“Shot gun!” A phrase that I would use over and over again in my youth in an attempt to secure the premier spot in the car…the throne…the status…the front seat. Little did I know, nor possess the ability to understand, the prospective one can obtain from the back seat.
Picture it. Sicily 2019. From the back seat.
Three planes, a bus, and a car ride from my Airbnb, and sono arrivata in Ortiga, Siracusa. I had the distinct pleasure of spending a mere 48 hours here last April when I met Casa Mia’s co-founder Gina Tringali and the renowned Cheeky Chef, Linda Sarris in Ortiga. It was my first taste of Sicily. 48 hours which only left me craving more. Whenever Gina mentioned the possibility of accompanying them on this research trip, there was no way I could NOT. And so it begins, my own version of Riding in Cars with Comedians. Move over Jerry Seinfeld.
After thanking my gracious Airbnb host, I settled into my one room palace tired, but full of adrenaline for the experiences that lay ahead. From its inception, this trip was destined to be one that would present endless adventure, opportunities for learning, food and vino. And that is where night one begins, an adorable enoteca in Ortiga. It was obvious this place was a neighborhood gem upon walking in as it was a Monday night and the table next to us seated a handful of friends whose banter provided a soothing pace to the evening. Over vino and crostini, Gina and Linda filled me in on their trip thus far. Little did I know my anticipation for exploring Sicily could grow even more.
Awake and ready for my first full day in Sicily. To the back seat I go. We leave Ortiga as a monsoon douses the little seaside community. At one point it seems as though this rental car would have had to morph into a rental boat to cross the abyss of a puddle we encounter. However with Captain Cheeky at the helm, we are safely to the other side.
Off to Catania to experience la Festa di Sant’Agata, a celebration of their patron Saint. This is the largest festival in Sicily and one of the largest in all of Italy. Sant’Agata is THE woman. Her story of strength, heroism, and morality is beyond moving. I can only imagine the speech she would give on International Women’s Day. Due to the weather, this years’ festival was apparently not as mobbed as it typically would be yet there were still people everywhere. Pastries, offerings, and candles to honor Her. And the fireworks… fireworks that may very well put the 4th of July to shame. The energy on each street corner was infectious. Generations of families out together celebrating and giving thanks to Her. Catania’s welcoming and friendly disposition expressed in honor of, in allegiance to, Her.
In the heart of Catania, its daily market provides locals with their necessities but gives the visitor a full sensory experience. As you approach, the buzz of wheeling and dealing devours the ears into a melodic trance. The colors are vibrant, deep, and rich. The smells of mushrooms, peppers, and artichokes grilled with parsley, lemon, and garlic tantalize. But the seafood. This section of the market seems to go on for days. Although the fish, octopus, and clams are beautiful in their own right, I am drawn to the faces of those who sell them. A fish market full of men whose faces depict stories without words.
We say “ciao e grazie” to Catania. Off to Etna we go. I have never been near a volcano before, as far as I know. In my back seat office my head is entertaining visions of what this creature will look like. Then She appears; Mount Etna, aka Mother Etna, aka The Boss. She is intimidating but inviting. I have no idea what the conversation is in the front seat with Captain and Tennille. I am mesmerized. She is beautiful. She pokes through the clouds on the left, tickled with snow. The ocean is on my right. Lush and rolling. Is this Heaven?
To experience Etna through the thoughts and reflections of the winemakers we met brought this trip to a whole other level. It is a moment in my life where I saw authentic love and mutual investment between the person and the land. Old world and new world inspire each other, fulfill each other, and appreciate each other. It is not one or the other. It is one with the other.
The individuals with we spent time with, broke bread with, and learned from are so in tune with their land and the land in tune with them. Their methods of biodiversity, sustainability, clean energy, utilizing the animal and its relationship with the earth, illustrate the knowledge these individuals possess of cooperation and collaboration. As one man stated, “Wine is the expression of a conversation between the earth and the winemaker.” Yes. This is heaven.
The foods of Sicily are diverse and surprising. As it is an island, I figured I would be consuming vasts amounts of seafood. Although I had my fair share, I was excited to learn of other offerings. My first meal was a traditional Pasta Alla Norma which did not disappoint. In the cooking classes we took, we made a decadent pistachio pesto with fresh semolina cavatelli; the brilliant purple cauliflower we purchased in the market was transformed into Bastaddu Affucatu (“drowned” cauliflower); and my favorite, handcrafted polpette baked in lemon leaves. The sausages, the suino nero, caciocavallo and ragusano cheeses all made my heart skip a beat. In their own ways, each lesson, and each meal emphasized the importance of true food, local food, seasonal food.
We are on my last day. One last trip in the back seat. Scicli will be my final destination with Gina and Linda. Caffeination first, then of course to buy sausage. Then… to Scicli. The expanse of Mediterranean Sea welcomes us back down the volcano. As we bid farewell to Mother Etna, the country side awaits full of road side cows, sheep, and dogs. It is a calming trip which allows for much reflection in the back seat. The stories from the night before twinkle in my ears remembering the fire with which the Sicilians have shared their knowledge, their lives, their passion.
Into Scicli we arrive with its beautiful white streets and buildings. Although seemingly sleepy, Scicli possesses a hypnotic beat that can be felt as we walk through its streets. After a light lunch we drive to an herb farm where things are about to get spicy. “It’s not only rosemary for chicken and sage for pasta” our guide will repeat. This is a family affair. They have taken a beautiful piece of land and cultivated a concept; a living, breathing concept. The owner walks us through the 200 varietals of fauna and flora inviting us to touch the herbs in order to meet the herbs. The pride with which he speaks of what he and his family have built is only overshadowed by his appreciation of the terrain which has enabled him to build this life. Again the earth-individual connection is palpable.
I have done my best to put into words an indescribable trip with two incredible women. Sicily must be on your list of places to see. I am confident my life is better for having shared time with Her. The people are beyond gracious, grounded and connected with what Mother Earth expresses. “We only live once. We are only passing by here.” I don’t remember whose statement this was amongst the many individuals I met over the course of these ten days. But I can’t shake it. Each day should consist of an experience, an opportunity to learn, time to reflect, and gratitude. This is not always attainable in the front seat. Hop in the back. Take it all in.
Enjoy the ride.