IS­LAND DREAM

TO SI­CILY’S MANY ATTRACTIONS YOU MAY ADD ITS VINE­YARDS, WITH PRO­DUC­TION STRETCH­ING BACK MILLENNIA. ONE ARIS­TO­CRATIC FAM­ILY HAS HAR­NESSED HIS­TORY, FOOD AND CUL­TURE FOR A VERY 21ST-CEN­TURY HOS­PI­TAL­ITY EX­PE­RI­ENCE.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - CONTENTS - STORY MARIA SHOL­LEN­BARGER

Si­cily’s Tasca fam­ily counts eight gen­er­a­tions of aris­to­cratic wine­mak­ers in its his­tory, in which trav­ellers can now share.

If there is any wine re­gion in Europe that can claim the ti­tle of Most Buzz-Gen­er­at­ing these days, it is prob­a­bly Etna, in Si­cily. Its roughly 1200 hectares of vine­yards cover the mid­dle slopes of the vol­cano of the same name, over­look­ing care­fully cul­ti­vated plains of cit­rus fruits that are a main­stay crop in these parts. Its ap­pel­la­tion sta­tus – Etna DOC, made of­fi­cial in 1968 – is not es­pe­cially old; but winemaking here stretches back some 25 cen­turies, to the hey­day of Magna Grae­cia, and the ter­roir pro­file is many mil­lions of years older. Etna’s vol­canic soil is rich in iron, phos­pho­rus, mag­ne­sium and other vine-friendly min­er­als. Its cli­mate is breezy, with wide-rang­ing tem­per­a­tures; its light is dif­fuse; riots of bold-hued wild­flow­ers grow in swaths be­tween vines. It is, quite apart from the viti­cul­ture, a rav­ish­ingly pretty place.

But Etna’s al­lure is in its mul­ti­far­i­ous­ness. There are more than 70 qual­ity es­tates tend­ing dis­crete con­trade (the Si­cil­ian cor­re­late of a cru vine­yard), most planted with the lo­cal red nerello mas­calese grapes or one of the white lo­cal va­ri­eties, catar­ratto and car­ri­cante. Pro­duc­ers range from se­ri­ous mar­quis names – in­clud­ing, as of this year, An­gelo Gaja – to emerg­ing play­ers like Anna Martens, an Aus­tralian ex­pat ex­plor­ing clay-am­phorae age­ing tech­niques to in­trigu­ing ef­fect. In be­tween are the likes of Tenuta di Fessina, Giro­lamo Russo, Giuseppe Benanti, and other ex­cel­lent bou­tique winer­ies with in­creas­ingly in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tions.

But one name still stands out among them: Tasca d’Almerita. Not just for its winemaking prow­ess – though Tasca d’Almerita is in the coun­try’s high­est ech­e­lon of pro­duc­ers (it was named Ital­ian Win­ery of the Year by the es­teemed Gam­bero Rosso guide in 2011) – but also for the em­i­nent his­tory of the Si­cil­ian fam­ily be­hind it. The Tasca fam­ily tree reads like some­thing straight out of Lampe­dusa (in­deed, var­i­ous Tasca an­ces­tors are said to have in­spired The Leop­ard’s au­thor in his de­scrip­tions of no­ble 19th-cen­tury Si­cil­ian life): eight gen­er­a­tions of winemaking by aris­to­cratic landown­ers, par­lia­men­tar­i­ans and bene­fac­tors (in 1882, Wag­ner com­pleted his opera Par­si­fal while a guest at Villa Tasca in Palermo; framed pages of the orig­i­nal li­bretto sit upon the grand pi­ano there). The first Tasca vine­yards, planted in the early 1800s at Re­galeali – the fam­ily coun­try seat, lo­cated deep in the hilly, se­verely beau­ti­ful in­te­rior – have since pro­lif­er­ated into five sep­a­rate es­tates across Si­cily, from the Ae­o­lian is­land ar­chi­pel­ago to Mozia, the an­cient Phoeni­cian trad­ing out­post at its west­ern­most tip, to Etna, where Tasca first in­vested in 2006.

