My curiosity about the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School was really piqued when I sat by the fire reading Fabrizia Lanza’s fascinating book, Coming Home To Sicily, during this past insufferable New England winter. Published in 2012, the book explains that at Fabrizia’s family’s Regaleali estate where the cooking school is located, December through February is all about pruning grapevines, harvesting citrus and making marmalade. Springtime in Sicily, I read, is green and lush, dotted with brilliant wild flowers, little lambs, rugged farm workers and sunshine.
I had heard about Anna Tasca Lanza’s Cooking School for years and I knew that the school was started by Anna, Fabrizia’s mother. As a young woman, Anna married Venceslao Lanza di Mazzarino, son of a great Sicilian noble family. Since 1830, the family has proudly owned a 1,200-acre-property halfway between Palermo and Caltanisetta, Italy. Venceslao did not expect his wife to set foot in the kitchen, especially since he, like his father Count Fabrizio, was fond of the international cuisine prepared by cooks of the family. However, later in life, Anna decided to learn to cook traditional Sicilian fare and the more she learned, the more passionate she became.
Eventually, the marquesa became an esteemed home cook, writer and teacher; Julia Child, Alice Waters, and a host of other culinary luminaries recognized Anna’s great contribution. When she died five years ago, I thought I had missed my opportunity to experience the best of Sicilian cooking by the greatest Sicilian ambassador. I did learn that Anna’s daughter, Fabrizia, an art historian by training, had taken over the reigns of the school in 2007. I wondered if Fabrizia, who at a young age rebelled against her headstrong mother, left the family and Sicily to follow her own dreams, would really have the passion or the culinary knowledge to carry on her mother’s vision.
The book was filled with the most gorgeous pictures of Case Vecchie, a charming old farmhouse that Anna had restored and where cooking classes were held. The farmhouse is located in the center of the estate that includes the great Tasca d’Almerita Winery. Simple, traditional Sicilian recipes appear on many pages, and woven into the text is Fabrizia’s story of how she came to resolve her differences with her mother, embrace her heritage and “claim food as the core of my life.”
It all sounded very romantic and too good to be true, until I came across a tweet from one of my favorite New York Times columnists–cookbook author and gifted chef, David Tanis. Tanis, who ran the kitchens at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California,for more than 25 years, suggested that his followers join him at one of the most beautiful valleys on earth–Case Vecchie, where he would be offering a five day, hands-on, garden-to-table retreat. He included links to Fabrizia’s Tumblr website that showed vivid shots of cassata cake, fields of wild mustard and lavandula spicata. It was just too much splendor. In spite of the fact that it takes over 24 hours including several Alitalia plane rides and one long car ride up a long and winding pot holed road, I signed up for the retreat and booked our flights.
Rarely are things what they purport to be, but Regaleali in mid-April is truly gorgeous and the garden was magical to us. We (students, teachers and staff) harvested all of our salad greens, artichokes, wild fennel and herbs for every meal from that amazing volcanic soil. We ate comforting Sicilian fare that surprised our senses: panelle, delicate fried triangles made from chickpea flour, water and salt; a bright fava bean soup made with water, herbs, wild fennel and favas, topped with a poached farm egg, a drizzle of olive oil from the estate, and freshly grated pecorino made from local sheep’s milk. We sipped water infused with fragrant elderflower petals and toasted each other with elegant award winning wines made from grapes grown all around us. There was homemade bread and fresh salads dressed with the most vibrant vinaigrette and for dessert, Biancomangiare, an almond-scented pudding made with toasted pureed almonds from Fabrizia’s trees.
Not everything we consumed came from Fabrizia’s garden. We went to the local butcher shop for pork, to Catania’s spectacular fish market for fish and to Fabrizia’s neighbor, sheep farmer Filippo Privitera for ricotta. Visiting Filippo was, for me, one of the high points of my trip to Sicily (literally). Filippo makes ricotta out of a small building perched on the top of the world. Every day, seven days a week, Filippo, along with his oldest son and one hired hand, milk by hand, 500 sheep twice a day. The sheep wander the hills most of the day and graze on wild greens. The day we visited, Filippo’s two white sheepdog puppies greeted us. We knelt to pet the puppies and when we stood, we took in the awesome view. Then we headed into Filippo’s cooking sanctuary. He was dressed in white from head to toe, even his boots were white. He was removing from the mold vats of freshly curdled sheep’s milk. Filippo immediately offered us a glass of warm sheep’s milk, but after the twists and turns of the car ride to the farm, I had to pass on this offer.
Eventually, as I watched Filippo’s little son help him stir the milk, my stomach settled down. Filippo’s older son arrived with a newborn lamb and we watched the wobbly baby learn to take milk from his mother. Then another truck pulled up and a beautifully wrapped package appeared. It was filled with warm doughnuts from a local bakery in Palermo and the sugary sweets were stuffed with Filippo’s ricotta and chocolate. I do love doughnuts, but in my life I’ve never had any that were better than these.
After our field trips, we always returned to Case Vecchie, inspired and ready to cook. Although we did have the opportunity to debone extremely fresh sardines, stir Besciamella, knead pizza dough and fill ravioli, we students sometimes felt like Fabrizia’s aristocratic grandparents–we watched more than we worked. Fabrizia’s kitchen help prepped and cleaned and the master chefs took the spotlight. While I watched Fabrizia demonstrate how to roll out pizza dough and David pluck the leaves off an artichoke, I thought about how much these two chefs, from two different worlds have in common. They are self-taught, down to earth, confident and passionate about honest food made from seasonal ingredients.
In case you’re wondering if everything went perfectly during our 5-day stay, the answer is not “certo!” (Of course!) The handmade brick oven had not been used in years and it took two days to get it up to temperature. Since Fabrizia and David knew about my woodfired cooking school, they were especially motivated to make wood-fired cooking part of our experience. Alas, some of our thick breads and Sicillian pizzas came out undercooked or scorched, but the effort was greatly appreciated. I was particularly impressed by David’s compassion. While our breads were baking, he got down on the floor, in spite of the fact he was wearing a white t-shirt and white pants, and showed me some exercises to help relieve tension in my aching back.
Now that I am home and getting ready for the opening of my own school, I am so grateful that Val and I were able to spend time with two kind and gracious teachers. I learned so much from Fabrizia and David and I think of my time with them as “perfetto!” I hope that my classes will be even better as a result of our wonderful experiences at Case Vecchie.