As my garden crisps and wilts, I pick the last of my vegetables to ferment, pickle and preserve for winter. Vats of tomatoes blip on the stove, steaming up the kitchen windows. Wrinkled pumpkins cure on the table next to fizzing jars of sauerkraut, while my freezer door keeps popping open due to its overstuffed bounty of bags of French beans. Outside, I fill the hayracks with fossilised meadow grass, as sheep and goats jostle at my feet. Chucking a last bucket of windfall apples to the pigs, I hand over the care of my smallholding to a trusted friend just as the rain starts to fall.
As a farmer and chef, I am guided by a respect for local ingredients and a hands-on connection with the land; it' is at the marrow of what I do, both in growing my own produce and unlocking its potential in the alchemical environs of my kitchen. It's this philosophy that draws me to swap Surrey for the scorched island of Sicily and an extraordinary culinary retreat founded on these shared principles, dreamed up by luxury villa company The Thinking Traveller in collaboration with Sicilian chef Emilia Strazzanti. Using The Thinking Traveller's local expertise and Emilia's culinary skills, guests are invited to imbibe the flavours of the island through a curated combination of cooking classes, visits to local producers and expeditions to the isle's rugged coastline, port towns and ruins - as well as plenty of feasting, of course.
I arrive at our base, villa Angheli, to the briny tang of sea air and the meditative vibration of cicadas. As the cobalt doors swing open I'm greeted by Emilia and the dizzying scent of jasmine. We sit at a sweeping familial table on one of the terraces with a cold local beer and a plate of cotoletta alla palermitana (veal escalope), the breadcrumbs seasoned with oregano and mint in an old recipe from Nonna Strazzanti. The sea shimmers in the haunting light of the moon and one beer turns to many as we talk Sicilian food, The Godfather and Emilia's family heritage. Brought up in Birmingham to immigrant parents - her father's side Sicilian and her mother's Neapolitan - Emilia grew up in her grandfather's kitchen, who taught her provincial Italian cooking. However, it wasn't until she first stepped foot in Sicily that she felt truly at home, she tells me. After her grandparents died, and having trained in Michelin-starred kitchens, the chef set up the Strazzanti bakery in London to honour their memory and keep her family inheritance alive through her Sicilian-inspired pastries.
I wake up to the oasis that is Angheli. Set into the side of a sweeping hill, the villa overlooks dusty olive groves and copper-leafed vines that stretch down to the sea. A cool breeze runs up from the coast through the terraced garden and shakes hot-pink petals off the bougainvillea that race across the lawn. Every footstep scatters lizards and geckos, roses surround the pool, wine barrels spill with geraniums and the olive trees hang heavy with emerald fruit. Inside, the furniture is an eclectic mix of flea-market finds and antiques brought back to life. A rickety ladder used for climbing olive trees holds the towels in my bathroom, while a low-slung desk in the library is actually a long wooden plate traditionally used by farmers for communally eating pasta after a long day's work.
After a lavish breakfast of pistachio croissants, sweet melon and strong coffee, Emilia takes me on a tour of the villa's abundant vegetable garden. Her eyes are fierce with pride as we taste the varieties of oregano, basil, fat tomatoes, vivacious chillies and wild fennel. "What I've realised with Italian, and especially Sicilian, cooking is that it's just about understanding the produce," she explains. "The ingredients here are so incredible, that, cooked simply and with respect, they speak for themselves." She's right; squeezing the fennel between my fingers releases an liquorice explosion that makes my nose tingle.
Bringing a few ingredients back from the garden, Emilia teaches me the art of arancine, deep-fried rice balls stuffed with spinach, mozzarella and ham and seasoned with nutmeg and parmesan. Her hands work instinctively through the motions, her eyes twinkling as the smells remind her of cooking in her Nonna's kitchen. It's an Arab-influenced dish in which the rice is traditionally flavoured with saffron, giving the balls the golden colour from which they get their name, which means "little orange".
