Our first meal in Sicily was an eagerly anticipated one.
My fellow foodie travellers and I expected a trip to Sicily's northern coast to be no less than a culinary paradise. People had told us it was almost impossible to go wrong with food there, and so we went to taste it for ourselves.
After checking into the farm we were staying at in the small seaside town of Alcamo and spending a few hours basking in the sun, we headed to the nearest restaurant for lunch.
Sarah, the daughter of farmers we were staying with, nonchalantly pointed out the Sunshine restaurant, saying it was one of the few options on the beach.
At lunchtime, we were the only people there, save for a pair of old men dining on mussels at a nearby table.
Ignore the touristy sounding name, because Sunshine entirely lived up to our expectations of Sicily.
Their pasta con le sarde - a quintessential Sicilian pasta which was on our list of things to eat - was spaghetti tossed in a salty and rich tomato sauce with fresh sardines, fennel and saffron, and sprinkled with a subtle and sweet mix of raisins and pine nuts. And forget dieting, because the seafood risotto was creamy and buttery enough to induce a heart attack, but would have been well worth it.
When my friend Julie ordered the tomato and onion salad as a main, we urged her to be more adventurous. Little did we know. The huge salad came laced with fresh herbs, black olives and salty anchovies, and the raw tomatoes were surprisingly juicy and sweet.
Dessert was a single cannolo - a fried tube-shaped pastry stuffed with sweet and creamy ricotta cheese - the crispy shell was flavoured with chocolate and the ricotta garnished with candied oranges.
Although one cannolo was more than enough for us, the old men on the next table took pity on our meagre serving and insisted on offering us their own desserts.
If Sicilian food was this satisfying on our first stop, what else was there to come? We headed back up the hills to our farm to find out.
Alcamo is a quiet town, about 20 minutes away from Palermo by car. Its sandy white beaches are bordered by the valleys and hills of the Trapani province, where the town is nestled. It may not be known as a culinary destination, but the fertile valleys are abundant with vineyards, olive groves and many farms that produce organic fare.
We stayed at La Talpa, a small farm owned by Claudio and Luisa Tamagnini. They're a part of Italy's growing agricultural tourism industry, as a number of farms open up guesthouses to cater to visitors. Claudio is the tall and tanned grey-haired man who meets us in the afternoon and takes us for a tour of the farm and its produce.
There were round, bright purple aubergines which are common throughout the region and found in many Sicilian dishes. The yellow tomatoes called Corleone weren't yet ripe for the picking, but Claudio plucked the bright red ones for dinner. There was also baby courgettes which he assured us would grow to be at least a foot long (later, when we walked around markets in other parts of Sicily, we saw he was quite right).
The farm is a small plot, but it's enough to sustain the family's needs and leave some produce for trade.
At sunset, we sat outside on a veranda overlooking the valley, and dined with the farms' residents. Luisa had made a spread which showcased the best of the farm. The first course was anelli, a Sicilian pasta shaped into little rings, which was baked with peas, ground meat and tomato sauce. The highlight of the dish was the little bursts of earthy flavour that came from the bright green peas, which had also been picked fresh from the farm.
The eggplants had been sliced, soaked in salt water, and pan fried in light marinade of olive oil - they were meaty and tender with no trace of bitterness. The tomatoes were pounded into a chunky sauce for the vegetables, and we mopped up the leftover sauce with a thick, cake-like white bread. A bowl of tomatoes tossed in olive oil and fresh basil quickly disappeared as we realised that that kind of freshness and quality would be hard to find beyond the farm.
The courgettes were boiled with green peppers and served with garlic, crushed almonds and olive oil. Claudio and Louisa make their own oil from the farm's olive trees, and although they sell it in cans which are too heavy to take back on the plane, they were gracious enough to pour some into a smaller bottle for us to take home.
The couple had grown and made almost everything on the table, and whatever they didn't make was sourced from a collective to which they belong. The collective is a group of organic farmers who trade produce with each other. Claudio refers to it as a peasants' initiative, a type of agricultural bartering which avoids selling food solely for profit.
When he speaks of the collective, you get the sense that these are farmers who are quietly and diligently passionate about their food. Growing food is a more than just a way of life, it's a political statement. This is why La Talpa's produce is never sold to commercial buyers such as supermarkets, and is only bartered for goods produced by other "families" in the collective.
At the end of the meal and after the sun had set, Claudio, with a little encouragement, tells stories of his younger years as a renegade backpacker who stowed away on a ship sailing from the US to France. Smiling at Louisa, he recounts how the police arrested him at the port but only held him for a short time, and how he returned to Italy where he met her and settled into La Talpa.
The conversation drifted off at a comfortable pace, as Luisa and Claudio are good at making people feel like a part of La Talpa's family. We all sat back and enjoyed plums and apricots for dessert, and it was a perfect end to our first night in Sicily. Picking up the plates after dinner, we wondered if things could get any better.