Nelson, Marsala and the Mary Whitehouse Experience

I wrote something for History Today magazine on perhaps my favourite place in the world, Sicily, and Marsala, its rather forgotten fortified wine. There an extract below which you can click on it to read the entire thing. This probably dates me terribly but I can’t think of History Today without thinking of that sketch from the Mary Whitehouse Experience:

Anyway! Here’s the article. . . .

Dotted around the vineyards of Trapani province in western Sicily are ruins that look so Georgian they would not look out of place in Bath. These are the remains of baglios, or wineries, from the marsala industry. They are a reminder of an almost forgotten moment in history when the British occupied Sicily.

Sicily has had more than its fair share of invaders: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Normans, Spaniards, Venetians and Neapolitans. The British were there briefly, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but there was talk of the island becoming a British colony, like Malta or Cyprus. ‘It would be the jewel in the Empire crown after Ireland,’ one commentator remarked, which seems ironic considering how British rule in Ireland is remembered. Beyond a few ruins, there is very little to see from Sicily’s British moment, but you can taste it in marsala wine.


Extract from Empire of Booze – Sicily

I’ve put an extract from my forthcoming book, Empire of Boozeup on the Dabbler website. I’m probably about halfway through the book and hoping it will appear as planned in very early 2016 or even extremely late 2015. 

From the top of the tower I could see right across the vineyards of Marsala, across to the Mediterranean and the nearby island of Mozia. The tower I was standing on was built, according to its present owner, Giacomo Ansaldi, by the Spanish in the 15th century. It was used to keep a look out for ‘Saracenas’ – pirates from North Africa. Marsala is only about 100 miles from the coast North Africa. The tower had been built into a fortified courtyard known as a Baglio. The word has the same derivation as the English word Bailey as in a Mott and Bailey castle. It now generally means a winery.  Only in Sicily would the word for winery mean fortress. I was so captivated by the view across the sea that I didn’t notice in the foreground a peculiar looking ruined building until Giacomo pointed it out that.  With its elegant Georgian lines, it looked for all for all the world like a chunk of Regency Bath had been dropped in the baking heat of Western Sicily. This is the ruins of the Baglio Woodhouse.  Once it was pointed out to me, I started to notice ruined Baglios dotted all over Trapani province.

The marsala story traditionally starts in 1773 with the arrival of a merchant from Liverpool called John Woodhouse. He tried the local wine and noticed a similarity with madeira and being a canny Scouser saw an opportunity. There was huge demand for madeira style wines not least from America and growers and producers were struggling to keep up. To ensure the safe journey back to England Woodhouse fortified it with brandy.

Sicilians, however, would say that the marsala story starts long before the arrival of John Woodhouse because the marsalans had been making a unique style of wine since antiquity.  It was known as vino perpetuo or everlasting wine.. It was made by topping up barrels of wine with the newest vintage so the wine was continuously blended like a version of the solera system. A little space was left in the top of the barrel so the wine would gently oxidise and the wine would develop flavours of almonds. The resulting wine would contain minute quantities of very old wine. It certainly would not have been fortified until the British came along. Giacomo Ansaldi keeps a nursery of old unfortified marsala in his cellar at the Baglio Donna Franca. He let me try some from a barrel started in 1957 by an old farmer who wanted a wine to pass on to his grandchildren but they’re now pursuing professional careers in the North and don’t have the space or interest to look after an enormous Botti of old wine. The smell filled the room, initially a little musty and then almonds and spiced oranges. It didn’t taste like marsala, it was more like a very old table wine. There was none of the caramel or alcoholic burn that I’d come to expect from marsala. It was fascinating to try a wine that Woodhouse would have recognised on his first trip to Sicily.

The great ingredient that the British brought to Marsala was not brandy but capitalism. As Giacomo Ansaldi put it to me ‘the British were experts in the market, the Sicilians were sleeping.’ He is echoing Lampedusa’sThe Leopard here, perhaps consciously:

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep, that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts.

To read on click here 

Why it’s better to drink wine with those you love

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I’ve been busy working on my still-nascent-but-perhaps-actually-about-to happen-book which is very exciting (potentially.) Less excitingly but more lucratively I have been writing travel guides to cities that I’ve never visited. Normally researching these cities makes me want to visit them – I had no idea that Baku had such rich Art Noveau architecture. The exception was Malmo which sounds like Middlesborough with added anti-Semitism.

