“Do you know the history of pasta alla norma?” asks chef Gianluca, as he pours green olive oil into simmering fresh tomato sauce, thrusting the pan forwards in sharp jabs to emulsify the mixture. It’s the final step in this part of our al fresco Sicilian cooking lesson – we’ve sautéed aubergine, added cloves of garlic, a sprig of thyme, basil leaves and butter, cooked maccheroncini in water as salty as the sea, grated a heap of ricotta salata – and now it’s time to eat.
The first red mouthful is glossy and fragrant, the aubergine charred and sweet. “Pasta is as old as wheat cultivation but we didn’t start making sauce with tomatoes until the 1800s. This dish was named after Vincenzo Bellini’s famous opera Norma, and presented to the maestro after it was performed for the first time in Catania,” Gianluca says.
We are learning the art of Sicilian cooking at Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort on the island’s southern coast – it seems like a good idea to return home better equipped for our next dinner party than simply showing off our envy-making tans. Our starter is a sweet and sour caponata, a recipe using summer vegetables that would traditionally be stored in jars for the winter, and eaten on bread in the fields.
Under Gianluca’s instruction, we blanche celery and onion, and then lightly fry with cubes of roasted aubergine, succulent olives, diced tomato and tangy capers from Pantelleria. Drizzled on top is balsamic vinegar and a silky reduction of orange juice and olive oil. In this case, the Verdura serves the dish as a warm salad, but it’s more typically eaten as a jammy stew. Either way, the flavours sing.
For dessert, it’s cassata, “1,000 years of pastry making history in Sicily,” says Gianluca. It’s a complex cake that requires a round tin to be lined with marzipan and slices of sponge before being filled with sugared ricotta, candied fruit, pistachios, chocolate chips and orange zest. It’s then sealed with a layer of sponge and turned on to a plate to be decorated.
As pretty as a Christmas decoration – red candied pear, green fig and orange rind are arranged in concentric circles, and around the edge we draw swirls of white icing. It needs to be chilled before slicing, but in the evening, the cake is delivered to our room for us to taste. It’s worth the wait.
Part of the Rocco Forte collection of hotels, which also include Brown’s in London, the Charles in Munich and the Astoria in St Petersburg, the Verdura is positioned on Sicily’s south-west coast. About 90 minutes drive from Palermo airport, the 230-hectare site is wedged between the towns of Sciacca and Agrigento, on its own 2km strip of beach.
The luxury new-build resort opened in 2010, designed as much for golfers and those coming purely for relaxation and pampering at its spa. There are two championship 18-hole courses, as well as a nine-hole, par-three course, designed by Kyle Phillips. Add to this a double-ended driving range, putting green, golf academy and shop, and you are well set up for a golf holiday or corporate retreat. If you are here in a work capacity, there is also a ballroom for up to 350 delegates, an open-air amphitheatre for 300 and seven meeting rooms with outside space.
Dotted with silvery olive trees, the rolling greens wrap around the minimalist, low-rise villas, which house 153 bedrooms and 50 suites, while winding paths connect the enormous 60-metre lagoon-shaped pool, beach and various restaurants. To get around, you just pick up and drop off one of the many bicycles that are left in racks for guests to use – it’s a wonderful feeling at night to whizz along them, especially in the dark, when you hear nothing but the sea.
Coming from a nonstop life in London, I sometimes find it difficult to unwind. But at Verdura you can create your own mini-itinerary of health-promoting activities if you find it difficult to “do nothing” all day on the beach. We start each day with a run or workout in the spacious 170 sqm gym, followed by 20 laps of the peaceful, turquoise indoor pool. By this point, we can justify hitting the breakfast buffet, making our own ginger shots at the juice station, and loading up on salads, omelettes, cheese and seeded bread. The hard thing is not returning for a plate of pastries, custard doughnuts and a few fruit skewers dipped in the chocolate fountain.
Once we have caught up on emails (wifi is free across the resort) or read a few chapters of our books, we go for a cycle, or another swim. Then there’s lunch – sometimes this means wine in the sun and a snoozy afternoon in the heat; on other days it’s a panzanella salad followed by a few hours in the spa. (There are benefits to both.)
“The best six doctors anywhere, and no one can deny it, are sunshine, water, rest and air, exercise and diet,” reads a quote by John Steinbeck painted on one of the walls. There are 11 treatment rooms for expert massages with Sicilian essential oils, but the highlight are the four outdoor thalassotherapy pools, heated to different temperatures and with different concentrations of salt. You take them in order, stopping to let the water jets and water falls pound out any remaining tension in your neck and limbs.
It doesn’t take long for a feeling of renewal to set in. Evenings begin back in the room with the doors to the balcony slid open and the red sun slipping behind the horizon of the sea. Modern, four-poster beds are enveloped by gauze curtains that billow in the breeze, but you won’t submit to the cool white sheets until later. A hot shower with luxurious Ortigia products (you can buy more to take home with you from the store just off of reception) and a change of clothes means you are ready for dinner – which restaurant tonight?
Down by the pool is Zagara, which serves refined Mediterranean cuisine in a formal setting, while further along, on the beach is glass-walled Amara, for fish baked in salt, served at the table. Liola, meanwhile, is a cycle ride the other way, around the golf course towards the sandy-brick tower with its Clubhouse bar. This cliff-side restaurant specialises in juicy pizzas on an outdoor terrace. Inside, the walls are decorated with hand-painted ceramics from the region.
Although this part of Sicily doesn’t offer much in the way of dramatic landscape (Mount Etna is a 3.5-hour drive all the way to the eastern side of the island), the coastal town of Sciacca is just 20 minutes away, and a quaint place to take a stroll and buy a gelato if you want to get a feel for the local way of life. You can also shop for pottery here. Drive 50 minutes south and you will get to the ancient Greek temples of Agrigento, which date back as far as 6BC. The Temple of Olympian Zeus is one of the largest examples of ancient Doric architecture in the world, and is just one of many great archaeological relics on this 1,300-hecatre UNESCO World Heritage site.
On our last night at Verdura, there is a street party in the piazza outside the Torre bar, where we are welcomed by live music and dancing in traditional Sicilian dress. The hotel has invited local craftspeople to sell colourful pottery, olive oil, frozen granita and handwoven baskets. Long tables have been set up family-style under strings of white lights, and people are making trips to various chef tables set up around the perimeter. Here, they are serving antipasti platters, grilled fish, cheese, plaited bread, wine and steaming pans of pasta alla norma. “Do you know the history of pasta alla norma?” We sure do… And we are here for another helping.
HOW TO GET THERE Ryanair flies nonstop from London Stansted to Palermo, while Easyjet operates out of London Gatwick. The journey is just under three hours. Car rental can be booked with Avis, which has a pick-up point about ten minutes walk from the terminal.
PRICES Verdura Resort is open all year round with rooms starting from €240 a night in January.
CONTACT Rocco Forte Verdura Resort; tel +0039 (0)925 998 180; roccofortehotels.com