They call it “green gold” for a reason!
Some of Sicily's treasures deserve to be discovered and savoured slowly. These include some of the great protagonists of Italian cuisine tout court.
Bronte, a village clinging to the slopes of Etna, is known for its green gold; its history is also a distillation of mythology, love affairs, betrayals and cowardice. From the Cyclopes to the Emperor of Constantinople, from the Borgia Pope to Admiral Nelson, from Heathcliff to Nino Bixio and finally Giovanni Verga: all are linked to Bronte, and may never have eaten a pistachio!
Bronte means “thunder” and is the name of one of the Cyclopes who forged the lightning of Zeus in the forges of Hephaestus under Etna. The grotta di Bronte is one of the caves where dwarf elephants used to go to die during the period they inhabited Sicily and tusks from this time have been discovered here. The enormous nasal hole on the trunk was mistaken for the eye of a Cyclops, and thus was born the legend of the Cyclopes in Sicily. However, the elephants never had the chance to try the pistachios since these arrived in Bronte with the invasion of the Arabs. It was the Muslims who introduced the most exquisite Middle Eastern plants into the fertile, lava-rich Sicilian soil: peaches, citrus fruits and pistachios.
The green gold, or frastuca, as it used to be called when it was used as a medicine, is truly emerald in colour. It has an incomparable flavour and aroma and produces unique ice creams, custards, sweet and salty sauces and desserts. It’s incredibly adaptable with its delicate balance between sweet and savoury.
A few years ago, for anyone not from these parts, pistachio was just a very intense green-coloured flavouring used in ice cream parlours (and was not yet linked to artisan ice creams), or was a delicious snack accompanying an aperitif. Then things changed: there was more awareness and a greater desire to find out what was behind the food arriving on our tables.
In Bronte there’s a veritable collective ritual involving the whole population, women and children included.
Green pruning is a passed on from father to son in an uninterrupted tradition. According to local peasant faming tradition, thanks to being allowed to “rest”, the plant absorbs the substances it needs from the lava-rich soil, so producing a fruit richer in aromas with an unmistakable flavour.
Because of the steep, impassable environment and the danger that the fruit will be dispersed among the volcanic rocks, the “sciarelle dei lochi“, the labour involved in harvesting them is expensive. It’s still done entirely by hand: either by making the fruit fall off the trees straight into a container carried on the shoulder or by shaking the branches and collecting the pistachios on cloths stretched out beneath the plants. In some cases, an upturned umbrella is used.
This highly-prized emerald is unique if it grows out of the rock. Imitations are pointless, because the pistacchio verde di Bronte DOP is said to “only be sweet and aromatic if sweat and tears are shed on the ground where they’re produced”.