Case Vecchie … a cooking school in the Sicilian Hills
The Sicily that was there waiting for me was dry and hot with dusty winding roads slowly making their way up the mountains and around the patchwork fields of wheat and vines. Even as the little bus wound its way into the mountain, life seemed to slow down … past the fields of wheat that stretch like some inland sea buffeted by the winds through the hills.
You can feel the history here and you can also feel that you have journeyed to a simplicity that has so much to offer. We passed stone fences and houses, grey-brown like the colour of the soil and then there’s the wildflowers. Red poppies dotting the landscape and the side of the road in haphazard patterns like a living impressionistic painting.
Carrying me expectantly to the large blue doors and stone wall of Case Vecchia (the “old house” in English) with its air of quite beauty, layers of stories and a grace that only comes from age. With full pink climbing roses over trellises and paths of cobbled stone, the house slowly ascends with a slow rise into a u-shaped courtyard.
This was to be our base through out of journey into the simple pleasures of Sicilian rural life. Set within an amazing the Tenuta Regaleali estate which has been at the heart of the Tasca d’Almerita family’s wine production for 4 generations. It stretches as far as the eye can see, over 600 hectares of vineyards roll over the hills that surround the cooking school. Rows of grape vines, old and weathered, are full new growth and bright green leaves when I arrive in late May.
This may seem a strange destination for someone who had been slowly transitioning away from wheat, pasta and dairy but there is undoubtedly a romance in the idea of living and learning in this simple rustic way and understanding the authentic roots of Sicilian cooking and farming and the wonder of bounty of their kitchen garden … tall artichokes, rows of fava beans hanging waiting to be picked, spinach, rainbow chard, tomatoes, olives, almonds, wild greens and honey. And it more than delivered.
The workshop, over four days, was a magic combination of cooking lessons with Fabrizia Lanza, the director of the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School and food photography and styling lessons with Beatrice Peltre, food writer, stylist, photographer (her latest book “From my French Family Table” is wonderful).
The first recipe from Case Vecchie is a “must try”. A delicious Almond and Olive Oil Torte.
Torta di Mandorie e Olio d’Oliva
recipe by Fabrizia Lanza, Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School.
This is a heavenly cake, surprisingly light in texture, the orange juice and almond oil enhance the fragrant notes and the light lemon glaze with toasted chopped almond balances the experience beautifully.
For the Cake:
- 140 grams (1 cup) All Purpose (Plain) flour
- 1 /2 cup almond flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 eggs
- 150 grams (1/2 cups) sugar (I reduced the sugar from the original recipe)
- 150 ml (1/2 cup) plus 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 /2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 /4 tsp almond extract
- 1 lemon, zest
- 125 ml (1/2 cup) orange juice
For the Topping
- 1/2 lemon, juiced
- 60 grams (1/2 cup) icing sugar (I use Billingtons Golden Icing sugar made from unrefined sugar for its caramel notes)
- Butter to prep the pan
- 30 grams (1/4 cup) almonds, toasted and chopped
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour a 9 inch (22cm) spring form pan, set aside. In a small bowl, whisk the AP flour, almond meal, baking powder, and salt together. In a larger bowl combine eggs and sugar then, whisk together and stream in the olive oil to in incorporate. Whisk in the extracts, lemon zest, and orange juice .
Add the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix with spatula. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for approx 20-30 minutes, rotate pan halfway through cooking. Cool 10 minutes in the pan, then carefully remove and cool completely on a drying rack. Make the glaze while the cake cools.
Combine icing sugar and lemon juice with a fork until smooth and shiny. Pour glaze over the cooled cake. Garnish with chopped toasted almonds.
Serving suggestion: cream is not used in Sicilian cooking, they prefer whipped ricotta. However I served this cake with whipped cream flavored with organic maple syrup. To do this I added a slow stream of maple syrup (about a dessertspoon) as I was whipping the cream.