For centuries, everyone has wanted a piece of Sicily, including today's invasion of wine lovers, writes Victoria Moore
The first time I went to Sicily on my own, I ate pasta con sarde (pasta with sardines) three times in 36 hours.
This was strange, not least because sardines are very much not my favourite food. But I was beguiled by the unexpected cohesion of a set of ingredients — sardines, anchovies, raisins, wild fennel, pine nuts, pasta — that I would never normally put on a single plate. Instead of sightseeing, I walked the hot and dusty streets of Palermo, peering and sniffing at restaurants until I had identified my next one, then went back to flop on my hotel room bed and read under a fan until it was time to eat again.
Sicily is a joy for anyone who loves food — and drink. As any fan of recently departed Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano books already knows, its natural resources offer up beautiful ingredients, including sea urchins, sardines, swordfish, neonati (literally, newborns — baby fish), wild fennel, olives, almonds, citrus fruits, tomatoes and grapes.
Over the centuries, the Mediterranean island has been invaded or colonised by just about everyone. In early times, it was presided over by the ancient Greeks, Romans and then the Vandals. From the early 9th century, until being captured by the Normans in the late 11th century, Sicily was under Arab rule. Before it was united with the rest of Italy, it had Spanish and Bourbon periods. After Second World War II, it was divided into the worlds of feudal landlords and poor peasants.
Some of the cultural legacy from all of this can be seen in the architecture, both standing and fallen; if ruins are your thing, you will already be planning to visit Taormina, Agrigento and Siracusa. It is also apparent in the cuisine. Sicilian food mixes sweet with sour (as in caponata, or liver in sweet and sour sauce); sweet with savoury (the raisins in pasta con sarde, for example); it uses such spices as saffron; may be very humble (such as panelle, or chickpea fritters); or very elaborate (think cassata, the gigantic cake laced with marsala and decorated with candied peel).
And the wine? There is marsala, of course: the fortified wine that is made on the west coast of the island and was developed into a major industry by the British merchant John Woodhouse in the late 18th century. As for table wine, for a long time — until the 80s — Sicily was mostly a bulk wine producer; very little of its wine was sold in bottle.
A recent quality revolution has changed that. The first red grape you are likely to encounter in Sicily is nero d'avola, which is native to the island. Generously reminiscent of mulberries, pomegranate and cranberries, it can be satin-smooth or richer and slightly chocolatey; the more refined versions are very good with fish and with aubergine dishes. Look out for Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a juicy blend of nero d'avola and frappato made in the southeast corner of the island. It drinks well slightly chilled.
For wine geeks, the place of pilgrimage in Sicily is Mount Etna. These lava-strewn slopes have drawn those who enjoy the challenge of extreme winemaking and the area has become a contemporary fine wine region, making pinot noir-like reds from nerello mascalese and fiercely refreshing whites from carricante. Also look out for the wines from COS winery made by Giusto Occhipinti, and the Occhipinti wines made by Giusto's niece, Arianna.
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And if you're going to the heart of Sicilian wine, visit Marco De Bartoli.
The late Marco De Bartoli's first passion was racing cars; back in the day, he competed in the Targa Florio, the famous endurance race held in the Sicilian mountains between 1906 and 1977. He gave up his career as a professional driver to return to the family farm a few kilometres away from Marsala.
There, he began to reimagine not just the business but also the wine. He was a true pioneer. British Master of Wine and expert on Italian wine Nicolas Belfrage credits De Bartoli "more than any other individual" for the role that he played in making "marsala great again after it had fallen to the bottom of the image pit". De Bartoli did this by going right back to historical methods of production. The wines are truly fantastic and artisan creations, a world away from the sticky supermarket stuff that has deglazed a million frying pans.