DAY 3 (06/08/2017) – Around Sicily in Eighty Days
Nestled on the northern slopes of the Peloritani mountains, Novara di Sicilia is home to the century-old maiorchino cheese, a working fifteenth-century water mill and an extraordinarily welcoming people. From there we head west across the mountains where we get lost and have to spend the night by a lonely brook.
STORY BY TOMMASO RAGONESE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARCO CRUPI
“What the heck…?!”. I wonder why we generated so much curiosity in the wild pigs roaming around at night that they thought it fit to thrust their snouts right into the fragile fabric of the tent’s walls making us jump in our sleep at regular intervals. At each awakening, the ground seems even harder and more irregular than we had originally suspected when we put up the tent last night.
To top the discomfort and lack of sleep up, not having a chance to shower at the end of our ride left us in a far from commendable state to share such a tight space. As we emerge from the tent, the sky is overcast with grey cumuli brooding over the Salvatesta rock. We pack up our gear and cycle back into town amidst whirls of light drizzle.
Things are looking brighter for us about an hour later, sitting on a bench with warm coffee and fresh ravioli di ricotta from Filippo’s bar. “We’re closed today, but I thought I’d get you some breakfast: it must have been quite a night up there!”. With a heart full of gratitude and a stomach half-full with delicious pastries, we make to the workshop where the ricotta used to stuff them comes from.
We have agreed to meet the cheesemaker, Filippo’s father-in-law: Carmelo Ferrara, known as ‘u Murgaellu. Nicknames are far more important than your real name in Sicily: people in Novara might not know who Carmelo Ferrara is, but they sure know that ‘u Murgaellu. We have agreed to meet the cheesemaker, Filippo’s father-in-law: Carmelo Ferrara, known as ‘u Murgaellu. Nicknames are far more important than your real name in Sicily: people in Novara might not know who Carmelo Ferrara is, but they sure know that ‘u Murgaellu.
The reason we are stepping into this old-school cheese-making facility, whose only truly modern features are perhaps the concrete walls and the plastic hose on the floor, is that this is where ‘u Murgaellu saved the legendary Maiorchino cheese from extinction. Salvatore, Carmelo’s son, is adding a few logs to the fire lit under the quaddara , the big copper pot where the fresh sheep and goat milk has been previously mixed. Later, as the newborn Maiorchino wheel is resting on the mastrello, the traditional, wooden cheese making table, we film a long interview throwing us back several hundred years into the life of rural communities in this area of the Peloritani mountains.
We film and listen, mesmerized by his stories as well as by his accent. In fact, both Novara di Sicilia and the nearby Fondachelli Fantina, Carmelo’s hometown, are among the dozen sicilian villages where people still speak a Gallo-Italic language, ever since the Normans had these villages repopulated with northern-italian people some 900 years ago.
What is truly extraordinary is that, by the way he talks, works and lives, Carmelo cannot be much different from those people. And since this journey was conceived as a quest for some notion of identity, every one of Carmelo’s words, each one of his gestures are part of a wonderful mosaic which we hope to have put together by the time we return home from our venture.
The Maiorchino is not the only remarkable trace of these mountains’ agricultural past preserved by the exceptional effort of an individual, here in Novara di Sicilia. Lower down the steep streets of this pictoresque town, practically intact, stands the last of the fourteen water mills once operating in the San Giorgio creek.
“It was the fifth of the fourteen, to be exact” smiles Mario Affannato, the miller, shaking my hand and beckoning us down the path leading to the mill’s entrance “and one of the only ones operating with a horizontal wheel in the whole of eastern Sicily”. Ugo, Mario’s father, is at work in the adjacent garden, near a walnut tree. “He’s in his eighties but he can hardly stay away from the mill or the garden: people of his generation simply cannot stay idle”.
1690. The date carved in the stone above the door of the rural building just above the mill indicates that it was built after the mill itself, presumably as storage for the cereals. The Affannatos have kept the family mill up and running out of sheer love, even with Mario’s meagre stone-carver income.
