Writings, musings and stories about Sicily.

My Stories About Sicily

Experiences play a big part in understanding the rich heritage that Sicily has to offer, its traditions, its rituals and its culture. In Sicily today it is still possible to witness activities done in exactly the same way they have been done for centuries. In my travels, both on my own and with guests, I have seen and participated in many wonderful things and met many wonderful people in the process. I have written about some of them to both preserve the moment and share the experience, but also to whet your appetite for things you too can do when you go to Sicily. In time I will have a collection of stories. I hope that they paint a picture of Sicily that is timeless, fascinating, and endearing.

“I read your story on the subway ride home, and it felt like I was transported to a different place… I literally felt like I was right there with you tasting wine in the cave and riding along the countryside. Your stories are really special & powerful examples of the dream like experience someone could have while visiting Sicily.”
- L. Alexander

The Stories


The Story of Mimmo

by Karen La Rosa

At 15 and with 5 siblings, Domenico Zito left Palermo to work with Trust House Hotels in England, where he learned well: service, business and English. He worked as a chef and learned about wine, developing a passion and a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and know-how. He returned to Sicily, married, had sons and moved to Sant’Ambrogio years ago to make his wife happy; to this town of 250 people. Within short order he was looking for ways to occupy himself, in spite of his daily trips to Palermo, where he cooks for students in a school right behind the Cathedral. Mimmo will tell you again and again, that throughout these 23 years, he has been studying wine. It was his dream to make his own.

The production of wine is a simple matter. The basic premise is the same everywhere: grow the grapes, collect the grapes, press the juice out of them, let the skins soak with the juice (for red wine), let it ferment, let it rest, put it in a bottle and drink it.  From this simple recipe comes infinite variations based on myriad options: what kind of grape, when to harvest, how to press the juice, how long to let it soak, how long to ferment it and at what temperature, and in what will it rest? Steel? Cement? Amphorae? And then maybe barrels, enabling micro-oxidation? Or not. Once it is finally in a bottle, how long will it sit before it is ready to sell or drink? Furthermore, the process can occur in an industrial context for mass market wines or at home, in a garage. All these decisions require an understanding that wine is a living thing. Producing wine requires knowledge, great attention, lots of labor, and ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, passion.

Mimmo is a minimalist. He believes in the purity of nature and the gifts of the land. He is against interfering with the natural order. He grows his grapes with love and nothing else. When it’s time to harvest, he and his family do it together, by hand. It takes time but cannot wait. Over the years, Mimmo purchased equipment for his small production and not too long ago, he rented a garage-sized space in which he set up.

As you walk in the door, on the left, sits a hand press, a certain rarity in the wine world. When the grapes are brought in for pressing, they are carefully dumped into the red half barrel with spaces between the slats. Slowly the Archimedes screw is turned and a cover is gently lowered onto the grapes. It presses them. The juice oozes out of the slats into a catch basin and is then transferred into a small tank, a fermentino. Again and again he does this for 24 continuous hours. Whereas most producers press the grapes in a steel machine until nary a drop is left, Mimmo takes only the first juice. He wants nothing tainted by stem oils or bitter seeds. His method is particular and comes from his 23 years of research, he says again.

The wine in the tanks is periodically moved from one to the next, leaving behind the sediment that settled to the bottom. He cares for this fermenting juice like an artist cares for his work, a mother for her child. What effort you put into your work will show in the results. Mimmo has an infectious smile and an excited demeanor that his bright, red shirt enhances. He delights in sharing all that his reading and experimenting has taught him, but acknowledges that these are his beliefs alone. To each his own. He proudly displays a barrel from Australia, a gift from a fan.

We end up in the “cellar,” a dark, closet-sized side room behind the back wall. It is lined from floor to ceiling with wooden racks that are labeled with the names and the year of the wines. Pride oozes from his eyes as he pulls out certain vintages. He keeps the oldest wines at the bottom, since he knows his sons and their friends sometimes partake…

We return to converge around the low table in the center of the room and he pours his white, unfiltered and a deep, straw yellow. It’s time to sample. Almost on cue, son Francesco arrives to unveil some prepared food. Especially in Sicily, wine is to enhance food and food enhances wine. Mimmo gives us another lesson, this one about wine filtration. He believes in natural filtration only - let the sediment fall and what doesn’t will not harm you. In fact, he said the little residue left in the bottle has medicinal qualities. I believe him. The taste took me by surprise.  It was unlike any white I had ever had. The chardonnay was rich and flavorful, aromatic, and somewhat viscous, nothing like the more common, fresh, easy drinking whites we are used to. We ate olives and cheese and ‘pane cunzatu.’ Mimmo explained that he always asks his mother-in-law to make the fresh loaves when guests are coming and she does so in the old outdoor wood burning oven. The rounds were still a bit warm, stuffed with tomato and cheese, garlic, olive oil and parsley. The other had herbs, garlic and olive oil. It is a local dish, often stuffed with anchovies. So good. We ate and drank his other white. It was equally interesting, rustic and packed with earth tones.

