A Little Piece of Mine

Sweet Southern Accent: Sicily

My impression of Sicily, sad to admit, has largely been informed by Godfather movies and tabloid tales of grimy, crimey underworld doings. Sure, I knew about moody Mt Etna, and I’d imagined honey-coloured hilltop towns, bowls of tomatoey pasta, blue-water beaches and fresh-caught fish. I didn’t realise, however, just how long Sicily has been on the globetrotter’s radar―from Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks and Normans to 18th-century British elites completing their rite of passage Grand Tour of Europe. It’s a dizzying, mesmerising imprint.

Greek Drama
Sicily is up there with Greece in terms of ancient Greek architecture. The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento has some of the largest and best preserved of all ancient Greek buildings, with the Temple of Concordia looking like its toga clad residents have just stepped out of frame. Remarkable up close in vivid sunshine, as well from the terrace of the swanky Villa Athena at nightfall, over gnocchi with fresh tomatoes, and black sesame seed encrusted tuna with sweet orange sauce. The postcard-perfect hilltop town of Taormina also possesses a Greek theatre, this one boasting sweeping views of the Ionian Sea and Mt Etna. Built in the 3rd century B.C, it’s Sicily’s second largest ancient theatre after Syracuse, but for me it towers over that one―dramatically. Taormina has long drawn thespians and literary lights, including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, D.H. Lawrence and Goethe, as well as British aristocrats to belle epoque villas. These days, though, it’s no longer an exclusive enclave of the rich and fabulous; colossal cruise ships and double-decker coaches proving the great leveler. Syracuse is another tourist magnet, thanks to its ancient Greek ruins and baroque piazzas. The Duomo, a former Greek temple turned cathedral, is worth braving the snarling traffic for the vast Doric columns, marble baptismal font, and a glimpse of the silver statue of St Lucia, the patron saint of Syracuse, with a dagger theatrically protruding from her throat – although be warned she’s only displayed at very special times.

Born to Rome
The island is no stranger to skimpy swimwear, but according to the mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale it’s a Roman invention. Thats where you’ll find the so-called “Bikini Girls”―female gymnasts way back in the 4th-century cavorting in clothing bearing a striking resemblance to the modern bikini. The women are actually athletes, shown running, throwing a discus, lifting weights and being awarded for their efforts. Throughout the 3,500 sq m luxury villa are myriad mosaics of hunters killing a wild boar, capturing a rhinoceros, an elephant, a buffalo and transporting them by boat to Rome for beastly spectacles. There’s a tiger leaping at its own reflection in a mirror sphere, a technique used by the hunters to deflect it from care of its young cub, plus children conducting mini chariot races, a Cyclops, a horned devil, the Queen of Sheba, and sea gods and goddesses. Miraculous! We ducked the choking mid-morning queues by staying overnight in nearby Piazza Amerina. Billed as an “art design gallery hotel”, Suite d’Autore is a hilariously modern contrast to the Roman palace down the road. Our room, dubbed “Fluidity”, came equipped with a spacy round bed, a red-lipped resin sofa, a hand-painted ceiling with central cherub motif, a corregated cardboard chair, a wardrobe with garish, entwined nudes, and squidgy blue plastic floor tiles that moved whenever you stepped on them. I think, though, I prefer mosaics underfoot.

