Day 6 (09/08/2017) – Around Sicily in Eighty Days
As part of our commitment to show the kind of Sicily often invisible to the average tourist, we cycle up to the highest town in Sicily, Floresta, where we befriend a smiley basket weaver. In Ucria, we learn about the staggering biodiversity of the Nebrodi mountains visiting the Natural Park’s seed bank. At dusk we arrive at the Piccolo minuta olive grove in Ficarra to learn about this unique olive cultivar.
STORY BY TOMMASO RAGONESE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARCO CRUPI
It is said that the night brings counsel. Waking up to a bright, early June morning we’ve decided to ditch our original plan to head to Tindari and then cycle along a stretch of coast, then uphill again towards Ficarra. Instead, there is a chance to see something truly unique in Ucria and we are therefore heading uphill towards the Favoscuro pass. Leaving Montalbano Elicona on the SP110, we look back to the medieval town, with the Tyrrhenian sea and the island of Salina in the background.
Cycling past the Fontalba water bottling plant, we reach the Favoscuro pass and begin a downhill section towards Floresta, the highest town in Sicily, sitting at 1275 metres above sea level. There, we are forced to stop by a mechanic workshop and buy a tube to fix a flat tire. Exiting the workshop, we stop to speak to a local basket weaver, Salvatore Zingale: the man’s dialect is hard to understand even for us but he wears a friendly smile and insists to show us his entire repertoire.
Upon entering Ucria we are drawn towards a little bakery by the unmistakable smell of freshly-baked cookies made with the local ‘tonda dei Nebrodi’ hazelnut. A bagful of cookies in-hand, we enter Ucria’s seed bank: dr. Ignazio Digangi and two of his collaborators are waiting to show us around. One of our trip’s goals is to show both sicilians and foreigners that Sicily is not only about beaches and temples: that is why we chose to visit this bank, named after a famed botanist, Bernardino da Ucria, where dr. Digangi is working to maintain an incredibly varied array of genetic material indigenous to Sicily.
“On the Nebrodi Mountains alone, we managed to find 63 cultivars of beans indigenous to this area” says dr. Digangi, pointing to jars full of beans of all shapes and colours. “These varieties have survived thanks to the elders who planted them every year in their gardens, like their fathers and grandfathers before them. They are the last generation who kept a garden diligently; our generation has given it up to a life of little touch with nature. The loss of biodiversity is all the more worrying considering that Sicily, by virtue of its geographical position and fertile soils, has always been one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the mediterranean. We also keep dozens of fruit trees, medicinal plants and vines which are pure sicilian breeds”.
The mere number of bean varieties indigenous to an area the size of greater London isolated by dr. Digangi should give an idea of how fruitfully nature and man have interacted on this island over the course of the millennia following the agricultural revolution. And so do the over 80 ‘tholos’ or ‘cubburi’, peppered around the slopes of these mountains. These rural buildings, reminiscent of the sardinian nuraghi or the apulian trulli, were originally built as shelter for the itinerant shepherds who have roamed these mountains since time immemorial, long before the settlement of the first agricultural communities. Structurally, they bear very close resemblance to buildings erected by pre-greek civilizations such as the Mycenaeans (approximately 1600-1100 BC) – that is why they are referred to with the greek name tholos . However, many of them have been restored at different times in history, especially, some scholars maintain, when the Norman conquest pushed the arabs in the open countryside.
One could spend a good couple of weeks pacing up and down the territories of the modern municipalities of Montalbano Elicona, Raccuja, Floresta and S. Piero Patti looking for tholos. We, however, are headed to a very peculiar olive grove near Ficarra. Historically, the valleys of Ficarra and Sinagra have been home not only to numerous hazelnut plantations, but also to the minuta olive trees, a variety found nowhere else, threatened by the advent of modern, more productive olive cultivars. Vittoria Piccolo, who will be our host for tonight, adheres to a preservation project launched by the Slow Food Foundation and has agreed to show us her beloved trees. SEE FULL REPORTAGE. By the time we say goodnight to Vittoria the sun is shedding its last rays of light: from our bedroom window we take in the sight of the town of Naro, nestled on the hill opposite the Ficarra valley.