.

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Salt pans near Marsala

He is also fascinated by the salt pans which have been in operation (with a few breaks) since Carthaginian times. The salt is still harvested by hand.

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The temple of Juno at Agrigentum

Three magnificent Greek Doric temples still proudly stand at Agrigento (Greek Akragas, Roman Agrigentum). The beauty of their perfect architectural design takes DonQui’s breath away. 

While appreciating their beauty DonQui spares a thought for the 25,000 enslaved Carthaginian prisoners of war who were put to work building the so-called Temple of Juno (Juno being a Roman goddess) circa 450 BC . It is hardly surprising that newly victorious Carthaginians did their best to destroy it half a century later.

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The Temple of Concordia

The temple of Concordia is still pretty well intact thanks to the fact that it was converted into a Christian church in the 6th century AD

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Late Roman city walls and tombs at Agrigentum

Parts of the Roman city walls are also still standing. Carved into them are Christian tombs from the 5th-6th  centuries AD when Agrigentum was controlled variously by the Romans, Vandals and Goths. 

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The huge late Roman villa near Piazza Armerina

Some way inland lies the 3rd – 4th Century Roman villa at Piazza Armerina. It is utterly stunning in its scale and in the beauty of the incredible floor mosaics. 

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Hunting scene mosaic
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Expedition to India mosaic
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Mosaic of female gymnasts
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Mosaic from the floor of the master bedroom

DonQui has seen photographs of some of the mosaics before but nothing compares to seeing them in-situ.

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Norman cathedral of Palermo showing Arab influences

The Normans came to Sicily to drive out the Arabs in the 9th century AD, more or less at the same time as they took over England.

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The Norman cathedral of Monreale decorated by Byzantine craftsmen

The Norman conquerors of Sicily employed Arab and East Roman craftsmen to build some magnificent churches incorporating Arabesque features in the architecture along with Roman mosaics to rival Ravenna and Constantinople.

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The remnants of the walls of Syracuse

The ancient Greek City of Syracuse rivalled Athens in the 5th century BC. Its strong defensive position on a small island allowed the city to fend off many invaders over the centuries. Not much remains of classical Syracuse but wandering around the narrow streets, DonQui gets a sense of the ancient city. 

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DonQui enters the Labyrinth

Plunging underground he is able to explore the foundations of the Greek city below modern Syracuse. Trotting around the dimly lit, deserted underground passages, he feels a little bit like Theseus descending into the Labyrinth. 

Olives, bread and cheese

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Continuing his exploration of Sicilian food, DonQui Oaty turns his attention to olives, the second most important staple of Sicilian cuisine (after wine!).

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Olive grove in an ancient Greek quarry

The olive trees at Casa di Latomie near Castelvetranto on the west of the island, are rooted in the limestone of an ancient Greek quarry. They derive much of their flavour and nutrients from it. They are picked by hand from in order to ensure the careful selection of high quality olives. 

 

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1200 year old olive tree

DonQui is introduced to the great-grandfather of the olive trees. 1200 years old, this tree was a sapling when the Arabs took Sicily from the East Romans and grew into maturity when the Normans came. It is still producing fruit.

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Oil and tapenade with tumminia bread

The olives, the oil and tapenade that DonQui samples are utterly delicious. The tapenade is served on crusty rustic bread made from tumminia flour. This ancient grain has a delectable nutty taste and is unique to Sicily.

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Animals are rarely seen in the fields of Sicily

Meat does not feature much in Sicilian cuisine. Milk and butter are noticeable only by their absence. Olive groves and vineyards dominate the landscape and, apart from a few sheep and and the odd cow or two, DonQui does not see any animals in the fields.

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DonQui’s Sicilian cousin

Livestock is mostly important for cheese. At La Masseria dairy, near Ragusa, DonQui encounters a whole menagerie including a distant Sicilian cousin.

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Shaping the cheese

At the dairy DonQui learns how caciocavallo is made. This a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese is quite mild.  Sicilians prefer to use it rather than northern Italian parmesan on their pasta. 

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A selection of medium-aged and mature caciocavallo

DonQui finds it pleasant enough but a bit too bland to get excited about.

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Fresh caciocavallo

He does rather like the fresh version which has not been aged and is served with olive oil and herbs. It is a bit like mozzarella but slightly firmer 

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Fresh ricotta

The curds are made into a delicious ricotta. The taste is vastly superior to any ricotta DonQui has tasted at home in England.

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The most wonderful cannoli

Sweetened ricotta is the filling for cannoli. These ones also have a few chocolate chips in them and they taste fabulous.

 

Wines from ancient grapes

Since Roman times Sicily has been the bread-basket of Italy. The industrial revolution passed by the island without stopping. The result today is an agricultural landscape of small family farms abundant with vines, olives, almonds, lemons, oranges and grain. These together with cheese from livestock and fish from the sea have produced a delectable and healthy cuisine that harks back to the days of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs. 

In order to more fully appreciate Sicilian cuisine, DonQui Oaty is spending a bit of time exploring its sources. He starts with wine.

