Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Zafferana Etnea: Slopes of Mount Etna

The last three nights of our stay in Sicily were spent at Monaci Delle Terre Nere.

Monaci delle Terre Nere
an agriturismo, hillside retreat
on the slopes of Mount Etna
Once a part of a noble’s family’s estate, Monaci provides views of Mount Etna and the Mediterranean Sea, along with 40 acres of farmland. These fields are the source of much of its kitchen’s delicious ingredients, including organic fruits and vegetables as well as its estate produced olive oil.

What began as a private residential project morphed into a small, unique, environmentally conscious boutique hotel. The owners, Guido Alessandro Coffa and Ada Calabrese, spent years restoring the place, creating a mix of modern interiors within a 18th-century landmark that is especially striking in the common areas where you can relax with a cocktail or a glass of wine.


The secluded property makes a great base from which to explore the up-and-coming Etna region. This is the same villa that Anthony Bourdain and his production crew used as home base for filming the fifth episode of the second season of Parts Unknown.

Gus and Joan were assigned Suite Amabile, located in the main building above the kitchen. The suite featured lava stone walls and a partial view of Mount Etna. A very small and almost nonfunctional bathroom was located up an unbanistered stairway while a Jacuzzi bathtub was oddly positioned in the living area of the suite.


Stairway to Amabile




Suite Amabile
bathroom, below left, and bathtub, below right
(photos courtesy of 1 Kind Design)





Arriving, checking-in, and after unpacking we had time to walk around and explore the villa's grounds. 









That evening we ate in Monaci's delightful and informal restaurant.  While the ambience was informal the food was anything but ... Gus and Joan had a spiny Mediterranean lobster (the species has no claws) for two. Our waiter brought the live lobster to our table and asked how we would like it prepared. We ordered grilled which was decadent but simple. Along with a contorno, wine, and dessert our dinner was delicious; the service was pleasant, no the service was beyond pleasant it was delightful.

The next day we were scheduled to tour Benanti Winery. Our appointment was in the early afternoon which left us with an open morning to enjoy a wonderful breakfast and a few hours by the pool.

Unfortunately, Joan was not feeling well and decided to take the afternoon off to recover.

The Benanti family villa is attached to  palmento (door on the right).
The palmento , although no longer used, was the traditional way of making
 wine in Sicily. First you crush the grapes with your feet; then the wine is carried
 down by gravity into the vats where it ferments. Palmentos fell out of use in the
 1990s, when EU regulations forbade their use for commercial wine (the fear was
 that their open-air construction made them prone to contamination).
The winery occupies a 17th century palazzo with spacious, ancient outbuildings, and large open sheds all with terracotta roof tiles.

Valentina Donvito, our hostess and guide.
A former Italian professional basketball player
 from 1995-2014 who, after finishing playing,
 became fascinated with wine and is now an
 apprentice at Benanti, learning the business.
 
Four or five acres of grape vines staked in rows in the black
 volcanic soil occupy the hill that slants upward behind the
 buildings in the direction of  Mount Etna.
Monte Serra Vineyard
These 120-year old vines on the Benanti estate on the southeast side of
 Etna grow Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio varietals included in
 Benanti Serra Della Contessa.

 
In order from left to right
Benanti “Pietramarina” Etna Bianco DOC 100% Carricante
Benanti Nerello Cappuccio 100% Nerello Cappuccio
Benanti Nerello Mascalese 100% Nerello Mascalese
Benanti Rovittello Classic blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio
Benanti Serra Della Contessa Classic blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio
 Below the Benanti 5+1

 


We tasted all six wines at various locations around the property. The tour was described as a "dynamic" tasting. Stopping at five different locations  first the vineyard summit, next the palmento, then the grand dining room adorned with the family's art collection, next the oak barrel cellar room where red wines are aged, and finally the tasting room  we tasted wine paired with food. The food consisted of bruschette, caponata, Nebrodi salumi, cheeses (such as fresh made ricotta), fresh fruits, green and black olives, fresh cherry tomatoes from Pachino, sun-dried tomatoes (pomodori secchi sfiziosi), and Sicilian breads.


