When my Sicilian friend, Filippo, told me that I should try roasted artichokes I thought I shouldn’t miss a celebration in the proudest headquarters of this tradition, Ramacca. We (Alice and I) drove to Ramacca by taking a minor road winding through field after field of the locally prized artichokes, the Violetta Ramaccana. Driving into this hilly town for the annual Sagra di Carciofi (Sagra translates to festival), I was struck by the dilemma of trying to convey the unique aroma of smoke infused with olive oil and laced with a healthy suggestion of a small farming country town in the middle of Sicily. The most unfortunate thing about smell is the lack of ability to record it. If only it could be sensed like a listener can listen to music or the ability to inspect a photograph of a place or event. This wasn’t just the typical heart warming smoke smell you have coming from cosy fireplaces on chilly windy days. This had a completely different life to it. In Sicily the most popular way to cook the artichoke is to roast them directly on hot coals. My appetite was immediately stimulated as I wound down my car window and allowed this nourishing smoke to drift in.
To be honest when I heard about this method of cooking artichokes I initially thought it was a strange way to cook this vegetable. This naturally lead to intrigue and curiosity so I scheduled a trip to Sicily. The first wiff of that smoke stirred up a lot of excitement and any doubt I had disappeared before I even saw a roasting artichoke. As we were looking for a parking spot we noticed a kid no more than eight years of age either in control of the small bbq or temporarily minding it. Smoke pouring out and almost shrouding the child completely. I just knew I was in for a unique treat and set out to find the best on offer in this little town with a big celebration.
I can’t imagine Ramacca is the kind of town that anyone would ever visit unless something special were to call you there. It’s a little agricultural town with not much going for it except that it is surrounded by the most stunning countryside in Sicily. We were lucky enough to make a blunder with our accommodation arangements on our forst night in Sicily. This mistake took us to a place called Piazza Armerina. A beautiful hilltop town with the history of Greeks and Romans around every corner. If you want to see thousands of square metre of recently restored Roman mosaics, this town is unmissable.
To get to Ramacca from Piazza Armerina we chose the minor road which Alice alays claims is the nicest country road she’s ever been on. In May it certainly puts on a show of spring flowers, absolute lush pasture land, wind turbines in the distance and of course hectares and hectares of artichokes. spotted throughout this countryside were dozens of abandoned and ruined stone farmhouses which we would imagine one day being the perfect place to set up as a home to live part of the year while we make art and eat great food.
When we arrived in Ramacca township we were just in time for Lunch. On occassions like this, the town expects thousands of vistors coming through to eat artichokes so there is a huge kitchen under marquees and an open dining area in the main Piazza. We got in early in order to have the afternoon free to take more photos and visit any other local sites. But here’s a few pics of the fare. At sagras you can expect to pay very little for a large meal. Good food, prepared simply doesn’t have to be expensive in Italy.
Sorry about the crappy picture
Artichoke filled ravioli tossed in artichoke cream (front centre) (no dairy)
Baked Chicken Breast served in artichoke cream (left of ravioli)
Marinated artichokes (bottom left)
Charcoal grilled artichoke (the funny looking black item at the back of the tray)
Dessert: Sicilian canoli filled with artichoke flavoured pastry cream (left rear with bread roll)
Nero D’avola red wine (right rear)
In this video the cook has a large tub of oily batter on his left and a tub of boiled artichokes, cut into segments, on his right. He quickly envelopes a piece of artichoke into some batter and drops it into boiling hot oil. Another cook, makes sure they cook evenly til they are golden and crispy. And there you have…Artichoke Zeppole. Get ’em while their hot.