Ciccio was again in the room and the plates were cleared. Once again, sated by simple yet delicious food, I was fooled into thinking that we were done eating, but on the heels of the dirty plates came platters full of grilled vegetables, sautéed cauliflower, little pizzas, and a tomato salad with its own toast for bruschetta. The tomato salad, redolent of garlic and oil, loaded with parsley and other herbs, instantly reminded me of my Grandfather and his “secret recipe.” It was always one of my favorite things and I indulged the lovely memory, however brief.

We talked about the local trattoria, situated in the main square, with outdoor seating under an awning that was recently listed for sale; the price? $25,000 including equipment.  Mimmo cooks and makes wine, is passionate and capable. Why not? The village would benefit tremendously from his efforts. But alas, he lost money once on a deal and is skittish about embarking on another risky project, particularly one as demanding as a restaurant. He’d have to depend on his sons to carry a lot of weight and that too left him less than certain. Are they as passionate about wine and food? We encourage him, offer support, and try to convince him that his downside was small, as we downed the last of the white. (This was hardly a typical sampling of wines.)

Next came the red. Mimmo had decanted it an hour ago and told us that owing to his own, special oxidation process, he could potentially leave it on the counter for 5 days and it would still be good. We waited as he poured. A short toast and we sipped quietly. The gentle earth greeted me with a smile. The rich dark fruits were so silky, and not really what I expected after the rustic white. The wine was very drinkable and yet it was not simple. It was hard to put it down, in fact. He named this one for Ruggero II, the important one-time king who, in the early 1100’s built Cefalù’s incredible Duomo.  We were a bit giddy now as we ate and drank, enjoying the camaraderie that wine often provides….until Ciccio returned once more, but this time with a huge platter of spaghetti. I had to laugh. It was perfectly cooked, if perhaps a bit crunchy where it waited for us in the pan, and was topped with breadcrumbs, the typical Sicilian substitute for luxurious parmesan cheese. It was delicious, in a word, but at this point, I was past full.

All the while sitting on my stool, I was admiring the art on the wall, plaster reliefs with the grape as motif. Mimmo had done those too, and explained the direct correlation to making frutta di Martorana or pasta real, the beautiful and exact replica marzipan fruits seen all over Sicily. He is an artist on many levels; a gregarious, lovable, hard-working man with a singular mission, to make the world a better place by bringing to it all that he can. In three hours, he brought much to my world and that of the friends around us. His family drinks his wines at home, some of it he sells to the townspeople, and a lot of it he shares with friends and small groups who come for an afternoon visit. Let me take you there.


Last updated: November, 2013
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Table of Contents

The Story Of Mimmo


Marsala’s Treasure


Sant'Ambrogio - A Uniquely Special Town


'Nzino's Fresh Ricotta Cheese


Picking Olives Near Aci Castello



Contact Me


Photos

Testing and tasting; a sneak peek.

Testing and tasting; a sneak peek.

Behind the curtain, ready for their debut.

Behind the curtain, ready for their debut.

The barrel came a long way.

The barrel came a long way.

Here, taste a few...

Here, taste a few...


Marsala’s Treasure

by Karen La Rosa

PART I

I visited a winery in the morning and planned to spend the afternoon touring, but Marielena suggested I go to Baglio Baiata, another cantina that makes Marsala wines. She has known its owner, Ercole Alagna, her entire life and she told me that he is special.

