Earthly Pleasures: A Journey Through the Stomach of Sicily with Chef Emilia Strazzanti

Earthly Pleasures: A Journey Through the Stomach of Sicily with Chef Emilia Strazzanti

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

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
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

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

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

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
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.

The Lowdown

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.