So finally here are my wines of the year from 2013. An upside to being a wine writer is that I get to taste some extremely rare wines including this year some 19th century Madeira courtesy of Berry Bros. The downside is that these are normally drunk in a room surrounded by other journalists so that though one may appreciate them, you don’t actually enjoy the experience terribly much. Therefore my wines of the year, aren’t the necessarily the best wines, they are the wines I have enjoyed the most which means I drank them with people I love.

Marco de Bartoli Marsala Superiore Riserva 10 year old (Harvey Nichols £40)

Despite a bit of a marsala obsession, I had never tried anything from the most esteemed producer, the late Marco de Bartoli. I saw this on the menu at Bocca di Lupo for about £60 and as I was with my wife, we were a bit drunk and it was our wedding anniversary, I thought what the hell. I am so glad I did. It’s a wine with a story to tell. One sniff and we were in an imaginary Sicily of orange groves, Byzantine craftsman and long sultry afternoons. We had  a glass each and then drank the rest at home over the course of a week.

henry's wife is amazing

Domaine la Combe Blanche Cinsault L’Incompris 2011 (£8. 50 Leon Stolarki – pretty much everything I’ve bought from this man has been excellent and he’s not expensive)

This is my sociable wine of the year. It’s not one to think about terribly much, it’s just plain delicious like a good Beaujolais or a simple New World Pinot Noir. It goes with pretty much everything and everyone who tries it makes appreciative noises. I predict that 2014 is going to be the year of Cinsault if only in SE13.

Quinta do Noval Nacional 2011

Now I’m breaking my rule here. I drank this at a table surrounded by jostling sweating wine writers, sommeliers and freeloaders. It’s very expensive (if you can find it) and shouldn’t really be touched for 20 years, but it’s one of those rare cult wines where after one sip you understand what the fuss is all about. It’s just so concentrated, every sip there’s something new to discover, but it’s not flamboyant in the slightest. I’d kill to try this again.

That’s it. Now does anyone know five unmissable things to see in Ulan Bator?

 You can read some more of my 2014 booze predictions here.

And the winner is. . .

Thank you everyone who entered the competition to win a bottle of Cantina Florio Terre Arse 2000. There were entries from poets, novelists, academics, radio producers, wine merchants and sofa salesman. Special mentions should go to Lynn Roberts for rhyming marsala with umbrella, Gareth Williams for ignoring the rules and submitting one about sambuca, and Ewan Murray for using the word Valhalla, a reference, of course, to Roger II, 12th century Norman ruler of Sicily. I’d like to say that it was hard to pick a winner but actually it was easy. Not only does the winning entry still make me chuckle, but it scans and has the internal logic required by a good limerick. It was from Michael Willis of St. Albans:

The world famous ‘Singing Koala’
When taking the stage at La Scala
Made sure that his voice
The organ of choice
Was functioning well with Marsala

Thank you Mr Willis. I’ll send you the bottle out this week by recorded delivery. My friends at the Marsala Marketing Board are delighted with it too. They keep saying the words ‘koala che canto’ and crying with laughter.

Win wine

My good friends at the Marsala Marketing Board have made me an offer I cannot refuse. They have donated a bottle of Florio’s Terre Arse (tee hee!) 2000 to give away to my readers. All you have to do is is come up with a limerick with the word ‘marsala’ in it. Something like: ‘there was a young man from Marsala/ who had a passion for Mahler.’ Entries must be clean or at least cleanish or I won’t be able to post them online in case my mother is reading. The one that makes me laugh the most wins. To enter this incredible competition you must subscribe to World of Booze and then email your entry to henrycastiglione at hotmail dot com. I’ll only post within Britain so if you enter from abroad, you’ll have to come and pick up the wine. Competition closes at the end of May or later if I don’t get enough funny limericks. The winner and any funny runners-up will have their limericks posted on the site. If none of them make me laugh, then there will be no winner.

Swarthy Chicken for Magical Realists

World of Booze is branching out into food. Man cannot live on booze alone; I know cos I’ve tried. This week we have guest writer Misti Traya cooking with Marsala. She is using Florio’s Terre Arse which is really too good for this but you only need a splash and then you can finish off the bottle with a nice aged Pecorino.


