Sicily: First Impressions

imageI came to Sicily to eat cheese from morning to night. So far, that has not been difficult. We arrived at dawn, the mountains washed in apricot light. The terrain I saw around me as I stepped out of the plane looked rugged and time-worn, the mountains smooth as if shaped by butter knives. In one direction: ocean. In the other: slopes stippled with cacti, palm trees, and gushing magenta bougainvillea. This island is a place of tropical delights — lemons sweet enough to peel and eat — but also a wild mix of culinary traditions including Greek, Roman, Norman, and Arab. I couldn’t wait to get a taste of the cheese.

Marianne Bernstein, the curator of this journey, greeted us at the railway station in Palermo with a wheel of Fior di Garofola that she had been given on her birthday a few days before. It was bestowed upon her by Karen La Rosa, a Sicilian travel guide who knew the purpose of our trek. I was stunned when I saw the box. The name of the cheese maker was the very same one who makes Tuma Persa in the hills outside Palermo (Tuma Persa was the subject of my last post).

Already, I loved Sicily for its curds and coincidences.

I want to give you a taste of Fior Di Garofola. Imagine lemon yogurt and pistachios. The paste is smooth, waxen. The rind stippled gray, like the lichen that grows on the stone houses of Tusa, the medieval village just east of Palermo where we would set down our bags and enjoy our first home-cooked meal.

Naturally, the meal’s first course started in the local Caseificio, a small cheese shop run by the local cheese maker, Rosalia Coppola, and her husband, the herdsman. Here, our host — a native Sicilian who is also a “Professore” in Saint Louis — procured a beautiful basket ricotta made from sheep’s milk. A second coincidence: I had been lured to Sicily on the promise of this very ricotta, described as “heavenly” and “fluffy” and “full of flavor.” Marianne and Cindi, my travel companions, had sought me out around this time last summer — we were strangers to each other then — to tell me how this ricotta had changed their lives.

And so we toasted our first night in Sicily with homemade wine and spoonfuls of basket ricotta. It was ethereal, cloud-like, and sweet with the taste of grass-fed milk. The Professore showed us how he liked to cut it, not in wedges but sliced horizontally (imagine shaving slices off a mountain) and then slivered into half-moons. We drizzled each piece with homemade Amerena cherries in syrup and cooed with pleasure, awed by a perfect first day book-ended by two guiding energies: dairy and serendipity.

Note: This post is part of a project called Due South, an artistic exploration of volcanic islands. For the next two weeks (or as long as I have wifi), I will be blogging from Sicily about our cheese discoveries.



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