I'm not certain exactly when it was that I first started cooking with Marsala - but I suspect it was as long ago as the first time I tried Marcella Hazan's recipe for zabaglione, which must put it more than a couple of decades ago! As a fortified wine - for cooking purposes, at any rate - it stands out entirely on its own. It has a depth and richness which can't be matched by anything you might consider comparable within the cooking-quality alcohols - not sherry, nor brandy, nor port. The closest thing I can think of in terms of the roundness of its flavour is an Oloroso, but I think we're then straying beyond the parameters of strictly 'cooking' alcohols, and so the comparison is unfair. I understand that Nelson stocked up with Marsala rather than rum for his entire fleet en route to The Battle of the Nile, and I can understand why he would have thought it a valid substitution - the two alcohols have a similar complexity and the structure of their flavours bears comparison. And we won the Battle of The Nile, so that ought to mean something!
Apparently, the earliest versions of Marsala were produced by the addition of 8.5 gallons of grape spirit to every 400 litres of one of the local wines - of which three grape varieties predominate. I have no idea whether those proportions still hold good, and as I'm not contemplating making the stuff, I'm not too bothered about the detail. Where things do seem to have changed recently is in the production of a hierarchy of qualities of Marsala, the top four of which rank significantly above that of cooking quality. For the latter purpose, you should restrict yourself to the 'Fine' variety (misleadingly named, since it is the poorest quality of the lot) which sells for about two quid in any half decent italian supermarket.
I use Marsala for desserts - Posset with Poached Prunes; Zabaglione; Pears poached in Marsala and Moscovado Sugar; Oranges with Marsala Syrup - for cooking with vegetables, as a base for cream sauces for sauteed meat, in stews........it has a place somewhere in pretty much all kinds of cooking.
As for the place, I remember it as a bustling and unprepossessing example of modern urban sprawl, with a very confusing one-way system......which was particularly unhelpful when trying to get through Marsala and down the coast to Mazara del Vallo in time to see the statue of the Dancing Satyr before it closed for the day - and all I was working from was a small scale map of the whole of west Sicily! The guide-books describe Marsala as charming, and traditional and clustered round a picturesque harbour; well, all I can say is that I missed that bit as we swept through the main shopping street, past a host of all-too-familiar department stores, for the third time in twenty minutes! Dinner, however, in a family-owned trattoria called A Ciaramira in the middle of nowhere, eight miles away from Marsala, across empty fields and unlit roads was a truly memorable experience, and more than made up for the deficiencies of the roads- department within the local planning office!
Tortino of Pancakes, with a filling of Aubergine and Peppers.
Involtini of Leek and Parmesan. For the full recipe, see below.
Oranges with Marsala Syrup. Not sure what came first to my mind, today's post or the thought of dinner. Whichever.......