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Let’s drink a good book: notes on ‘The Florio of Sicily’ by Stefania Auci and Marsala🍷

Matching wines and books is becoming a habit! They are two of the most enjoyable things in life, and I often spend my evenings with a good book and a nice glass of wine! I have just finished The Florios of Sicily, a beautiful book about the Florio family, an Italian dynasty which made history.

We find ourselves in Sicily, where the Florio family challenged everything, conquered everything and became a legend. In the world of wines, Florio means Marsala, a popular fortified wine, dry or sweet. Marsala fortified wine was probably first popularized outside Sicily by the English trader John Woodhouse. In 1773, he landed at the port of Marsala and discovered the local wine produced in the region, which was aged in wooden casks and tasted similar to Spanish and Portuguese fortified wines then popular in England. In 1833, the entrepreneur Vincenzo Florio decided to get in on the act by buying up great swathes of land between the two largest established Marsala producers and making his own vintage with an even more exclusive range of grapes. Florio remains a leading producer of Marsala today.

But the story really starts in Calabria when Calabrian brothers Paolo and Ignazio Florio emigrated to Sicily with their wives in 1799. At that time Sicily was the heart of the commercial activity of the Bourbon kingdom. They were restless and ambitious men and used their fortune to begin trading spices. Soon their spice shop in Palermo became the best in the city. Later they started a sulphur trade – sulphur was then a vital chemical, employed in making fertilisers, finishing textiles and many other uses, and Sicilian sulphur extracted from the island’s volcanic rock was for a time considered the best in the world. The Florios prospered, buying houses and land from Palermo’s aristocracy and even founding their own shipping company. All against the background of the most troubled years of Italian history, from the riots of 1818 to the landing of Garibaldi in Sicily. The historical background, and the most intimate and private aspects of the characters, make this book a unique, captivating bestseller, which immerses you in that fascinating time.

Vincenzo, Paolo’s son, took Florio’s fortune to the next step. Starting the production of the famous Marsala, he transformed a poor man’s wine into nectar worthy of a king’s table.

Vincenzo also invented a revolutionary method to preserve tuna using oil and cans, transforming its consumption.

The book shows the visionary talent of this extraordinary family, but also the social limitations they had to face as self-made men. Even if the Florios were one of the richest family of Italy, for the high class they remained ‘strangers’, ‘porters’ whose ‘blood stinks of sweat’. They were never accepted by the aristocracy and the book shows the social pressures on their private life. At the men’s side were exceptional women: Giuseppina, Paolo’s wife, who sacrificed everything, including love, for the stability of the family, and Giulia, Vincenzo’s wife, who protect him from his own fragility.

The Florios’ adventures in the world of wines began in the village of Marsala, where Vincenzo bought land and, then, established a factory for the production of Marsala wine.

Vincenzo’s Florio house

The first years in the Marsala business were tough for Vincenzo: his wine was unsuccessful and the winery faced a big loss, a gap which had to be plugged by the family’s wealth. The business became successful only when Vincenzo decided to market labelled wine rather than selling the wine in bulk. Thanks to their own shipping fleet, their Marsala was exported to Europe and the United States, and after 20 years, the Florios were the largest producers of Marsala wine. ‘Cantine Florio’ have opened an exhibition space to the public since 1992, and it can be virtually visited on this link : https://www.duca.it/florio/

Marsala has a huge heritage in Italian oenology, it is known as the ‘Italian sherry’, due to the common use of the Soleras method. This method enhances the young wine by adding cooked must or brandy, except Marsala Vergine, which has its own natural alcohol content, so doesn’t need any addition. The wine is put into 400 litre barrels, filled one quarter full, and stacked in 3 rows, one above the other. The younger wine takes the top floor, while the aged wine rests in the barrels on the floor. Over time the wine partially evaporates, reduces, oxidizes and concentrates. This cycle continues indefinitely, each vintage blends with the previous one, creating an organoleptic harmony of incredible complexity, with a mix of spicy and ripe aromas that make this wine unique.

Many vines can provide the basis for Marsala and, depending on the vines used, the wine will have different shades from amber to ruby. Marsala must be oxygenated a couple of hours before drinking and it must be served cold. Depending on ageing, it can be fine, superior and reserve for sweet and virgin marsala and extra-aged virgin for semi-dry and dry marsala. It is a fortified wine, with good structure, with aromas and tastes that vary according to the years of ageing. It has an alcohol content between 15 ° and 22 °, which allows a good contrast with fatty and/succulent foods. Sweet Marsalas best accompany pastries and desserts – a Sweet Marsala Superiore is perfect with chocolate-based cakes. Marsala is also very good for aged and blue cheeses, such as Gorgonzola. Dry Marsala is the dry version and it can be combined with meat, fish, pasta and rice.

‘Bere un bicchiere di vino è come assaporare una goccia del fiume della storia umana.’ (‘Drinking a glass of wine is like tasting a drop of the river of human history’) C. Fadiman


The name “Florio” makes me think of Marsala and tuna – the other Florio’s flagship product: I have found this recipe to make tuna steak Sicilian-Style, it looks fantastic!

Sweet Marsala is great with chocolate based cakes, so why don’t you try my super-easy-to-make “5 minutes chocolate cake”? You’ll find the instructions to make it in one of my posts, it’s a win-win cake: delicious and very simple!

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