Sicilian Cooking Class with Fiora
This summer we took a trip to Sicily, the beautiful Italian island and the largest island in the Mediterranean sea. Sicily has a rich and unique culture as it used to be inhabited by a multitude of ethnic groups including the ancient Greeks, Romans, Vikings and Muslims. The rich history has strongly influenced the cuisine which is a versatile mix of delicious fresh sea food, fresh and cured meat, fragrant mediterranean spices and sun ripened fruits & vegetables. The best thing - all focus is on fresh ingredients and cooking less is considered more. Most of you will know that I like a clean, fuss free and 'less is more' approach when it comes to everything from skincare to food, so I was sold into this philosophy straight away.
Blessed with a gorgeously warm and sunny weather most of the year, Sicily offers simple, fresh and tasty cooking ingredients. A multitude of vineyards, orange and lemon groves, almond trees, olive farms and markets can be visited in search of the perfect ingredients and for culinary inspiration. We chose to enrol into a half day demo cooking class with a local chef in Ortigia, the old town of Syracuse, located in the southeast corner of the island.
To kick off our cooking day, we met with Fiora from Sicilian Demo Cooking - our market guide, chef and mentor in everything Sicilian food for the day. After chatting to Fiora we found out that besides the cooking class the runs several restaurants in Syracuse as well as runs a touristic enterprise and a hotel together with her husband.
First stop for us was the market of Ortigia which offers a rich variety of locally-grown fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and charcuterie. After finding out what we like, Fiora instantly created a personalised menu - she must be carrying around 1000s of recipes in her head - and proceeded to buy the ingredients for all the dishes to be created.
We wanted to try as many authentic Sicilian courses as possible - so ended up shopping a lot. Fiora was very patient and provided useful background info on all ingredients, shops and stands and shared some valuable knowledge on Sicilian cuisine. Traditionally, Sicilian food focuses on preserving the freshness and seasonality of the ingredients, simplicity is key here!
Whilst shopping we got introduced to everyone from the fishmonger and butcher to the local farmer. We also popped by the gourmet grocery shop Gusto which is situated just by the far end of the market, if you’re a food lover you have got to go - this shop is every gourmet’s dream. It offers fresh cheese - I have never seen Burrata so succulent - and charcuterie as well as daily freshly made pasta and an array of local pickles including marinated Carcioffi (Artichoke) and Melanzane (Eggplant).
After this extensive and senses wooing shopping experience we were happy to finally get to see Fiora’s Ortigia pad - so exciting to be able to get a sniff of the life of an authentic Sicilian! Set in one of the 19th century manor houses and overlooking the Ortigia Dock, the spacious apartment turned out to be a tasteful mix of antiques and modern eclecticism. We felt very welcome straight away and were ready to embark on our Sicilian demo cooking challenge.
I have never seen a kitchen as well equipped as Fiora’s kitchen, she seems to have all cooking gadgets and accessories required for any cooking prep whatsoever , I especially fell in love with the multiple blade scissors for cutting fresh spices (buy them here).
The first thing we did was to create sweet pasta for the typical Sicilian Cannolli, later to be flash fried and filled with mascarpone cream and pistacchios. I somehow never asked myself the question how Cannoli are made. Turns out that the pastry is actually sweet pasta made with cacao powder and cinnamon and wrapped around special Cannoli tubes (buy them here) to keep the Cannolli in shape whilst they are being deep fried.
Second up was a dish called 'Falsomagro' or 'False meat', a Sicilian Stuffed Meat Roll or, as some call it Stuffed Roast Beef. A simple recipe that can feed a lot of people, so the perfect crowd pleaser for dinner parties. The meat roll is made out of beef mince mixed with egg and spices and then filled with mortadella sausage, cheese and eggs. The roll is then roasted to perfection in the oven with potatoes, cherry tomatoes fresh thyme and rosemary.
After Falsomagro was in the over, we focused on prepping the first of our fish dishes, Stuffed Anchovies. The Stuffed Anchovies are actually two butterflied anchovy fillets with a layer of breadcrumbs, olives, capers and spices sandwiched in-between. They are then tossed in egg and breadcrumbs and fried in groundnut oil. Turns out that groundnut oil is one of the best and healthiest oils to fry with, it’s rather on the expensive side but the quality is really convincing.
Up next is the Stuffed Squid - stuffed with... more squid, anchovies, capers and cheese, coated in breadcrumbs and fried in groundnut oil. Yumm.
After the squid was stuffed and ready for frying, we started preparing the artichokes, to be sauteed with white fish - a very simple but effective dish. Fiora taught us how to peel Artichokes and get the most out of the Artichoke hearts. She showed us a trick whereby you have to press your thumb against the fleshy part of the leaves, this allows you to rip the leaves off one by one without losing out on the flesh. Once you've made your way around the artichoke and all leaves are gone, there is a furry inside bit that needs extracting. As the artichoke (similar to avocado) gets brown very quickly, it's necessary to rub it with lemon juice all the way throughout the process in order to preserve its freshness.
The last two dishes we created were Prawn Carpaccio, raw prawns preserved only with olive oil and lemon, and only doable (without getting Salmonella) when the prawns have just been freshly caught.
Another dish we made was a quick side salad made of fresh Oranges, red onions and edible violets, my visual highlight of the day and insta-grammable as hell!
By then it was lunch time, the Falsomagro was almost roasted, the Stuffed Anchovies and Stuffed Squid fried, the fresh fish and artichokes blanched, and the Cannelloni took on the usual tube shape through deep frying. After filling the Cannelloni with the mascarpone mixture, we finally got to gather at the beautifully set table in Fiora's dining room and to try all the delicious dishes we have made. Accompanied by a gorgeous, floral-citrussy mineral wine Bianco di Nera we made our way through all of the Sicilian dishes we have made in the course of the morning. My favourites were the Stuffed Anchvies in combination with the fresh orange salad and the frizzante wine, molto bene! The Cannolli also didn't disappoint - we will definitely try re-creating them when back in London.
All in all the day was an amazing success, we went away from the course inspired, well fed and a lot more knowledgeable about Sicilian food habits and techniques. If you ever happen to be in Sicily - this is half a day worth of doing. To find more info on the demo cooking class and book it visit this link.