A Summer in the Islands

By Matthew Fort

A carefree exploration of the culture and cuisines of the Italian islands

Domenico Buffa drew the cork on a bottle of his family’s Vergine marsala, ten years old, made only with grillo grapes, and poured a generous measure into a wine glass the size of a goldfish bowl. The colour shimmered in the gloom – buttercup yellow, rich and textured. I sniffed it. Layers of scents drifted in on the 18 per cent alcohol, heady and rich. I picked out sweet pea, broom, peach, toffee, primrose and a trace of pipe tobacco. It seemed hardly necessary to drink the liquor at all. A pity not to, though. Domenico Buffa took his nose out of his glass and looked at me.

'Oh, very fine. Complex,' I said. I sipped. The marsala slipped over my tongue as elegant and captivating as a silk scarf, restrained and rich, releasing an astonishing range of flavours with an airy sweetness, unlocking honeyed memories of my first visit to Sicily.

'Tip top,’ I said.'

I stood in the darkness. I sensed rather than saw vast, somnolent presences. The warm air was suffused with the sweetness of caramel shaded with apricot, cardomom and cloves. Slowly lights overhead came on, glimmered softy, throwing a gentle amber glow over the botti, giant barrels twice my height, and round in proportion and black with age, ranged around the walls of the room. The space in the middle was filled with smaller barrels, blond barriques of French and Slavonian oak that smelt of vanilla, Inside the larger and smaller barrels the great alchemical change was taking place as grape juice ripened into marsala over the years.

From Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons.

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