Fabrizia Lanza’s cuisine documentary on the Aeolian Islands: behind the scenes

The Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School, Case Vecchie, Regaleali, Sicily

Introduction: the €50,000,000 peasant food

The estimated Mafia revenue alone in the Italian food chain is over €50,000,000 per year, according to a 2011 article in Venerdì magazine.[1]  At stake is the high revenue of the global marketplace for Italian cuisine, whose international consumers are visible on practically every street corner in New York, in every market that has a box of pasta and every café that offers a cappuccino.[2]

At the same time, historians say that many of the most commercially successful forms of Italian cuisine in our time are derived from peasant traditions.[3]  In other words, our pasta today is in large part €50,000,000 peasant food. 

I am interested in projects that would make today’s highly lucrative Sicilian “peasant cuisine” into a source of income and opportunity for the least economically wealthy, some of them the direct inheritors of peasant customs. 

As cuisine travelers come in search of local food traditions, there is a possibility for community development in Sicily.  In this sense, I am interested in characteristically Sicilian examples of the phenomenon that local food is good for local communities.[4]

Sacred Flavors of Sicily

Fabrizia Lanza is a chef and author who runs a cooking school with the organic harvests of her family aristocratic estate in Sicily (http://www.annatascalanza.com).  Starting in the fall of 2013, she will produce a film documentary about ritual cuisine in religious festivals in the nearby Aeolian Islands, with some residents among the most economically challenged (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sacredsicily/sacred-flavors-of-sicily-religious-festivals-and-s).  For example, a regional ritual for the Festival of San Giuseppe on March 19 is to create elaborate altars with breads in fanciful symbolic shapes, which, in turn, are meant to feed the poorest in some communities.

With the growth of the global audience for cuisine travel, Fabrizia Lanza’s documentary on ritual food practices among the poorest in the Aeolian Islands could contribute to an increase in tourism off season, when the islands’ comfortable vacationers normally leave, and the population dwindles to a small group of regulars, many of them dependent on seasonal work. 

Lanza’s project is spearheaded not by a non-government organization or a local civic tourist office, but rather by her own cooking school enterprise, whose commitment to cultural history and ecological biodiversity is an attractive calling card to her clients, such as the lovely British couple I met there in July 2013, each with a job in public service and an interest in entering into the culture of the places they visit on vacation.[5]  Before returning to Sicily to run the cooking school, Fabrizia Lanza was a published art historian, and she means for her documentary on ritual culinary practices in the Aeolian Islands to serve as a record of traditional artifacts and their social production.  My hope is that another consequence of her work will be to increase the off-season tourists who will improve the economic lives of the island’s permanent residents. 

Lanza’s project could bring to the Aeolian Islands a wider recognition among cuisine travelers.  With the growth of the industry, the potential audience for Fabrizia Lanza’s film today is so much greater than that for the past discussions of the ritual festivals in the cookbook published by her mother, Anna Tasca Lanza (1993)[6], or the volume on historical cuisine of Sicily by Mary Taylor Simeti (1989).[7]  The communications reach of Fabrizia Lanza’s school is extensive.  Just recently she made a colorful cassata sweet on Bobby Chinn’s Planet Food.[8]  If the American Food Network can make a star of an unknown chef or small business, then my hope is that the forthcoming documentary could be a factor in developing the island economies for the benefit of permanent residents of modest means, as the film is screened in venues like large urban food festivals.

Fabrizia Lanza's garden at the Case Vecchie, Regaleali, Sicily
 Bitter almonds, sweet profits

What I love about the book by the culinary author, Mary Taylor Simeti, called Bitter Almonds (1994), is that it has contributed to the international success of a Sicilian business run by a woman who grew up in abject poverty.  The book records interviews with Maria Grammatico, whose sweet shop and restaurant today are in Erice, a supernaturally beautiful intact medieval city with 360-degree aerial views and a thirteenth-century castle built atop an ancient temple of Venus. 

When Maria Grammatico’s father died during her childhood, she and her sister were placed in an orphanage, where they were forced to work interminable hours at pounding almonds by hand to make sweets sold to fund the institution.  While the young charges of the orphanage were put to the intensive forced labor of making sweets for others, they were fed a subsistence diet so dreadful that that they poured much of it down the toilet.  When she finally left as a young adult, Maria Grammatico had a physical breakdown. 

Through observation in the orphanage, Grammatico had learned the traditional recipes for the almond sweets and marzipan, and, when she recovered her strength, she opened her own business, now visited by tourists from all over the world.  A catalyst of this success is not only Simeti’s book but also its afterlife in travel literature.  Simeti’s book is currently mentioned by name in both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide series books for Sicily. 