Hopelessly Devoted
Glimpsed atop the hill, around a corner, presiding over a piazza, or deep down a country road there are hundreds of churches, some with a little more pulling power than others. Just out of Palermo lies the Duomo di Monreale, with its somber Norman exterior and a sumptuous mosaic interior, comprising more than 2000kg of gold. The story of Noah and his ark sprawls across the central nave, along with Adam and Eve’s sorry tale. Elsewhere, there’s a depiction of the Madonna and child flanked by angels and saints, including Thomas à Becket. In town, the Palatine Chapel on Piazza Indipendenza is a sort of mini Montreale, while the pint-sized La Martorana, with its 12th-century mosiacs, including the crowning of the Norman King Roger 1 by Christ, along with a host of angels and saints, is another Norman treasure. The city’s Vucciria Market is all about culinary loot, a maze of market stalls spruiking fat inky eggplants, slim fennel bulbs, spiky artichokes, tiny teardrop berries, blood red oranges, sardines, swordfish and squelchy squid. Much reappeared on our plates at no-frills Trattoria Il Maestro del Brodo (Via Pannieri, 7, Vucciria). Clients eyed the seafood offerings as soon as they blew through the door, then the antipasti table sporting dozens of homemade plates of yum – zucchini fritters, polenta slices, grilled radicchio, eggplant parmigiana, artichokes topped with parsley & garlic, deep-fried risotto balls, huge round green olives, and slippery sun-dried tomatoes.  All night the patron forked fish from ice platter to hot plate in seconds. UNESCO-listed Modica is an antidote to pasta overload with its labyrinth of heart-pumping stairs, including the 250 that glide up to the San Giorgio Cathedral. Inside it’s 18th-century Sicilian baroque – blue, gold, silver – and a depiction of the life of its namesake Saint George by Girolamo Aliprandi, Sicily’s version of Raphael. Other places deserving of equal devotion include La Locanda de Colonelloan elegant little eatery devoid of pretension and full of flavour: a pyramid of cous cous studded with vegetables lapped by prawns in a shellfish broth, rabbit stuffed with sausage and pistachio, glistening pink tuna with a puddle of hummous, halved tomatoes and red onion, pineapple millefeuille with white chocolate and orange jam―and Casa Talia. Overlooking Modica, this chic BnB is the inspired work of two Milanese architects who have heartily embraced the concept of ‘slow living’. From the ancient stone rooms with pressed iron beds and pristine linen to the garden lounges shaded by lemon blossoms, and on to the sedate breakfast cooked up fresh each day: mini ricotta and strawberry tarts, feathery chocolate and almond cakes, doll-sized croissants, tomato, and peach jam that tastes of sunshine, home-baked bread, and organic eggs dished up just how you like. Nearby Ragusa Ibla, a jumble of grey stone houses and piazzas clinging to a cliff, offers up another cathedral dedicated to San Giorgio. It sits on the Piazza Duomo, which features in the cheesy but endearing Italian detective series Inspector Montalbano.

Pour Relations
The slopes of the country’s most famous volcano are anything but the lava wasteland you might expect due to the efforts of an enterprising bunch of wine growers. According to Guido Coffa, owner of the boutique rural retreat Monaci delle Terre Nere in the foothills of Mt Etna, the volcanic soil and unique micro climates combine to create wines high on flavour and minerality. Coffa is as passionate about the local wines, as he is his own 40-hectare estate with its organic vegetable and herb gardens and eco-friendly arty rooms. Monaci’s “eco-bio” certification is only one of three in Sicily. The guest-only restaurant is heavily locavore. Bread is baked on the premises, the groves of lemons and oranges supply the jam, and chef is frequently spied sitting outside shelling just-picked beans, clipping zucchini flowers, and sorting tomatoes. Mt Etna wines selected by Coffa, including Benanti, Biondi and Graci, accompany the four-course degustation menu, which might run to eggplant parmigiana, rocket and pistachio pasta, pink lamb chops or grilled sea bream with spinach, and caramelised pear with homemade vanilla ice-cream. Given the calming surrounds, the pool and the hairline roads in and out (and little appetite for the daredevil must-hug-the-middle-of-the-road driving habits of locals), it’s easy to take root. A bottom line blow out is entirely possible, what with that invitation to nightly cocktails, which are not complementary, and a growing addiction to the country fresh €48 p/h evening menu. Drinks not included, but breakfast, is.