Curt and Lynn in Benanti's wine tasting room
 
Lynn singing "'O sole mio"
on the steps of the winery's palmento.

Gus and Curt after an afternoon of wine tasting.


Our group with the owner of the vineyard, Giuseppe Benanti.
Giuseppe, a stylish and handsome man, with a neatly trimmed
 grey beard. A beard which Gus admired.
Before we left Benanti we purchased a case of 2004 Serra Della Contessa (93 points Robert Parker's Wine Advocate; anticipated maturity: 2009-2016) and arranged for it to be shipped back to the Bay Area. A bit extravagant but Gus and Curt considered it a good, if not great, value.
 
Our afternoon at Benanti was "Che figata!"

Returning to Monaci we rejoined Joan and had another very nice dinner at the villa's restaurant. The next day we had plans to attend a cooking lesson with Eleonora Consoli in her La Cucina del Sole. Unfortunately, Eleonora had taken ill and the lesson was cancelled.
 
In place of the cooking lesson we instead visited Taormina, Sicily’s most popular chic resort town. Dating from the 4th century BC, Taormina is perched dramatically high on a rocky promontory overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a charming medieval town with typical cobblestoned streets leading into spacious squares. And while it is unashamedly touristy and has a main street lined with high-end designer shops, the town remains an achingly beautiful spot with gorgeous medieval churches, and a stunning Greco-Roman theater.

As we approached Taormina, we were treated to unexpected sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea. The rugged hillside surrounding and protecting Taormina gave us a feeling that we were entering a separate Sicily.


 
Isola Bella
Picturesque island , covered with lush vegetation, which is just a
 few hundred feet from the beach. A thin strip of sand connects it
 to the mainland making it accessible by foot; however the path
 naturally emerges and disappears at the whim of the currents and
 tides .


After driving around the perimeter of the old town we descended by way of Via Pirandello to the beach at Mazzaró. We parked in one of two public parking lots in the area and took the Taormina - Mazzaró cable car back up to Taormina. The cable car dropped us off right outside the city walls of Taormina.

 
Curt and Lynn
 
Gus and Joan
  


A Soldier Puppet of Charlemagne
The Sicilian soldier puppets are called Paladins and they are dressed in historically accurate armor. Some are Christians and some, in turbans, are Moors. In "an opera of the puppets", apart from the soldiers, there is Charlemagne and his queen, ordinary citizens and troupes of horses. A dragon may also appear from time to time. The Paladins have loud sword fights and the puppeteers are very skilled, as their fights involve rapid and complex movements and sometimes feature large numbers of puppets on stage at the same time. 
 


Enjoying the atmosphere and pulse of this enchanting town we wandered up and down the narrow pedestrian streets and alleys with no destination in mind. After an hour or so of exploring we stopped for lunch at Trattoria La Botte. La Botte was a bit more expensive than it should be, but the setting was terrific— under a natural sun terrace of plants on a quiet, breezy little piazza off Taormina's beaten passeggiata path. Along with several forgettable dishes we did share a pizza from the restaurant's wood burning oven that was quite good.

Joan, Gus, Lynn, and Curt

After lunch Gus just had to have what some have claimed to be the best granita in the world from Bam Bar.


We strolled around for the next hour or so shopping, people watching, enjoying a gelato or two, and simply admiring the ambiance of this old-world resort town.

Back at the villa we collected a recommendation and reservation for dinner at
Borghetto S. Caterina Pizzeria (15 minute drive from Monaci). L'antipasto of arancinetti very good, good but not great pizza with fresh ingredients, and cold Italian beers. Service was pleasant yet slow. We passed on dessert and headed back for the night as morning was to come all too soon.
 


Returning to Monaci marked the beginning of the end to our Sicilian adventure. We were to leave tomorrow morning on flights to either Marseille (Gus and Joan) or Venice (Curt and Lynn). The trip has been a Dichotomy of Beauty and Wonder ...

Adesso capisco!

“For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own. This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn't understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.”