I arrived and he was waiting for me. A somewhat burly guy, about my age, and I deconstructed in a minute whom I was dealing with. The cantina is not far from town, not huge, family owned, and behind a big wall, like most that are close to towns. He immediately began talking about the great location - 10 minutes from this,15 from that, and showed me where the buses could park for tours. Proud, always proud, these Sicilians.  He took me inside and began calling my attention to things. Some of the fermentini here are made of resin, in addition to the typical stainless steel and glass lined concrete. Marsala, a fortified wine, uses a “mother,” he explained. Much like the starter for sourdough bread, a small quantity of older wine is blended in to make the new wine, which means, you always have to have older wine. To make Marsala, the barrels can be used many times since their flavors do not rely heavily on the toasted barrel wood. (this is fortunate since new barrels cost about E 700 a piece, and that's for a small one, holding the equivalent of roughly 225 bottles.) Ercole could see my genuine interest and so he spoke on a more serious level and then, like a child with a secret, he brought me to 'the cave.'  During renovations to the cantina many years ago, they discovered a grotto, and not just a grotto, but one that dates from the 11th century. (In a place that has been as trampled as Sicily, there is bound to be something old wherever you dig!). Naturally the grotto temperature is cool and moist, perfect for a wine cave. There they keep some of their best old wines and it is kept dark so that the barrels are undisturbed and happy. He sent me down the spiral staircase to glimpse the giant old barrels, oozing, a little concave, and connected by a labyrinth of spider webs. The humidity enveloped me. It was so evocative. His face beamed.

We finally got to the tasting. It was just he and I. With great intent, he set the table. 9 different wine offerings and in front of each one he laid a plate of food to taste. Each wine is at its best when it is married with something particular, on this point he was insistent. I chose to skip the white because I wanted to leave room for the others - that left 8. We started with his red wine. It was very tasty and fresh. The only red that he makes, it was not overly powerful but earthy and drinkable. Then there were two Marsalas - dry and superior.  In the US, Marsala has a bad reputation. It earned that reputation honestly producing overly sweet and poorly made wines.  In the 1970's however, matters were taken into control and now this area makes very fine sweet wines. Unfortunately, the States are behind in recognizing this change.  In Sicily they drink Marsala as an aperitivo and after dinner - the dryer wine before, the sweeter wine after. I have cooked with Marsala wine over the years to make everything from chicken to zabaglione to cranberry sauce but what I tasted then was different. It was delicious and meditative, like a good brandy. It left me with a lovely, relaxed sensation. I sipped, he spoke.

We went through the whole line and with each sip I listened to him wax rhapsodic about wine, food, the importance of tradition, and music. He oozed with passion. “If you love wine and music, you love life,” he reminded me several times. He served me a mostarda (no one makes this anymore… a reduction of grape must, like a sweet syrup that is served with bread – it was sublime).  The Zibibbo and the Moscato (sweeter wines but not Port sweet, nor as viscous) were fabulous. Both are award winners and I could see why. I made note to buy some to bring home with me.

After I was thanking Ercole profusely for the fabulous experience, the wonderful lessons that he packed into almost 2 hours, and the wine gifts, we stood in the sun talking about Verdi. With a smile, I shared my observation that he speaks as passionately about music as he does about wine. The sharing of common ground and the thrill of something new made me so happy that I had paid a visit.

PART II

I was driving to get a pizza for dinner when my phone rang. It was Ercole. He asked if he could take me around in the morning to show me some places in the country - some beautiful places that no one ever sees. Again I decided to alter my plans and I agreed. He met me at 8:15.

We took a coffee together and he spoke, philosophically. He said no one had ever linked his love of music and wine before and he was impressed that I saw that in him right away. He continued to share his thoughts about life, loving life, and what is alive. “This knife” he said, “is matter. It cuts, it costs two dollars, ten dollars, you like it, you don't. Stop. But ideas are alive, not temporal. Wine is alive. Music is alive. Nature. The rest? Mah. It is not really important.”

We went by the cantina and turned down a non-descript side road. He pointed to the spot where the last duel in Marsala took place….just 70 years ago. Two noblemen had been speaking to each other cordially and the one commented about the inferiority of Sicilian wines compared to those of Piedmonte.  This was an offense of grand proportions. He was summarily slapped in the face and a duel was arranged. The one managed to slice the others arm and when asked by the 'padroni'  (always 2 present for each side) if he was yet satisfied, he said he was a gentleman and so yes, he was. Later, they became good friends. In the 1940’s, the western parts of Sicily still retained this bit of nobility, handed down from one generation to the next. It existed in another time that predated the 1940’s.

It's amazing how fast you can get away from 'the city' here. Cities or towns are just little blips near the sea, in an otherwise expansive agricultural land. We drove to see his family’s original baglio (farm) where still some of his vineyards are planted. I learned. A contrada was a feudal land designation, a large parcel of land. Every contrada had a baglio (baglio comes from the Latin word for volume - inside its walls were all those who lived and worked there). This one was, or had been, a gorgeous place with large limestone arches and many rooms on two floors. It even had its own chapel. He bought it just to preserve it, even while recognizing the enormous financial undertaking it would require, but it is now in terrible decay, almost beyond salvation. Oh to turn that into an agriturismo! We drove away on the soil, behind the house, among the vines and then down a hair-raisingly steep hill (don't worry, he said smiling, I do this every week).

