Thursday, 30 November 2017

... an abundance of Olives

Sicily is where Europe ends and Africa begins. It began its history as part of Ancient Greece and soon became part of the Roman Empire. Thereafter the island was invaded by the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish and Bourbons before unifying with Italy.

Each conquest left its mark on the island and its abundant produce.

When you think of Sicilian cuisine one of the first things that spring to mind is olives and olive oil. Sicily’s olive oil is like liquid gold.

Every Sicilian is passionate on the subject of olive oil especially their own.

The beautiful olives were brought to the island by the Phoenicians and the Ancient Greeks who brought the art of cultivating the olive tree. Under Roman rule the Romans started the distribution of oil on a large scale to supply the needs of the whole of the Roman Empire. During Arabic rule the Arabs preferred to import their own oil and sadly uprooted many groves and replaced them with citrus groves. In the 18th century the Spanish revived the islands production of olive oil.

Olive trees can live for several hundred years and with advancing age they become more and more gnarled. For the production of the highest quality oils the ripe olives are still harvested by hand and then taken to mills to be pressed.

With Sicily having various microclimates and volcanic terrain the island produces a rich variety of oils found nowhere else in Italy.

Olive harvesting starts in October until the end of November. On autumn walks throughout Sicily you will see trees laden with this amazing fruit.

On average a single tree bears between 50 to 70 kg of olives from which about approximately 8 litres of olive oil is produced.

Earlier this year I was introduced to Salvatore Romano by Luisa Ingoglia the manager of London restaurant Tasting Sicily UK Enzo's Kitchen. Salvatore is the founder of Tasting Sicily.

Initially known as 'Il Mercato' the company was founded by Salvatore who has been a food lover since he was a child. Growing up in Switzerland, Salvatore returned home to Sicily and launched a new concept in true Sicilian deli food, in 2015 the brand became Tasting Sicily.

Tasting Sicily offers 100% hand prepared and hand packaged Sicilian specialities using products that are grown and produced in Sicily by small and local producers and they have now been bringing the flavours and colours of Sicily to all over the world for over 15 years.

Salvatore's home town is the beautiful village of Graniti set in the Alcantara Valley only a 20 minute drive from our home in Giardini Naxos so we vowed to meet up in Sicily and Salvatore thought that olive harvesting would be the perfect time and opportunity to meet up. Therefore one gloriously sunny Thursday morning last month we drove through the stunning countryside of Alcantara with our dog Daisy to meet Salvatore, his lovely wife Karen and his team of olive pickers.

Graniti is an authentic Sicilian village surrounded by much beauty, the area is covered by olive groves and aromatic herbs. Most recently the town has become more colourful with artists from around the world taking up an art residency and painting beautiful murals on the sides of the lovely buildings in the village.

After taking Daisy for a run on the beach I messaged Salvatore to say we were on our way and he replied that they were currently harvesting just below the main road into Graniti. As we arrived we saw everyone down in the olive grove, so parked our car eager to join in.

The olive pickers this year were visitors from Switzerland. The pickers stay in Graniti in guest houses and apartments which are part of Salvatore's home Vita Sicula. Harvesting usually begins the second week of October and takes about one week picking olives for around eight hours per day with coffee breaks and lunch served under the trees.

The team had started harvesting the previous Sunday and as we arrived they were just finishing the last few trees in the lower groves before heading up to another grove on the side of a terraced hillside. The day before our visit Salvatore had just taken his first batch of olives to the mill which had produced an incredible ninety litres of beautiful olive oil.

Salvatore and Karen are the perfect hosts and myself, my husband and Daisy were immediately made to feel at home and part of the team.

As is the traditional way we knocked down the ripe olives from the trees with wood poles, picked them by hand and carefully stripped from the branches with a special kind of small rake.

Nets were put down under the olive trees and we used wooden ladders to reach the highest branches.

The olives were then collected from the nets and put into crates (with a little help from Daisy) and then they were loaded into Salvatore's jeep ready to be taken to the mill to be pressed into olive oil.