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The sweet fortified wines from Marsala on the west of the island were made famous in northern Europe by the English in the 18th century.

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At the Alagana winery DonQui has the opportunity to see the grapes being delivered from the surrounding vineyards to make this most well known of Sicilian wines.

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DonQui had thought that Marsala was Marsala — strong, sweet wine. He learns that there are actually many types of Marsala wines. Although the sweet ones are the most well known there are also dry and semi-dry versions, tasting a little bit like dry sherry. Marsala ranges in colour from oro (gold) to ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby). The latter is made from red grapes while the others are from white. The amber wine gains its darker colour from simmering the grape must until it reduces and caramelises.

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DonQui is rather impressed by the Cotto which is the highly concentrated non-alcoholic grape must (musto). It can be used as an alternative sweetener in dressings, sauces and deserts. The locals recommend pouring it over chunks of rustic bread for a simple sweet treat.

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The west of Sicily is best for its white wines. DonQui particularly likes the dry yet fruity Grillo made from a grape unique to Sicily and particularly well suited to the climate and conditions of the Marsala region. 

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He is also rather fond of the sweet Zibibbo. This is an ancient grape variety related to Muscat.  The name is derived from the Arabic word for grape. It is as good a desert wine as DonQui has ever sampled. It is said that this is the wine favoured by Cleopatra and it is sometimes called Muscat of Alexandria.

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The volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in the east of Sicily are particularly good for red wines. In the past these were produced in bulk and exported to mix with northern Italian and French vintages. Over the past 40 years there has been a move away from quantity in favour of quality  something DonQui utterly approves of.

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At Gambino Vini, on the northeastern slopes of Mt Etna, DonQui has the opportunity to sample several excellent wines along with some rather tasty titbits.

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He particualrly likes the Tifeo, named after Typhon, the monster of ancient Greek mythology whom, according to legend, is the source of Mt Etna’s volcanic eruptions. This full-boddied wine has earthy, mineral tastes derived from the volcanic soil in which it is grown. The 2016 is just ready to drink but would benefit from a bit more time in the bottle. It would keep well for up to up to another 8 years according to the vintner.

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Even better (and quite a bit pricier) is the elegant Petto Dragone made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, originally brought to Sicily by the ancient Greeks.

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Later at a caffe DonQui samples a local brandy (Brandy Siciliano). It is quite rough and not at all up to the standards of a basic Cognac or Armagnac. The Sicilians still have a bit of work to do in this department.

After a few tastings DonQui is anything but an expert on Sicilian wine. He has, however, had his taste buds awakened by delicious new flavours from ancient and nearly forgotten grape varieties. He vows to learn more.

 

Cooking like a Sicilian

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Getting ready to cook

DonQui has the opportunity to try his hand at Sicilian cooking under the watchful eyes of the chefs from Duca di Castelmonte, near Trapani.

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Duca di Castelmonte

Duca di Castlemonte is an old farm estate now converted into an excellent country restaurant and guest house. 

DonQui Oaty’s first lesson is in making a traditional Sicilian spiral pasta (busiate).

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Roll out a thin finger of dough

This is done by rolling out a thin finger of dough then gently rolling it around a wooden stick to produce an elegant spiral. The stick is first dipped in flour to stop the dough from sticking to it.

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Make the spiral by rolling it around a kebab stick

DonQui takes his time with the first one, learning that it is best to make them quite thin and not too long.

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DonQui begins to get the hang of it

Once he gets the hang of it he is able to produce them with confidence but it is a time consuming process which would be best done with several willing helpers. DonQui is fortunate that the dough (hard flour and water — no eggs) is pre-made for him.

The sauce is a Trapanese tomato pesto. The ingredients (for two) are:

2 pealed garlic cloves
approximately 2 tablespoons of blanched, lightly roasted almonds.
a small bunch of fresh basil (torn up)
a pinch of salt and pepper
a generous glug of olive oil
pulp of 4 red, ripe tomatoes; peeled, seeded and roughly chopped

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Peel the tomatoes by first immersing them in boiling water

To peel and seed the tomatoes: score the skin in quarters, cover with boiling water for about 5 minutes then let cool. The skins will peel off easily. To de-seed, squeeze the tomato over a bowl and the seeds and excess liquid will come out leaving just the pulp.

Method:

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Use a mortar and pestle to make the pesto

Prepare the pesto by first mashing up the dry ingredients and garlic, with a mortar and pestle, until it forms a sort of paste. Add the torn basil and pound together a bit more until well blended.

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After adding the tomatoes and olive oil

Add the tomato pulp and olive oil then mash it all together until well mixed. Set to one side.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water (You don’t necessarily need to use home-made pasta). Drain and tip out into a bowl and mix in the pesto.

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The completed dish

Serve with a good sprinkling of chopped roasted almonds on top then enjoy.

It is one of the most divine pasta dishes DonQui has had the opportunity to taste. In his view it does not benefit from the addition of cheese.

