The first dish cited in our Insight guide to Sicily is Sarde a beccafico. I didn’t pay much attention, not being overly fond of sardines.
But when I read in that same guidebook that you could stay at Via Butera 28 in Palermo, part of Palazzo Lanza Tomasi where Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa lived while writing The Leopard, one of the world’s 100 best novels, one of my favourites, I was “estatico.” Insight noted that you could also “book a cookery course” at the Palazzo. That made me pause. I’ve had little desire to take cooking classes. As a decent home cook, I don’t want to spend my vacation chopping herbs, cooking onions or making dishes I probably have a recipe for or could find online. And cooking classes are expensive. My attitude changed when I checked out the Via Butera 28 website and discovered the class was conducted by the duchess herself, Nicoletta Lanza Tomasi!
And how, you might be wondering, did Nicoletta get to be a duchess?
The Tomasi family were Princes of Lampedusa and Dukes of Palma di Montechiaro, a town near Agrigento that they built in 1635. The Tomasis also had a mansion in Palermo. When it was destroyed in the Allied bombing of 1943, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa bought the palazzo at Via Butera 28, hence the name Palazzo Lanza Tomasi. The reserved Giuseppe had no children, but he adopted his beloved cousin Gioacchino (Gio) Lanzadi Mazzarino. As a result of the adoption, Gio inherited the title of Duke of Palma. When Gio married Nicoletta in 1982, she became the Duchess of Palma. Got it?
Gio spent his career as a musicologist, Nicoletta was an interpreter and organizer of music festivals. After living and travelling in many places around the world, the couple returned fulltime to Palazzo Lanza Tomasi in 2007. They have dedicated themselves to its restoration and role as an historic house museum. To help defray the costs, they rent twelve vacation apartments in the Palazzo and Nicoletta conducts cooking classes.
Was I intimidated about cooking with the duchess? Initially, yes, but not after the first email she sent me.
I organize my cooking classes on request, for a minimum of 6 participants, maximum 14.
The class starts at 8:30 am and ends at around 3:00/3:30 pm with a tour of the Palazzo after lunch. Please have a look at http://www.butera28.it/palermo-cooking-classes-sicily/ for information and photos. Please let me know if you would like to proceed with the booking so I can send you the booking information.
I am of course at your disposal for any further information.
Looking forward to hearing from you, and to hopefully meeting you in April,
And when she introduced herself at 8:35 am on the morning of the class, I was hooked.
“I’m late, I’m so sorry. I apologize. This rarely happens but today my husband is suffering from a bad back and you know how husbands are. As soon as they have a problem, they need mothering.”
To the dozen or so of us in the class, she passed around handouts of the recipes we’d be making. And there it was, the main dish: Sarde a beccafico, sardines rolled with a stuffing made from onions, bread crumbs, pine nuts, citrus juices and zests, and currants, then baked with bay leaves and orange slices.
Nicoletta is a self-taught cook, inspired by Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza, her sister-in-law, who introduced Sicily’s culinary complexity to the world by starting a cooking school on the island in 1989. Nicoletta started her own cooking classes in 2010.
“The first one was a disaster in my opinion, “ she said, shaking her head, “but people had fun and I learned from my mistakes, which were many.”
Nicoletta arranged for two vans with drivers to take us to and from Il Capo, one of Palermo’s famed markets. She bee-lined her way to her favourite vendors, one for bread, another for olives, others for oranges, fennel and sardines—two kilos of sardines that her fishmonger gutted and butterflied… “You have to have trust in your fishmonger. When you always buy from a certain vendor like my fishmonger, in Sicilian you say ‘I belong to Pescheria Isgrò,’” she explained. I love the quirky bits that travel gifts us.
And what did I learn? How to properly rock a mezzaluna to chop herbs for the stuffing. (For over a year Magellan has been trying to teach me how to use the Joseph Joseph mezzaluna he bought me.) A better way to cook onions—instead of stirring them off and on for twenty minutes until they brown, Nicoletta puts the onions in a cold pan, adds generous glugs of olive oil and about the same amount of cold water and walks away, freely devoting her time to another task while the water evaporates and the onions soften perfectly. Even if I had a recipe for Sicilian biancomangiare, the almond blancmange we made, I would never have thought of sprinkling the inside of dessert glasses with cinnamon for added flavour and eye appeal. Nor would I have thought of decorating this ambrosial dessert with jasmine flowers, which grow on our back deck, like Nicoletta’s, although her deck is about ten times larger. And does everyone but me know that pink peppercorns (the magic ingredient in her Sarde a beccafico recipe) are berries, not pepper?