Given their gilded dy­nas­tic CV, it wouldn’t be sur­pris­ing to find the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of Tas­cas rest­ing com­fort­ably on their lau­rels. On the con­trary: they are any­thing but dilet­tantes. Their in­vest­ment in Si­cily is dy­namic and in­spir­ing, and ex­tends across all strata of life, from winemaking to gas­tron­omy all the way to sus­tain­abil­ity – in which field Al­berto Tasca, the com­pany’s 43-year-old CEO, has de­vel­oped a se­ries of agri­cul­ture pro­to­cols that are be­ing adopted as a new bench­mark across the en­tire Ital­ian wine in­dus­try. For this fam­ily, rein­ter­pret­ing Si­cily’s vast pat­ri­mony through a con­tem­po­rary lens, so as to pro­tect and pre­serve it, is a mat­ter of no­blesse oblige.

And this is where one of the Tas­cas’ less known ven­tures comes in: hos­pi­tal­ity. Qui­etly, but with a great deal of at­ten­tion to de­tail, at­mos­phere, and au­then­tic­ity, Tasca d’Almerita now wel­comes guests at al­most all of its es­tates in var­i­ous ways, with ex­pe­ri­ences that of­fer a win­dow on to a way of life in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the story of the fam­ily, and of the is­land.

I meet Al­berto Tasca on Etna to ex­plore the vines of Tas­cante, their hold­ing here, set about 700m above sea level (a prime grow­ing alti­tude, in Etna’s very nar­row band of vi­a­bil­ity). Over a rus­tic but im­pec­ca­ble lunch of sar­dines, tangy-sweet caponata and glasses of Buonora, Tas­cante’s car­ri­cante-based white, we dis­cuss his sus­tain­abil­ity ini­tia­tives, which he first pi­loted eight years ago at Re­galeali and which have evolved into a widely-recog­nised best-prac­tice cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. This is based on an as­sess­ment that is hor­i­zon­tal in­stead of ver­ti­cal, ex­am­in­ing the start-to-fin­ish pro­duc­tion of wine and all the prod­ucts, ser­vices, and play­ers in­volved – in­clud­ing glass sup­pli­ers, mar­keters, win­ery ar­chi­tects, and a few un­ex­pected oth­ers in be­tween. “The fun­da­men­tal in­ter­ven­tions we’ve made are about agri­cul­ture. But as that ex­ists in a big­ger so­ci­ety, the pro­to­cols nec­es­sar­ily ex­tend to in­clude many oth­ers, too,” he notes. Clearly, it’s work­ing; at last year’s Vini­taly con­fer­ence in Verona, Tasca had re­quests from 30 winer­ies to ap­ply for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The pri­mary pre­cept of Tasca’s sus­tain­abil­ity vi­sion could also be his vi­sion for liv­ing: “first, and al­ways, to sim­plify; to try to pur­sue that idea of less is more”. This ethos is man­i­fest­ing here in Etna, where Tasca has re­cently pur­chased four pal­menti – the lo­cal manor houses, often con­structed with grape presses built into their ground floors – on and around their vine­yards. We pick our way through one that, when re­stored, will hold a vast kitchen and din­ing room with an out­door gar­den – an ex­po­si­tion and teach­ing space, as well a restau­rant.

The soar­ing barn ad­ja­cent to the build­ing will be con­verted into an enoteca; other pal­menti, mean­while, are be­ing re­made as ex­clu­sive rental ac­com­mo­da­tion. Like the food we en­joyed at lunch, they will be rus­tic but im­pec­ca­ble, and em­i­nently com­fort­able – a true re­flec­tion of life on the vol­cano.

From Etna, it’s a fast and sexy half-hour he­li­copter trans­fer to the Ae­o­lian is­land of Salina – larger, more di­verse, and less in­sis­tently glam­orous than Panarea, its shoutier neigh­bour to the east. Tenuta Capo­faro is sit­u­ated on a breezy bluff, com­pris­ing eight mal­va­sia vine­yards which Tasca ac­quired in 2001. (Didyme – Capo­faro’s dry, bal­anced white that be­lies ev­ery stereo­type about mal­va­sia’s os­ten­si­ble one-trick sweet­ness – was served at the G8 sum­mit in Taormina the week I was on is­land.) The re­sort was con­ceived over a decade ago, cre­ated from for­mer labour­ers’ cot­tages scat­tered amid the lush acid green of the vines, which the Tas­cas have sim­ply but gor­geously up­cy­cled. They have white­washed walls, floors of pol­ished con­crete, and el­e­gant earth-toned linens on the beds; fes­toons of hot-pink bougainvil­lea wind around col­umns and spill ex­trav­a­gantly over tiled roofs. With just 20 suites, a tiny jewel-box spa, a teak-decked pool and an ex­cel­lent restau­rant manned by Lu­dovico De Vivo, a young chef who has trained across Europe, Capo­faro is more about chic un­der­state­ment than full-on lux­ury; but it ex­ists in pro­foundly sat­is­fy­ing bal­ance with its sur­round­ings. Ev­ery­thing seems cal­i­brated to show­case na­ture, es­pe­cially the un­fet­tered views across the blue sea to Strom­boli, a still-ac­tive vol­cano that, like Etna, glows pic­turesquely on the oc­ca­sional evening.