Then we continued on.  We were on roads that don't have names. Back roads, old roads, dirt roads, farmer's roads. I was happy we were in his car. At a distance in front of us were the remains of an old castle. Approaching slowly, he said it had been one of Frederick II's castles, the one named Rinazzo. No one ever sees this (who could possibly drive there?). After Frederick, it became a Jesuit monastery and then Garibaldi destroyed it. It was fabulous. As we drove to the door, there were sheep everywhere and we parted the sea. He pointed out the date of the Jesuits (1767) written in the limestone under the medallion with the crucifix. Crazy maybe, but this excites me.  There were more sheep in the courtyard and I could only imagine Frederick's court there.  He was, by the way, one of the most important rulers of the then, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Stupor Mundi. He embraced everyone, Arabs, Jews, in fact he wore Arab dress, and he employed them all in cultural and scientific ways. He was quite learned for the time and, well, we all know that rulers are not always known for their brains. But he was. 

We drove yet further and he showed me the myriad parcels of his land, dotted all over the countryside, on which were zibibbo or catarratto or nero d'avola grapes. Limestone, limestone, limestone. It acts like a sponge to nurture the roots in this dry place. The immediate area is known as Maimone, the Arab word for fertile and we were not far from Salemi, from the Hebrew word, Shalom. In Sicily your head spins trying to adjust your imagination to so many different times and people.

Some plants were quite robust looking and some a little scraggly. Grapevines are very sensitive to everything. In the first few rows of one particular plot, he showed me some plants that appeared weak, but 5 rows back they were stronger and even stronger beyond that. It is the salt, he said, we are so close to the sea. He said that land in a good section could cost E80,000 for a hectare (1 hectare = 2.5 acres) while poorer land could cost just E10,000 a hectare. (The economics of wine making is hard to understand.)  Land is handed down from generation to generation. It is the family business.

The grapes were recently harvested and he explained that after the harvest, the sugar drains from the plant to the roots, which makes the leaves then turn color… white grape leaves stay green or turn yellow; red grape leaves turn red. I asked about phylloxera (the disease that at one time almost eradicated all the grape plants in Europe). Since then, most European grapevines have American roots that were brought over to replant. Yes, he said, of course we have phylloxera. Still??? I inquired. Yes. And he pulled over. Ipso presto, he handed me a cluster of leaves and showed me phylloxera. It resembles little warts on a leaf. Through careful observation, cutting and grafting, they now know how to avoid destruction but it is laborious to say the least. They have many, many, hectares.  He said, sometimes they have to re-graft if there is a problem and they end up with Sicilian roots and an American plant. So, much like immigrants all over, they eventually assimilate.

We stopped to talk to his son-in-law and an old farmer with a straw hat, (in Sicilian, of course) and he told me that sometimes certain clusters of grapes aren't ripe or mature enough to pick during the vendemmia. There were some in this area and he shows me. These small grapes are called grapollini, and are left hanging on the vine.  Later, people pick them for eating or, the sheep get them. The little beautiful bunch that I ate was, no surprise, delicious. The juice was welcome in the 85 degree heat with the strong Scirocco winds blowing insistently.

Leaving the dirt, we drove past a cross on the side of the road. With some sadness, he whispered, “someone died here.”  I thought of flowers on the Long Island Expressway, but he made a gesture with his fingers like a gun. I stared at him. There are 2 valleys where it was very, very dangerous to travel years ago. This was one of them. The terrain has hills and ridges with olive trees and bushes of ginestra, perfect places for bandits to hide and wait. We drove not 500 feet and there was another marker, a small monument to honor another man who was killed, for either his mule, or his grain, maybe. As is the custom here, his photo graced the front and inscribed is a message to passersby, and the date, May, 1942. I thought of the film, Salvatore Giuliano. A long but amazing true story of the 'Robin Hood Revolutionary' of Sicily, it takes place and was filmed not far from here, in Montelepre and Castelvetrano (my ancestral town). Lost in its own time, it was; an insular world, a somewhat primitive world, the wild, wild west of Sicily. I was so moved by the hardship of life that this place has known.