Off on his travels again

Donk with passport

Clutching his well-used passport, DonQui Oaty is getting ready to leave his home paddock on a new adventure.

He very excited to be going to Sicily for a week.

He has often wanted to visit the island but has not managed it before now. His intention is to take in the many historical sites as possible, indulge in a bit of Sicilian cuisine, and enjoy the late summer sun.

No doubt he will be writing about his adventures as they unfold.

 

Bah Humbug

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Mid November is far to early for Christmas decorations in DonQui’s opinion.

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At least the, far too early, London decorations are reasonable tasteful.

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None-the-less, if he hears a Christmas carol playing any where before December he will trot sharply away.

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DonQui enjoys Christmas but he does so on the 24th-26th of December, not on the 16th of November.

Harry Potter and Boots of Beer

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Lavenham, Suffolk, bills itself as England’s best preserved medieval town. As a bit of a history buff it is a place DonQui has wanted to visit for some time. Even though it is not far from his home paddock on the Suffolk coast, he has not managed it until now.

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In the heart of Suffolk, not too far from Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham is not easy to find. There are no main roads and no rail lines. To get there DonQui has to wind his way along narrow country lanes with only just enough room for two cars coming in opposite directions to squeeze past each other. Perhaps this is why the place is so well preserved.

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If you like old timber-framed houses this is the place for you. Many of the wonky buildings have been standing since the 14th century. Walking around the compact streets DonQui feels as if he has stepped back in time — parked cars notwithstanding.

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Fans of Harry Potter may well recognise the De Vere house as Harry’s birthplace from the film The Deathly Hallows.

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Several other films have also used the backdrop of Lavenham’s medieval streets as a backdrop.

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Many of the houses have pink plaster. The colour is still known today as ’Suffolk pink’. Originally this colour was obtained by mixing pigs’ blood with the plaster. DonQui assumes that the modern versions are more likely made by chemical combinations to match the natural original.

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Most of the buildings can only be admired from the outside but the Guildhall can be visited. It has been restored inside along with some excellent exhibits of its origins in the Flanders wool trade.

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Later it became a house of correction where the ‘idle and disorderly’ (poor and homeless) were incarcerated in the misguided idea that hard work and cruel conditions would make them more productive members of society.

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These reproductions of original notices give DonQui an idea of the fate of those unfortunates. One woman was incarcerated for having brought two children with smallpox into the town.

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There is also a bit of relatively modern history to the place. RAF Lavenham was an active airfield during the second world war and was home to the USAAF’ s 487th Bombardment Group which flew 185 missions between May 1944 and April 1945 with the loss of 233 lives. The Airmen’s Bar in the Swan Hotel is dedicated to their memory.

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Original graffiti from British and American pilots adorns the walls along with modern additions from returning veterans and their offspring.

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DonQui particularly likes the ‘boot record’ from 1940 which lists the times it took various British servicemen to drink a ‘boot’ of beer. Ironically this is a German tradition in which a couple of litres of beer are drunk in one go from a glass in the shape of a boot. DonQui did this in his younger days when he was living in Germany. The trick is to keep the toe of the boot pointing down otherwise an air-bubble will cause the drinker to be drenched, much to the amusement of the on-lookers.

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DonQui takes his hat off to W.H. Culling of the RAF who drank the boot in an incredible 59 seconds on 5 July 1940 only to do it again eight days later in 40 seconds!

Lavenham has plenty of excellent watering holes. These include:

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The Great House. This is where DonQui stayed and he reviewed it fully in his previous post. As boutique hotel with only 5 rooms it must be reserved well in advance. If you cannot get a room there, DonQui recommends treating yourself to at least one meal in the wonderful French restaurant.

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The Swan. Home of the atmospheric Airmen’s Bar, the Swan also has rooms and two eating possibilities.

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The restaurant is excellent, offering modern British cuisine of nearly the same quality as The Great House although it does not have quite the same ambiance. Duchess proclaims her goat’s cheese pannacotta with beetroot granita as one of the most interesting dishes she has ever tasted.

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The Swan’s Brasserie is more casual but with a bunch of tables and plastic chairs set up in a hallway, DonQui is not tempted.

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Attached to the Swan is an excellent Spa with a full range of treatments and a hot tub.

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Number 10 gets good reviews on TripAdvisor. The old timbered building and interesting menu posted outside tempts DonQui. When he goes inside to potentially make a reservation his ears are assaulted with the sounds of manufactured pop music of the worst kind. When he asks if this sort of stuff is played through dinner he is informed that it is. With a gentle snort he turns on his hooves and looks elsewhere.

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The Lavenham Greyhound is a Greene King pub. DonQui goes in for an afternoon drink and enjoys it. He cannot vouch for the food but the menu has fairly typical good pub food options. The bowls of soup he sees being brought to another table look good.

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The Guildhall  has a very good café offering tea, coffee and baked goods. Their scones are baked on the premises and DonQui tucks into one along with clotted cream and a blackcurrant jam while Duchess takes hers with raspberry jam. The scones are truly excellent. It is well worth a stop.