For Sicily, geography has always been destiny. The rocky isle, a land mass the size of Vermont, rises from the Mediterranean like a giant pebble kicked by the toe of Italy. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs viewed it as a strategic military and cultural outpost; it was ruled by outsiders for centuries. But its society, from wealthy landowners to impoverished peasants, was actually managed, on a daily basis, by a shadowy network of quasi-military local power brokers known in recent decades as the Mafia.
They made life bearable for the conquered Sicilians, but at a huge cost: Sicily, breadbasket of the Mediterranean, should be Italy's wealthiest region. Instead, it gets little respect, let alone investment capital; it's literally Italy's step-child.
And yet: ringed by rich waters and covered with dense forests, amazingly fertile hillsides, and ancient vineyards, Sicily is southern Italy's gastronomic paradise. "When it comes to bounty from land and sea, modern Sicilians are the most spoiled people on the planet," writes Robert V. Camuto in his new book about Sicily, Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (University of Nebraska Press).
Camuto visited Seattle about two years ago to promote his first book, Corkscrewed, a love-letter to the small, independent wine growers of France. The feistiness of the French is intellectual; the passion of the Italians is different, rooted in a fierce loyalty to family and respect for the land.
Siciliy, dominated by an active volcano, Mount Etna, on its eastern shore, is both a crucible of original recipes and a melting pot of culinary traditions. Etna, growling and regularly oozing glowing lava from its flanks, shares its slopes with vineyards, olive groves, and citrus orchards: red nerello mascalese, white cataratto, carricante and malvasia di Lipari. (The world being what it is, one also finds the ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.) Wines were once made right in the vineyards, using ancient stone presses called palmenti; it's in tribute to this tradition that Caputo titled his book.
He calls it a Sicilian wine odyssey, but it's more. Camuto has written a cultural history of the island by telling the stories of a dozen wine growing families; he's not, he points out, a wine writer but a writer with a particular interest in the stories of wine makers. His profiles of the Occhipinti and Planeta families, come to life on the page, but the most fascinating part of the book, for me, was the chapter he devoted to the island's ancient capital city of Palermo.
Here is both historic grandeur and inexplicable rubble. "I thought about dinner and I thought about wine. What do the Palermitani drink with their diet of beauty and decay, divinity and chaos? I wondered," Camuto writes.
In the city's historic center he finds the locally famous Antica Focacceria San Francisco, where a police car has been parked out front ever since the restaurant's owner, Vincenzo Conticello, refused to pay the Mafia's pizzo (protection money). That was five years ago. Others had refused similar demands and were gunned down on streetcorners. Two prosecutors investigating the Mafia were killed, their cars blown up by bombs. Conticello has had armed guards since 2005, and doesn't sleep in the same bed two nights in a row.
But there is hope. Libera Terra is a co-op that now makes wine on land seized from the Mafia, outside the town of Corleone, no less. (On its own, Sicily produces more wine than New Zealand and Austria combined.) Fifty years ago, a novel, Il Gattopardo ("The Leopard"), chronicled the slow demise of the island's aristocracy, like a Sicilian "Gone With the WInd." Camuto suggests that it is wine, in the end that may provide the unifying metaphor for the island's new identity.
If you go: Robert Camuto's book tour comes to Seattle Monday (Nov. 1): 5 p.m. reading and book signing at Elliott Bay Books, 1521 10th Ave. 6:30 p.m. All Saints Day Sicilian soul food and wine evening at La Medusa, 4857 Rainier Ave. S., $25 includes wine and food.
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