It wasn't only until a month ago that the prevalence of Sicily was brought to my attention. All these years, I'd been fantasising wildly about maiden trips to European cities like Milan and Rome. It was where I would visit Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, sip on a macchiato while people-watching... the list goes on. I already had it all mapped out.
To be perfectly honest? Sicily was never on my list; not to mention, have Airbnb lead the way. The homestay start-up's Experiences program has been well underway since last year — boasting a list of curated travel itineraries, hosted by tastemakers worldwide. And now it was going to be my bible in navigating this foreign city.
But that's the best part about having zero expectations. You reap rewards, or in this case — experiences you would never have dreamed of. Especially when it comes to unspoiled towns like Noto, i.e. Sicily's best-kept secret. A town that takes pride in having more bountiful crops than human traffic. After driving for an hour into Noto from Catania's airport, it finally dawned upon me why an insightful program like Airbnb Experiences was essential to a place like this.
Noto's not exactly what you would call touristy; if anything, its true beauty lies in how detached it is from modern-day vanities. Plus, Sicily's exuberant food culture was a joy to experience. Fact: everyone who lives in Noto owns some sort of a produce business. The endless trees, farms, and fields can surely attest to it. The quaint town is a baroque beaut — with historic neighbours like Modica and Rogusa — where most of us would be taken with its breathtaking view of Ancient Greek ruins and unspoiled beaches. "This is paradise," I immediately thought, while temporarily forgetting how jetlagged I was...
A B&B LIKE NO OTHER
Where: Baglio Genovesi Country House
It's hard to look away from the languorous view at Baglio Genovesi Country House, a chic bed and breakfast (of just seven rooms) planted within a large almond farm. Credit due to its position at a magnificant vantage point — re: my first impression of an inviting pool replete with a postcard vision that is the monumental architecture of Noto. I didn't mind the scorching summer heat hitting my skin one bit. In fact, all I wanted to do was to dive headfirst into what millennials would call an Instagram-worthy photo. The rooms here are decently spacious, while modestly furbished. Appearances aside, staying at Baglio Genovesi is a strategic move — it's easily accessible by car to the majestic cathedral of San Nicolö, Baroque palaces, and also the Genovesi farm, where you can witness centuries-worth of olive trees in full bloom.
Where: Carrado's tomato garden
Hosts: Carrado and Marco
Three words: shame, Prego, shame. Regrettably, I've had one too many occasions of cooking with tomatoes from a jar. And upon entering, our host, Carrado's family-owned tomato garden, it became evident that my prior home cooking attempts needed a major reassessment. Tomatoes here are grown with TLC, sans any preservatives or chemicals, as the process of cooking them is seen as a precious family moment for the Italians. The best time to visit? Come around late June and September, as that's when you can get your hands dirty reaping the bright, bold harvests, ripe for the picking.
Now that you have a basket full of fresh tomatoes, it's time to savour them. The experience goes hand in hand with a cooking class, taken over by Carrado's friend, the very charismatic Chef Marco, at his soon-to-open restaurant. Sicilian classics are the hero dishes here — starting with a Caponata, stir-fried diced eggplant and of course, the art of tomato sauce reduction.
The entire meal, accompanied with a glass of bubbly, was sublime till the very end. Spaghetti Pomodoro will never be the same again.
BUT FIRST, WINES
Where: Zisola winery
Stepping into Zisola was akin to walking down a Parisian neighbourhood. The impressive quarters boast a courtyard draped with bougainvillea and modish red doors, which lead to the sacred cellar of one of the most popular wines in Italy as well as stainless steel vats making up the fermentation process. Of course, there is the vineyard tour — where crops of 21 different wines congregate amongst other citrus trees resounding Call Me By Your Name vibes. The good folk at Zisola pride themselves on sustainability — 90% of their wines are organic.
The best part? Getting comfortable in the tasting room, where we sipped on five of Zisola's prime wines alongside bread and olive oil.
Where: Baglietto dei Vendicari
Vendicari Reserve stands as one of those iconic sights; where the preservation of both history and Mother Nature triumphs over any structural skyscraper, any day. No signal? Who cares. Our lovely host, Franzo, led us through a serene nature trail of wild flamingo sightings as well as a short history lesson at Tonnara of Vendicari (the site where tuna fishing took place back in the 17th century. Upon closer inspection, the ruins' scaling pillars still remain undefiled and steady as a rock.
That wasn't even the main highlight. What blew me away was how the experience ended — the making of our very own cannoli, a traditional pastry of the Sicily region. I've had a taste of it once in an Italian restaurant in Singapore, but obviously, I can't even fathom comparing the two. Think copious amounts of flour and rolling pin action before steeping our dough cases into a huge pot of oil (gloriously derived from animal lard). After which, you get to pipe a fresh bag of ricotta into the golden brown shell, before coating it with a generous serving of pistachio nuts. I slept like a baby later that night.
THE MAKING OF UGLY PASTA
Where: Ortigia Market
It was time to say goodbye to Noto, and onwards to Syracuse. This extraordinary city sparks remnants of ancient Greece, embodying spectacular churches and ancient momuments, and on top of it all — the bustling Ortigia Market. Chef Daniel, from Monzu (a sophisticated bistro in Ortigia) makes a stellar first impression by bribing us with a bowl of icy granite, a.k.a. Sicily's vision of gelato made entirely out from sugar, water and various flavourings.
The charming chef then takes us for a wander around the city, from the temple of Athena to Ortigia Market — an important pit-stop of the experience. It is where we'll pick up ingredients for a very special cooking class back at Monzu while rubbing shoulders with the friendly producers and stall owners.
The main event circles back to getting your hands dirty all over again. This time, we're cooking pasta alla Norma, a Sicilian eggplant classic, swivelled with what is termed "ugly pasta". Said pasta is made from scratch, as I handled the perils of flour and dough all over again, with chef Daniel intervening intermittently. The easiest part was cutting it down, with a strong emphasis of random shapes and odd sizes (read: ugly!), which I had no trouble with at all. Chef Daniel and his crew then took over, turning pale pieces of pasta dough into a tantalising dish, married with fried eggplant and a deftly seasoned tomato marinade.
There's nothing like demolishing your very own bowl of handmade pasta. It's a feeling I would wish upon anyone. My final word of advice? Definitely hold off that diet plan while you're in Sicily. That calorie-count app will probably be more of a burden than a helpful aide on this trip.