Chef Mike wanted to go in search of Marsala wine at its origin. The town of Marsala lies on the far west coast of Sicily, not far from some famous natural salt works.
Marsala wine for you non-chefs is more a cooking wine than a drinking wine. But the region, as well as much of Sicily, produces a range of interesting wines. So, of course, we started with a wine tasting. We chose a food and wine tasting at the home base of Donnafugata wines. We learned that Donnafugata has become a major producer and purveyor of wines from throughout Sicily. They reminded us a bit of the Gerard Bertrand wine universe in our home region. In both cases, farsighted wine-industry entrepreneurs connected local production with world-class marketing. Both are proud of the wines of their region, want to get the attention of the world market, and make some money at the same time.
After the usual tour of the cellars, we sat down to a showcase tray of food dishes.
Very much like our favorite Maison du Rire at home, our host introduced each wine for us to taste, along with a complementary local food. Wine is better with food, and food is better with wine! As always, we enjoyed each new set of aromas and flavors. One of the red wines particularly attracted us, the Mille e una Notte (A Thousand and One Nights). We’re spoiled because we live in a splendid wine region at home, but why not see about sending a case of Mille e una Notte home? In the inevitable wine and gift shop at the exit, we found out that, even at the winery, the price for a bottle of Mille e una Notte is over 60€. At home, or even in northern Italy, you can find really wonderful rich red wines for 20€. So, we left the Mille e una Notte on the shelf. At the same time, we respect that Donnafugata is offering very nice Sicilian wines to the world, probably priced at the international scale rather than the local scale. We hope they are successful so that they sustainably support wine production in Sicily.
After all that, we still hadn’t found any classic Marsala wines. We stopped in the heart of the little town of Marsala at a charming wine store on a pedestrian street.
The shopkeeper made his recommendations, and we left happily with a couple bottles of Florio Targa Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco 2007! Chicken Marsala anyone?
Not far from Marsala are the salt works of Trapani. These are ancient sea-salt extraction basins, at the edge of the Mediterranean. They have been here since Phoenician times. During the Middle Ages and at least into the 18th century, salt was precious; it was essential for food preservation. During the time when Spain ruled Sicily, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Trapani was the most important trading center of salt in Europe.
A visit today gives only the slightest hint of the importance of this place and production in past centuries. Today, an almost-dirt road parallels the edge of the salt pans. An occasional house interrupts the dry farm fields and grassy marshland.
The salt pans themselves extend toward the sea: grids of brown water, edged with narrow stone barriers.
The strongest markers are the few Arab-heritage windmills still standing. These windmills used to provide the work of pumping water in and out of the salt pans.
This ancient method of harvesting sea salt is both simple and very hard. Sea water is let into or pumped into shallow basins. The sun evaporates the water, which leaves a layer of salt crystals. The salt that forms in the center of the basins usually has large crystals, which is highly prized. That which forms at the edges is thinner and less clean.
Traditional salt production in these basins is difficult, dangerous, work. The main season for work is the hottest time of the year — often in blazing sun with temperatures over 40 deg C / 104 deg F. The salt environment and heat make it easy for workers to become dangerously dehydrated. The sun, glare and salt bring on blindness! Fortunately, today’s salt production, even where relatively traditional, is much safer. We can sprinkle Trapani sea salt on our ravioli without guilt. ※
Another stop during our visits to far-west Sicily was the picturesque hill town of Erice. Well, more picturesque if during our visit the village hadn’t been swallowed by the clouds. Our tour-bus driver and so-called guide wasn’t much help on this one. He didn’t even commiserate with us on seeing the stone walls of Erice in a fog bank; no panorama of sea and mountains today. (We learned later that Erice is often socked in.) He parked the van, and told us to get out. “Go up the walk, turn left, turn left again. You’ll find the town. I’ll meet you at the other side of the Torre de re Federico in two hours.” (The where?) And he disappeared into the mist.
Instead of sightseeing, we enjoyed a pizza lunch with two pleasant British women. Back in the bus, which we weren’t sure we’d be able to find, on our way out of the village and out of the clouds, the view wasn’t at all bad.