It is my personal philosophy to never have regrets. My feeling is that life is so full of possibilities that I’m never going to be able to take advantage of all of them. I’ll just keep trying my best to fit as much in as possible.
That said, there are some things that sneak through my carefully erected je-ne-regrette-rien barrier. Four years ago, at the end of a long day, I opened my laptop to scroll through Facebook to catch up on the day’s events. I was immediately met by a wall full of tearful and sad notices: Anna Tasca Lanza had passed away. Even before the advent of social media, I felt I knew Anna (yes, in my mind we were on a first name basis) because her cookbooks had been a part of my life for so long. For so many of us, her book, The Heart of Sicily was our first introduction not only to Sicilian cooking, but to a way of life that seemed as far removed in space and time not only from present day American, but from what most of us had come to know as Italian.
I even managed to buy a rare copy of her The Garden of Endangered Fruit, the lusciously illustrated, small volume that not only took me through her fruit orchard, but shared mysterious recipes like Prickly Pear Paste and Sorbollino.
So while I felt I knew Anna through her books, and even had the chance to visit the Estate of Regaleali where her cooking school was located, I never had a chance to actually cook with her. And so, I admit it, when I learned she had passed away, I felt regret.
Anna Tasca Lanza started what was one of the most exciting and original cooking schools in Italy. The school is housed in Case Vecchie, a large and stately collection of farm buildings that center on an enclosed courtyard in the midst of the family’s estate of Tasca d’Almerita at Regaleali, in the center of Sicily. For the last twenty five years Anna, and eventually her daughter Fabrizia, have been sharing, teaching and opening their Sicilian world to countless students.
Alas, I was never one of them.
So when I was invited to come to Case Vecchie, to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the cooking school, I of course said yes.
I was invited to stay at the Casa Grandi, another of the buildings on the Estate. The morning of the party a group of us decided to walk the mile or so over to Case Vecchie. We hiked through the incredible landscape that makes up one of the biggest vineyards not only in Sicily, but in Italy, producing the well known Tasca d’Almerita wines.
By the time we arrived at the Case Vecchie the celebration was in full swing. Guests were greeted with straw hats and a cooling glass of eldeberry cordial. We walked through the vegetable and herb garden to arrive at the courtyard where guests were enjoying sparkling rose, and deep fried panelle and ghineffi, fried rice balls.
Eventually a big cow bell was stuck: A Tavola!
While Fabrizia had used the words “to the table” , as we made our way through the barns, out the back door, and to the vineyards, I didn’t really expect to find any sort of real table. I assumed it would be a picnic kind of affair. I mean, we were nearing 200 people!
What we found? A pristine, perfectly set table. For 200 people! One long tablecloth running its length, and a beautiful burlap tent to shade us from the heat. As we sat down, each guest was asked to read the ‘instructions.’ The hand painted blue and white plates were ours to take home. The placemat? Actually a canvas bag to hold our plates. And just in case the heat got too much, a lovely blue fan to cool us off.
The instructions continued: To start our meal we were told to open up the jars that formed the centerpieces. Preserved baby artichokes, tomato confit, anchovies, caper pate’, and hot peppers. All local, and sourced by Fabrizia, the jars represented a new chapter in the Estate: Natura in Tasca. A celebration of the local traditions and food ways that define Sicily.
As I started opening up jars, Mary, who was sitting in front of me, left the table for the fields surrounding us and came back with a handful of green pods. “Fresh cicerchie!” she explained. A type of chickpea, we were soon shelling them and popping them into our mouths, about as farm to table as you can get.
Our meal continued with more Sicilian bounty: lentils tossed with red onions and oregano; chickpeas with olive oil and black pepper and fragrant Sicilian grown rice perfumed with fresh mint.
Wine was help yourself. And then help yourself again. Buckets of the Regaleali estate’s bottles were chilled and came from their various vineyards from Mount Etna to the island of Mozia.
Just as we were finishing our desert (I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a law that says that all meals in Sicily must end with a cannolo) the clouds began to move in. A brief shower didn’t really matter since by that time we had all moved into one of the barns to bowls full of mulberry gelato and small glasses of passito.
By the time the party ended the sky had cleared, and we made our way across the puddles in the courtyard to head back up to the Casa Grandi. While I still regret not having ever gotten a chance to meet Anna, and cook with her, I’m content that Fabrizia has continued and graciously invited me not only to join her at the table on this incredibly special occasion, but that she continues on her own path, searching out and preserving the traditions that define the school, the estate and Sicily itself.
And for the recipe for gineffe, panelle and more see Coming Home to Sicily, by Fabrizia Lanza.