The ‘Summer of St Martin’ in Sicily
As the cold takes hold in northern Europe, Rebecca Rose finds warm weather, wine and wild mushrooms in the southern Mediterranean

“Sicilians don’t go to the beach after August,” said a local from Palermo. It was well into autumn and the temperatures were still in the late twenties. The sea was warm and clear. This seemed liked a bizarre pronouncement – and yet, he was right.

In the summer months, the sandy beach at Cefalù, a medieval town on the island’s north coast, is a heaving disco of sun-worshippers. But on a golden Sunday morning in late October, there were just a few locals lounging on the sun-warmed sand, and most were shunning the sea; a scattering of German and British tourists splashed around enthusiastically.

The reappearance of glorious summer weather in October and November comes as no surprise to Sicilians, even if it may be to its visitors. The estate di San Martino (the summer of St Martin), the Italian equivalent of an Indian summer, is even celebrated at an annual festival on November 11. Saint Martin was a soldier of the Roman empire, known for his generosity, who chanced upon a freezing beggar when riding through the gates of the city of Amiens. He promptly cut his cloak in half to share with the beggar and legend has it that, at that moment, the sun came out. The festival coincides with the tasting of the year’s vino novello (new wine), and plenty of roast chestnuts – a feature throughout Sicily in the autumn.

Keen for a southern Mediterranean break before winter, my family and I set out to experience a Sicilian St Martin summer. Mindful that there are no guarantees in life, we headed to a region of Sicily where there would be other autumnal pleasures to enjoy aside from the beach if San Martino didn’t deliver the goods. Cefalù backs on to the Madonie mountain range, which boasts some of Sicily’s highest peaks aside from Etna. It is one of the most unspoilt, untouristy areas on the island but also one of the most accessible.

The Madonie’s foothills are only an hour from the capital on the smooth A20 motorway. Many Palermitans own rustic getaways in the hills that they escape to in autumn and winter to light fires, hunker down and even ski at the small resort of Piano Battaglia. We opted to stay at Casa Nuvola, a luxurious villa in the Madonie foothills, with astonishing views of the curving north coast looking towards Palermo, and a heated pool in case the weather turned bad.

As a base in autumn it is ideal – on more clement days you can be down at the beach in Cefalù in 15 minutes; on cooler days you are in easy reach of the Madonie’s towns and villages; and on days where the weather is looking really dicey, Palermo is an hour away by train.

After three days of San Martino bliss, spent pootling down the hill from Casa Nuvola to the beach at Cefalù, stopping off on the via Roma to buy creamy gelato wedged into buttery brioches at top pasticceria L’Angolo delle Dolcezze, and fresh squid from the fishmongers on the other side of the road, we decided it was time to explore the hinterland and its culinary delights.

We took the scenic route, round bumpy hairpin bends, to Collesano, a splendidly situated town backing on to dramatic peaks on one side, with wonderful views of the sea from the other. It was lunchtime and there was barely a person to be seen, aside from a few workmen asleep in their Ape vans, so we headed to Casale Drinzi, a gem of an agriturismo with a molto rustico wooded interior and saddles hanging down from the rafters. Sunning ourselves through an open window that looked down to the sea, we feasted on thin, raw slices of porcini with lemon, and gnocchi with black-pig ragù, a rich creamy sauce laced with a local spinach-type green.

By the end of the week the estate di San Martino was buffeted away by strong winds, driving rain and even hail. The sea looked menacing. Huge waves crashed on to Cefalù’s speedily shut-up lidos and the stalls along the Lungomare selling sarongs and pottery were quickly replaced by a solitary umbrella vendor. But we were determined to go yet further into the Madonie, to Castelbuono, the most picturesquely gentrified of the mountain towns, and home to Nangalarruni, a renowned slow food restaurant specialising in wild mushrooms.

I had twice made pilgrimages to Nangalarruni on previous trips but never before at the exact moment when porcini were in season. The day we dined, the staff were putting together a huge display of locally sourced porcini, chanterelles and chestnuts – a bountiful, mouthwatering woodland sight. It happened to be the first day of the town’s annual mushroom festival so, with funghi in the air, it seemed churlish not to order the most mushroomy fare on the menu: mixed mushrooms steamed in oil and herbs, followed by a fragrant, health-giving soup of porcini, spinach, chickpeas and tiny homemade pasta in a delicious broth.

After popping into Fiasconaro, Castelbuono’s celebrated pasticceria, to stock up on their panettone for Christmas, we set off into the heartland of the Madonie. Here, the olive trees and umbrella pines start to thin out and the landscape becomes browner and more barren. The mountain towns are more spartan and, under lashing rain, even a little austere in their towering, granite-hued grandeur.

We were headed for Petralia Sottana and Petralia Soprana, the former apparently hosting a food festival despite the downpour. In the event, the organisers had clearly decided the festival could wait until domani, even though a smartly dressed policeman was stationed at a crossroads, officiously redirecting traffic. No thanks to him, our very small Renault Clio got wedged into a one-way side street, which at least provided an amusing spectacle for a group of locals.

After retreating down from the hills back to Casa Nuvola, looking out from the spectacular terrace we could see bright, clear sky coming in over the sea, and for the first time that week, the imposing silhouettes of the Aeolian Islands on the horizon. We were about to return home but good old San Martino was on his way back.

Rebecca Rose was a guest of the Thinking Traveller ( Casa Nuvola, which sleeps up to 10, costs from €3,810 per week and is available for rent year-round