A Bittersweet Labor of Love
We turn our backs on Sicily’s jagged coastline, with its decaying stone towers and pebble beaches and motor inland, uphill, along roads that on the sat nav, look like strands of spaghetti. It’s winter, but clear and mild, so we’ve shucked our sweaters and hang our arms out 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, we have re-crossed the belly of Sicily, making a ridiculously circuitous detour.
A week ago, I was at home, 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 sweet edible tree sap and a trinity of small towns in this part of Sicily are among the few places in the world where 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 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 – “edible 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, tumbling down moss-spotted rock walls, past a dark-blue, rust-pocked Fiat bambino and large stone sculptures, to our accommodation. One of four rooms, it’s no-frills, but tidy and comfortable enough. 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 what feels like, (and probably once was) 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. It transpires that not only is the bushy-bearded, gravelly-voiced Valerio a farmer, but also 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,” Valerio says.
When he first opened the agritourismo , he hired a chef, but he says, he 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 at hand to fill our glasses. Most of the produce comes from the agriturismo’s own gardens; zero kilometre, wild fennel, borage and mustard leaves, tenerumi - the tender leaves of Sicilian zucchini, olives and fruit from the orchards.
A plate of appetisers feature local salami, translucent slices of sweet prosciutto, four different types of cheese, Valerio’s own olives, spreads and dips, honey and chewy home-baked bread. Then come homegrown pumpkin flower fritti – delicate, in an airy batter, followed by a plate of wild spinach in bechamel sauce with foraged porcini mushrooms. A bowl of fettucine, the strands coated in just the right amount of fresh tomato sauce and we are congratulating ourselves on getting through it all.
Then the main arrives – a chunky ragu of lamb and pork cooked to just-holding-together tenderness. After that comes a (thankfully light) tiramisu and a glass of Valerio’s homemade mandarin and bay leaf grappa digestivo. We are full-bellied and stupefied. It’s 5pm and the other guests have long departed. Valerio comes out with one last plate – manna. In the bible, it’s described: “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.” We put them on our tongue and they dissolve. The sensation is strangely cooling - like a mint minus the '“minty-ness.” It’s a sweetness that’s more subtle than sugar, hard to pin down, fleeting. Nature’s candy, manna contains only around 3% glucose, making it suitable for diabetics and 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 will use it to “regulate their bowels” (a national obsession it seems.)
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, beneath a gloriously cerulean sky, serenaded by birdsong, and watched by Valerio’s dogs sitting a polite distance away, but alert to 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.
Afterwards, he shows us his trees. According to Slow Foods Italy, the region once boasted thousands of acres of these ash trees, F. ornus and F. angustifo and produced 3-4000 tonnes of manna annually. 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 collects 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, are ‘bleak.’ It’s a labour-intense 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.