This exceptional tour of the island’s south-east features the ‘world’s best’ olive oil, almonds and ice cream, saffron-flavoured cheese and chocolate still made according to Aztec methods (dating back to the Spanish occupation of Sicily). Go nuts at the Bronte Pistachio Festival, get hands-on with a Cotumè Sicilian cookery class and appreciate multi-starred Michelin dining at Locanda Don Serafino. Centrally located hotels invite discovery of the majestic Baroque architecture of Catania and Ragusa, and a host of included lunches and dinners at the region’s finest dining venues complete a comprehensive, unforgettable introduction to Sicilian gastronomy.
Fly to Catania, arriving early evening and transferring to the Palace Catania, a stylish hotel in the artistic heart of the city, in time for dinner.
Enjoy a very ‘hands-on’ introduction to authentic Sicilian cuisine this morning, with a cookery class in a Catanian palazzo by the acclaimed company Cotumè. In the company of characterful local cooks, learn about Sicilian ingredients and culinary influences, and create a delicious meal, which we sit down to eat at lunchtime to the accompaniment of some excellent wine. The afternoon is at leisure to make your own explorations of this Baroque city, and dinner under your own arrangement.
An early start proves more than worthwhile as we take a rail journey through the changing landscapes of Mount Etna to Bronte. A short excursion reveals the natural splendour of Europe’s highest active volcano. In Greek legend, Etna was the forge of Vulcan, where Odysseus met the cyclops Polyphemus, and an entrance to the underworld through which Hades abducted Persephone. A light lunch in the area follows.
The afternoon is dedicated to the pistachio, which grows prolifically in the farmland around Bronte. This regional variety has an intense green colour, making it highly prized for gelato, but also used in such diverse products as chocolate and cheese, pesto and sausage, liquor and cosmetics. At the beginning of October, the week-long Bronte Pistachio Festival celebrates this ‘green gold of Sicily’ with picturesque displays, live performances and, of course, numerous tasting opportunities. We join in the fun for a few hours.
After an aperitivo to sharpen the appetite, we head to the Etnea rooftop restaurant for a superb Sicilian meal with spectacular views of Mount Etna.
Icons of Italian gastronomy invariably carry a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) label, assuring the consumer that the products have been made locally by skilled artisans according to traditional methods. It is a mark of the highest quality. One such DOP holder is Piacentinu Ennese cheese, distinctive and recognisable for its rich, buttery yellow colour, derived from saffron flavouring. The addition of black pepper confers a delicately spicy taste to this sheep milk cheese, which we try for ourselves this morning. A visit to a traditional pasta-maker, using flour from ancient grains, follows, and pasta features strongly on our lunch menu in Caltagirone. Decorative ceramics are a thousand-year tradition in Sicily and the lively Baroque town of Caltagirone is the heart of the industry (indeed the name is derived from the Arabic for ‘Castle of the Vases’), thanks to the abundance of clay in the area. The colours most often used are those of Sicily itself – sage green and yellow – and ceramics may be seen everywhere in Caltagirone, adorning churches, monuments, parks and squares. We visit a ceramics workshop to learn more about this mesmerising craft. We then proceed to the charming town of Ragusa – a veritable symphony of Baroque architecture. Our base for four nights in this hilltop jewel is the majestic Relais Antica Badia, occupying a grand 18th century villa, and dinner is provided at a quality local restaurant this evening.
Modica chocolate is still made according to centuries-old Aztec methods. Manual grinding of the cocoa, rather than the modern technique of ‘conching’, gives the chocolate a grainy, crumbly texture and unique aroma redolent of roasted cocoa beans. Modica chocolate is often flavoured with cinnamon, vanilla, chilli or coffee. We visit a one of the great Modica chocolatiers and try some for ourselves. After lunch at the Occhipinti Winery, and the chance to sample wine made on-site from exclusively Sicilian grape varieties, we return to Ragusa where the afternoon and evening are at your leisure.
The village of Solarino, in the splendidly scenic Monti Iblei region, is renowned for its orange trees and particularly its olive groves, which produce an exceptionally high-quality oil thanks to the salinity of the air so near the sea. We visit an olive farm this morning to learn what makes Monti Iblei oil so prized, watch a traditional press in action and participate in an oil tasting lesson. Lunch is provided at the olive farm.
In the afternoon, we head out into the sun-drenched landscape between the Ionian Sea and Monti Iblei, where sugar cane, grapes and lemons grow. Perhaps the greatest gastronomic treat of the area, though, are the Avola almonds, packed with essential minerals and antioxidants – and completely delicious. Three varieties are farmed – the perfect oval Pizzuta, the tasty but more irregularly shaped Romana (little known outside Italy) and the Fascionello, a blend of the others. Avola almonds are used in cakes such as cassata, pastries, biscuits, nougat and almond milk, and are prestigious enough to have a dedicated museum, which we visit, along with a tasting.
Nearby, another of Sicily’s great Baroque towns, Noto, is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is time to admire our surroundings, but this is a foodie tour and Noto is often said to be home to the world’s best ice cream. Sicilians are passionate about this sweet treat, and indeed have good claim to have invented it. We make our way to a renowned gelateria for a tasting. Dinner this evening is under your own arrangement.
DOP-accredited Ragusano cheese is made only in the environs of Ragusa and Syracuse, and made in the same way as it has been for at least the last 500 years. Unpasteurised whole milk from grass or hay-fed cows of the Modicana breed is separated, with the resulting curds ‘stretched’. Cheeses of different ages are sold – the younger, fresher cheese has a sweet, delicate taste, whilst the more mature cheese has developed a deeper flavour and a hint of spice. No gastronomic visit to this part of Sicily would be complete without sampling Ragusano.
After an independent lunch and further time at leisure to appreciate the grandeur of Ragusa, we enjoy a memorable farewell dinner at the elegant 2-star restaurant, Locanda Don Serafino, where Sicilian flavours dominate and where, according to the Michelin Guide, ‘the talent of the chef and team is evident in the expertly-crafted dishes, which are refined, inspired and original’.
After breakfast we proceed to Catania for our return flight to London, arriving mid-afternoon.
Three nights at the centrally located 4* Palace Catania and four nights at the centrally located 5* Relais Antica Badia, with daily breakfast