De Vivo, in­tense and ar­tic­u­late, has re­cently cul­ti­vated a ter­raced gar­den that makes its way up the slope be­hind the pool and restau­rant, in plots of beau­ti­fully con­tained colour: some 30 va­ri­eties of salad, 40 herbs, a dozen ed­i­ble flow­ers, and a pro­fu­sion of veg­eta­bles – gleam­ing egg­plant, cour­gette, toma­toes of all hues on the red-to-yel­low spec­trum. “When I joined two years ago, I was tasked with help­ing the fam­ily cre­ate an iden­tity – ac­tu­ally, the words used were ‘a soul’ – for Capo­faro,” says De Vivo. “A food ex­pe­ri­ence that would re­flect what they stand for. So I looked at the way they’ve made wine for the last eight gen­er­a­tions, and mined their his­tory.” De Vivo pe­rused archives and in­ter­viewed fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing Al­berto’s fa­ther, Count Lu­cio Tasca d’Almerita. The re­sult­ing menu takes the­matic in­spi­ra­tion from fam­ily dishes and lore, and from the his­tor­i­cal bounty of their var­i­ous es­tates. Veg­eta­bles fea­ture promi­nently, brought to vivid life with a min­i­mum of ar­ti­fice or em­bel­lish­ment. “The cor­ner­stones here are sim­plic­ity of flavour, sim­plic­ity of ex­pres­sion, and the very high­est qual­ity of source ma­te­ri­als, be­cause that’s what Tasca has al­ways stood for. Ul­ti­mately, they’re very mod­est peo­ple,” he says. “There is max­i­mum hu­mil­ity with re­gard to the land.”

Nowhere is this deep rap­port with the land more ev­i­dent than at Re­galeali, where the Tasca d’Almerita wine story be­gan. Strad­dling the bor­der of Cal­tanisetta and Palermo prov­inces, the vast es­tate en­tered the fam­ily via mar­riage in the early 1800s. Long be­fore it was a com­mer­cial win­ery pro­duc­ing around three mil­lion bot­tles an­nu­ally, Re­galeali was largely a cul­ti­va­tor of grain and live­stock. By the late 1800s, the es­tate was gar­ner­ing ku­dos for its model farm­ing prac­tices; by 1901, it was win­ning awards for its wines.

To­day, its 500-odd hectares are given over to nero d’Avola, catar­ratto, nerello mas­calese, and grillo and in­zo­lia, two lo­cal white grapes; but also sau­vi­gnon blanc and caber­net sau­vi­gnon (which the Count planted in the late 70s, in con­tra­ven­tion of his own fa­ther’s wishes and, at the time, the law; the re­sult­ing mono­va­ri­etal wine was so good it helped con­vince the Re­gione Si­cilia gov­ern­ing body to lift its re­stric­tions on cul­ti­vat­ing in­ter­na­tional grapes). On the es­tate are two walled villa com­pounds known as bagli, Case Vec­chie and Case Grandi, where the Tas­cas stay when they are in res­i­dence.

