Palermo is the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, which sits nestled in the glistening Mediterranean just off the “toe” of Italy’s “boot.” Palermo itself is home to Byzantine mosaics, frescoed cupolas, Arabesque domes, Italy’s biggest opera house and an increasing number of new-school eateries and bars. Flamboyant and feisty, up-and-coming yet still remaining under most tourist’s radars, Palermo is the place to head to for an authentic slice of Sicilian life. When our writer Scott visited he was lucky enough to be invited by the Duchess of Palma to attend one of her cooking lessons…
On arriving at the Palazzo in Sicily’s capital we used the very impressive door knocker to let the Duchess and her team know we were there. The Duchess is Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi who is actually the genuine Duchess of Palermo, Sicily (so a real honour to meet her, let alone cook with her!) and the full-day event included a cooking lesson the Sicilian way followed by a delicious dinner in her very elegant and ornate dining room.
Dressed casually in a plain blouse and trousers, we were pleasantly surprised to find how friendly the Duchess was, and she immediately insisted that we all referred to her as Nicoletta, as if she were an old friend. In a small group of just ten, the class began in Nicoletta’s garden where we eagerly followed her around as she plucked fresh herbs, each one coming with a story of why it was such an important ingredient to the meal we were about to cook. Then we moved into the kitchen where we started to prepare the ‘Almond Milk Biancomangiare desert’. In English, it’s just plain old ‘Almond Custard’ so yes it sounds much better when you say it in Italian! Nicoletta explained you could buy the almond milk pretty easily in Palermo, but instead we made our own…
At mid-morning we were collected by two taxis and taken to the wonderful Mercato il Capo located in the historic centre of the city to buy the main ingredients for the cooking adventure. This was one of my personal highlights of the whole day. The Duchess, a self-taught cook, developed her skills since moving to Palermo in the early 1980s. She had also lived in Naples and New York and regards the former as one of her favourite places in the world.
As soon as we entered Mercato il Capo, Nicoletta warned us that we had to stay close and not wander off. As we stopped off to buy fish, vegetables, nuts and other delights, the Duchess told us numerous stories about the market and even took the time to recommend that we visit Chiesa dell’Immacolata Concezione a baroque style church during our stay. One of my favourite stories, while we were in the market, was that everyone in Palermo stays loyal to a particular market trader. She said that you will find that most customers are ‘owned’ by their trader and if you were to shop with a different trader then it’s seen as a “slash across the face” to the one that owns you (yikes)! “It’s seen a serious insult and of course you get treated very well by your ‘owners’. “ Nicoletta explained chirpily.
We were supposed to be cooking Pesce spade (swordfish) alla Ghiotta but as the Duchess was about to buy the swordfish the trader, who ‘owns’ her, said that the swordfish wasn’t as good as normal and recommended amberjack instead – not something that usually happens in Ireland or the UK!
Next up was to make Panelle, with Nicoletta putting a spin on the typical Sicilian street food. For the record, they are chickpea fritters which although they may sound a little bland and boring, they are actually incredibly tasty! Making the Panelle was a fascinating process. The hot chickpea batter was put into a tin can to mould it. Once it had cooled we took it in turns to slowly push it out of the can and thinly slice it. The final stage was to fry them in a pan. We took a hard-earned break from cooking to enjoy some tasty canapés and a couple of glasses of Regaleali Nero d’Avola and Regaleali Bianco. A key ingredient for lots of Sicilian dishes is capers and Nicoletta warned us that in Sicily you should never buy ones that have been preserved in vinegar. Apparently, you must only buy ones that are in salt, as the others are regarded as low quality.
We started to prepare the stuffing for the Ricciola alla Ghiotta – remember it should have been swordfish but after the fishmongers intervention we ended up making Ricciola alla Ghiotta (amberjack) instead. The ingredients for the Ricciola alla Ghiotta were primarily amberjack, olives and capers. I love how Italians make such tasty food with a minimal amount of ingredients. To accompany the fish we all whipped up a delicious side salad that comes from Pantelleria, an island off of Sicily. For this we had to peel the skins off potatoes before mixing them with sweet red onions and capers.
Just before serving Nicolletta added the finishing touches of red-wine vinegar and her beloved Monsù extra-virgin olive oil (the only oil that she uses and you can actually buy from Nicoletta), before adding some freshly ground pepper. Like any Italian dinner, a pasta course had to be included! We made a very tasty pistachio pesto, naturally we made from scratch and served it with fusilli pasta, which was just divine! After a fun few hours, we moved into the dining room and were joined by the Duke of Palma for a silver-service dinner that we had prepared with our own hands! It was quite an exciting moment!
We finished the experience with the Duchess giving us a tour of the palazzo, providing us with stories about the Palazzo and her family’s rich history. Something to note for literary enthusiasts is that it was the last home of Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of the world famous novel The Leopard. Overall the day was a truly unique experience which lasted for approximately seven hours and everyone seemed to love their time spent with the affable Duchess (and of course the incredible food)! The group was made of a mix of nationalities and ages with some people coming from as far as Australia.
The cost for the Cooking with the Duchess cooking class is €150 per person and whilst it’s not the cheapest thing you can do in the city, it offers a unique insight into Sicilian high society and of course, it’s an experience you aren’t likely to forget in a hurry!