Marina O'Loughlin explores the finest food in the Etna region of Sicily, including fresh lemons, homegrown pistachios and acorn-fed pork.
It’s impossible to escape Mount Etna’s majestic, lowering presence on Sicily, the volcano’s smoke-puffing peak looming into view around every corner.
The ancient little towns that cling to its slopes look slightly charred, the low-slung buildings coated with a light lacquering of sooty dust. The churches are made from volcanic stone, dark and brooding. But the fire-breathing mountain makes its presence felt in other, less melodramatic ways. The volcanic soil is almost miraculous – everything seems to grow bigger, sweeter, more packed with flavour than anywhere else. The grounds of our temporary home, the ravishing Rocca delle Tre Contrade, sprout groves of fat lemons, vegetable and herb patches, and fruit trees as far as the eye can see. G&Ts feature lemons plucked moments ago.
The villa’s produce turns up at the table too: forest fruits for breakfast, freshly podded peas and garlands of herbs at dinner. This meticulously restored piece of Sicilian history is usually booked by larger groups, but we’re lucky enough to have it – and its breathtaking infinity pool – to ourselves. Our hosts, Jon Moslet and Marco Scire, are thoroughly immersed in the region’s culinary traditions: they’re installing a cookery school in the building’s lower floors, due to play host to a number of big-name chefs. And they’re determined to show us the best butchers, and where to buy the finest fish: at their suggestion we make a pilgrimage to nearby Riposto to watch the fishermen unload their catch of velvety red prawns, tuna, sardines, swordfish and local exotica I can’t put a name to, straight onto the market’s marble slabs. Or where to find the most delicious arancini stuffed with pistachios in the unassuming Nuovo Caffè al Portico (+39 347 554 0535) in Carruba.
They organise an outing to the Nebrodi Mountains, a national park. The landscape starts to change dramatically – stark monochromes of rock and silver birch, glittering veins of petrified lava – as does the weather; it feels more like Scotland. The woodland is alive with wild ingredients, including fiddlehead ferns, wild garlic, berries, lampascioni (an edible wild hyacinth bulb) and cardoons. With Sicilian humour, there’s something called cosce di vecchia – old lady’s thighs – because the leaves are wrinkled and hairy.
Lunch for our band of hungry foragers is a bit special. In the rather functional-looking Hotel Mazzurco in Cesarò (+39 095 773 2129), just where the mountains proper begin, chef and son of the house Gianluca Barbagallo – who has one of the Three Little Pigs tattooed on his arm – serves up a feast: own-made salumi, including the beloved Sicilian gelatina, lemon-scented pork jelly studded with piggy bits. A whole acorn-fed Nebrodi baby pig, slow-roasted in a woodburning oven, is exquisite: the skin lacquered into a caramel crisp, the meat succulent and fragrant with garlic and wild fennel. There’s a salad of sweet ruby blood oranges, more fennel and wrinkly black olives to counteract the opulence, tangles of prized sparacogna (a bitter wild asparagus) and potatoes layered with olive oil and rosemary. The pork is every bit as glorious as its celebrated Iberian cousin.
For a brief foray away from the mountainside, we head for Taormina, long the chic destination for film stars and millionaires, thanks to its ravishing location and yearly film festival. You can imagine bumping into La Loren round one of its steep, cobbled corners. Instead we find Tischi Toschi; recommended to me by Yotam Ottolenghi, a tiny little joint down a hidden alleyway. We sit outside, thrilling to the powerfully Sicilian flavours: wild fennel ‘meatballs’ – meat-free polpette – topped with fennel seed, tiny dark raisins and pine nuts. Handmade carob tagliatelle dressed with sardines and toasted breadcrumbs; ‘slow food’ sheep’s cheese, maiorchino. A cocktail on the terrace of the super-swish Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo with its gasp-making view is the perfect sundowner, but I’m pining to get back to Etna.
We drive through Bronte, otherwise undistinguished, but the source of those preternaturally delicious pistachios, which turn up in everything from cannoli to fabulously intricate pasticcerie, to plates of pasta dressed with a pesto of the nuts – just about my favourite pasta dish ever. Caffetteria Luca is the Mecca for everything pistachio: we land on a public holiday and the atmosphere is of barely contained mayhem, musclebound dandies jostling with novice nuns for a taste of their delicacies: elaborate, glistening cakes, cassata, whipped mounds of authentically grey-green gelato.
Back at Rocca delle Tre Contrade, a special dinner delivers a virtuoso showcase of the region’s bounties. Peas from the garden whizzed into a velvety soup crowned with crisply fried calamari; ricci – sea urchins – to be scooped out of their spiny shells, singing of ripe peach and the sea; a series of local fish served raw and translucent, dressed simply with oil, pepper and tiny slivers of tarocco (blood orange), including the famous red Sicilian prawns of almost candied sweetness; homemade spaghetti, fat and gorgeously al dente, into which the fragrant flesh of those ricci has been emulsified; a semifreddo of local pistachio. It’s as good as any food I’ve ever eaten in Italy.
No exploration of Etna would be complete without mention of its extraordinary viniculture. Volcanic soil, obscure indigenous grape varieties, high altitudes and pre-phylloxera vineyards make it a place of pilgrimage for wine nerds – and me. The wineries range from little more than shacks to large, glossy outfits. At Pietradolce, we stand outside an old hut above the ancient vines, some planted in the shape of amphitheatres, tasting their rare Vigna Barbagalli, all jammy red berries and spice. Glugging back the wines where they’re actually grown is something of a primeval pleasure.
At the other end of the scale is Barone di Villagrande, the region’s oldest winery. Run by the latest generation of the noble Nicolosi Asmundo family, it is stunningly beautiful. We’re shown round the cool, fragrant, ageing cellars, the bustling wine production rooms, to end up in the restaurant, a shady, geranium-lined bower overlooking the vines. Each course is accompanied by one of their wines – a frisky, perfumed Etna Rosato the colour of a blush; the harmonious, fruity Etna Rosso. We eat hand-rolled trofie dressed with a pistachio cream and strips of cured Nebrodi ham; foraged wild vegetables stuffed into teeny pizzette Siciliani; a velvety purée of artichoke; and more of the pork, slow-cooked and scented with lavender.
Little almondy cakes are served with their opulent malvasia, a sweet ‘passito’ wine made from sundried grapes. We learn that the estate sends its homegrown beans to feed the donkey farm next door, and in return receives its manure to boost the growth of the vines – a lovely piece of co-dependence.
Our route home takes us via Pasticceria Russo in dusty little Santa Venerina, a confectioner and café that retains the elaborate Belle Époque fittings from when it was a pharmacy. It’s a typically Italian collision of exuberance and austerity: the dour little salon contrasting with the bustling bar where locals shoot dark, fierce little coffees and sweet, lemony iced sponges, tortine paradiso (the inspiration for the Kinder cake of the same name). In the shop, the elderly owner pulls out glazed drawers to let us choose from a riot of fruit made from marzipan: prickly pears (bastardi) to perfectly formed chestnuts and figs.
The beautiful vintage packaging, unchanged from the café’s early days, is reason enough to visit. The little place leaves a powerful impression. Much as wonderful, wild Etna does.
How to do it
Marina stayed at Rocca delle Tre Contrade, which sleeps up to 24 people (smaller villas are available) – book exclusively through The Thinking Traveller. Specialising in an insider knowledge of the area, The Thinking Traveller can organise food trips and cooking classes.
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