Mount Etna: life on the edge

Mount Etna: life on the edge

Manuela Darling-Gansser
11 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Simon Griffiths

The landscape in the top northeastern corner of Sicily is dominated by the brooding presence of Mount Etna. At more than 3300 metres in height, with a snow cap much of the year, Etna is a striking outline on the skyline. The most remarkable thing about Etna however is not its height but the fact it is a live volcano. By daylight wisps of smoke can be seen hovering above the summit or, more worryingly, coming out of the sides of the mountain. By night the spectacle is compelling. High up on the black mountain slopes, lava spills down like a red glove. Etna is alive and dangerous. Volcanologists and local folklore say that these tiny eruptions release pressure and ensure the mountain does not explode, but this is only an educated guess, or maybe wishful thinking.

While Etna threatens, she also gives. The volcanic soils and benign microclimate around the mountain make the area particularly fertile and productive. Fruits, vines and nuts grow in abundance and are renowned for their quality. The locals call this ‘Etna Dolce’ – Sweet Etna. Fishermen believe Etna Dolce extends even to the local seafood. Beneath the sea different varieties of seaweeds and grasses grow on the lava rock. These, in turn, make the fish who feed on them taste better.

While the riches of Etna Dolce continue to attract more people closer to the mountain, the dangers are real. This is life on the edge.

Our first stop in the Etna region was the famous beauty spot of Taormina. Situated on a steep site with the sea below and Etna to the south, the town has breathtaking views. About one hundred and fifty years ago it was ‘discovered’ by a rather bohemian group of well-off northern Europeans who built villas there for the summer or as a year-round escape. The old villas and their gardens are still there, although most have been converted into hotels to cater for the hoards of tourists who visit. While undeniably scenic, I think the pressures of tourism dominate the town.

My favourite moment in Taormina was sitting on the terrace of the San Domenico Hotel enjoying an aperitivo as the sun went down. The San Domenico was once a monastery, and the grand facade is swathed with masses of purple and red bougainvillea, as if in sympathy with the cardinals and bishops from its past. The gardens below the terrace are beautifully laid out and richly planted. A cliff drops to the sea and to your right is a long walkway framed at its end by Norfolk Island pines. In the centre of this frame is Etna, its plume of smoke wisping against the sky. At such moments you understand the attraction of Taormina to the people who came and never left.

The northern slopes of Etna run down to generous open valleys and this is an area of intense cultivation. We were we staying at the Borgo San Nicolao Agriturismo, a working farm in the valley run by the La Mancusa family. On the farm, fruit trees, olives and vines grow in ordered profusion over a terraced landscape. One brother, Francesco, runs the farm and another brother, Santo, is a cheese maker. At the top of the property is an old stone building – a nevaia, or snow house. In the olden days, snow was brought down from the mountain in winter and stored beneath layers of bracken and salt for sale in summer. The remarkable thing about the La Mancusa’s farm is that it can be run almost entirely on organic practices. It seems that the lava has an extraordinary effect on the soil and air, so that most crops require no chemical treatments, and just a little care. The olives, for instance, don’t suffer from olive fly – the problem that the Titone Olive Grove overcame only with great difficulty.

Higher up the mountain, at the edge of the national park, you can see new plantings of vines. Wine from Etna – Etna DOC – is gaining a reputation for innovation and quality. The black lava soils and the elevation – vineyards grow up to 1000 metres – give new winemakers the chance to produce wines with strong local characteristics. We visited one such vineyard, high on the mountain. The Passopisciaro vineyard is being developed by Andrea Franchetti, a Tuscan wine producer who is attracted to the special possibilities of the area.

On our visit, we learned that Passopisciaro had been producing wine until a lava flow came to the boundary of the property in 1943 and stopped production. We were fascinated to look at a wine map of the area. It showed the various vineyards and their elevations, but it also showed the outlines and dates of lava flows. You can see flows down to 800 metres in 1911, and down to 800–1000 metres in 1943 and 1947.

Like the produce from the Borgo San Nicolao farm in the valley below, Passopisciaro vines need fewer chemical treatments over a season – five or six compared to perhaps twenty in the average Piemonte vineyard. The elevation also means a big difference between day and night time temperatures (about 12°C), leading to slower maturity, later picking and greater flavour. The development of sophisticated wine making high on Etna is something quite new, and I suspect we will be hearing a lot more about it in the future.

