Echoes of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Carthaginian, Moorish, Norman Spanish and Italian conquerors abound in the island’s architecture, culture, dialect and – most enticingly – cuisine. Our tour, based in Palermo and Marsala, introduces the iconic tastes of Western Sicily, from humble street food to high-end dining, marzipan fruits to Marsala wine, ‘spun cheese’ to black bread, freshly harvested sea salt to radiantly green olive oil. Don’t miss this unique, sun-drenched late summer gastronomic adventure.
Fly to Palermo, arriving early evening. After checking into our hotel, the Centrale Palace (which, as good as its name, is both centrally located, elegantly appointed and splendidly comfortable), we head out for our first taste of Western Sicilian cuisine at the venerable Casa del Brodo, which has been serving up sublime local dishes for more than 125 years.
No gastronomic tour of Italy would be complete without a stroll around a food market to marvel at the variety and quality of produce, much of it unique to its region. Palermo has several excellent markets, and we visit two in particular: La Vucciria (appropriately translating as ‘hubbub’), once the most bustling street market in the city with street names evoking centuries- old trades of the area; and the 1,000-year-old Ballaro, a street food heaven, awakening the senses with local olives, cheeses and snacks such as sfincione (a variant of pizza) and panelle (chickpea fritters). A short walking tour introduces the architectural highlights of Palermo, including the impressive 12th century Cathedral, then lunch is taken at the acclaimed La Galleria, noted for its Sicilian specialities.
If Ballaro has piqued your interest in local street food, you will love this afternoon’s cookery class, a demonstration of delicious Sicilian street food dishes, which we then prepare for ourselves and savour for dinner.
The 16th century Church of San Francesco di Paola would be worth visiting for its richly frescoed nave and fine works of sculpture alone, but it also enjoys some gastronomic fame. Here, the monks create amazingly lifelike marzipan fruits – as well as being divinely tasty, these frutta di Martorana have become part of the religious tradition of the area, being left for children as a gift from their ancestors on All Souls Day. Lunch is under your own arrangements and the afternoon is at leisure to explore Palermo. We dine this evening at the atmospheric Gagini Social Restaurant, renowned for its refined, modern take on Sicilian cuisine.
Leaving Palermo behind, we make for the pleasant coastal town of Marsala, visiting en route the ancient salt pans. Salt has been harvested here since Phoenician times, some 2,700 years ago – the warm winds, shallow waters and baking sunshine the perfect recipe for the production of this once hugely valuable commodity. As well as preserving these age-old techniques, the Marsala salt pans are now also a thriving nature reserve. Salt tasting and a delightful cous-cous lunch follows. Our base for four nights in Marsala is the grandly named and equally grandly situated Baglio Oneto dei Principe di San Lorenzo – a ‘wine resort’ presenting panoramic views of the region. Dinner is provided at the resort this evening.
Sicily is world famous for the quality of its olive oil, and some
of the finest is produced at Frantoio Centonze. The best olives from these sun-drenched groves are picked by hand in October and November and cold-pressed within a matter of hours.
The terrain, climate and painstaking attention to detail in the production cycle combine to create a multi award-winning olive oil with a vibrant green colour and complex taste, blending grassy, fruity and spicy notes. Naturally, we sample this liquid gold, and lunch is laid on for us at the farm. In the afternoon, we visit the Molini del Ponte flour mill to learn about the ancient grain tumminia, cultivated only in this small area of Western Sicily. Once milled, it is the principle ingredient of Pane Nero di Castelvetrano, a wonderfully sweet, yet earthy black bread with a toasted scent. Acclaimed for its health-giving properties, the bread makes a lovely accompaniment to local cheeses and antipasti. Dinner is at your leisure this evening.
A short hydrofoil journey from Trapani, 18 miles or so north of Marsala, takes us to the butterfly-shaped island of Favignana, one the centre of a thriving tuna industry. We visit the huge former Florio Tuna Factory, now a fascinating example of industrial archaeology, to learn about the history of tuna fishing in this part of the Mediterranean, and innovations originating here, such as preserving tuna in oil and in tin cans with a key to open, introduced by Florio at the 1891 World’s Fair. Lunch is provided on the island, and then there is time to enjoy a granita – a refreshing, flavourful semi-frozen dessert resembling a rough sorbet, often served with a sweet brioche bun. We return to the resort mid-afternoon, and the remainder of the day is at your leisure.
In the natural pastureland of Trapani province, the Cucchiara brothers have been making the highest quality, DOP-accredited cheeses for many years. Using milk from their own sheep flock, they make Pecorino Siciliano (a sharp, firm cheese perfect for grating over pasta) and their flagship product, Vastedda Valle del Belice – one of Sicily’s rare ‘spun cheeses’ (made by stretching the curds), with a creamy, slightly sour taste.
We stop at the Azienda Cucchiara farm and dairy to taste these wonderful cheeses and sit down to a fine lunch.
We couldn’t end our stay in Marsala without a visit to one of the cellars making its namesake fortified wine. Though it may be best known as a culinary ingredient, to lift a tiramisu or savoury sauce, that may be because few of the really great varieties leave Sicilian shores. A tasting is therefore likely to surprise, with complex flavour combinations and hints of vanilla, tobacco, brown sugar and apricot. Our farewell dinner, at the Marsala Cellars, is an unforgettable affair – a candle-lit banquet, featuring a host of mouthwatering local dishes and, of course, plenty of Marsala wine.
Relax around the pool this morning, or strike out independently to shop for a few souvenirs in Marsala. Following lunch at the charming agriturismo Fattoria Manostalla, we proceed to Palermo for our return flight to London, arriving this evening.
Three nights at the centrally located 4* Centrale Palace (Palermo) and four nights at the Baglio Oneto dei Principe di San Lorenzo wine resort, with daily breakfast