Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sicilian Olive Oil

At our year-end editorial meeting yesterday afternoon, we agreed to try to arrange a tasting and selection of the best Sicilian olive oil in 2010, probably later in the year. The last olive oil tasing was in 2008. Unfortunately, such events generate envy and even bitter resentment in some quarters - especially from those who sell oils that are not selected or even considered for tasting. In order to avoid being accused of "defamation" we refrained from explaining to one angry American retailer of "Sicilian" olive oil that many of the olives pressed to make a brand of "Sicilian" oil he sells are not even raised here in Sicily! The point is that in any competition there can be only one winner, though we do list the second and third place selections. In the interest of diplomacy, we do not mention the eight or nine oils tasted but not selected. In fact, it is Best of Sicily's policy not to publish negative reviews of products and services - hotels, restaurants, wines. We only mention those that we ourselves would pay for.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Baroque Sicily by Jann Huizenga

Once in a while it's nice to encounter the Real Deal - a blog written by a real travel writer, under her real name, in real English, that presents real information. Check out Baroque Sicily by Jann Huizenga.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Palermo's Principal Museums

Palermo's Archeological Museum is by far the most important one in Sicily considering not only the size but the importance of its permanent collections. The breathtaking Selinunte Greek metopes are among the finest in the world, while the vast collection of Greek vases and statuettes, and the bronze collection featuring a life-size ram by Lysippus, are rare treasures. Sadly, this museum is closed for a full renovation, both inside and out, of the 17th century ex-monastery that houses it.

It's been closed since July of this year and it probably won't re-open for at least another year. Instead, the city's most important art gallery has just re-opened: I'm talking about the Palazzo Abatellis Regional Art Gallery, which went through a three-year renovation.

Housed in a lovely late-15th century Catalan-Gothic palace, and put together in the 1950s by the famous Italian museum designer Carlo Scarpa, this gallery offers works by a number of medieval and Renaissance Sicilian painters and sculptors such as Antonello da Messina (his Annunciation is shown here), Francesco Laurana, Domenico and Antonello Gagini, and other painters later inspired by Caravaggio and Van Eyck, such as Pietro Novelli and Mattia Stomer.

This is a must-see if you want an in-depth look into Sicilian art history. Hours are:
Tuesday and Thursday 9 to 1 and then 2:30 to 6 PM.
Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 9 to 1.
Closed Monday.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stay in a Castle!

If you like history, especially of the medieval variety, here's an idea. When you come to Sicily (I say when because you really must see this unique place), think about staying in a castle or medieval monastery. That's not as eccentric an idea as it may seem. It's actually possible to plan your entire trip with accommodation in these historic places. In Palermo, where you should spend at least two days to see all the sights, including of course Monreale, the best choice is Palazzo Conte Federico. Here you can stay either in the Baroque palace or, better yet, in the medieval tower.

The tower's atmosphere, as you can imagine, is decidedly medieval. It was built in the 12th and 13th centuries upon the city's Phoenician wall. Staying here you are literally surrounded by 25 centuries of history!

This bed and breakfast is located in the historical center near the BallarĂ² street market and yes, as the name implies, it is still the home of a count and countess. The counts Federico owe their name, and probably their ancestry, to Emperor Federick II, whose coat of arms embellishes an upper part of the tower. The tower was not actually a castle but a guard tower.

The rooms and suites are comfortable and the setting offers a taste of the true medieval spirit of an eclectic city. Visit the Palazzo Conte Federico site to reserve.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Carduna!

My long-awaited carduna article is now online. Now I understand that most of you can't get too excited about something that tastes kind of like an artichoke stem but has a tough stalk and doesn't even grow in most places. It's esoteric, I know. But in most of Sicily, and also in Calabria and other parts of Italy - as well as Spain - cardoon stalks make their annual debut in December, to great applause from those of us who love this most Mediterranean of vegetables. Outside the Med it's a gourmet thing, and I won't be surprised if someday it becomes the next arugula. Time will tell.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Planeta La Segreta White 2008

Some wines are simply good. Unpretentious, simple and delicious with just about anything. Planeta's La Segreta is such a wine. One of the appealing things about this entry into the fray is its Sicilianicity. La Segreta is made from a local variety, Grecanico, at least for around 50% of its grapes. This is followed by Chardonnay (30%) with the remaining 20% divided equally between Voignier and Fiano.

Few Italian whites are meant to be kept hidden away in a cellar for very long, but Planeta is leading the charge to change this longstanding tradition. That said, this is a medium-bodied, slightly fruity offering which should be enjoyed now. It's not too dry and not too overpowering.

At around (US) $15 per bottle at retail, it may break with tradition but it won't break the bank.

(Visit Best of Sicily for more about Sicilian food and wine.)

Christmas in Sicily

On Best of Sicily we've published several articles about Christmas in Sicily (you can easily find them with a search from the home page). Few foreign visitors come to Sicily during this season, but in my view more should think about it. One of our contributors, who spends much of her time in England, recently wrote about coming to Sicily in Winter. In this regard, we're at odds with most of the "experts" who try to convince you that you should not come to Sicily from November to March. Ridiculous advice, in my opinion.

The late hours of Christmas Eve are almost mystical in Sicily's cities. Towards midnight the church bells ring - even at churches where midnight mass is not celebrated - and a few teenagers who can't wait for the 31st set off firecrackers. It's usually cool, but this year, while northern Italy is buried under snow, a scirocco is keeping Sicily overcast and windy but relatively warm, at least near the coasts.

The pic here is the Christmas tree in front of Politeama, Palermo's older opera house built around 1865.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dreaming of Sicily

It used to be that a visit to Sicily was part of the Grand Tour of Europe undertaken by such luminaries as Wagner and Goethe. Closer to our time, Sicily has become a destination in itself. It is also a point of reference - and an especially attractive destination - for millions of Sicilian descendants in the diaspora of Sicilians who for one reason or another left Sicily two or three generations ago. In such cases a visit to this magical place takes on the nature of a pilgrimage.

Betsy Vincent (di Vincenzo) Hoffman's memoir of her first visit to Sicily describes this kind of experience. Beautifully illustrated with the watercolours of the talented Kathleen Citrolo Gwinnett - another American descendant of Sicilians who has visited our island - this lively if not very lengthy volume is a delightful read. Though not intended as a guide book in itself, it is useful as a primer, especially for those who prefer to wade into the subject instead of jumping in unprepared.

Not every sentimental journey will be similar to this one, but Ms Hoffmann's account of hers may be sufficient to start others thinking about the same kind of trip.

Betsy's description of her grandparents' experiences is touching. Here the human element is never absent. This kind of book reminds us that it is the people who make the place.

Dreaming of Sicily - A Travel Memoir can be ordered at CreateSpace.Com/3334027