Travels in Sicily
Manna, spleen sandwiches, Kobe, Etna wines & almond granita.
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“I’m doing agriculture from 1000 years ago, but also from the future,” says Giulio Gelardi. He’s one of the last two ntaccaluòri, or collectors of manna, the dried sap of the narrow-leaf ash tree (Fraxinus angustifolia). It’s a substance that is referenced in the Bible, created by God to sustain the Israelites during their travels in the desert, and started to appear in Sicily sometime after the 9th century when it was under Moorish rule.
The off-white substance is broken down into cylindrical chunks and sold by weight. It quenches thirst, works as a laxative and dissolves mucus. People take it to lose weight and cure colds. It was once used throughout Italy as a household remedy, though today it’s barely used, and Gelardi basically loses money trying to keep the tradition of it going. It’s also a natural sweetener with a subtle, almost milk and honey flavor.
My friend, Italian food writer, author and baker Laura Lazzaroni is translating what he tells us and everything that is being said and is happening around us is so fascinating that I cannot take notes fast enough. We’re on the top floor of his apartment that sits in the highest point of Pollina in the Madonie mountains. His underwear is drying on the balcony outside and beyond it is a sweeping view of Sicily, extending to the azure blues of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
He describes how each August he makes incisions into the tree and hangs nylon strings from them. The sap drips down to form stalactites, that he gathers in prickly pear paddles below as it hardens. He knows everything that happens to the 500 ash trees scattered in the surrounding wilderness that he collects the manna from. He knows what they have been through. How they react to certain climactic events. It’s a relationship that borders on supernatural, but he doesn’t believe in that or the extensive mythology surrounding manna and its supposed magical abilities. He’s an atheist, he says, and as he describes his reasons to us, his elderly mother is sitting beside the window praying while clutching her rosary. The magic he says, is knowing the right moment to harvest it.
In Sicily, history comes in layers. The more you try to peel one off, the less you understand. There were occupations and declarations. Exoduses of peoples to distant parts and waves of migrants to take their place. It’s ever-present in the food.
I didn’t have much time in Palermo and all I wanted to find was pani câ mèusa, a spleen sandwich. I looked around the food stalls at La Vucciria market at night and it was loud and there were too many tourists. A few blocks away, I bought one from a standing room only shop called Franco 'U Vastiddaru. It’s part of the culinary legacy of a Jewish community that spent a millenia on the island until being expelled in the 15th century. It’s a sandwich that makes use of spleen, lung and other offal by frying it in lard and topping it with grated, salty caciocavallo cheese. It’s a strong flavor, mellowed out with a squirt of lemon and sold in the streets in Castellammare.
We also stopped in at Bocum, a lively corner restaurant with wood fired cooking. To my surprise there was a Peruvian chef there, Diego Recarte, who used to work at Malabar with Pedro Miguel Schiaffino but work brought him to the Mediterranean. There was a corn flan thickened with ricotta, but otherwise the menu was built around small plates of seafood and cocktails.
When Kobe Desramaults closed his restaurant Chambre Séparée in Gent, Belgium last year he started looking for somewhere in Italy or France to relocate to. He followed the ingredients. All the best ones were coming from Sicily.
It might seem irrational that a chef from northern Europe that spent his career cooking locally would just uproot his life and try to understand an entirely new set of ingredients and culture, but I’ve spent a little bit of time around him, once nearly dying, enough to know that he’s someone that really commits himself when he makes decision. This is what he said when he closed his Michelin starred restaurant In de Wulf in the Belgian countryside in 2017 before opening Chambre Séparée (which he always said would be temporary): “If I open a new restaurant, the only thing I'll change is the setting. My kitchen will remain the same: a raw kitchen with fermented and aged products.”
Stazione Veccharia, the place he made with Sicilian restaurateur Franco Virgo in Finale di Pollina, already had the raw kitchen he was looking for when Kobe came in. There was no chef, it was just there waiting. It seemed serendipitous. He’ll be there until the end of October, and then a more permanent space in the mountains will be built.
There is a counter in front of the kitchen with room for 8, plus a few dozen tables under a canopy. They had only been open for a couple of weeks when I came in. They weren’t even sure what will happen when it rains, yet a parade of Italian food writers had already waxed poetic about their experience there.