Entering the milling room, again, is like entering a time machine: black and white pictures of Mario’s grand-grandfather, tools used during the wheat harvest, like the crivu , a traditional hand sieve, the massive wooden wheel from the mill’s mechanism and a wooden hopper decorated with astonishingly old religious images. “When people brought their wheat here they also handed us an image of a saint dear to them, hoping he would bless the milling of their precious grains”.
We load a bagful of the ancient soft wheat variety ‘Maiorca’, precisely that which gave the name to the Maiorchino cheese, according to Carmelo, into the hopper. Mario then points to the wooden handle which opens the pipe letting the gravity-pressurized water squirt onto the horizontal wheel, setting the runner stone in motion. As the stone turns, the battaella , a wooden piece with an end sitting on the moving millstone and the other sitting at the hopper exit, starts rattling: it is an ingeniously engineered means of letting the grains drop down without jamming the hopper exit.
Though Mario is overly generous with his time and it is hard to tear oneself away from this time warp, we must soon be off. The plan is to get to Montalbano Elicona before dusk on a road we’re not even sure to find. We know it exists from satellite images and have been talking to people who have driven on it on 4X4s to retrieve as much information as possible. The Ferraras have gathered in front of their shop to say goodbye and to make sure we bring an oven-baked ricotta and a handmade salame with us.
12kms of fairly steep uphill await us but there’s food in our bags and spirits are high. We make our way slowly under a light drizzle; air temperature is ideal for riding. Once we reach the Sella Mandrazzi pass (1125 mt) we veer off the main road: a sign marks the entrance to a wind farm. We are forced to push our bikes up a slope too steep to ride and to seek shelter under the trees mid-way as the rain intensifies. Finally, at the top of the slope, we find ourselves where we have been sweating hard to get since we left the coastal SS113 road yesterday: this is the Peloritani mountains’ ridge and the view is simply breathtaking.
The Tyrrhenian sea to our right, the Ionian to our left, we ride right on the ridge of these impervious mountains, still green with vegetation even after an exceptionally dry year. The blades of the wind turbines swoosh above us in the northerly breeze while we make our way west toward the Malabotta Woods. The road is bumpy and the plastic hooks attaching our bags to the bike racks brake twice: it is an easy fix with the spares we brought along and there’s time to take in the views and check our maps to plan the rest of the ride. Standing here, Marco and I, amid these wind mills peppered along the ridge brings up memories of the Quixote, an evergreen classic of epic literature.
“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is nobel, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures. They are giants; and, if you are afraid, go aside and pray, whilst I enter into cruel and unequal battle with them.” And, saying so, he spurred his horse Rozinante, without taking heed to his squire Sancho’s cries, advertising him how they were doubtless windmills that he did assault, and no giants.
Proceeding blindly from one place to another, as we are, certainly sets the scene for some epic adventure: in our case, it was an epic fail. After much ponderation, a decision is made to divert our course from the road proceeding along the wind mills and take a downhill trail which seems, from the satellite images, to intersect the SP115 Tripiciana road after about 10km. Very soon the trail keeps getting narrower and narrower; we have to hop off the bike to open several rudimental gates made by local shepherds with all sorts of scrap materials, dodging the pigs and cows who stare at us and our bikes, rightly puzzled.
7km after leaving the wind farm road, we are starting to despair: the downhill trail ends abruptly by a brook, at the bottom of the valley. Dismounting from my bike, I walk across the bouldery riverbed to check whether there is any sign of the trail on the other side of the brook. Negative. There is no phone reception, it is almost dark and we are lost. The mix of surprise, disappointment and perplexity quickly subsides as it becomes clear that, exhausted as we are, there is nowhere to go and we’d better prepare for the night. We find a sandy bank which will certainly be gentler to our backs than last night’s terrain and retreat in the tent, devouring all of our supplies. Finally lying down, somehow amused now at how things have panned out, we fall asleep, lulled by the soft burbling of the brook.