Al­berto’s aunt, Anna Tasca Lanza, founded her now fa­mous cook­ing school at Case Vec­chie in 1989. When she passed away in 2010, her daugh­ter Fabrizia Lanza as­sumed over­sight. Lanza is a pres­ence at Re­galeali: she has pierc­ing ice-blue eyes, a daunt­ing in­tel­lect, a dis­arm­ingly straight­for­ward de­meanour and a bril­liantly un­la­dy­like laugh. Un­til she was 45 she was an art his­to­rian, em­ployed by prom­i­nent mu­se­ums, and her eru­di­tion per­me­ates ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion. But she dis­penses en­tirely with the for­mal­i­ties of her stature when on teach­ing duty here, wear­ing old blue cover­alls and clogs and perch­ing on stone steps in the sun so that her stu­dents can en­joy the shade at the com­mu­nal ta­ble, sip­ping the es­tate rosé and nib­bling the pil­lowy pan­nelle she’s pre­pared with them for their aper­i­tivo.

Like her cousin Al­berto, Lanza takes her role as cus­to­dian of the land deeply se­ri­ously. In 2016 she launched a pi­o­neer­ing pro­gram at Re­galeali called Cook The Farm – a 10-week in­ten­sive im­mer­sion into the how, when, and why of sus­tain­able food cul­ti­va­tion and prepa­ra­tion. The pro­gram has mul­ti­ple facets, in­clud­ing guest lec­tur­ers, site vis­its (an or­ganic olive mill; a gra­nary; a butcher), tast­ings at Re­galeali’s canti­nas, and an en­tire day spent shad­ow­ing a shep­herd in the hills – “That’s life-chang­ing for most of the stu­dents,” Lanza says; “no one knows how hard the life of a shep­herd is.” There is also hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence, in

“The cor­ner­stones here are sim­plic­ity of flavour, sim­plic­ity of ex­pres­sion, and the very high­est qual­ity.”

the form of ac­tual farm­ing: each stu­dent is al­lo­cated a gar­den plot to sow, tend and har­vest over the 10 weeks.

“Peo­ple to­day no longer have any idea about their op­tions, about the cul­ture and his­tory of what they’re eat­ing,” Lanza says. “This is a planet with 220 va­ri­eties of al­mond; there are sev­eral fes­ti­vals in Si­cily alone cel­e­brat­ing them, there’s a mu­seum to them in Agri­gento. And that’s what Cook The Farm is about: the in­cred­i­ble bio­di­ver­sity on of­fer, and how we as a civil­i­sa­tion are for­get­ting it. Much of the un­der­stand­ing of agri­cul­tural life is be­ing lost. You buy food in a pack­age, you have no idea which hands, at­tached to which brains, were re­spon­si­ble for how it ar­rived in your lo­cal mar­ket. I think it re-em­pow­ers peo­ple to tell them those sto­ries.”

What’s needed in Si­cily, she says, is more of this sto­ry­telling. “Be­cause I’m in this fam­ily, be­cause I speak English well and have trav­elled, I can cre­ate the con­text nec­es­sary for the nar­ra­tive to res­onate out­side of Si­cily. Not just for my farm­ers and pro­duc­ers, for whom I must trans­late, but also for that man from Mas­sachusetts or that woman from Bris­bane who ef­fec­tively knows noth­ing about how good olive oil or pasta is ac­tu­ally made. So hos­pi­tal­ity is a great point of en­try.”

Guests of both the week-long cook­ing school pro­grams and Cook The Farm stay in the nine sim­ply sweet rooms of Case Vec­chie, with an­tique beds, lace cur­tains and vases of fresh wild­flow­ers (but no tele­vi­sions). They can swim in the sleek new in­fin­ity pool, and idle in Lanza’s large and exquisite gar­den, which hums gen­tly with the busy­work of hon­ey­bees.

Up on a hill a few kilo­me­tres away is Case Grandi. This is Re­galeali’s no­ble re­doubt, its doors and shut­ters painted a strik­ing cobalt blue. In the court­yard, old halved oak casks over­flow with gera­ni­ums, petu­nias and hy­drangeas; wild roses climb the walls; at its cen­tre stands a mas­sive magnolia, its waxy, gleam­ing leaves form­ing a near-per­fect half-sphere in the per­fectly square space. From the win­dows in its outer walls, in ev­ery di­rec­tion, are time­less scenes: olive, oak and cy­press; vast blan­kets of yel­low wheat; and, every­where, rich green tended vines.