After the last tree of the lower grove was harvested it was time for breakfast.

We all headed up the hillside into the next grove and sat and enjoyed bread soaked in the new olive oil that had just been produced the day before. It was absolutely delicious. We also enjoyed local cheeses and Tasting Sicily Arancia Rossa Marmellata (blood orange marmalade) which I have to say is the most mouth watering marmalade I have tasted EVER.

Then whilst Daisy enjoyed socialising with her new friends Salvatore taught us how to taste olive oil.

The proper way to taste olive oil is on its own without bread.

Salvatore explained that the oil is usually tasted using small blue glasses so that you do not discriminate the colour. We improvised by using small plastic espresso cups which we were told to hold in the palm of our hand with our other hand covering the top which would warm the oil up to our own temperature.

Then Salvatore told us to smell the oil and asked what fragrance we could smell, I smelt tones of pepper and herbs from the surrounding countryside.

We were then told to slurp it into our mouth taking in some air as we slurped, hold it in our mouths for a few seconds and then swallow. He waited for our reaction and asked what we felt.

The oil had a pleasing aroma and was bitter on the back of my tongue which left a peppery finish in the back of my throat that made me cough. Salvatore explained that this was actually a compliment as the bitterness and pungency are the complex antioxidants that make oil so healthy and it is an indication of quality, freshness and a great olive oil.

After an enjoyable morning in great company it was soon time to go home. Daisy had so much fun that she actually refused to move and go home.

With the weather in October being usually warm and sunny, an olive picking holiday makes a wonderful experience in Sicily especially combined with staying in accommodation at Vita Sicula.

The various houses and apartments can make a wonderful self catering holiday at any time of year and are ideally located to reach Taormina and its local beaches, exploring the Alcantara Valley and Mount Etna and discovering the Eastern side of Sicily. 

Vita Sicula is also a perfect venue for events and meetings.

Cooking classes and food tasting can also be arranged.

Salvatore and Karen's love for Sicily, its land and produce shines through,
for their full story and more information visit

Vita Sicula translates to Life in Sicily, which certainly is wonderful. 


Photo Gallery

a big Grazie to Salvatore

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Sarah & Daisy xxx

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Pupi Salamanca ... the Master Puppet Maker

Sicily is an island full of much history, culture, folklore and traditions.

Puppet theatres (teatro dei pupi) have been popular in Sicily since the fourteenth century but really became popular in the 1800's and provided nightly entertainment for thousands of Sicilians who would watch the good guys fight the bad guys in stories of adventure and romance. Travelling puppet theatres drew huge crowds in smaller villages.

The art of the Sicilian puppet theatres has been given recognition by UNESCO in 2001 when it was included in the Representation List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The most traditional stories are derived from the stories of the Holy Emperor Charlemagne and his Paladin Knights battle for Christianity against the Saracens and Turks involving raucous sword fights.

Other stories include the lives of Saints, legends of bandits, local farces and even Shakespearian themes and there is always a love interest.

So who are the good guys? Holy Emperor Charlemagne and his Paladin Knights are dressed in armour and brightly coloured clothes. Orlando is the mighty and loyal leader of the Paladins, In Catania he is dressed in red and carries a shield with a eagle. His cousin Rinaldo is a brave fighter with a weakness for the ladies, he is dressed in green with a lion on his shield. In Palermo it is opposite Orlando is in green and Rinaldo is in red. Beautiful Angelica is the object of the two men's affections and drives Orlando out of his mind with passion. Then there is Rinaldo's sister Bradamante, a long blonde haired warrior.

And who are the bad guys? Mostly evil Saracens and Turks, they wear baggy trousers and have droopy moustaches and have shields with a crescent moon. Charlemagne's brother-in-law and arch enemy Gano di Magonza often tries to overthrow the crown. The sorcerer Malaggi plays both sides, sometimes helping and sometimes hurting the Paladins cause. Other characters include crocodiles and monsters who brave Orlando gets involved with in fights.

