Fancy a Slice of Paradise?
Was it something about the light that morning on the island of Vulcano?
Or perhaps the kitten that came to rub itself around her ankles? Something made up Laura’s mind for her. She wanted to stay. It was too lovely to leave. But how to earn a living?
The obvious solution: share her little chunk of paradise.
Five years later, Laura now brings small groups of people to Vulcano, one of a sprinkling of volcanic isles off the coast of Sicily. They spend a week learning to cook the way her friends’ grandma cooks, pulling squid from the sea and cooking them on the boat, savouring the unique aromas that the volcanic soils give the wines.
We reached Vulcano by hydrofoil, jetting across a shimmering sea from Sicily and Laura wasted no time getting us stirring, rolling and tasting. We were picked up straight off the boat and headed for Maria Tindara a local family-run restaurant. In the days when Maria herself did the cooking up here in the hills, there was no electricity and much of the produce came up the dirt track by donkey. Things have changed a little now and her daughter-in-law Rosi runs the kitchen with her son, Alberto.
Rosi came to work at the restaurant aged 13. Maria’s son Angelo took a shine to the new kitchen help. “I thought ‘she’s the one’ for me,” he says, his eyes twinkling under his big bushy eyebrows. Seven years later he married her. “I still work in the kitchen,” laughs Rosi “they just don’t pay me now.”
Our first job is to roll pasta made using the machine Angelo bought her as a wedding present some 40 years ago. He certainly knew what he was doing. “The pasta is a little thicker than it used to be,” says Laura “but we like it that way!”
The trick to rolling macaroni? An old umbrella spoke! Cut a knuckle-length piece of dough, push the spoke down into it, join the sides back up… and roll. Rosi works at a cracking pace, making it look way too easy. I get it stuck to my board, my palms and my fingers. It’s a lot of fun, particularly when accompanied by a cheeky glass of vino.
“ By the end of it, I can’t really
remember which wines I liked most "
Next Alberto takes us into the kitchen and cooks up a sauce of fresh sardine fillets, fennel and sweet tomatoes. Pudding is a lemon tart made with milk, crushed almonds and lemon. Just bung it all in, dissolve the sugar, add cornflour then chill. And the secondi plati is slithers of beef stuffed with a crumble of breadcrumbs, capers and cheese then deep-fried in olive oil.
There’s something wonderful about eating food you’ve just cooked. (well, helped a little to cook, anyway) Accompanying it we drank great local wine too. Lunch lasted long into the afternoon.
Fresh ingredients is the obvious secret to the fantastic flavours here. Without doubt the freshest came the following evening. Filippo has fished the large brown squid in these clear waters for 15 years. On a good night they might pull in 50 and make several hundred Euros. We sit up on the roof as we chug out of port, orange sunlight stretching a pool of light out towards us across the wave tops. One of the other fishermen sets up special lights to attract the squid. Blue flashing lights on top of stalks of aluminium with a circle or sharp hooks below are dropped hundreds of metres into the depths.
We spy a school of dolphins off to one side. It’s idylic. But Filippo isn’t happy. “Cheeky dolphins” he mutters “they’ll steal the squid. We might have to see if they’ll deliver pizza out here!’
They haul up the first light from the inky depths 20 minutes later. Not a thing. Filippo started the evening jovial and funny. Suddenly he is serious, barking at us to keep the noise down. This isn’t a tourist trip. They need their catch. A second light comes up, empty. We watch in awkward silence. Are we going to miss out on our catch? And if we do what will we eat for dinner?
They start to haul up the third. Hand over hand. It takes an age. Suddenly Filippo is full of energy. Woosh.
A large brown slithering squid flops over the side onto the deck almost landing on my foot. More follow, so fast we don’t have time to put them in a bucket. Billy gives me a line and tells me to get pulling. I haul faster and faster. It feels like it won’t ever end. Then splat, up comes my squid, in a spray of sea water. “Fresh squid, there’s nothing like it!” bellows Filippo. “Most days I go home after a night fishing and cook up 2 or 3 for breakfast before bed!” The squid is gutted then cooked fast and hot in a little oil, just coated in flour. We eat it with our hands, with big hunks of bread, a few bits of salad and a glass of local white. It’s late, we are all starving and the food tastes spectacular and the wine sharp and dry.
The wine’s uniquely sharp bouquet is down to the islands’ volcanic soil which is perfect for growing grapes. There are small vineyards on several of them. We jumped aboard a boat and headed for Salinas a 20-minute ride away and strolled down a narrow lane skirting the sea to reach the Hauner family vineyard. Racks of local malvasia grapes are drying in the sunshine. “This increases the sugar content and makes them perfect for a sweet dessert wine,” says Andrea as he shows us the huge vats where wine is gently developing its flavours. His mother brings out freshly cooked frittata, dry salty cheese, figs and grapes, tomato marmalade and capers to complement the different wines we try. By the end of it, I can’t really remember which wines I liked most.
On the way back to Vulcano, the boat stops for us in a shallow cove. The afternoon sun is warm and golden. I pull on my swimming shorts and stand teetering on the top of the roof looking down at the shimmering water. And then I plunge. Floating on my back, full of fine wine and food, I decide I’m rather glad Laura chose to share her slice of paradise.
Wonder what’s for dinner?