What few peo­ple know is that Case Grandi is open to pay­ing guests who may not have the time or in­cli­na­tion to spend a full week in cook­ing cour­ses, but who still wish to par­take of the sin­gu­lar Tasca life­style. After drop­ping my bags in my ter­ra­cotta-floored suite, I spent an hour bar­relling across the es­tate in a Land Cruiser with a man­ager (oth­ers ex­plore on moun­tain bikes and there’s the op­tion to take horses out, too). My guide shares anec­dotes stretch­ing back a mil­len­nium. The name “Re­galeali” prob­a­bly de­rives from the Ara­bic rahl Ali – house of Ali – which would have been the farm’s name in the 10th cen­tury, when the North African caliphate that ruled Si­cily rein­tro­duced wheat cul­ti­va­tion to the in­te­rior. That evening, I watch the light fade from warm pink to deep blue against the court­yard walls, be­fore head­ing in to a su­perb din­ner in the an­tique-filled main house, its vaulted ceil­ings painted fresh white, its walls lined with in­dus­try awards for Re­galeali’s sig­na­ture wines, the Rosso del Conte and the Nozze d’Oro, a sau­vi­gnon-in­zo­lia blend. My sleep, in a high an­tique four-posted bed, is the deep rest of a spirit scoured of its ha­bit­ual wor­ries by clean air, hot Mediter­ranean sun and whole­some food.

The next day I head west, to ex­pe­ri­ence the lat­est of Tasca’s ex­clu­sive guest ex­pe­ri­ences. A Greek strong­hold dur­ing the Pu­nic wars, the tiny is­land of Mozia is an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site in the mid­dle of a la­goon, sur­rounded by an­cient salt flats. Mozia has for decades been owned and man­aged by The Whi­taker foun­da­tion, named after the An­glo-Ital­ian, marsala-pro­duc­ing fam­ily that un­der­wrote most of the ex­ca­va­tions, and which planted the is­land’s first grapes. In 2007, Tasca d’Almerita en­tered into part­ner­ship with Whi­taker, tak­ing over Mozia’s 10 hectares of grillo vine­yards. The grapes are still cul­ti­vated as they would have been 200, or 2000, years ago: har­vested at dawn, trans­ported to the main­land in small, flatbed boats for vini­fi­ca­tion. Since last year, Tasca has of­fered ex­clu­sive tast­ing lunches in a pri­vate grove of olives and gum trees at the is­land’s cen­tre. These are el­e­gant, coun­try-chic af­ter­noons that fol­low a vine­yard tour – and, if guests want, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal one – led by one of the wine­mak­ers, with prodi­gious plat­ters of de­li­cious home­made food: melan­zane al forno, oc­to­pus and var­i­ous fish, smoky pasta all norma and more. The three es­tate grillo wines are poured and con­sid­ered. There is talk, pend­ing gov­ern­ment ap­proval, of guests even­tu­ally overnight­ing on the is­land – a once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence in­deed.

Be­fore fly­ing out of Palermo, I stop by Villa Tasca to have tea with Lu­cio Tasca. Turn­ing into the gates from the blar­ing, claus­tro­pho­bic chaos of the street, I’m im­mersed in in­stant tran­quil­lity: stately palm ar­cades, lush gar­dens, and the wildly ro­man­tic baroque façade of the villa it­self. Savoys, von Bis­mar­cks, Wind­sors and Kennedys have all passed through its grand halls; the fam­ily has dis­creetly let it out to celebri­ties, aris­to­crats and those with very deep pock­ets since about 2002.

Villa Tasca is a gilded page of Ital­ian his­tory, a dis­til­la­tion of a dream of what once was. To sit in its shaded gar­den feels both a priv­i­lege and a wild in­dul­gence. But weeks later, it is Re­galeali to which my mind in­sis­tently re­turns: the tall but far sim­pler house, bathed in an­cient light, sur­rounded by land that tells a dif­fer­ent, far more el­e­men­tal story – one as old, beau­ti­ful and com­pelling as Si­cily it­self.

“Peo­ple to­day no longer have any idea about their op­tions, about the cul­ture and his­tory of what they’re eat­ing.”

W

Left, Villa Tasca in Palermo, and the vine­yards of Tenuta Tas­cante on Etna

Chef Lu­dovico de Vivo at Tenuta Capo­faro, Tasca’s mal­va­sia vine­yards and re­sort

The Anna Tasca Lanza Cook­ing School and its di­rec­tor Fabrizia Lanza

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