What I haven't mentioned throughout this missive, is that Ercole had me choose from a stack of CDs, the music to accompany us on our journey. I chose a collection of arias by Georgio Di Stefano that included favorites from Verdi and Puccini. The music was the most perfect background to the blue sky and hills in this dry, dusty, desolate place with life defiantly growing through the cracked soil. We talked about favorites in between and periodically he stopped the car so we could listen to a refrain properly. We played the Miserere from Trovatore a few times and the third time I cried. He sang quietly and at the top of his lungs, the wind carrying his voice to the sheep. He described scenes and kept asking me to imagine the force, the passion behind them. He explained how he came to really understand Scarpia, the antagonist in Tosca. I understood, too and I thought about it all night. Such passion.

We went back to the cantina because he couldn't let me return to the hotel with shoes covered in sheep droppings. He washed my shoes. Then he insisted I come and smell the fermentation one more time.  I placed my nose near the tube where three days ago nothing was happening, but now, it was clear that there was gentle churning inside, fermentation, and the aroma, a heady mix of alcohol and grape overwhelmed me. He said nothing but gave a proud and satisfied nod.

We left and he retuned me to the hotel with the strains of Pagliacci at full blast.  It was hard to say goodbye and impossible to say thank you. He kissed me and hugged me and said maybe we knew each other in another life. Maybe many things.  Then he pointed to my pants and said “clean the mud off, it's not beautiful.” 


Last updated: October, 2013
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Photos

Ercole‘s wine making recipe, signed and delivered to us on a wine barrel.

Ercole‘s wine making recipe, signed and delivered to us on a wine barrel.

Prize winning in every way.

Prize winning in every way.

Baglio Baiata, the one time family farm, now home only to the vines that surround it.

Baglio Baiata, the one time family farm, now home only to the vines that surround it.

Once an enclave of Swabians, and Arabs, then Jesuits much later, Rinazzo is now a resting ground for history.

Once an enclave of Swabians, and Arabs, then Jesuits much later, Rinazzo is now a resting ground for history.

Vineyards, as far as the eye can see. These are red grape vines after the harvest.

Vineyards, as far as the eye can see. These are red grape vines after the harvest.

The rebellious small grapes, maturing in their own time, post harvest.

The rebellious small grapes, maturing in their own time, post harvest.

Sicily is a land of contrasts; hardship and sadness living side by side with vibrancy, passion and life.

Sicily is a land of contrasts; hardship and sadness living side by side with vibrancy, passion and life.


Sant'Ambrogio - A Uniquely Special Town

by Karen La Rosa

I arrived in Sant'Ambrogio yesterday after spending the day in Cefalů, researching hotels for an upcoming tour. Carmelina picked me up and we made the five-mile drive together. It was beautifully sunny and almost hot, a welcome change in this generally disappointing month of March. The towns in Sicily are small with windy streets and I had never really seen Cefalů from the other side of the dominant cathedral and La Rocca. My head turned back and forth. The Madonie Mountains rise up as sharply and spectacularly as the flat sea stretches out. Yellow ginestra flowers, white tree blossoms and wild fennel fronds were everywhere. March may be unpredictable, but the beauty of this spring landscape has lightened the hearts of people for millennia.

The village of Sant'Ambrogio sports a population of roughly 250 people. Many have lived there a long, long time, but not all. It's an involved story how Sicilian Carmelina with the Australian accent ended up there, but she reigns supreme in this town. As the unofficial mayor, the grand mentor, and the nurturing mother, everyone knows and loves her. With visible sincerity, she is taken with every story, situation and beautiful face she encounters. Carmelina has singlehandedly brought the townspeople together to recognize the value of the traditions they keep and that still contribute greatly to their livelihood. She has helped these friends take care of their lovely town with a more modern focus on environmental concerns; or maybe it’s actually not so modern. Maybe it’s a reflection of an older time when there was greater reverence for the land. The town is pristine clean - no garbage and no graffiti. The residents pool their money to improve the town like, for example, buying the benches overlooking il mare and planting flowers in front of the newly painted fences. It's tranquil with killer views. Without moving an inch you can see the sea and the mountains in all their radiant glory. Many of these people are on pension or unemployed - the economic reality is kind of grim, yet they have tended their homes with high standards and she helps to rent rooms to tourists looking for a quiet and inspiring visit. Carmelina said that one guest came to write for 5 weeks, another to photograph. I understand. What a perfect spot. She’s worked to bring in tourists to see the storybook place, to observe the traditions and make money for the locals. Carmelina is not a not-for-profit organization, she arranges tours and such, but she sure acts like one.

