Finally, friends, a little report on my magical week in Sicily in early June. Rachel and I were there to teach a week-long writing workshop at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. The school was founded 26 years ago by the Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza, on the grounds of her family's winery, Regaleali. The Marchesa - an accomplished and ambitious cook - endeavored to teach people about the incredible depth of Sicilian cookery, from the rustic (think gallons of puréed, dry-farmed tomatoes drying in the sun to a thick rust-colored paste for days in this very courtyard) to the sublime (like a multi-layered, complex cassata draped with glassy wedges of candied fruit). She ended up collaborating with food world luminaries like James Beard and Jullia Child, and established herself as the authority on Sicilian cooking. Anna's daughter Fabrizia Lanza now runs the school and in addition to the traditional cooking classes also offers things like annual food-styling and photography workshops with Béatrice Peltre and an upcoming illustration and story-telling week with Maira Kalman (!).
After the school's 25th anniversary party last summer, I was beyond honored to be asked to join Rachel in hosting the school's inaugural food writing workshop. We arrived in Sicily a few days before our students did. The Regaleali estate is in the interior of the island, far away from the petrol-colored sea and stunning coastline. The rolling hills there don't look dissimilar to the ones in the Marche, which I know so intimately, but the vegetation was wilder and more Seussian, the light harsher and brighter. Right in front of my bedroom window were two enormous trees populated by a large number of doves and swifts. Each morning, just around 6:00, I'd open the heavy, blue, wooden shutters to the sound of the birds cooing and chirping in the branches, while the wind rustled through the leaves so loudly that it sounded almost like a car coming around the corner.
One of the many things that is so special about the school is how you immediately feel like you are part of a large family gathering whilst there. This is mostly due to Fabrizia's warmth, ease and generosity. It just all feels so natural. The horseshoe-shaped compound of the school holds not only the kitchen and dining room in which we spent so much time, but the rooms where we slept and where Fabrizia and her family stay when they are there, as well as the living quarters of the school's longtime caretaker and her family. There was enough space for us all to be able to retreat quietly to our rooms when needed, but we were all knitted together as well, right from the beginning.
Just on the other side of the entrance, in the photo above, are the gardens that Anna planted. They are divided by a sloping set of stairs, into the more utilitarian rows of vegetables and a fragrant and active compost pile, and the gloriously appointed decorative garden, punctuated by fruit and nut trees, low bushes of lavender, every kind of herb under the sun and great bushes of oleander, pink and white. Before our students arrived, we spent a couple days familiarizing ourselves with the grounds, getting to know Mario Traina, the school's recently appointed chef - and one of the kindest, funniest human beings I've had the pleasure of knowing - and hashing out the final details of the week's curriculum.
We hoped that the week would give the attendants not only the mental and physical space, but also the inspiration needed to kickstart a writing regime. We started with a visit to Filippo Privitera, a local shepherd who supplies the school as well as local vendors with the most incredible sheep's milk ricotta. He has a flock of 500 sheep, which he milks twice a day by hand, aided by his son and an additional employee in the busy season. Filippo transforms the milk into tuma, a fresh, still-squeaky cheese, pecorino, an aged cheese, and quivery ricotta, which ends up being used in everything from pasta dough to sauces to desserts. The hot sun shone down on us as we squinted at some of the sheep returning from the pastures while Filippo explained his grueling daily schedule and the methods he uses in his cheese-making. Then we beat a grateful retreat into the cool, dark aging room lined with rounds of ricotta salata and pecorino.
There were pre-dinner walks in the vineyard, a wine tasting up at Regaleali's grand headquarters, writing sessions in the cloth-topped pavilion in the garden, and a collaborative tasting table in which the workshop students sampled herbs and fresh green things from the garden as well as products from Fabrizia's Natura in Tasca line, like the pungent sundried tomato paste I mentioned above, meaty anchovies and fat, salty capers, before talking about the technicalities of food writing. (Like how, exactly, do you describe the rich, savory smell of Greek oregano?) We walked through the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and ate a picnic lunch in the gardens of Colymbetra. Much later that evening, after we'd all said good night and gathered up books for the night's reading, the orange earth from Agrigento left ocher stains on the bathmat after I washed my feet in the bathroom's bidet.
Fabrizia taught us how to make crisp panelle, fritters made with chickpea flour and fried in the dark green Regaleali oil, a spectacular cassata made with sponge cake and homemade almond paste, filled with Filippo's ricotta cream, squid stuffed with breadcrumbs and olives, and homemade cavatelli. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together, like a family, simple soups made with fuzzy, fresh green chickpeas, elegant plates of pasta topped with crisp and savory breadcrumbs, and an enormous and regal tranche of swordfish marinated in fresh herbs and aromatics and cut with a spoon before being served. My favorite part of mealtimes was gathering in the courtyard at dusk, just before dinner, eating some of the kitchen's expert fritte like anchovies and artichokes, with a glass of cold wine beading in my hand.
It was an incredible week, also for us instructors. Inspiring, rejuvenating, interesting and just plain fun. We read and workshopped and talked, about everything: books, families, creativity, heartbreak and, yes, food. It was, at times, a surprisingly emotional week. Intense and close. And when it ended, I found myself wishing that we could all just stay on for a little while longer. Case Vecchie is one of those special, special places. I felt so lucky to have been there and having the privilege of being reminded just how much I love what I do.
Happily, Rachel and I will be teaching the workshop again next June. The plan is all drawn up and we are thrilled to be returning again to a place that feels so much like home. If you are interested in joining us, save the week of June 20-25, 2016 and go here for more information. We are so looking forward to meeting our next group of writers.
And if you're interested in knowing more about Sicily, its history and food traditions, or about the school and Anna, or Fabrizia's story, here are a few book suggestions, all of which are also on the running bibliography I kept for the participants in the class (the links are all affiliate):
Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza
The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Atlee
Pomp & Sustenance by Mary Taylor Simeti
Herbs & Wild Greens from the Sicilian Countryside by Anna Tasca Lanza
The Heart of Sicily by Anna Tasca Lanza