Between Ficarra and Sinagra

Day 7 (10/06/2017) – Around Sicily in Eighty Days

In a valley carved through the northern slopes of the Nebrodi mountains, a handful of farmers is waging a battle to preserve their identity. Near Ficarra, Vittoria Piccolo owns an estate with century-old olive trees of a rare cultivar, the ‘minuta’ olive, which she refuses to abandon in favour of modern, more productive trees. Further up the valley, near Sinagra, Pippo Borrello runs a farm where he breeds pure sicilian black pigs, which he took a leading role in saving from extinction.

STORY BY TOMMASO RAGONESE

PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARCO CRUPI

To be able to pick oranges from a tree in June in Sicily one must be very lucky. And indeed we were: upon waking at the Piccolo estate in Contrada San Filippo, right by the rural building where we spent the night, a handful of ‘tardivo’ sweet orange trees lure us into plucking their perfectly ripe fruit.

“​This old orange variety still survives in our valley alongside the minuta olive​”, says Vittoria as we jump aboard her FIAT Panda and head north into the green valley lit by the sun’s morning rays. A team of horses is roaming freely by the Naso brook, not far from the entrance of the Borrello farm on the eastern side of the river.

Over the last 70 years the Borrello family turned a small restaurant serving frugal meals to construction workers into the most prosperous farm in the area. Much of this success was orchestrated by Pippo Borrello and his brothers, who have been running the business since 1982. Pippo is a man whose sedate countenance and reserved demeanour may throw one off at first. It’s the first time we meet him and he has only spoken to us on the phone: he seems suspicious and reluctant to let himself go.

Though naturally endowed with a tremendous sociability, most Sicilians have grown to be initially distrustful of men. It is not infrequent to hear people speculate that the reason for this cautiousness is to be sought in the treatment sicilians have received by foreign invaders before and by ‘those in charge’ after the unification of Italy.

Speculations aside, it takes a lengthy explanation of our project to make Pippo feel comfortable and take us around the farm. In about two hours, though, he will be wearing a benevolent smile, manhandling us into his Trattoria where he will personally grill and serve us their infamous black pork meat.

Pippo leads us to the part of the estate where the milking rooms, cheesemaking facilities, curing chamber and a hall for tastings and events have been built. “We currently keep 7 cows, 30 sheep and 35 goats and produce the two traditional cheeses of this area: the ​provola​, with cow milk, and the ​pecorino​, with sheep’s milk. The provola is a stretched-curd cheese similar to caciocavallo but this is the only place where this cheese is aged: after a few months it starts to flake apart when you slice it, that’s why it is known as ​’sfoglia’​ (‘foglia’ = ‘leaf’ in Italian) by the inhabitants of the Nebrodi area”.

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About thirty years ago we became interested in the black pig, one of the six italian breeds officially classified as indigenous. This swine was declared at risk of extinction in 1997 by the European Community and the regional government managed to obtain funds for a project aimed at reproducing the species. After years of studies and work on the field we now breed about a thousand mostly pure semi-wild sicilian black pigs with the plein-air system”.

The farm serves the Borrello brothers’ Trattoria on the other side of the Torrente Naso: it’s a true farm-to-fork experience, with their produce available for sale in the shop next door. From cheese to cured black pork meat, from hazelnuts to honey, the Borrellos leveraged on the best local agricultural traditions to create a profitable and sustainable business. Their Provola of the Nebrodi mountains and their cured blacked pig meat bear the Slow Food Presidium mark, a sign that both of them come from sustainable farming practices, protecting biodiversity and respecting old processing methods.

After a hearty meal and a good dose of anecdotes and laughs, we have to say goodbye to Pippo, albeit reluctantly: as it is the case with many Sicilians, once you break through their thin veil of cautiousness, it’ll be hard to leave their company. For the rest of the afternoon, we pace up and down the Piccolo olive grove, listening to Vittoria’s stories. “These trees have been around for centuries, some maybe for a thousand years: even longer than my family”.

As a matter of fact, trying to trace the story of the Piccolos back in time is not a simple task: what we know for certain is that the family owned much of the land around Ficarra and that Vittoria’s grand-grandfather sat in Parliament and dined with the Prime Minister. Vittoria’s decision to veer from her job as graphic designer to managing the family estate in 1996 was dictated by a desire to subtract the minuta olives and the San Filippo estate itself from a fate of abandonment and decay. Not, she insists, by a desire to indulge in her family’s once-illustrious name.

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“​These olives yield less oil than modern varieties, but that’s not a good reason to destroy something which, to me, remains unique. We ought to lose this notion that our soils and landscapes can be exploited for mere financial profit: people who buy the olive oil from my estate know that there is an added value in what we are trying to preserve”​ . And just by looking around at these ancient trees on the gentle slopes of Ficarra’s hills we know Vittoria is right. We ought to regain an appreciation of the world which goes beyond material gain, and to treat it accordingly.

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