We wandered around the small streets and, of course, she knows everyone, so I was introduced. We sat in the bar, Pippo’s bar, and had a Prosecco. The two gentlemen ensconced in the room now run the Pro-loco, an organization that she initiated to deal with civic, government and other assorted issues both in Sant’Ambrogio and in the Comune and Provincia. Even a town of 250 people has politics. Then we went to the trattoria next door, had a pork cutlet for dinner and chatted with the younger generation who were lounging about laughing and enjoying each other.

My room was up many stairs but was immaculate with embroidered crisp white sheets that I imagine hung in the warm sunshine after the last wash. The terrace overlooked the magnificent blue sea and a sea of copper-colored roof tiles. The strong Scirocco winds had picked up and all night long it rattled the windows making me feel like Armeggedon was approaching, but by morning some calm had returned, and the warm sun was there to greet me.

We came together again on the small street and like farmers from another era, went walking uphill into the mountains on ancient dirt-packed paths. This is preserved park- land, Madonie National Park. We arrived at Giulio's farm. The young goats, romping on the giant roots of the wild, old olive trees against the piercing blue sky was a photographer's delight; pastoral to say the least, peaceful and lush. Giulio had gone to his mother’s with the morning’s fresh ricotta but two townsmen were on ladders building a larger lean-to for his cheese-making practice – a mini barn-raising. Friendly support. Naturally, we stayed for a bit and chatted.

Back in town, we stopped for a coffee at Saro's little Tabacchi store. Saro, is an older resident gentleman who had much pride for his little addition to town. I had heard about his "famous" granita and I inquired. We spoke in Italian and I learned about his passion for making liquors. With a wink, he told me about his special wild fennel liquor (wild fennel!), retrieved an unmarked bottle and poured some for me. It was so green and incredibly smooth. I've never tasted anything like it. Feeling proud and happy with my reaction he brought out a very deep purple bottle and a leafy branch. H asked me to guess what it was. Very fragrant, but I couldn't identify that which I then tasted, mirtello - blueberry. Wow. I kept engaging him since this was as much fun for me as him. He gave me the recipe and told me I could use any fruit or anything really to make the liquors. Then he gave me 2 large lemons from his grove, as a gift. Nature is something they hold in the highest esteem. The lemons were exquisite. Another bottle appeared. It was limoncello - not normally a favorite of mine. Aspetta, he said (wait). He sliced off a piece of rind and rubbed it on my hand and told me to smell it. The fragrance was rich and fresh. Then he sliced the lemon open and passed the lemon over my skin. I smelled and found very little smell. That's the secret. The rind. So he poured the limoncello and I drank. 35% alcohol, my third drink and it was 10:15 in the morning. But it was fabulous. I've never tasted anything so good. I asked if he sells anything he makes and he quietly nodded. Out came an empty bottle and a funnel and he filled it for me. 6 Euros and I made him so happy for which I would have paid a lot more to accomplish.


Last updated: November, 2010
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Photos

Sant'Ambrogio from the air.

A small village with a big heart.

Sant'Ambrogio late in the day.

Sant'Ambrogio late in the day.

Sant'Ambrogio - Beautiful from sun up to sun down.

Beautiful from sun up to sun down.

Saro's wild fennel liqueur.

Saro's wild fennel liqueur.

Saro's homemade blueberry liqueur.

Saro's homemade blueberry liqueur.


‘Nzino’s Fresh Ricotta Cheese

by Karen La Rosa

I had read about the almost ritualistic making of the fresh ricotta cheese and wondered if there was a place I could go to witness the transformation of goats milk to soft sweet curds I had seen at the market - - who knew it was practically within walking distance.

We got up early and left by 7:30. Wrapped in a big white cotton towel and knotted at the top were our bowls, spoons and some dry bread not consumed the day before. It's so beautiful here in the morning – country quiet except for the birds, clear and warm. The farm, whose goats I had watched grazing and being shepherded near the house in Aci Castello was tucked away around a few curves and bends in the hilly road. My friend Paolo, ever the fabulous guide, knows the way well, in fact, since childhood.

