During my first winter in Sicily, I visited La Pillera, an idyllic place near Montalbano, buried in the depths of the forests of the never-ending Nebrodi mountains.
It is a place where time stops, and the outside world is forgotten. Here, amongst the hazelnut trees, a decomposing villa camouflaged in the folds of the sprawling mountains.
I am invited to visit by new acquaintances attached to this place by personal history. We leave for La Pillera late one sunny December morning, climbing into the mountains from the Aeolian coastline.
The pilgrimage consists of meandering country roads which weave their way around the breathing mountains.
These roadways twist around the curves as they are built into the shape of the landscape. They follow the area’s natural geography, creating an uneven ribcage of roads around each peak.
This area of Sicily was known as il Regno Delle nocciole, the kingdom of the hazelnuts, because of its vast hazelnut plantations. The trees began near the town of Sinagra. They spread out through the valleys and summits between the timeworn villages of Ucria, Raccuja, Sant’Angelo di Brolo, Librizzi, Castell’ Umberto and San Piero Patti.
The hazelnut groves are mostly abandoned, as is most of the large-scale agriculture in the region. Some trees still survive, with self-sufficient stubbornness. They line the roads with a resilient border filled with vibrant green leaves in the summer, which become deep grey naked stumps in the dense winter.
The scenery gradually changes as we climb up further into the mountains. The terrain is covered in green ferns, oak trees and tall, slim pines. Cows are left to stroll alone; the cumbersome bells around their necks clank as we drive past.
We pass many rustic Trattorie, or Baracce as they are called in the local dialect, small family-run restaurants. They are intermittently scattered along the side of the road, each one grilling meat on hot coals. The smoke of the cooking food drifts towards us on the chilly air, wafting into the car window and making us all get hungry.
On summer weekends, these mountain roads are littered with carloads of people from the big cities of Messina and Catania. They invade the trattorie and hidden picnic spots. They come in waves for different reasons throughout the year.
They stuff themselves with barbecued lamb in the summer, leaving empty plastic cups and bottles. At other times they pillage forest mushrooms and chestnuts or buy fresh seasonal produce made by the locals who live in the decaying mountain towns.
Tourists bring money to the area but also create much damage. Hundreds of people trample through the forests without the landowners’ permission and with disrespect for the environment.
Taking a break along the road, we stop at the old town of Casal Floresta. Most people make a pit stop along the grey stone-paved streets to refill bottles from the water fountains. Since they all make the same pit stop, they also buy the still-warm bread from the local baker’s oven and buy provolone cheese produced by locals.
We refresh ourselves and satisfy the appetite stimulated by the hungry mountain air. Outside the bakery, a line forms along the street as everyone waits for the next batch of bread to come out of the oven.
The loave crust crunches as we break it apart with our hands, releasing its fluffy light interior imbued with many subtle flavours. There is the aroma of freshly pressed olive oil, together with the earthy subtleties of the minerals found in the mountain spring water used to make the dough.
The heat of the bricks brings out all the qualities in the antique wood oven used to bake millions upon millions of loaves for generations. This delicious bread is unlike any other I’ve ever eaten. It is a meal in itself; after one slice, you are delighted. No wonder Sicilians, when they say something is noble, satisfying or enjoyable, they say it is ‘as good as bread’.
Floresta has a shabby appearance that hides its history’s intrigue and belittles its past importance as an area of abundant fertile agriculture.
According to a legend, it was founded in the seventeenth century by fugitives escaping from Spanish persecution. The village later became the property of Marquise Antonio Quinata Dueguas and, from sixteen seventy-five to the end of the eighteenth century, passed onto Prince Paolo Ardoino.
Today it is a sleepy little town with an empty main street of grey stone houses with rusting balconies. The buildings are arranged in a clumsy cascade down the ridge between the peaks of Mount Pistone and the Serra di Baratta.
Diminished flocks of sheep and cows still populate the broad green pastures outside the town. It is not difficult to imagine the Marquise Dueguas in his seventeenth-century garb looking out of the window of his palace in the heart of Floresta, proudly surveying the fertile grazing land.
The Florestani hold onto their stoic mountain town with hundreds of years of history. Thanks to the graces provided by their Patron Saint, Anna, who seems to be keeping this place alive with a whimsical prayer.
The mountain pastures help locals produce caciocavallo or provala cheese which Floresta is famous for. It is a creamy deep yellow fresh cheese that burst with the flavour of the mountains. It hangs in the local shops like a freshly hunted game, a trophy of local culinary history to be admired by all. Traditionally produced in the spring, this sought after product is often moulded into little horse-shaped statuettes known as cavadduzzi in the local dialect.
Floresta is also the highest town site in Sicily, being some above 1,275 meters above sea level. There are stories of massive snowfalls from decades ago that saw the town isolated from the rest of the world, and supplies had to be airlifted into town one time.
The Casale’s water is substantial and crisp, purified by its journey through the mountains until it gushes out of the two fountains, one at the town’s entrance the other at its exit. Both basins are essential to the everyday life of the city. It is a daily ritual to fill drinking bottles from the water pouring out of large metal pipes.
The off run gathers in large ancient stone basins covered in green moss. Other pans behind the fountain were once used as an open-air laundry for the local women to wash their clothes. The endless ware and tare wear away the edges of the basins
The water chills my lips, hands and teeth as I drink from the fountain, leaving my mouth freezing as if I’ve just sucked on an ice cube. When I finish quenching my thirst, I find my lips are burnt red by the freshwater.
I watch the others who cup the water with their hands and sip in quick short bursts, taking care not to chill their mouths. They occasionally stop when their hands shiver and are ridden with the cold.
I remember the last time I drank at this fountain; I arrived in Sicily the first day. The icy water was a perfect remedy to the mixture of heat, confusion, jet lag and car sickness I was suffering.
Now, in the middle of winter, it seems a lifetime ago when I travelled here from the other side of the earth. It has only been a handful of months.
From Floresta, I see the massive Mount Etna volcano. We seem so close to it; I feel I could almost walk from the bakery down to its feet. In reality, we are separated by many kilometres of mountain ranges.
There was black smoke coming from its peak on the drive up, which is not unusual as Etna is a smoker.
But today an ominous ashen grey cloud has formed above the volcano, gradually spreading down towards the valley.
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