I have never taken a cooking class before and am excited to be here at Agriturismo Tarantola with my sister-in-law, Monica. The welcoming Signor Filippo is tall and attractive and molto gentile, very kind. After ushering us inside his cucina, we meet Leno and Giuseppe, the chefs who will teach us today. A female chef is also working with us, and I think her name may be Lucrezia.
We are making several courses, including a traditional Sicilian type of pizza, called sfincione, two pasta dishes, one vegetarian and one with meat, eggplant roll-ups and meat roll-ups, known as braciolone, and a dessert known as cassatelle. Before we even start cooking Signor Filippo offers us a glass of his wine, Conti Testa Cabernet Syrah. Not only is he the owner of this agriturismo and 120 hectare wine farm, but he is actually a count, Count Filippo Testa; hence, the name of the wine, Conti Testa. I didn’t know I would be in the presence of nobility here today.
The eggplant roll-ups and the braciolone (meat rollups made with what looks like a thinly sliced flank steak) are filled with the same items, and we participate in this, adding pieces of hard-boiled egg, raisins, pine nuts, red onions, pomodoro paste, bread crumbs, and caciocavallo cheese.
Pecorino cheese also is added to the braciolone. I never would think to add these ingredients inside a roll-up. The meat roll-ups need to be held together with toothpicks and the eggplant roll-ups as well, although not as many.
At the same time, DeCecco pasta, Anelli Siciliani variety, pasta shaped like small rings, is boiling on the stove, and when ready, is mixed with the prepared ingredients for the vegetarian variety. These include eggplant, peas, carrots, and breadcrumbs added on top. In another pan on the stove, the ragu is cooking in olive oil, consisting of ground meat mixed with onions, pomodoro sauce and paste, and some white wine. When ready both pasta dishes are set in spring form pans, and placed into the oven. So the pasta will be a baked dish today, pasta al forno.
Next is sfincione, a Sicilian type of rectangular pizza without mozzarella cheese. Count Filippo explains that this particular sfincione is unlike the type served on the streets of Palermo, where he grew up. This sfincione is specific for this area of Sicily, between Alcamo and Camporeale.
I am very interested in the making of the sfincione. Leno uses lievito cake yeast, 15 grams to half a kilogram of flour, and water, allowing me to knead it for ten minutes or so. The dough is very runny, and is set aside to rise for twenty minutes. Afterward the very wet dough is poured into a rectangular pan, well-greased with fresh, green, olive oil from Filippo’s farm. We add caciocavallo cheese, onion, basil, bread crumbs, and top this all off with more olive oil. Then it is placed in their commercial oven to bake at two hundred degrees Centigrade for fifteen to twenty minutes. When it was done, it looked fantastic.
I enjoy the presence of Filippo while the chefs manage the hands on cooking. Filippo shares that he was at one time a jazz musician, but after his father died, chose this path to operate his own wine farm. Tarantola Wine Farm happens to be in full harvest, now that it is mid September. This harvest will last two full months, and for fifty hectares, the grapes are harvested by hand by crews numbering thirty people. The remaining hectares are harvested by two machines, so this is a full-time job. It is obvious to me that Filippo exudes a passion for this farm.
After kneading this for a while, we let it sit while we make the filling for these Sicilian treats. We mix fresh ricotta from the next farm with some sugar at a ratio of one kilogram of ricotta to 400 grams of sugar, and then add mini chocolate chips. Monica and I roll out the dough and place a small amount of the filling on the dough, then fold over the other side to form a turnover, sort of like the shape of ravioli.
Not to waste anything, the remainder of the dough is cut into strips and also fried in oil and served with confectioner’s sugar. Filippo calls these cacchiere, and they are commonly served during Carnevale.
Pasta al forno with meat
It was an amazing day, and I only touched on the surface here. The rest will be in my book, My Love Affair with Sicily, which is already a work in progress, and I hope to have it finished and ready to be published in early 2014.
We say our goodbyes to Count Filippo and his chefs and make our way toward Palermo, our next stop on this Sicilian adventure.
Have you taken any cooking classes in Italy? I’d love to hear about your experience so please leave a comment.
Grazie and Ciao