We arrived at a farm - una fattoria. There were a few roosters running amuck, but mostly there were goats. The big old stone building was up a few steps and had several doorways. We entered the central one. It was bright inside with white tiled walls, marble counter-tops and stainless steel. My eyes had to adjust. The terra-cotta floor was getting hosed, as it did quite often while we were there - farm boots are muddy things. Then I had my first glimpse of ‘Nzino standing in the far left corner. He was a burly older man dressed in blue loosely fitting coveralls. His silvery hair was combed back and he had a pleasant, almost serene face. He was stirring a waist-high black cauldron shaped like a pear that was perched over a small gas fire. He stirred milk, goats milk - lots of it, alternately with a very long wooden stick and a large silver ladle. To his left was a stainless steel table on which rested a big wheel of cheese, taking shape and draining in a plastic container full of holes. The table was slanted downwards for draining purposes and at the bottom, twelve more containers awaited filling. Every now and again, he'd go over and press down with his strong hands to extract more water before returning to the cauldron. After awhile he brought a big ladle full of salt and slowly mixed it into the milk vessel. I was surprised it wasn't more than just one ladle for all that milk. He slowly stirred and attended and it began to froth. At one point he carefully skimmed and tossed the froth into a separate bucket. He stirred again. Patience. Every day. Only one other man was there - an older man with a worn face, minus a front tooth and an Inter Milan cap, a regular visitor, it seemed.

In the meantime, some of the younger boys came around with additional buckets of milk, liters and liters more, full of grass and debris. Just as I began wondering about all the debris, the youngest boy came with a black cloth and a strainer. He perched the strainer on the inside rim of the huge industrial-looking vat occupying the back corner on the left. They poured all of the milk through the strainer and into this refrigeration vessel where it will stay until tomorrow’s ritual. And all of this was done under the watchful eye of the old wooden Crucifix, affixed to the white tiles, in a central location.

One by one more of these fabulous faces arrived. All men. And they carried with them their bowls and spoons. It was Sunday. They were all talking and I understood none of it. It was the Sicilian language of the farmers, the peasants, and the locals, traditionally a spoken not written language. They gesticulated wildly so that my camera only caught blurs. They laughed, they argued - they enjoyed this moment of community. They stood on the porch in the glare of the warm sun. Maybe there were 15. Someone brought coffee - in a take-out carrier, like from Starbucks, except the cups are only 2 inches tall.

I walked away and over to the corral where the goats were penned in. Here I stood, next to all these bleating goats inside a rickety pen with hills all around, an incredible view of Mt Etna and the sound of laughing men behind me; one of those magical moments when all of the senses coincide.

I returned to the porch and the youngest boy motioned me into another one of the doorways. He very proudly showed me his sheep, bigger ones, and cleaner ones because they live inside. Then he walked me to another door and showed me 3 little ones just 2 days old. They were as sweet as anything so little and innocent and soft as cashmere. They were struggling to stand up for the very first time. They stretched and shook and toppled over. We watched and spoke simple Italian, smiling at each other. We shared this wonderful show and had our own moment of community.

Paolo came to get me. The cheese was almost ready. I really stuck out like a sore thumb. It was crowded now with many bowls to fill. When the moment arrived, each bowl was filled with steaming fresh ricotta on top of the bread. They stood and ate. It became quiet. We waited until everyone had their fill and then our bowls were ladled. Fai attenta, sta caldo! Be careful, it's hot. I was not prepared for this moment. It was simply heaven on a plate. Milky white, warm curds of soft cheese with chunks of wonderful brown bread poking through like the mountains I could see around me. Simply incredible. It was an enormous bowl and I couldn't imagine finishing it, but I savored every single bite and I did.

As we left, I tried to hand the boy some money but he gesticulated like I was crazy with his head extended away from his shoulders, the thumb pressed against the other four fingers and the hand moving up and down. I knew ‘Nzino would take it. I asked Paolo what to do and he gasped with a scolding look. (Gia fatto – already done). We picked up our bowls, cheek kisses all around, and went home. It was so extremely satisfying in every way.


Last updated: March, 2011
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Photos

‘Nzino’s farm.

The incredible setting of ‘Nzino’s farm.

Future ricotta cheese maker.

Sweet innocence.

Nzinos Cheese.

‘Nzino’s cheese!

Freshly made ricotta.

Tubs of freshly made ricotta.

Hot ricotta and fragrant brown bread.

Warm and so satisfying.


Picking Olives Near Aci Castello

by Karen La Rosa

The sun was warm at my back today. Still a little humid, and with olive branches catching every strand of my hair as I picked from the inside, I looked a mess. It didn’t matter.

I awoke and donned the same clothes I wore yesterday. Wet sneakers, because it had rained and the calf deep clover was dripping as we trudged through; muddy and lifeless jeans. Yesterday we wrapped our calves with plastic bags; today we had chartreuse rubber boots.