Sated, we drive to Ulmo for a wine tasting at the family-run Planeta vineyard. This winery sits in a valley next to a vast reservoir that supports the local farmers, protecting their crops from drought even in the fiercest of summers. Originally a family farm, the winery is made up of a collection of restored 16th-century barns. With its castle-like walls painted in burnt ochre, arched entrances thick with flowering ivy and vaulted wooden ceilings, it's hard to imagine the cows that were once milked here - it has a very monastic feel. Courtyards reveal 300-year-old fig trees that fill the air with their nutty scent, dappling the stone paving with shadows. On the main terrace sits a staggering olive tree, its knotted trunk sending a web of roots plunging into the cracked earth. Great bunches of silver leaves pierce the sky, vibrating in the searching fingers of the wind.
We stroll through the purple and copper vines to the rooms where the wine is produced. Vast steel chambers sit above caves of oak barrels and the air fizzes with the sharp smell of fermentation. Tasting the wine is very much a journey of the terroir, taking us from the volcanic soils of Mount Etna to the red-hot sands of the coast. We try indigenous and French vines and captivating blends of the two, starting with crisp minerally whites, moving on to light fruity reds and finishing with more complex and aged wines. The Planeta family's passion enthralls me. They are as much a part of Sicily as the trees and soil, talking about wine not as a product but instead as memories in a bottle: the rain, the colour of the soil, the relentless sun, the smells and flavours carried on the wind, the people working the land. Heady with wine, we head back for Emilia's lasagne, tomatoes alla pesto trapanese and the pistachio cake she sells in Selfridges, chased down with yet more Planeta wine. Suffice to say the evening is animated.
After a morning lesson making cubaita, a moreish snack of local almonds and sesame seeds toasted in caramel, we wind our way to the coast for lunch at Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli's favourite Sicilian restaurant, Da Vittorio. It sits on a jaw-dropping sweep of coast carved by the sirocco wind. Water breaks against the sand, washing up broken shells that shimmer like wrinkled silver. Fortified towns perch on cliffs in the distance and the cerulean horizon is knife-sharp against a mackerel sky. The food is some of the best I've had in Italy - fresh fish caught that morning that need no adulteration; thin slices of raw tuna dressed with single-estate olive oil and pepper; floured and fried sardines with zinging lemons; sea-bass polpette; raw prawns; a tomato and squid stew with olives and capers; red-mullet linguine; and spaghetti allo scoglio.
Driving through the countryside on our way to the medieval fishing town of Sciacca, I watch the monolithic landscape unfold through the window. A coastline of wild, windswept beaches melds into rolling chocolate hills in a patchwork of spiked artichoke and olive. Suddenly it's canyons and jagged mountains, sheets of marble forced upwards like titans in battle, disappearing into heavy carbon clouds like Atlas shouldering the sky. You can feel the presence of the gods, the myths and stories that unravelled here - Bacchus mischievously prancing through the vines, Polyphemus the cyclops hiding his sheep in sunless caves and Zeus waging war in the clouds, his lightning shattering the darkness like smashed glass.
Sciacca has existed in many different forms since Ancient Greek times, but really owes its heritage to the Arabs who sailed here in the 9th century. Sicily's strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean means it has been relentlessly fought over throughout its history, colonised at first by the classical Greeks and then the Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, Arabs, Africans, Normans and Italians. Each culture has left its mark on the people, food and landscape, and in Sciacca you can see it in the faces - some are Norman, blue-eyed and blonde, some more Iranian, others Spanish or Arabic. The dialect is deep and rough and the faces, although hard and weathered, have a sparkle behind the eyes.
We arrive at the port just in time to watch the leather-skinned fishermen draw in on their crumbling boats. Blue paint peels and cracks, torn flags ripple and there are no buoys, just old car tyres hanging from shaggy ropes. They pass up trays of twitching pink prawns, inky marbled squid and sardines taut like strings on a guitar. The men stand in tight circles, holding hands and haggling over prices in hushed whispers before shouting and yipping back and forth to chefs and tight-bellied men with upturned collars, trilby hats and dark sunglasses. Cigar smoke wafts on the wind while vulturous seagulls dip and dive for scraps. The local old boys come down to fish with the sardines not fit for sale, pirate-looking characters as old as the spiny bass that follow the boats in the hope of an easy meal. Emilia barters us a few trays of red prawns for a pasta dish tomorrow. It's a joy to buy direct from the fishermen and support the local economy and sustainable fishing practices.