I look better with a tan.  I don’t care how gauche you think I am to say it.  My best friend is a dermatologist.  I know about the dangers of sun exposure.  My healthy fear of melanoma aside, I am also a Vanity Smurf.  I realize too much sun is bad and can render you a blotchy, freckly, ginger hag who has been living in the Canary Islands sans SPF* for twenty plus years (I have given this alter ego the name of Mrs. Rathbone).  No woman wants a face like a moccasin.  Nor do I believe does any man.  This is why I always slather myself with sunscreen.  Still, the fact remains.  I look better with a tan.  For me, a tawny complexion is tantamount to instantly losing five pounds.  It also makes one’s teeth look whiter.  Who in Britain wouldn’t want that?

The first time I met the man I had no idea would be my husband, I was so swarthy he thought I was Brazilian.  I wasn’t.  I’m not.  Though I had just spent two weeks in the Caribbean drinking caipirinhas with my family, building sandcastles with my baby sister, and soaking up the sun.

Ah, the sun.  The glorious sun.

Under the Sicilian sun, my husband and I had our beginnings.  For me, this heat will always be romanticized.  When life in London gets too cold and dreary or I‘ve gone as sallow as a Dickensian orphan, this Sicilian ideal is where I go in my mind.  One of the things that helps me get there is a dish we’ve dubbed Swarthy Chicken.  For us, it’s evocative of that glowing tan I had the first time I noticed how much I loved my future husband’s nose in profile.  It reminds us of the day we sat reading next to each other poolside, ignorant to what was written in the stars, under a sea of bougainvillea on the grounds of a 17th century mansion overlooking the Mediterranean.  Swarthy Chicken is for magical realists because one serving of this dish can transport you to our sultry jasmine-scented Sicily.  But only if you believe.

The recipe is as follows:

Preheat your oven to 225 Celsius.  You want it to have all the heat of Mount Etna when she roars.

Next, slice a large yellow onion into thin rounds.  Lay these rounds at the bottom of an earthenware casserole.  Be sure to use some sort of enameled ceramic dish.  Only philistines use glass or tin.  My favorites are either a Le Creuset lasagne dish or a pretty Italian Majolica piece.  Both are built in fire and can handle fire.  Add two thinly sliced red, yellow or orange bell peppers.  Make them thin, but do not julienne.  Now smash four garlic cloves and scatter them amongst the other vegetable ruins.

Take 8-10 chicken thighs.  Thighs are inexpensive, moist, full of flavor and most importantly, they can withstand long cooking at high heat.  Rub the chicken pieces with butter.  Be generous.  Use the butter as if it were the chicken’s sunscreen.  Add a light drizzle of olive oil then liberally salt, pepper, and sprinkle with spicy smoked paprika.  This will add a fiery oaky flavor to the dish that will hearken back to the Aragonese invasion of Sicily.

Bake for 20-30 minutes.  The skin should be crisp and brown.  The onions should be caramelized with a few charred bits as if seared to seal in deliciousness by Etna herself.  Every so often roll the chicken pieces in the savory drippings to keep moist.

Turn down the oven to 175 Celsius and bake for another 15 minutes.

Roll the chicken thighs in their juices and add a splash of good Marsala wine.  Bake for another 15 minutes so the alcohol cooks off but the flavor remains.  Terre Arse is the brand we use in our house.  My husband swears it tastes of Sicily’s past.  Perhaps he fought against the French during the War of Vespers in another life?  I have no idea.  But I take most of what he says, especially about wine, to heart. The oranges, cinnamon and pistachios that the Arabs brought to Sicily 1,000 years ago are very present in this fortified wine’s flavor notes and you will definitely be able to taste them in your gravy.  Let us not forget Marsala is Arabic for Port of Allah.  And it is from Allah (or at least his port) that Marsala must come as it really is the most otherworldly emulsifier.  It pulls together all the elements of this dish—the smoke and the spice of the paprika, the oak of the casks that aged the wine, the sweetness of the caramelized onions and peppers—to create the richest, most fragrant gravy.

Before serving, throw in a handful of roughly chopped green Italian olives.  My favorite are the giant meaty ones from Puglia that are so sweet and fruity, one could mistake them for cherries.

Serve atop basmati rice, turn on the Nino Rota and you’re there.  Swarthy in Sicily that is.

*Editor’s note – SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is being used as an abbreviation for suncream despite having more syllables.