“Sicilian wines encompass the spirit of 20 civilisations” claims wine buff Bruno Pastera. The same is true of the food. If Sicily were a pizza it would be thick-crust. Each layer adds another exotic flavour, another spicy civilisation. Blame the early Arab settlers, who spiced up Sicilian cuisine, introducing citrus fruits and cloying sweets. Blame the Sicilian nuns, closeted away in their convents, with baking cakes their only escape from prayer. Novice nuns made marzipan concoctions – and the tradition survives. The naughty pastries include `virgins’ breasts’ and `chancellors’ buttocks.’
Conveniently, a tour of south-eastern Sicily’s best baroque towns soon turns into a food safari. This moveable feast links Ragusa, Modica and Noto, a cluster of tawny-coloured baroque towns rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake. In Sicily, the sense of baroque embraces architecture and food. It’s a way of seeing the world. As writer Stefano Malatesta says: “Everything’s baroque, excessive, and eccentric: look at the lavish, multi-coloured food, the decadent nobles, the elaborate courtesy.”
Known as the Val di Noto, Sicily’s most flourishing region discovered tourism late. Centred on Ragusa, this `island within an island' has long lived off the land. Wherever you look are well-tended olive groves, gnarled carob trees, dry-stone walls and low-slung farmhouses. The rolling hills lead to prosperous, butter-yellow towns where comfort eating and hearty inns are slowly making way for Michelin-starred restaurants.
Golden-hued Noto is the most blatantly theatrical town, with a baroque cuisine to match. Here, Caffe Sicilia is Sicily’s most celebrated pastry-shop. Sicilians in need of a sugar fix eat the cloyingly sweet cassata, made with ricotta and candied fruit. The rest of us tend to go for torrone, nougat infused with local honey and almonds. In summer, the saffron ice cream is the perfect antidote to dizziness induced by the sight of so many billowing baroque balconies.