Scents and Sensibility: L’Officine Universelle du Buly

Paris has more than its fair share of seductive shops but here’s a new one to add to the list―to the very top of the list! L’Officine Universelle du Vinaigrier et Parfumeur Buly. This divine smelling space, with its oak and walnut woodwork, turquoise terracotta tiles, marble panels, glass vials, flasks and bottles with quirky vintage labelling, is impossible to resist. “Superbe!,” declared the well-heeled local as she made a beeline for the door, with me hot on her elegant coat-tail. Scented soaps, candles that smell of roses and violettes, of cedar and frankincense, skin-friendly water-based perfumes (one evoking Scottish lichen, another the mint and rosemary of a Seville patio after the rain), and the deliciously named “Lait Virginal”, a scented body milk inspired by the ancient Egyptians appetite for milk-based beauty regimes. The brainchild of Ramdane Touhami and his wife Victoire de Taillac, this old-style beauty emporium is inspired by an 18th century perfume and vinegar maker, distiller and cosmetician named Bully. The monsieur’s “Vinaigre de Bully”, a harbinger of the modern day skin toner, was once de rigeur in all the best boudoirs of Europe. The reborn Buly might be destined for the same fame. In a nod to a non-toxic long ago, the company eschews glycerin, alcohol, parabens, silicon, and preservatives such as phenoxyethanol. Aromatic, totally natural antidotes to modern day living. All products are made in France, with precious oils such as apricot hailing from Palestine, jojoba from Peru, aloe vera from Morocco, avocado pulp from New Zealand,  pomegranate seeds from India, camelia seeds from Japan, with France chipping in raspberry, and borage seeds, rosemary, geraniums and cornflowers. Touhami and de Taillac, in fact, are no strangers to the world of beauty, having set up La Perfumerie Générale, a state-of-the art beauty boutique in Paris that sourced, mostly plant-based, products from all over the globe. Recently, Touhami, a savvy art director and entrepreneur, engineered the relaunch of the venerable, and my very favourite, candle maker, Maison Cire Trudon. In a former life, de Taillac worked as the publicist for über-chic concept store Colette. Goes without saying then that these two know a thing or 200 about firing people’s imagination and grabbing, and keeping, their attention. Products as “Pommade Virginale”, “Eau Superfine”, “Eau Rectifiée”, “Opiat Dentaire” (toothpaste), “Eau de la Belle Haleine (“beautiful breath” mouthwash), boar’s hair toothbrushes, horsehair gloves, emu oil, and Bukkake powder (a facescrub based on the droppings of a Japanese bush warbler;  I shudder to think who first tried that one out) are set to do just that. L’Officine Universelle du Vinaigrier et Parfumeur Buly, 6, rue Bonaparte, 75006. Open Mon-Sat 10am-7pm

Buly

Image by Alexandre Guirkinger

Rainman: Pep’s

It’s easy to forget in these disposable days that there was a time when we didn’t throw a thing away when it snapped or split, we actually got it fixed. Thierry Millet is a throwback to that time. He is Paris’ last umbrella repairman.

A tin dandy decked in yellow pants and vest, sporting a red umbrella and matching cravat announces M. Millet’s workshop, Pep’s, in an impossibly cute passageway in the 3rd. Pep’s, by the way, is not his nickname, it’s French jargon for pepin, or umbrella.

Downstairs are a handpicked bunch of brollies―10, 12 or 16 ribs, according to the galeforces they must endure on the summit of Montmartre or the Mongolian steppes. There are mod auto models as well as ones crafted by M. Millet himself, single beech shafts with beastly handles (ducks, dogs, felines and serpents) and sensible horn tips in cherry red twill or sunshiney cotton stripes. Walking canes, too. The ultimate accessory for the man, or woman, about town.

Upstairs is the umbrella infirmary, where the wounded come to be cured. Millet estimates that there are 100 pieces in just one umbrella, and in the course of a year he repairs 8,000-10,000 parasols. Thus the reason for the myriad shelves and boxes of ribs, springs, and handles. Not that parts are always easy to get; but he is a creative soul, salvaging and improvising to ensure his charges are brought back to their best.

People, he says, are unusually sentimental about their umbrellas so he feels honour bound to restore them to their owners. In doing so, he’s waging his own quiet battle against today’s throwaway tendancies. According to this artisanal eco-warrior, we toss out some 15 million brollies a year. A timely reminder that recycling isn’t just about putting our glass and plastic into the appropriately labelled bins.

Come rain or shine, Pep’s is the place to go. Passage de l’Ancre,  223, rue Saint-Martin 75003

