As you know dear readers, I have had some tough gigs in my time, flying to Beijing to test a new aircraft (particularly hard jetlag wise), 17 course tasting menus and off-roading across northern Argentina in search of salt flats to name but a few. But some things are harder to quantify. This report from the coalface of food is one such moment. I have never ever been so full as after the tasting session that you about to read about.
Through winding roads, vineyards, rocky outcrops and gentle hills in the province of Siracusa on the road to nowhere you’ll find Pantalica Ranch, a kind of hideout for foodies. True there’s no phone signal, but the Wi-Fi works just fine, and I’m holed up in one of six bungalows (next to the saltwater swimming pool to be exact). Here time stops, food grows slowly and flavours develop. As well as being a farming co-op the ranch produces its own food under the careful guidance of owner Virgilio Valenti. I’m here for the annual Pizzolo festival, that cousin of the pizza that offers more texture, variation and dare I say authenticity. It’s a two-layered affair with conventional base, filling and then a super thin crust on top with olive oil, Parmesan and herbs. A slice is a meal. Pity or envy me as I as I tasted my way through numerous flavours.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The thing to grasp here in this quiet region of South Eastern Sicily is the meter of life. It’s not so much they are pro slow food it’s that they haven’t heard of fast food. Take Bucheri a wonderful Baroque town centered on a square where old men gather in the shade and mutter about the day. There are not one but two outstanding churches, a few bars and the village trattoria Osteria Locale. I was there with some contributors to the food festival having a meal.
All started well, the place is run by two brothers, one in front of the stove one in front of house. After much deliberation about wine, which takes a while to arrive the conversation drifts naturally towards the festival. A discussion about how to eat pizza opens up. We were not eating pizza that night but various anti pasta, mushrooms and pasta, excellent steamed pig. From a few minutes talking about how it is better to eat with your fingers to the other end of the table saying you should use a knife and fork the table erupts into full heated discussion. I’m asked my view and I fudge it by saying fingers while watching TV but utensils when in a restaurant. They don’t buy it and sense my politeness. Pizza is taken very seriously in Italy. As quickly as it started it stops, the first of many plates of food arrives and everyone is laughing and drinking the excellent local wine. This is Sicily personified, passionate about food, respectful about food and above all understanding that this is their way of life. For this alone I adore Sicily.
The next day I find myself in the Dravana Valley picking olives in exchange for lunch al fresco on the mountainside. There are some professional pickers who work like locusts stripping these ancient boughs of their fruit in seconds. For me it takes a little longer. Large nets are placed under the branches and with a combination of gloved hands pulling on the stems to a small rake like tool they are coaxed out. It’s hot and sweaty work. I asked renowned food writer and owner of the olive trees Daniele Miccione why he wanted to buy 1000 trees. He said he wanted to make an artisan olive oil that is pressed earlier than others when the fruit is less plump and thus the yield smaller but more precious. Asking how much land he had bought, I was surprised to learn that he didn’t really know. You buy the trees he said not an amount of land it just depends on where those trees are located.
The oil when first pressed has the aroma of freshly cut grass and of tomato vines and is a slick vibrant green in colour. The cheese and cold meats we had for lunch were augmented by an impromptu BBQ made from old dead wood, the lamb was grilled to perfection. The work was very physical, but you can be with your own thoughts in the sun and the mountains. I’m not sure if I earned my lunch but I certainly enjoyed it.
The festival was not only about Pizzolo but other foods too. One in question was small chocolate producer Sabadi using ethically sourced cacao from Ecuador. The chocolate was very good and in came in interesting flavours, Earl Grey, lemon zest and even tobacco, which appealed less to me but had a smoky quality that was quite unique.
The festival is held in Sortino, a beautiful Baroque town placed in a patchwork quilt of green in Southern Sicily. The Mayor Vincenzo Parlato plays a big part in the proceedings, introducing the organisers and a discussion about the craft of dough making. This is an industry that employs millions of people across the country and is highly competitive and is driven by passion.
Using local produce like fish, cheeses, tomatoes etc the festival encourages both tradition and innovation. Locality is key to the choice of ingredients. Old grains, yeasts and various types of dough all play their part in identity. 4000 farmers are reverting to older methods of production and crops as the demand is there. Less gluten and better digestion are sighted as reasons. There are 52 types of grain alone used in Sicily.
Seven pizza chefs from across the country fire up their ovens and start to ‘express themselves’ through their cooking. This is an inescapable part of Italian heritage with regions emerging as centres of excellence and personality. Rome has upped its game and is now a serious playing, Naples is the best known and in Southern Sicily Pizzoli is king.
The tasting began initially with children giving out plates, and napkins as we waited under a large tent protecting us from the scorching sun in a cloister of an old monastery. Then the onslaught of pizzoli began and it came thick and fast. Sausage, fig and black olive, then a fennel, dried fig (which intensified the flavour) and goat’s cheese quickly followed by tuna, oregano and peppers. All fresh, intense in flavour, my taste buds were working overtime. I was full but couldn’t stop eating as they all tasted so good. These were just a few of the combinations there were of course more traditional pepperoni and peppers and the slightly less common honey and goat’s cheese. What can be said is that a few slices of pizzolo will fill anyone up I had about nine. The event was given such a simple authenticity by the children of the town bringing in the napkins and cutlery each time a new flavour was offered, the sun beat down, the sense of expectation was palpable. Food is one of the family in Sicily.
After a suitable rest in the shade I wandered around the town with the mayor Vincenzo, who was clearly a popular dignitary. Many people came up to him to shake his hand and thank him for help with something or other. He took me to try sanfurrucchi a sweet made from boiled honey. Boiled then worked on a marble slab, stretched and pulled on a bar erected above and cooled it is rolled out and cut into small tube-like pieces, delicious and refreshing all at once.
The whole area is full of interesting little towns, remote landscapes and national wildlife parks. Catania airport is not far away. The best thing by far though is that part of world hasn’t changed in fifty or even a hundred years. The pace of life is wonderfully slow and things just happen when they happen. The food festival takes place in September and it’s a perfect time to go. To discover the history of the region, to drink the excellent wines and eat the olives and of course to try out that special take on pizza the pizzolo.
I stayed at Pantalica Ranch, which sells a great collection of foods it produces as well as having a superb restaurant onsite. Food here is made with so much love and care and is totally seasonal with zero food miles. If you rock up and haven’t told anybody where you’re going… you’ll be left alone, no one will ever find you and if that’s what you want then this is the place. Beautiful peaceful countryside with historic buildings greet you through the valleys and over the mountains, remote and in my mind perfect.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass