Palermo, Sicily --- Driving from Palermo into the center of Sicily on a day in early May, this largely rural island put on its very best show. Pristine and agrarian, the land offers an incredibly lush palate of spring colors. Look to the left, at troughs of bright red poppies; tiny modern whitewashed farmhouses with their crisp arched porches; voluptuous rolling hills of grain; baby artichokes with their very best posture standing tall on their slender stems; towering medlar trees already laden with their apricot-toned fruits; lush fields of fava beans. Turn right and there appear vast purplish red patches of the clover like flower, sulla; healthy groves of cedro, the citron-like fruit, whose candied rind is used in all the island's fine confectionary; and of course roadsides lined with feathery fronds of wild fennel, an essential to the cuisine of Sicily.
We arrived at Anna Tasca Lanza's estate, Regaleali, just as the cheesemaker was preparing the morning's batch of ricotta from the estates flock of testa rossa sheep. Greeting us in blue jeans and with an I Love NY button attached to her navy vest, the lean, grey-haired Sicilian was elative: My garden is only perfect for five minutes a year, and you arrived during those five minutes, suggesting that this lush greenery of May will turn a drab, dried brown as the summer sun wilts the effusiveness of spring.
Walking into the blue-tiled cheese house on the vast estate, we were greeted with that warm, clean, lactic aroma of cheese in the making, as the cheesemaker separated the curds (which will go into their farm Pecorino) from the whey (which is what is used to make the fresh ricotta.) Nothing goes to waste in Sicily. As we dig our spoons into the warm, supple lily white mass ricotta only seconds old, the room is filled with one vast, choral-like hum. Satisfaction at its finest.
Later, at the huge square table in Anna Tasca Lanza's kitchen, we shared in a local feast, the likes of which are served at her cooking school, The World of Regaleali, Cooking, Culture, and Country Life in a Sicilian Vineyard. Guests can visit for a briefly as an overnight stop (for dinner, breakfast, a demonstration lesson and lunch the next day); or for one, three, or five-day programs.
Our lunch began with Sicily. s most famous pasta dish, pasta con le sard, or pasta with sardines and wild fennel. Our group of six agreed we had never had a good version of this dish but soon found what all the fuss can be about: Fresh sardines, onions, tomato sauce, pine nuts, dried currants, anchovies, saffron, nutmeg and massive amounts of that ubiquitous wild fennel combined to make a rich, complex, highly seasoned homogenous sauce for the lean strands of hollow, spaghetti-likes perciatelli pasta. In a single bite, I GOT Sicily.
There were platters of onions and baby artichokes, sauteed in oil with a touch of white wine; a cold fritella, a verdant sautéed mix of fava beans, peas, and Swiss chard; wild fennel sauteed with artichokes, sun-dried squash and olives; tiny potatoes that had been boiled, sliced, sprinkled with bread crumbs and sauteed in rich Sicilian olive oil; two-month old baby lamb from the estate, roasted in a roaring oven, sprinkled with hot pepper flakes and salt, then once seared sprinkled with orange juice and white wine. Golden hard wheat went into the rich and fragrant focaccia, flavored with rosemary, olive oil, and a touch of white wine.
And the feast rolled on, all wetted with the estate. s famed wines, from the crisp, dry, young whites from the Inzolia and Catarrato grapes to the late harvest Nozzo d. Oro white, the color of a yellow diamond, with a Burgundy-like richness and on to the classic red Regaleali rosso, jammy, with black cherries and a delicate almond aroma.
And there was cheese. And more cheese. Aged pecorino, aged pecorino with whole black peppercorns or with whole grains of coriander. And of course ricotta, seasoned with honey and jam.
As we depart, the landscape puts on another brilliant show. Beneath a cloudless, pale blue sky, we see what must be 1,000 shades of green. And, as background music, there is the crisp, determined chirp of the ever-present sparrow.
Anna Tasca Lanza
The World of Regaleali
Viale Principess Giovanna
9, Palermo 90149 Italy.
Tel: 39 934 814654 Fax: 39 921 542 783.
Prices vary from $100 to $2,000 per person.