Mediterranean diet, Nature

By Filippo Bartolotta
Motivational Speaker, Writer, Educator
Instagram: @filippo.bartolotta

As I write my love letter to Sicily’s Mt. Etna, recent news reports reminded me of Etna’s constant relevance. Never one to sit quietly, Etna occasionally breaks loose with minor eruptions, to remind us she’s still here. It’s hard to perceive what living with active volcanoes means, with their unpredictable flows of magma and thick ash. And yet, the Greeks and Etruscans repeatedly selected volcanic lands for themselves. What benefits come from living near active volcanoes? Surprisingly, there are loads of inspiring reasons, including astonishing natural vistas, and super fertile land. This, fellow foodie, means great gourmet goodies. The Etna volcano is entirely its own reality, but it shares traits with other volcanic areas. So what makes it such a visitor hotspot? Because Sicilian food is second to none for freshness, excitement, and flavor. Set your sights on Sicily’s East Coast for tempting locally-grown ingredients, and innovative chefs forging onwards with inclusive culinary styles.

Soil this rich means you barely need to budge from Etna’s major slopes before stumbling upon loads of diverse, inspiring products. The common denominator uniting these far-flung areas with their products are the generations of locals. I mean farmers and chefs, creating dishes embedded in the Mt. Etna lore. Come with me for a peek at some of my favorites on Etna’s slopes. If you’re not convinced that Eastern Sicily is your next destination at the end of this read, get in touch, I’ve got some convincing to do still!

Cultivation of pistachio trees near Bronte, located on slopes of Mount Etna volcano, Sicily, Italy

Sicilians lovingly refer to Etna as female, nicknaming the volcano “A Muntagna.” The fertile Northern slopes include the breath-taking towns of Randazzo, Castiglione di Sicilia, Linguaglossa and more. Here, tour de force goodies include legumes, mushrooms, and Pistachios from Bronte. Called Sicilian Green Gold, not to be confused with Italy’s other green gold, extra-virgin olive oil, Bronte pistachio trees are a bedazzling sight to see. Colder months present chilled white branches that intermingle. Springtime instead brings an explosion of delicate pink blossoms, budding thanks to the groundwork of the fabled Etna black bee (Ape nera sicula), so fundamental for the future of all flowering trees, yet inexplicably risking extinction. Highlighting the area’s chillier climate, local wines express strong character and structure, longevity, and freshness. Nerello Mascalese is the most cultivated grape, although the Carricante white grapes provide a wonderful base for whites.  

Facing the sea, Etna’s eastern side shows more sea-inspired skin. Local vegetation grows thanks to the salty sea air and radiant sunshine. So, what to eat? Liquid gold honey from Zafferana Etnea, all the citrus you can handle, from lemons and blood oranges all featuring the coveted IGP recognition (Italy’s highest agricultural certification), succulent cherries from the Etna Mastrantonio district, and of course, wine. Eastern Etna is brimming with handmade dry terracing, crafted with local lava stones that contrast each dawn with delicate sunbeams peeking over the horizons. The Grecale and Nerello wines harvested from impressive Alberello vines reflect clarity, transparency and flavors indicative of the area’s dramatic temperature ranges. Small eruptive cones dot the arid territory, providing some of Etna’s most surreal landscapes. Not surprisingly, the phrase heroic viticulture was coined here, with vineyards bravely climbing and expanding inside their volcanic beds. 

On Etna’s southern slope, we find one major player: Catania. The largest city to neighbor Mt. Etna, Catania does tend to cold-shoulder Etna. With a lively port answering every consumer whim, Etna’s direct impact is less immediate than upon other rural adjoining towns. All is not lost though, and here we find an abundance of fruit orchards and citrus groves. One of Sicily’s genuine icons is here too: the prickly pear, or Fico d’India. Southern Mt. Etna wines are sweeter, more colorful, and generally riper wines. Finally, one super-significant part of a Mediterranean Diet: extra-virgin olive oil. Olive groves feature prominently throughout Etna’s slopes, each with different attributes. The underlying connection between all the EVOOs: they all manage to enhance local cuisine harmoniously.  

The value of Etna is more than just soil, and more than food and wines.  It’s the generosity, the hardiness, the undeniable charm of local people. As a Sicilian, I know. Each time I land in Sicily, I’m overwhelmed with an immediate overwhelming affinity for Etna. Love for Sicily is eternal, a sensation you’ll feel once you set your sights on Mungibeddu. The area’s versatility, with morning mountain skiing, and afternoon beach swimming, is incalculable. Having access to Italy’s freshest, finest foods doesn’t hurt either. Come see ‘A Muntagna for yourself – you’ll see what I mean.

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