Literary references peppered Nicoletta’s cooking class. “Remember the Queen of Hearts and what she said when people didn’t obey her rules?” she said to Bruno, a lively Brit who was part of a professional team filming her cooking class that day. “‘Off with your head!’” Nicoletta exclaimed, wielding one of her kitchen knives in jest at Bruno, who was acting up for the camera. In homage to Giuseppe, who always carried a volume of Shakespeare with him to his favourite café in Palermo where he went to write The Leopard, Nicoletta referenced Romeo and Juliet. “Remember Capulet asking a servant to go hire twenty of the best cooks in Verona to prepare for the wedding? And do you remember the servant’s reply when asked how he would find the best cooks? “’Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers,’” she said, miming the words.
She explained that beccafico means “Fig-Peckers,” fat birds, which is what the plump rolled-up sardines with their tails in the air look like. They were one of our favourite tastes of Sicily, so delicious that I’ve adapted the recipe, subbing petrale sole since we don’t get fresh sardines in Vancouver. (I “belong” to Longliner, who gave me halibut-fin trimmings to make tails for my Fig-Peckers.)
The lunch we’d prepared was served to the group of us from Copenhagen, London, Bristol and Milan in the lavish dining room, where we were joined by Gio. This was followed by a tour of Palazzo Lanza Tomasi—a once-in-a-lifetime experience we’ll tell you about in a future blog.
The afternoon was fading, like Nicoletta’s voice. And she had to return to the kitchen and cook dinner for eighteen for a charitable event at the Palazzo that night. And think about lunch for thirty people the next day. Plus, Gio’s son and family were visiting. It was time to say “ciao” and “grazie mille” to the duchess for a truly royal, blue-ribbon day.
- 9 small, thin slices of petrale sole
- fish tails or fins to create 18 fig-pecker tails
- 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 cup breadcrumbs from good but stale bread
- 5 tbsp currants
- 5 tbsp pine nuts
- ¼ cup parsley, minced
- ¼ cup mint, minced
- ¼ cup orange juice
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- zest of an orange, finely grated
- zest of a lemon, finely grated
- 2 teaspoons pink peppercorns
- sea salt and pepper, freshly ground to taste
- 2 blood oranges, sliced into 18 half moons
- 18 bay leaves
- Put the onion in a fry pan. Add the olive oil and about the same amount of water. Turn the heat to medium low and cook until the water is evaporated and the onions have softened, about 20 minutes.
- Add the breadcrumbs and cook for a few minutes to toast them.
- Remove the pan from the heat and add all of the other ingredients, except for the petrale sole, blood orange slices and bay leaves.
- Cut each slice of petrale sole in half vertically (at the natural line) to make 18 pieces.
- Place about a tablespoon of stuffing on each slice of sole and roll up. Secure with a toothpick.
- Oil a baking dish and place the fig-peckers close together in the dish. Put a Fig-Pecker "tail" between each piece of fish, as well a bay leaf. Arrange the orange slices around the dish and in between the rows of Fig-Peckers.
- Bake at 375° in a preheated oven for 15 minutes.
- Serve each person three Fig-Peckers with their tails and the bay leaves and a few slices of orange.
UPDATE: May 10, 2020: Nicoletta is now offering private cooking classes—three choices of Sicilian menus: Very Veggie, Citrus Lovers or Pantelleria Spring! Have a look here..
Butera 28 Apartments in Palazzo Lanza Tomasi is a great place to stay in Palermo: well located, historical and with cooking facilities. For info on Nicoletta’s cooking classes, see the text above.
Lampedusa di, Giuseppe. The Leopard. US: Pantheon Books, 1960. One of the best novels I’ve ever read, a brilliant and intimate look at life in Sicily through the keen observation and intelligence of a dying aristocrat (Nicoletta’s father-in-law) as history unfolds toward the unification of Italy. Watch for this in a future blog where we’ll feature Part II of our day with the Duchess.
Tasca Lanza, Anna. The Flavors of Sicily. Spain: Imago, 2001. My sister Joyce gave me this cookbook years ago. Anna (Nicoletta’s sister-in-law) ran Sicily’s most famed cooking school, now under the care of her daughter Fabrizia at Tasca Regaleali, where Magellan and I spent two nights.