We turn our backs on Sicily’s jagged coastline, with its decaying stone towers and pebbled beaches and motor inland, along roads that on the sat nav, look like strands of spaghetti. It’s winter, but clear and mild, so we’ve shucked our jumpers and hang our arms across the open windows to be kissed by a sun far more benevolent than we’re used to.
Instead of following our original itinerary and continuing along the southern coast to our next destination, we have re-crossed the belly of Sicily, making a ridiculously circuitous and lengthy detour.
A week ago, at home in Australia, I was tumbling down rabbit holes on Google, the original subject of my search long forgotten, when I came across an article about manna. If I’d ever thought of it at all, I’d imagined manna to be a type of ancient bread, prompted by a vaguely-recalled bible reference. But, it turns out, manna is a kind of sweet edible tree sap and a trinity of small towns in this part of Sicily is one of the few places in the world it is still produced. Curiosity piqued, this agriturismo, in northern Sicily, into whose drive we are now turning, is shoe-horned into an already tight itinerary.
La Manna di Zabbra has been in Valerio di Onorato’s family since the 1920s. His paternal grandfather bought the farm on returning to Sicily after working in Baltimore in the US for 10 years. In the 1950s, his father, a primary school teacher enlarged the smallholding, planting a hectare of lemon trees and a installing small herd of cows. Valerio, who has a twin passion for organic farming and preserving ancient food traditions and is an active member of the Slow Foods Association, took over in the mid-1990s, opening as an agriturismo in 2006.
His land is wild and fecund – “weeds,” flowers, knee-high grasses and vegetables all flourishing in the rich volcanic earth. Everything is impossibly lush and green, buzzing and thrumming with life. There are orchards of lemons, mandarin, figs and almonds, as well as ‘forgotten’ fruits Valerio is preserving, such as corbezzolo - strawberry tree. A gravel drive cuts between unfettered verges of herbs, past an ancient, dark-blue, rust-pocked Fiat bambino and large stone sculptures, to our accommodation.
One of four rooms in a stone house, it’s no-frills, but tidy and comfortable enough for a single night. Another building, once the home of Valerio’s parents, houses a small restaurant. Fortuitously, it’s lunch time, so we crunch back down the path and enter. It feels like a family dining room, a set of glass doors opening to the gardens, a long table of garrulous guests, including a handful of immaculately dressed children adding to a familial, homely atmosphere. And, it transpires that not only is the bushy-bearded, gravelly-voiced Valerio a farmer, but chef and waiter.
“In my family there were four sons and both my parents were teachers, so Sunday was the only time we could be together, but there was Sunday lunch to prepare, so we all helped out in the kitchen,” he says. When he first opened the agritourismo, he hired a chef but realised that he could just as easily do it himself. And he does it expertly, bringing plates to the table as he makes them, a jug of vino di casa red at hand to fill our glasses. Most of the produce comes from the agriturismo’s own gardens; zero kilometre, uber-fresh produce; wild fennel, borage and mustard leaves, tenerumi - the tender leaves of Sicilian zucchini, olives and fruit from the orchards. A plate of appetisers features salami, translucent slices of sweet local prosciutto, four different types of cheese, Valerio’s own olives, spreads and dips, honey and chewy bread. Then come homegrown pumpkin flower fritti – in a whisper-light batter, followed by a plate of wild spinach in bechamel sauce with porcini mushrooms. A bowl of fettucine, the strands coated in a judicious amount of fresh tomato sauce later and we are congratulating ourselves on getting through it all. Then the main arrives – chunks of lamb and pork cooked to falling-apart-tenderness in an aromatic ragu. After that comes a (thankfully light) tiramisu and a small digestivo - Valerio’s homemade mandarin and bay leaf grappa. We are full-bellied and stupefied. It’s 5pm and the other guests are long departed. Valerio comes out with one last plate – manna. In the bible, it’s described as “like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” They are indeed creamy-white in colour and shaped like little twigs which Valerio tells us are known as “cannoli.” They dissolve on the tongue - cool – like the sensation of a mint minus the '“minty-ness.” It’s a sweetness that’s more subtle than sugar, fleeting, hard to pin down. Nature’s candy, manna contains only around 3% glucose, making it suitable for diabetics. It’s used in a variety of applications - sweets, chocolate, ice-cream and cheese. Not only has manna been used as a foodstuff and sweetener since ancient times but utilised as a medicine. Manna even had its own hieroglyph, discovered in prescriptions on papyrus dating from 1350BC. Today, Valerio tells us, Italians often use it to “regulate their bowels” (a national obsession it seems, alongside a keen interest in ‘il fegato’ - liver health.) We have a final glass of wine at the little table outside our room, listening to the sounds of nature’s nightshift clocking on. The next morning, we breakfast under a gloriously cerulean sky, serenaded by birdsong, and watched by Valerio’s dogs, sitting a polite distance away, alert for falling crumbs. Valerio comes out from the kitchen and bends to pick herbs and flowers from the gardens, making us a “breakfast salad,” topped with crumbled manna, the sweetness a pleasant counterpoint to the bitterness of the leaves.
After breakfast, Valerio shows us his trees. According to Slow Foods Italy, this region once boasted thousands of acres of these ash trees, F. ornus and F. angustifo and produced 3-4000 tonnes of manna annually, but thanks to a cheaper synthetic version of mannitol introduced in the 1950s, there are just 250 hectares left, (with only 20-30% of those trees still being productive) and most of the frassinicoltori, the ash tree farmers, now elderly.
Being winter, it is not the time for manna, Valerio tells us. “We collect it on very hot, dry days, preferably when the sirocco (the wind from Africa) is blowing.” Each tree produces around a kilo of manna during the season, which generally lasts for around 5 weeks. With a long curved knife, known as a mannaruòlu , Valerio demonstrates how he makes quick light cuts into the tree’s trunk. The resulting sap, thin and bluish is collected into metal foil inserted in the cut with a weighted thread knotted to it. The manna is “guided” along the string and on hot days, will quickly solidify into small stalactites. Under the tree is a cactus leaf known as a “tabare,” which in the heat curls into a bowl shape - put there to catch any drops.
While Slow Foods Italy is doing its utmost to protect this culturally and historically significant industry, it admits the prospects of preserving the tradition, is ‘bleak.’ It’s a labour-intense, slow process that holds little profit or appeal for Sicily’s modern-day farmers, but for the few remaining frassinicoltori like Valerio, it’s a bittersweet labour of love.
La Manna di Zabbra agriturismo is in north-east Sicily south of Cefalu. Lunch and dinner are available at the (to non-guests as well) at 30 Euro per person, including a ¼ litre of vino di casa per person. You can also buy manna at 16 Euro for 50g.