The feast starts with the still-warm bread from the village bakery at Floresta. Sliced into thick pieces, they are quickly snatched up to fend off the growing hunger.
A bundle of serviettes, plastic plates, knives, forks and glasses are scattered around the table, enough for a rustic meal. Two large four-litre bottles of wine, one red the other white, are poured into regular-sized containers and put on the table together with various soft drinks and the Florestani fountain water.
Little bowls of salty olives are set out together with a series of packages wrapped in butcher’s paper. Little flavour filled parcels containing fatty seasoned pork pancetta, prosciutto cured meats, salty pecorino, fresh sweet mozzarella and creamy Calciocavallo cheese from Floresta. They all will be opened when we are ready to eat, the paper holding in all the bursting flavours and aromas.
Crisp-tender fennel is cleaned and cut into generous quarters. Some are combined with fresh lettuce to make a salad, while more substantial pieces are saved to dip into a dressing made of olive oil, black pepper and chillies.
Fresh coals are added to the barbecue as thin slices of fatty bacon are arranged to cook and sear in a smoky flavour. I love how this cut of pork is called ‘sottosopra’ in Italian, literally upside down. Because the fat is on either side of the thin strip of meat, it overtakes everything turning it on its head.
We roast sweet hot peppers, fresh seasoned sausages and greasy meat on the coals of the fire. We wait for the others with a palpable sense of anticipation, relishing the smell and secretly willing everyone else to arrive.
Ripe, sweet and hot peppers are placed directly onto the coals to roast until their skins burst open with the heat as they are fully cooked. In the time needed to grill the meat, roast and peel the peppers, combine them with olive oil and boil the stinging driga poison ivy leaves, the straining gears of the four-wheel-drive are heard.
As the hunting party draws up to park in the shade near the Villa, we see the fishermen climbing out of their Range Rover; we are relieved to know no one has been lost. The fishermen are stiff and soaked, boasting a modest haul of black mountain trout to roast over the coals.
Finally, we can devour our wholesome mountain bread, soft crumbly cheeses, olives flavoured with garlic, rosemary, peppers, lemon and oregano, capsicums soaked in rich golden extra virgin olive oil, crusty fried potatoes, densely salty cured meats, smoky roasted tomatoes, fresh mountain trout and for the more adventurous among us, an omelette of ivy leaves.
We wash all the food down with fruity red and white wine, which leaves the earthy taste of the mountains in our mouths and a thick warm sensation of satisfaction in our stomachs.
Etna seems but a distant memory as we sip sweet hot espresso coffee spiked with whisky to warm us up as the sun begins to set. We pass the final few hours of sunlight, telling and listening to stories about La Pillera.
Everyone recalls the work they had done here to the Villa collecting hazelnuts through the years. The aches and pains in their backs, arms, legs, heads and thorns were sticking into their fingers after being bent double for hours collecting the little brown nuts which fall to the ground when ripe.
Someone recollects how one summer at the Villa Nunzio got so drunk he fell off the stone wall and rolled down the steep slope between the hazelnut trees. He barely stopped short of the giant boulder at the base of the hill.
How lucky he was not to finish up crashing headfirst into the massive rock. He was black and blue from head to toe, with broken ribs, concussion, a dislocated shoulder and his arm hanging from torn tendons.
Later at the hospital, an incompetent doctor X-rayed him and told him he had nothing wrong. After many months of physiotherapy to help him recover, Nunzio never wanted to return to the Villa and never did.
There is the story of someone’s uncles who were left alone at the Villa for months when they were only eight and ten years old. After Christmas, their father had gone to Sinagra and left them alone in the Villa. The storerooms under the house were filled with freshly harvested hazelnuts, wood for the fire and other provisions put aside for winter.
It snowed for a week and blocked off all the roads, isolating the boys. Their father finally managed to reach them four months later, in March. It was a miracle how the two young boys survived by keeping the fire lit and melting snow to drink.
The boys kept feeding the animals with stockpiled hay. Copying what they had seen their mother do even though they had never done it themselves, they managed to make bread from rye flour.
Their father saw they were all right and then left them there for another couple of months. This story came from a rough time before the Second World War when people were forced to be more savage, and even the young struggled for survival.
I can’t imagine such a brutal life with so little affection and comfort, yet it was a reality here in Sicily. Stories like these remind me of the harsh poverty of the lives of the peasants and fisherfolk depicted by Giovanni Verga and other Sicilian Veristi. The Sicilian realist writers of the nineteenth century, which seemed almost too cruel to believe when I first read them in Australia.
Villa Pillera is a place filled with many spirits. It is where fairy tales happened, once upon a time. The forest where Hansel and Gretel got lost or Little Red Riding Hood met the Big Bad Wolf. It is where old folk tales and family history lived.
The Villa was part of the Salleo family property and many hundreds of hectares of hazelnut trees and other crops. The wealthy family employed locals to harvest and look after their lane in exchange for a meagre wage.
The peasants’ children and grandchildren continued to work for the Baron of Sinagra until the 1980s.
The stories I heard and the sad history of Sicily makes it a place where fable and reality are easily confused with one another.
The return trip takes us back into our reality. There is a sense of the mystic on the ride home as if we are journeying back from a lost El Dorado.
The road behind us shifts into unfamiliar shapes as an unseen force keeps this place hidden from the outside world, making everyone forget the way to La Pillera.