The vast pantry of ferments and aged products he normally has on hand was still in development, so it was mostly pure product and someone that knows how to work it. The flavors of a timeless ocean, a tapestry of agriculture that stretches back to the dawn of civilization on the Mediterranean, cooked over fire with finesse. John Dory hung over the smoky grill staring at us for most of the meal until it was pulled down and its liver served over lentils. Cuttlefish and caper leaves. Lamb and zucchini. Even manna showed up to sweeten fresh almond ice cream with some mulberry. Biodynamic wines from Etna and beyond. Sea breeze and stars twinkling on the water.
After the meal he claimed there were technical issues, a problem with staff. He lacked the control he is used to have, he said. I didn’t really notice. There was too much good happening. It felt like Sicily to me. Another layer. Give it a year or two and this might be the best destination restaurant in all of Europe.
It’s hard to tell who planted many of the grapes around Mount Etna or what they are. They have been growing there since the Bronze age. Different grapes were planted together. Lava flows buried vines that couldn’t be planted again until many years later. Some grapes were just called Francese, or French, when they lost track of what they were.
Federico Graziani, formerly the sommelier of Milan restaurant Cracco, took us around his plots on the northern slope, the first of which he bought before getting out of the restaurant industry after a chance meeting with a local butcher. There’s the one from the lower altitude Feudo di Mezzo, jokingly compared to Milan’s fashion row as more than 30 producers have small plots there, including big names in the natural wine world like Frank Cornelissen. There were other plots right beside lava flows and another at a higher altitude.
Thirty percent of his vines are pre-phylloxera, around 120-150 years old, while the overall average is closer to 70 years old. They look like another life form, twisted and gnarled. He gave me a chunk of a dead one that I smuggled home and it’s now on my bookshelf.
Under the shade of some olive trees, we sip his white Mareneve. It’s from an extreme altitude of 1,200 meters and blends typical Sicilian white grapes like Carricante and Grecanico with Northern Europe ones like Riesling Renano, Gewürztraminer and Chenin Blanc. It’s acidic and very aromatic. alive. It seems to represent Sicily perfectly. We then move on to his reds, Rosso di Mezzo and Profumo di Vulcano, which are just as pleasant.
Twenty years ago, there were just a handful of producers on Etna. Now there are more than 100. It’s a new frontier in winemaking with the foundation of an old one. Everyone is buying up land to figure out their ideal combination of soil, altitude and the position on the volcano to have the right amount of rain and wind.
Many use the unusual alborello system here. Humans normally want vines to grow horizontally, but the vines want to grow upwards towards the light. It seems strange to see them growing in this vertical form, but winemaking here seems to be more about working with the grapes than forcing them what to do what you want. It seems to be a pattern everywhere on the island.
Check out Jason Wilson’s deep dive into Sicilian whites at his newsletter Everyday Drinking:
In Sicily, they produce the best almonds in the world. Especially the Romana almonds around Noto. They’re distinctive. They are bittersweet with a dry texture and intense flavor. Every culture that inhabited the island fell in love with them and created new uses for them. It’s the core ingredient of Sicilian patisserie.
I’ve become quite enchanted with the idea of transmitting the flavors of nature in a simple way through ice cream for several years and make them with the wild ingredients of my surrounding landscape often. When I heard of what Corrado Assenza does at Caffè Sicilia in the heart of Noto it was important to make a stop there, despite being well out of the way. He was on Chef’s Table, the pastry season, but otherwise I haven’t heard much about him outside of Italy.
During the downtown of the pandemic, he closed Caffè Sicilia for months to renovate it. He walked us through the backrooms where the dough for cannoli were being flattened and century old ice cream machine was still cranking away. He was pleased to hear we had been driving around, exploring Sicilian biodiversity via cheesemakers, and winemakers and manna makers.
“You have to know the people, explore the landscape,” he said. “That is the way.”
It would be unfair to limit his work to just his use of almonds as he’s so attuned to all the ingredients and landscapes in Sicily, however, it was his understanding of them, his way of using the whole almond to attain as much flavor as possible, that I still cannot stop thinking about.
If I was walking by, Caffè Sicilia would look like any other patisserie in Italy. There’s not some minimalist Scandinavian décor or earthenware plates. Even the pastries look like the pastries like you’ll find elsewhere in Sicily. You have to taste it to know that it’s different. I had the typical Sicilian breakfast, brioche with granita (almond of course), chased with almond milk, followed by tastings of more granitas, gelatos and various pastries. Everything was sweet, but not heavy. The flavors were intense, but not artificial. Another step in the storied evolution of Sicilian gastronomy.