Pep's

Life in the Feast Lane: La Maison Troisgros

Whether it’s a Turkish pide joint, a family bistro, a pizzeria, or an extravagant fine diner, it’s important to feel good about being there, relaxed, un-stressed. I like it warm, welcoming, attractive, with a waiter that knows whether I want to gab or not and a sommelier that isn’t out to gouge a week’s rent from my pocket for a bottle of wine. And, of course, I want the food to be outstanding. It doesn’t always happen, even in lofty Michelin 3-stars. La Maison Troisgros, though, has it worked out, deliciously bridging the gulf between ‘ouch-that’s expensive’ and ‘hell yeah, that’s worth it’. It’s a great restaurant experience from the breezy welcome to the casually contemporary decor (tulip tables and tweedy swivel dining chairs sat side-by-side), from the tour of the 25+ kitchen to the cooking. Michel Trosgros’ dishes are not overly complicated. There’s no grandstanding. Troisgros invents, wisely and beautifully. A cherry tomato lollipop coated with sesame seeds to kick off. Deep-fried croquettes with a flavour burst of runny pea purée and mint inside. Mackerel with sweet, fresh pineapple to haul in the pungent fishy factor. Just-done scallops on a lacy “stick to your teeth” toffee disc, I-like-eating-this-skin-and-all pieces of red mullet, rosy pigeon breast in a peanut dust crust. Then dessert, chocolate leaves and cardamon and my favourite Easter egg ever―L’oeuf “rococo”, meringue ‘eggs’, a healthy fleck of gold leaf, coconut ice-cream, ginger, and passionfruit granita. A liquorice infusion tea, tiny chocolate and strawberry tarts, meringues and appley tarts to finish off.  We stayed over in a ‘double’ room, which ended up being double of what we expected–a bedroom, a 2-sofa living room and 2-bathrooms! A door knock came as we were still whistling our amazement, delivering a tray of warm orange flower brioche and a pitcher of strawberry vinegar iced tea. Love, love, love. Breakfast, another example of simple excellence, with morning-made brioche studded with pink praline, croissants, madeleines, just-sliced ham and unctious individual portions of scrambled eggs with a dob of homey tomato sauce on top served up by cheery, non-obsequious wait staff backing up from dinner service. Checkout was seamless, no pesky signatures, just a wave from the desk and a treat for the road–a bottle of Evian. La Maison Troisgros gets it right from start to finish. The venerable insitution, perched opposite the Roanne railway station since 1930, will be pulling up stakes come 2017, relocating 10km out of town to set up anew in the midst of  a 17 hectare park, adding a spa, pool and huge garden for the delight of guests lucky enough to snare one of the dozen or so deluxe rooms on offer. Menus from €240. Les Nuits des Etoiles food and accommodation package from €740. Pl Jean Troisgros 42 300 Roanne. Closed Tue & Weds & Mon lunch.

oeuf rococo

Quick Word: Bite-sized thoughts

A King of a Bar: Kong

Floating amid Paris rooftops, six floors up above the Seine,  Kong has the location, location, location thing all wrapped up. That view across Pont Neuf coupled with the (refreshed) Philippe Starke décor just keeps the crowds clambering morning, noon and night. The  cushy, open to the sky terrace is perfect on a sunshine-filled spring day for a melon and coconut smoothie or come the apéro hour, a tatin martini (vanilla vodka, apple juice, caramel syrup and a sploge of apple compote).

Melon coco

Angel at My Table: La Pâtisserie Ciel

The streets of Paris are paved with pâtisseries and yet more keep popping up….the Les Fées Patissières with their ‘fairy’ cakes, Thoumieux with its Breton shortbread tarts festooned with fresh strawberries, rhubarb and jelly cubes, or lemon cream peaks flecked with meringue buttons, Claire Damon’s second Des Gateaux et du Pain outpost with its mango and caramel version of the classic Saint-Honoré, and La Pâtisserie Ciel with its angel cakes. Featherlight sponges made of whipped egg whites. No butter allowed. Strawberry, vanilla, yuzu (Japanese lime), green tea, and the latest cherub in the cake choir:  Sakara, a pink fluff of cherry blossom and deep-red morellos. Fluffy sponge on the outside and fondanty cream in the centre. Take them with tea in the daylight hours, or Dom Perignon or Japanese whisky come the cocktail hour. Chef Aya Tamura spent time in the lofty Jules Verne restaurant, the Mandarin Oriental, and Saturne so he’s got a firm handle on flavour, including savoury angels such as parmesan and hazelnut or  black sesame seed, while owner Youlin Ly has already tasted success in Paris with restaurant Sola and saké bar Youlin. Small chiffon or angel cakes parcelled up in cute origami boxes are €5 to takeaway, or an extra €2 to eat in; large and medium cakes also available. Open 7/7. 3 rue Monge 75005

Ciel, Sakura