ETNA: AN OPEN-AIR MUSEUM INSIDE AN EQUALLY AMAZING ISLAND
Sicily is a land of many identities, both culturally and geographically. Sicily is the largest island in the entire Mediterranean Sea, and the most extensive region in Italy. It’s a most unforgettable physical territory, with its high, jagged coastlines, both marshy and sandy shores, plains and numerous hillsides, towering extensions of the Apennine mountain chain, archipelagos and of course, active volcanic action.
Etna is both a symbol of a region in constant geological turmoil as well as being a mountain of sheer, indescribable charm. The volcano, spread out amongst a series of mountains and valleys, occupies nearly half of the province of Catania. Locally referred to as “the column of the sky,” a sure reference to the volcano’s snow-capped and yet smoking peak visible from great distances, Etna remains permanently at the center of the Ionian Coast.
And Etna doesn’t stop just as being part of the panorama - the volcano has spread her fingers out as far as the waters below: in the port waters of Catania, we find massive black stone pillars submerged underneath the waters. These are not manmade pillars - they’re instead the result of massive lava flows coming from Etna and engaging with the Mediterranean waters. The magma, when reacting with the cooler temperatures of the seawater, solidified into the basaltic cliffs and dark pebbled beaches we can enjoy on today’s Riviera dei Ciclopi (the Riviera of the Cyclops).
The coastal areas in front of Etna are characterized by a succession of low, uniform landscapes, with high inlets and cliffs overlooking the sea and marked by sandy or pebble-lined beaches.
One winery with impressive Etna-based cellars is the Donnafugata estate. Learn more about this family-run winery today!
ETNA’S AGRICULTURAL LANDSCAPES
Proving his glorious way with words, Johann Wolfgang Goethe described Sicily in the late 18th century as “the land where the lemon trees bloom, amid the dark foliage the golden oranges glow.” These citrus trees that are so easily identifiable with Sicily, were first introduced to the land by the Arab populations, and were initially cultivated solely for ornamental and decorative use. The agricultural plains of today’s Catania are visibly dominated by citrus farming. Here, we find an abundance of blood oranges, traditional and late-blooming mandarin oranges, and clementines (a hybrid created from oranges and mandarin oranges).
Moving from Catania’s plains to the foothills of Mt. Etna, the volcanic soil’s natural fertility and richness is at the heart of why the tenacious Sicilian producers continue to invest their lives in a world of agriculture. The chemical composition of the Etna soils, and the particular microclimates we find here are at the basis of the tremendous success agriculture experiences. We find a thriving world of vineyards, pistachio groves, chestnut trees, olive groves, hazelnut trees, and fruit orchards of many types, including apples, pears, cherries, and even strawberries bursting from the volcanic soils.
Visually speaking, the landscapes offer a wealth of harmonious glimpses into the agrarian approach. Wine cellars and aged wine presses appear on the horizon, nestled up against small fields of fruits closed in by dry stone walls. Copious forest vegetation at times spills out onto the immediate horizon, and encounters ancient lava tongues dotting the countryside landscapes.
The area is also home to yearly springtime (in May or June, relative to weather conditions) blossoming of the Broom flower, a spectacular yellow flower flooding the local Sicilian streets with an intensely strong sweet aroma. When you sniff in these perfumes, you can’t help but recall the olfactory notes that are one of the signatures of the whites wines made from local Carricante grapes. These local grapes are generally harvested along the western, southern, and northern slopes of "A muntagna,” or the “Iddu.”
When correctly vinified, the nectar produces a white wine of unexpected longevity, where sensations of orange blossoms, anise, and white fruits prevail. Upon tasting the wines, an elegant acidity with refined minerality accompany our tasting experience.
Interested in Sicilian wines? Start with Filippo Bartolotta's video tasting of Donnafugata's Mille e Una Notte - one to add to your wine bucket list today!
SEA AND LAND FLAVORS BLEND WITH MOUNTAIN FACETS THROUGHOUT ETNA AREA
As we stroll through Catania’s glorious fish market, we come into contact with a vibrant seafood culture that is quite clearly thriving. The fascinating daily scenes also offer a tremendous variety of culinary options that roam far from the usual suspects on offer in standard Italian seafood markets. Here, we find local specimens in a mouthwatering array: Boga fish (with its wonderful Boops Boops nickname), Scabbard fish (Spatola fish), Mahi-Mahi, 'Nfanfula (Pilot fish), Anchovies, Sardines, Horse Mackerel (Suri fish), Albacore tuna, and many other fish varieties. Deliciously, these fish are featured in small restaurants located adjacent to the market and in fine restaurants throughout the city.
Domestic culinary practices in Catania and the entire Eastern Sicilian coastal areas are clearly the forerunners in a sea of seafood recipes and traditions that finely express the area’s natural bounties. We can tastily find these generational recipes being recreated in restaurants specialized in regional cuisine, as well as in family home kitchens throughout the land.
This principle is of course, also applicable to the dishes focused on land-based ingredients, as we follow the meandering paths of the hills and mountains. Depending on the season, the small, panoramic villages cozied up to Mt. Etna are home to many different types of local mushrooms that directly express local woodland characteristics. Local culinary traditions present the funghi in a variety of preparations, including tasty soups, oven-roasted variations, slow-cooked and stewed mushrooms dishes, and many other incorporations to highlight and enhance another Sicilian masterpiece.
Meat dishes also feature prominently in Sicilian culinary traditions. A classic meat-based dish incorporates Mutton, particularly in the Northern slopes, in the Brobnte and Randazzo areas, where we can also find the area’s richest pasture lands, and where the finest local cheeses are produced. Give Sicilian Pecorino cheese a try, and you’ll see what we mean.
Thanks to the lands’ unique soil composition, wild aromatic herbs grow abundantly and feature flavor profiles that are strongly tied to their growing environments. With such distinctive aromas, these herbs become essential ingredients in a number of local specialties. We can browse through some of our favorite dishes to find aromatic herbs as principle players: Asparagus or Asphodel frittatas, Vegetarian Fennel meatballs, 'nfighiulate (flat bread) with Calamint, Rice with Borage, Boiled Chicory, Batter-dipped Thistles, and Pork Sausages with Greek Mustard leaves.
Sicily’s remarkable floral diversity allows for the production and creation of a wide range of different artisanal honey varieties. Honey made from the blossoms of chestnut trees, prickly pear blossoms, and the Etna orange blossoms are not only valuable elements of typical dessert recipes like Pignolata, Rice Crispelle à la Benedettina, Nucatoli stuffed with dried fruit, and Giuggiulena and Cubbaita nougats.
Learning about Sicily’s foods also make you want to learn more about its wines? Filippo Bartolotta, fine Italian wine expert, brings us on an exploration of Etna’s fine wines produced right on its slopes, Eastern Sicily’s Etna Wines take on the Wine World. Want to learn how to prepare one of Sicily’s classic dishes with our expert chefs? Sign up today for your Live Class focusing on making Pasta alla Norma.
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