The town soars above the port, undulating with the cliffs. The buildings are a scrambled chaos of burnt pink and ochre and it's loud and lively, with an atmosphere that reminds me of Naples or Marrakech. We head in on tuk-tuks manned by outlandish drivers in Hawaiian shirts, laughing and wincing as we scrape wing mirrors through a labyrinth of streets at break-neck speed. It's a dizzying way to see the town's medieval churches and volcanic spas as the drivers tell us epochal stories of love, legend and blood feuds. We stop for granita at Zio Aurelio, a true Sicilian institution. Aurelio has a booming voice and glasses so thick they magnify his eyes to owl-like proportions. He serves up his famous lemon granita on brioche buns that soak up the juice, fluffy and frozen with a perfect balance of sweet and sour.
As the sun fades Emilia takes us for an aperitivo on the Piazza Angelo Scandaliato, a panoramic terrace that sits high above the ocean overlooking the port. Thousands of sparrows fly in from the coast to roost in an avenue of trees. Their chorus soothes the embers of this bustling town like a calming rain as they fly in dipping patterns like notes on a score. The amber sun grows as it hits the horizon, the sky ablaze in the sea. We get swallowed up by a group of weathered men with welcoming grins playing cards and chess - it transpires that they come here every evening to watch the birds.
Our last day starts with a decadent breakfast of wild blueberry tonic, overnight oats with seeds and dried fruit, artisanal cheeses, local breads using heritage grains and a detox shot of raw stone-milled olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Vibrating with energy from the shot, we spend the morning on my favourite cooking class of the trip, making fresh pasta to go with the prawns bought yesterday. Emilia sets to work shelling while I work the dough - something I've made many times before, but under Emilia's direction (who persists in making me knead until my arms nearly fall off) we end up with the silkiest pasta I've ever worked with. As the dough rests we bring together the other elements, infusing olive oil with lemon zest and basil to confit the prawns and mixing ricotta - so fresh it's still warm, bought direct from the farmer that morning - with basil and parmesan. Finally, we assemble a pistachio and basil pesto that I will be making until the day I die. You can hear a pin drop as we eat.
Before we leave we squeeze in a tour of the archaeological site of Selinunte, an ancient Greek city near Syracuse that was founded in the 7th century and laid to waste by the 100,000-strong Carthaginian army, with staggering ruins that rival anything found in Greece. A monumental temple devoted to Hera overlooks the ocean, surrounded by vast fallen columns. You can feel the sacrifices, the disasters and the wars that took place here - the boats docking at sea, the earthquake that buried the city in sand - there's a gravitas like I've never felt. Day turns to night and the sky blackens as a colossal storm rolls in. Towering clouds eclipse the sun and boom with the voice of Zeus. Thunder vibrates the stones around me as the sky splits with forked lighting and the acropolis silhouettes against the silver sea like teeth. The stony clouds release raindrops the size of pomegranates that send us running for the trees.
It's an appropriately theatrical end to our days of being immersed in the island's dramatic, intense atmosphere. I often find that the history and culture of a place is best understood through its food, and in Sicily this couldn't be truer. The campaigns waged, the fertility of the landscape, the manifestations of the gods, the conviviality of the people: all are represented in an intense tapestry of flavours.
Strazzanti at Angheli, A Culinary Week in Southwest Sicily with Emilia Strazzanti is bookable exclusively through The Thinking Traveller and costs £23,400 for a group of 12. The price includes seven nights' accommodation at Angheli, private transfers, five cookery classes, seven dinners, six lunches, seven breakfasts, daily refreshments and maid service, an excursion to a local food market and a guided marsala wine tour. The next week runs 18-25 April 2020.
For more information and to book, click here.
For more information about Strazzanti, click here.