The air is redolent of olives - it really smells like olives! We worked all day. Paolo and Turi and me. Dario, 28, does not want to do this anymore. Ilya, (the dog, the big dog) has free reign of the “estate.” Gli ucelli sono diversi nel mattino che nel pomeriggio. The birds are different in the morning from those in the afternoon. I slip in and out of Italian. We talk. It is a constant avventura. The olives are green and purplish black. Many have already fallen to the ground. We are a little late in picking. It all depends on the rain and the sun. Every year is different. The small olives yield proportionately more olive oil than the larger ones - larger because of the rain and the particular tree - each tree is different. There are a few types of trees - the one has leaves shorter and less pointy - sono le olive Nocellara dell'Etna. The others sono le Moresche.

We have red plastic baskets, boxes, cassette - the kind in which you would have something delivered, like milk. After we collect all the olives on the lower branches (rami), we take the steps - not a ladder from Home Depot but one that has been crafted a mano - vecchio (old) and made of splintering wood that looks like the perspective line in a drawing – an upside down v. I climbed. I am lightest and we lean it against random branches. I crane my neck and pick the olives at the top and pass them down, carefully cupping the hands so we don't drop any of God's gifts. La cassetta fills. It depends. Some tress are laden - dripping with fruit - others no. Soon though, the bin is full. The call comes - "vuoi un caffe?" A break and it's only 10:00.

We pick more and more - they with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, chatting in Sicilian and Italian, I can't keep track of the back and forth, and then Paolo leaves "to go for the bread" (which means lunch. Yesterday we had pacchino tomatoes with olive oil, bread, almonds from Avola and a little pepato cheese). I get this whole tree to myself and it is piena, piena (full) of olives. The race is on. We have an appointment to bring the harvest, so far, at 3:00.

Lunch is a heap of pasta and wine, of course. Then, back to the trees. We work up until the minute we have to leave. Then we load the little car with 9 of the bins - and the trunk doesn't quite close, so I pray. The roads are as curvaceous as Mae West but more narrow and we mingle among darting cars and bikes. We drive to Acireale. C'e un posto - there is a place on a small street where they take all the olives and press them into oil, the Oleificio.

First we dump them all into a big bin and they get weighed- 215 kilo. Then they get tossed into a machine and they get washed. The leaves and detritus get separated from the rest but we are proud that ours are very clean. Clean olives means better tasting oil. Senza la plastica it weighs 183 kilo. Then they go into another area of the machine and they get pulverized. The must or paste gets separated from the oil. The oil goes into a hose and the must gets taken away. It is compressed into pellets that are later sold for burning in stoves, environmentally. Many people arrive with car loads and truck loads and wait.

When it is our turn, with the huge plastic jug in place, the spigot is turned on and out pours our gold. God's gold. The air is so perfumed. The droplets here and there are rubbed into skin and hair - the ultimate moisturizer. One jug is completely filled and there is even more; 30 kilos of precious oil. It is a moment so utterly satisfying. And this is just the first load. We leave.

We drive - not to the supermarket but to the fish market at the shore somewhere, and we buy fish for tomorrow, chatting with the fishmonger. It's not cheap, even here - una pesce grande e una piccola plus some muscoli (one big fish and a little one, plus clams) is 40 Euros. When we arrive home, the gamberoni che ha comprato oggi - the prawns that we bought this afternoon are placed into a bowl with garlic e limone and we make cruda, sevice. On the stove, in a pan, he sauteed the garlic in oil, then the clams. One by one they open and then we eat, with fingers; shrimp and clams. Simple. Nothing else, tranne, il pane - except the bread and plenty of wine to wash it down. The vintage picture of our Lord looks down on us in this mess of a country kitchen - terracotta tiles with a drainage hole so they can be hosed down and lots of odd things - two old strollers, some electrical bits and pieces, chalk, shoes, folded-up deck chairs, extension cords and many kinds of Sicilian honey, oil and the wonderful persimmons he picked yesterday…

Č andato a letto e io ascolato la musica e scrivo. He has gone to bed and I listen to music and write. Domani he brings his daughter here - un giorno molto diverso (different). Neither the telephone nor the computer works and I wonder who is missing me, who needs me. Last night I couldn't sleep. But the longer you are here, the less you care.


Last updated: November, 2010
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Photos

Oilve branch

The morning's harvest of olives

The morning’s harvest.

Hand drawn sicilian farm cart.

100 years ago, olives arrived by cart. The traditional Carretto Siciliano, occasionally still seen, was richly decorated with color and stories. Its mule or horse was often ornately adorned as well.

At the Oleificio

At the Oleificio.

Fresh pressed olive oil, worth its weight in gold.

The precious oil. Worth its weight in gold.

A close-up of fresh pressed oilve oil.

Pure gold to drizzle atop your favorite dish.

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