Maria Grammatico's Store, Erice, Trapani, Sicily

Meanwhile, Mary Taylor Simeti’s own family terroir, Bosco Falconeria, produces organic wine, now imported in the United States, and it bears the mark of Addiopizzo, the growing Sicilian movement to refuse to pay the pervasive Mafia extortion money.[9]  Simeti is a longtime friend and frequent visitor at Fabrizia Lanza’s Regaleali.

The Castle of Venus, Erice, Trapani, Sicily

Fabrizia Lanza's gazpacho and olive oil, plus lemon custard for dessert

Herbivores abound

Fabrizia Lanza’s own family culinary history is a kind of paradigm of cosmopolitan Sicilian cuisine in the twentieth century, an illustration of the transition by which peasant food became big business.  The cooking school was founded by her mother, Anna Mastrogiovanni Tasca, just as the widespread taste for the carnivorous baronial French menu that was served at aristocratic tables was giving way to the international interest in the traditional cuisine of the Italian peasant, with a basis of vegetables and olive oil. 

While Anna’s husband, Venceslao Lanza, was often away in running his agrarian concern on the family estate on east side of the island, and their daughter Fabrizia attended college in the South of France and established her career as an art historian in northern Italy, Anna found herself with time on her hands and the inclination to take her talent for cooking to the next level. 

Anna’s grandfather, Lucio Tasca Bordonaro, Count of Almerita (1880-1957), and father, Giuseppe, had developed the Tasca d’Almerita international winery at the family country estate, Regaleali, whose name is derived from the Arabic, Rahal-Ali, or village of Ali, a remembrance of Arabic rule, starting in the ninth century.[10]  While Anna was growing up in the family’s main residence in Palermo, the family spent no more than lingering holidays in the country at Regaleali, where the year-around agrarian work was entrusted to local laborers, many of whose families still cultivate the land today. 

When Anna Tasca Lanza arrived in 1989 to found her cooking school at Regaleali, she knew only in glimpses its complex harvest cycles and traditions, such as the particular methods for drying and stirring a smooth tomato mixture on long tables in the sun to form the indigenous estratto, a highly concentrated and flavorful paste.  She set about to learn the peasant culinary conventions, to make the place her own, and to do so she had to study.

In her book, The Flavors of Sicily (1996), Anna Tasca Lanza described the differences between the cuisine of the poor and the baronial food that was most familiar to her when she first decided to transform her Case Vecchie (literally, “the old houses”) at Regaleali into a cooking school.  At aristocratic tables, the standard was French cuisine, influential since the start of Bourbon rule in Sicily in the eighteenth century – a diet rich with meat and heavy sauces.  In addition to the French influence, Anna identifies “touches of Sicilian fancy.”  For Fabrizia’s wedding, for example, the menu featured medallions of chicken with truffles, served in lattice baskets woven of perciatelli pasta, and decorated with fresh flowers dipped in translucent paraffin wax – a dish derived from a historical family recipe.[11]  Aristocratic kitchens were dominated by chefs addressed by the honorific title, monsieur, expressed in Sicilian, monzù.

It was the traditional cuisine of the “common people” that resembled what we today consider the Italian “Mediterranean diet” – in the words of Anna Tasca Lanza, it is: “based mainly on foods they could cultivate: durum wheat flour for bread and pasta, fresh vegetables, and dried peas and beans,” with relatively little meat.[12]  Pasta appeared on the tables of rich and poor, but it seems that its consumption in the form we know it today was more limited among aristocrats: Fabrizia Lanza’s recollection is that the only Italian food craved by her paternal grandfather was spaghetti alla Bolognese.[13]

In their cookbooks, both Anna and Fabrizia describe the apprenticeship involved in converting from the carnivorous reign of the aristocratic monzù to the vegetable-based diet of the common person.  Anna describes the reaction of the monzù when she started to make salad a staple on her table: “when he saw me, he started shaking his head and gesturing in that special way Sicilians have.  ‘Who do you think is going to eat this?’ he asked.  The look on his face would have discouraged anyone else, but I washed the salad and made the dressing just the same."[14]

Fabrizia says of her mother’s culinary transformation: “I remember my father’s face when she presented him with a platter of spaghetti simply covered with wild greens and no sauce or seasoning except a spoonful of olive oil.”  When served with the antithesis of his accustomed aristocratic cuisine of “béchamel, butter and cream,” “he looked quite desperate!”[15]  In 2007, Fabrizia returned to Sicily to help her mother in the cooking school just as she began to face the first evident challenges of Parkinson’s.  She passed away in 2010.