Travelling west around the flanks of Etna is the town of Bronte, the centre for the cultivation of pistachio nuts, a popular ingredient in local cooking. Before I visited the town, I wanted to visit the ancestral seat of the dukes of Bronte in the nearby valley. This is the house that was given to Lord Nelson by a grateful King of Naples after Nelson defeated Napoleon at sea. Nelson was made Duke of Bronte, given an old abbey in the village of Maniace and 16,000 hectares of land – a vast estate. Nelson’s descendants turned the abbey into a suitably grand house and lived there on and off until they relinquished ownership in the 1980s. Castello Nelson is a collection of stone buildings around two large courtyards. The main house is long rather than wide, and looks onto a garden that, in its day, was famous throughout Europe. Although the garden has been rather neglected, enough trees and walls remain to see what it would once have been in its heyday. On a distant hillside, once part of the estate, you can see cypresses planted in the form of the ducal coronet, only some of the trees have died so the crown has slipped somewhat. The interiors of the house are well preserved with lots of Nelson memorabilia and large paintings of naval battles. With painted tiles on the floors and furniture from England and Italy, it is a comfortable mix between a Sicilian palazzo and an English country house.

After visiting Castello Nelson, we continued on to the town of Bronte. Built of black lava stone and sprawling in a disordered way over a slope, it is rather an unlovely spot. However it does have one exceptional food venue, the Pasticcerria Conti Gallenti. We discovered it, as you often find the best places, by asking someone in the street where we could try the best ice cream.

Here I have a confession to make. The purpose of our visit was to taste pistachio ice cream – this is after all the pistachio centre of Sicily – but I have a weakness for nocciola (hazelnut) ice cream, and I must try it wherever I go. I have to say it was the best nocciola I have ever tasted, and that’s saying something!

My husband Michele and Simon, our photographer, sampled the pistachio ice cream, which was a wonderful pale green colour, nutty and delicious. They also tasted a locally created drink called Iceburg, which is a small scoop of sharp lemon granita served in a long glass with sparkling mineral water. It is very refreshing.

As you leave Bronte you can see pistachio nuts growing on the hillside. The ground is all rough black lava, sharp and very broken-up, and the pistachio trees grow in the cracks and crevices. They are small trees, more like a large bush, and look a little like a very untidy and straggly fig tree. The combination of the harsh terrain and scrappy vegetation is not very aesthetically pleasing, but the conditions produce a pistachio nut with high oil content and lots of flavour.

Our tour of Mount Etna finished in the provincial capital, Catania. Etna has threatened Catania through most of its history. Every year the patron saint of the city, Saint Agatha, is taken from her sanctuary in the cathedral and paraded in an elaborate procession to the city gates. If there were an eruption, Saint Agatha would be called on to stop it.

Catania is a rather somber and untidy city, built from black lava stone, sometimes banded with white. The Duomo (cathedral) is a very grand building with a marvellous interior. If you stand inside the cathedral and look back out the main door, past the huge low-hanging banners, you can see the piazza, and beyond it the long stretch of Via Etna heading straight towards the mountain. In the nearby pasticceria they sell a local specialty – small marzipan-covered cakes in the shape of breasts, complete with nipples. These represent Saint Agatha, whose breasts were cut off when she was martyred. It’s a grim story and a rather bizarre way to remember it, but it suits the mood of the city.

As you would expect, the food you eat around Etna Dolce is very good indeed.

We had a number of exceptional dinners at Borgo San Nicolao where the food was good country food, ‘molto tipico’. An antipasto selection of local cheeses and hams would be followed by a choice of pasta dishes and then some meat or fish. To finish the meal, we would be offered a home-made liqueur as a digestivo. I have already given the recipe for pasta al Borgo San Nicolao, so here I am including the recipe for liquore di alloro, a liqueur made from bay leaves that we drank there.

I have chosen two recipes that are ideal to serve with aperitivi. First there is giardiniera (pickled vegetables) and secondly, olive verdi Siciliane (pickled green olives). Both these nibbles have quite a sharp, spicy flavour.

Another good snack to eat with aperitivi is sfincione, a local pizza. And it also makes a tasty light meal.

Eggplants are widely used in Sicily and I’m including a recipe for melanzane alla Parmigiana, a baked eggplant dish. You will find a version of this dish on many Sicilian restaurant menus as it is something of a classic.

Involtini di agnello (rolled lamb with asparagus) is a country dish to eat when you are celebrating. If you taste it you will see why these rolls are made for special occasions.

You can argue whether sorbets and granitas were first created from snow from Mount Vesuvius (near Naples) or Mount Etna. Whatever your view, the area around Mount Etna has always been famous for its flavoured ices made from snow. The ice was traditionally taken from the snow house, shaved and added to sweet, flavoured syrups. I have included three wonderful granita recipes: granita al caffé (coffee granita), al gelso (mulberry) and the classic al limone (lemon).

Finally, there is a recipe using pistachio nuts to make mazaresi, which are small pistachio cakes.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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