Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In October, 2008, I took a trip to Sicily to study Food, Wine and Olive Oil, as well as the history of Sicily. It was everything I had hoped it would be! The island of Sicily is a region of Italy but they have a self governing community. The people are proud to say they are, indeed, Sicilians first, Italians second.
They have every reason to be proud, their history is amazing. A beautiful mountainous island, Sicily has been occupied by a series of traders, migrants and invaders including Phoenicians, Greeks, Cathaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Angevins and Spaniards, each leaving their own architecture, art and cuisine. We were treated to some of the world's greatest food!

Tucked away on a remote mountainside is Gangivecchio, once a Roman outpost, then a fourteenth-century Benedictine abbey. Today, it is a world-class restaurant and inn, and for special occasions, a cooking school. Every moment at Gangivecchio was incredible. I loved the restaurant, the inn, the cooking demonstrations and of course, the food. But as I think back on my time there, it is the history of the place that excited me the most.

In the center of the original structure is an open air courtyard that took my breath away. On one side was a beautiful stairway leading up to the second level. The owners had positioned potted plants here and there, all with colorful blossoms. The floor of the courtyard was cobblestone, much of it over 1200 years old. Off to one side, there was an area blocked off with rope. In the center…..a “dig” was going on. It seems they discovered some artifacts from 400BC just a few feet beneath those cobblestones!

Just beyond the “dig”, directly across from the stairway, was an opening leading into a pitch black chamber. Just outside that chamber, hanging from an ancient old board, were whole cherry tomato plants, drying in the hot Sicilian sun. I was fascinated with the whole picture; the darks, the lights, the stones, the intrigue of that dark portal. My camera came close to a meltdown!

Photos taken, I had to see what was in that black opening. After being in the sun-drenched courtyard, it took more than a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the cool darkness. As they began to focus on what was before me, my heart was pounding! There, tucked away off the courtyard, in a tiny room, was the ancient hand carved stone olive oil mill, used by the Benedictine Monks in the 1300s! I have to say, few places or things have had that particular effect on me. I love history! I felt so much a part of that place, that time. I wanted to stay forever.

I hated to leave Gangivecchio. I had been there such a short time and there were so many nooks and crannies I wanted to investigate. I truly felt a loss as we drove back over the mountains, but as I checked my camera, I realized I had a future painting of Gangivecchio before me!

As I said, it has been a year and a half since my trip. I've looked at that photograph at least once a week. I printed out an 8x10, so I could think about my painting. I showed it to all of my fellow painters and instructors, all the time trying to get the nerve to attempt to capture my favorite place in Sicily.

The month of March proved to be my time. It is so rare for me to be pleased with a painting, but I truly am happy! Gangivecchio makes me feel like I am in that courtyard; I can feel the hot sun, then… there it is….that black portal is before me! Thank you, Sicily!

The Inn and Restaurant at Gangivecchio are owned by the Tornabene family. Wanda amd Giovanna, mother and daughter, have written 4 or 5 cookbooks, and of course, I had to bring them home with me.
In   La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio, I found Wanda's meatball recipe, Polpette alla Wanda. I love them!
1 pound ground veal
1 1/2 pounds ground pork
2 large eggs
1/3 cup freshly chopped parsley
1/3 cup day-old bread, soaked in water and squeezed dry
1/2 cup diced mortadella
1/3 cup diced ham
olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1/3 cup tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
salt and ground pepper
Mix together all the ingredients from the veal through the ham. Shape into 16 equal-sized meatballs and flatten slightly into oval shapes.
Cover the bottom of a large frying pan with 1/4 inch of olive oil and fry the ovals until well browned on each side. Transfer to a heavy pot.
Add the onion, tomato paste, sugar and 1 cup of water to the same frying pan, stirring to release any tasty particles sticking to the bottom, and cook for about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour the sauce over the meatballs and add enough cold water to almost cover them. Sprinkle the tops of the meatballs lightly with flour. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour.

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