Fabrizia Lanza has become a curator of flavors whose pleasures are so intense that they pose a kind of semantic problem, since her olives, capers, tomatoes and eggplants are categorically different from anything in America that is signified by the words, “olive,” “caper,” “tomato,” or “eggplant.” 

When Mary Taylor Simeti published her memoir, On Persephone’s Island, in 1986, she predicted that the future of agriculture would include only large agribusiness and small vegetable gardens, not middle-class farms, and she believed her children would face a difficult decision when they inherited Bosco Falconeria.[16]  In fact, today Simeti’s daughter has returned to run the winery there.[17]

The world demand for organic and artisanal food is changing the economy, and I hope it brings development opportunities for the most economically challenged keepers of agricultural and culinary traditions in Sicily. 

[1] A. Corbo, “Perché, facendo la spesa, senza saperlo paghiamo la Mafia,” Il venerdì 1205 (April 22, 2011), 24-30.  See also, from the same issue of Il venerdì, entitled La Mafia a tavola, C. Petrini, “Proviamo a saltarli e andare dritti ai produttori,” 28-9. 
[2] See, U. Thoms, “From Migrant Food to Lifestyle Cooking: The Career of Italian Cuisine in Europe” (2011): http://www.ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/europe-on-the-road/economic-migration/ulrike-thoms-from-migrant-food-to-lifestyle-cooking-the-career-of-italian-cuisine-in-europe.
[3] Fabrizia Lanza speaks of the new interest in the 1980s in the “light, healthy, ‘peasant’ cooking” of Sicily.  Coming Home to Sicily: Seasonal Harvests and Cooking from Case Vecchie (New York: Sterling, 2012), p. xv.  Massimo Montanari traces the presence of poor people’s food in cuisine books of the elite: “If the centrality of vegetables is one of the dominant characteristics of the people’s cuisine (and for this reason it is important to verify their importance in the recipe collections of the court), poor people’s foods par excellence are polentas and soups made of the cheaper grains, greens, and chestnuts—all key elements of a cuisine distinguished above all by the need to fill one’s belly to ward off the specter of hunger, and to ensure daily survival.  Be that as it may, this cuisine of the poor left important traces in the cookbooks used by the upper classes.”  M. Montanari, Food is Culture, trans. A. Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 39, 40.  On “high” and “low” in popular Italian cuisine after the 1960s, John F. Mariani says: “[American tourists in Italy post-1960s] had…come to realize that the best cooking in Italy was not in the grand hotels or the posh ristoranti, where elaboration of the Continental style was still stringently followed, but in the trattorias, or, even better, at Italians’ homes, where simplicity had always been the rule.” How Italian Food Conquered the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 144 et seq.

[4] See, for example, J. Black, “Can local food jump-start the economy?” The Washington Post (December 9, 2009) http://voices.washingtonpost.com/all-we-can-eat/sustainable-food/can-local-food-jumpstart-the-economy.html ; The Slow Money Alliance (http://www.slowmoney.org); and The Slow Food Foundation, particularly its project to restore culinary diversity by saving local food practices (http://www.slowfoodfoundation.com/ark).

[5] A Taste of Sicily,” Monocle (August 2013) (http://monocle.com/film/edits/a-taste-of-sicily/).
[6] A. Tasca Lanza, The Heart of Sicily: Recipes and Reminiscences of Regaleali, A Country Estate (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1993),  60-1.
[7] M.T. Simeti, Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food (New York: Knopf, 1989).

[9] B. Barnett, “Mary Taylor Simeti Brings Her Wines To America,” Zester Daily (Dec. 19, 2012): http://zesterdaily.com/drinking/mary-taylor-simeti-brings-wines-to-america/  Katrina Onstad, “A New Way to See Sicily,” The New York Times, May 8, 2011: http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/travel/08sicily.html?pagewanted=1

[10] A. Tasca Lanza,The Heart of Sicily, 15, 17.
[11] Ibid., 16-17, 163.
[12] Ibid., 16-17.
[13] F. Lanza, Coming Home to Sicily: Seasonal Harvests and Cooking from Case Vecchie (New York: Sterling, 2012), xii.
[14] A. Tasca Lanza, Heart of Sicily, 56-7.
[15] F. Lanza, Coming Home to Sicily, xv.
[16] M. T. Simeti, On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal (New York: Knopf, 1986), 30.
[17] B. Barnett: http://zesterdaily.com/drinking/mary-taylor-simeti-brings-wines-to-america/