When we first bought our Sicilian home one of my first purchases were the puppets Rinaldo and Angelica who now happily live together hung above our bed, my husband initially had visions of them coming alive at night wielding their little swords at him.

Earlier this year I received a lovely email from Stephanie at Pupi Salamanca saying that the Maestro Puparo (master puppet maker) Francesco Salamanca was coming to London exhibiting at Pop Up Market Sicily, held annually at London's Spitalfields Market, and asked if it would be possible to bring his puppets along to an event that was being held at London restaurant Tasting Sicily UK Enzo's Kitchen.

During our correspondence Stephanie invited me to visit the Pupi Salamanca workshop near Catania to meet Francesco and his beautiful puppets. Therefore last month we set off for Catania with our dog Daisy and our English friend Teresa who lives in our town.

Francesco Salamanca was born in Catania in 1955. At thirteen years old, Francesco decided to devote all his extra time making Sicilian puppets. It was the puppeteer Emilio Musumeci who welcomed him into his laboratory and taught Francesco the techniques of construction whilst telling him the stories of the Paladin Knights. In August 2011, Francesco won the 'Knight Award Isidoro Platania' in recognition for his wonderful and passionate career as a Master Craftsman.

On arrival at his workshop we were greeted by Stephanie and her husband Simone, who is Francesco's son, Francesco and his wife Angioletta.

Entering the workshop we were surrounded by puppets of every kind and size and on a work table lay a puppet that was over 50 years old that had come in for restoration to bring him back to his former beauty. Restoration is also a large part of Francesco's art.

Stephanie and Simone explained that Francesco constructs and makes the puppets and their armour and his wife makes the puppets clothes and paints their facial features in the same traditional way the art has always been done. The body is made with a hard wood so that the puppet can withstand all the action on stage and the head is made using a softer wood making it easy to sculpt the facial features.

A template is used to cut metal for armour and much to our joy Francesco announced that he would demonstrate to us how he creates the armour. He explained that as a child growing up being one of six children there was no money spare to spend on buying metal for his creations so he improvised by cutting out used tins of tomatoes and banging them out flat to create the armour.

Francesco sat and placed a template of metal onto his work bench pinning it down onto a well used iron plate to keep it in place and then with a hammer and some tools began to beat intricate designs and shapes into the metal. He explained that the small tools he uses to create the different curves and edgings have all been created by himself using everyday metal objects such as water pipes and parts from car engines. It was obvious watching Francesco work that each puppet is made with a lot of love and passion.

The puppets are made in several sizes ranging from 28cm high, 55cm, 80cm and right up to a collection of 65 puppets 110cm high which were constructed for a project by Francesco's other son Emanuele creating them for the cruise ship "Costa Magica" one of the Costa Cruise liners.

Francesco often takes part in numerous craft fairs throughout Sicily and mainland Italy and on our visit the family were getting ready for the annual Ottobrata Feste which is held every Sunday throughout October in the Mount Etna town of Zafferana Etnea.

After our delightful visit and an impromptu demonstration by Simone showing us how the puppets move it was soon time to go home and one lucky little Catanese Pupi (he has an elephant on his shield, the symbol of Catania) got to go home with Teresa. We left Pupi Salamanca knowing that as is always the Sicilian way we had made new friends for life.

Francesco Salamanca is a true master craftsman and I do hope that this amazing craft never dies out.

A big thank you to Francesco and his wonderful family and puppets.

A visit to Pupi Salamanca workshop is a perfect addition your Sicilian trip
and is ideal for any age group.

For more information visit  

Photo Gallery

Our visit to Pupi Salamanca Workshop

Ottobrata Feste 2017, Zafferana Etna
(Photo credit: Pupi Salamanca)

... and a lucky puppet found a new home with Teresa

This week I had the pleasure of attending World Travel Market London

It was a delight to meet over 30 wonderful exhibitors from Sicily

So Keep posted for
Brand NEW exciting experiences and venues for 2018

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Love Sarah & Daisy x