THE TASTE OF SALT - If Sicily is another Italy, then the north west corner of the island is another Sicily.

November 25, 2019

 

 

 

Michelangelo Balistreri is a story teller. He owns the Anchovy Museum at Aspra - MUSEO DELL´ACCIUGA. It is just out of Bagheria, about half an hour from Cefalu`.

 

His stories weave a net between humankind, the sea and an ancient Sicily that he longs for.

 

We move room by room encountering the accoutrements of a industry which lies at the heart of Sicilian history, culture and cuisine. In one room, we see historical tins and ancient machinery for rolling them, a boat in another, nets piled up for mending in another. 

 

Photo Credit: A bit of fun at the Museum. Stephen English is busy mending nets. Bob and Lou are helping in their own small ways and Antonio is keeping them hydrated. 

 

Sometimes, his words are not enough and the bard picks up a guitar and sings in a dialect which is strange and yet familiar because it comes from his heart.

 

He tells us that, “Many, many years ago, so many that you can’t imagine, a beautiful family of stars shone in the sky. They were very, very tiny but also very, very bright, maybe the brightest stars in the whole sky. They were called the Engraulines and they were also very, very vain. According to legend, the Engraulines were punished by God for their stubborn vanity by being thrown from the sky into the sea. Since that time, and forever after, they have been known simply as anchovies.”

 

"Tanti e tanti anni fa, così tanti che non potete immaginare quanti, splendeva nel cielo una numerosa famiglia di stelle; stelle piccine piccine, ma luminosissime: forse le stelle più luminose di tutto l'universo celeste. Si chiamavano Engrauline ed erano molto, molto vanitose.

Secondo la leggenda le Engrauline furono punite da Dio per la loro ostinata vanità, e dal cielo gettate in mare. Si chiamarono, da allora e per sempre, semplicemente acciughe."

(tratto da "L'alice delle Meraviglie" di Mitì Vigliero Laimi, 1998 ed. Marsilio) ]

 

I was stirred - then and now - as Michelangelo conceded that history is always about big things. The fishing industry is explained by the life cycle of the tuna, the sturgeon, the swordfish. But in his part of Sicily, the small fishing village of Aspra, it is the tiniest of fish, the anchovy, which gives life, sustenance and meaning.

 

I was humbled by this thought and as a reader of history it moved me.  It is not often that a visit to a museum can make one sing an operatic aria, laugh out loud and shed tears of nostalgia. The Museo Dell’Acciuga did that.

 

Photo Credit: our little band of twelve plus our Italian connections, Michelangelo, Santina Lo Faso and her friends.   

 

A week later, and our little band of travellers (we are decidedly not ‘tourists’), reach the north west point of Sicily. Our base is Trapani and from there we travel daily to extraordinary places. We make a pilgrimage to a pastry shop high in the clouds of Erice, we travel to the Casbah in Mazara del Vallo, we have a carefully tutored wine tasting at Marsala, we take a boat excursion to the quiet islands of Favignana and Levanzo and we go fishing for our lunch on the pristine waters out of Castellammare del Golfo.

 

But the highlight of so many highlights, for me at least, was Mozia and the salt pans.

Photo credit: Fran Turner's photos of windmills and salt pans in Nubia. The building with its windmill is the Salt Museum.

 

It is early morning as our captain lights another cigarette and squints into the sun. The refection of sunlight coming off the pyramids of salt hurts our eyes; the wind picks up the salt miasma in the air and makes us thirsty; the sun bites our shoulders although it is a mild autumn day. As we wait for the guide, our captain becomes talkative. He recounts a well known parable, a folk tale, una favola, that fits in nicely with the enchanting wind mills. We are in the mood for a moral tale.

 

He begins:

“Once there was a king who had three daughters. One day, on the occasion of his birthday, he called each one to his chamber. He asked them how much they loved him and what gift they would offer to prove their love. From his first daughter, he accepts a gift of gold. The second daughter offers him diamonds and pearls. The king is pleased. He waits impatiently for his third daughter to appear. She is the love of his life, the one whose smile melts his heart.  This third daughter, offers him a sack of salt.

 

The king is incandescent with rage. Like King Lear, he feels betrayed by her worthless gift and throws her out of his kingdom.

 

Thereafter, his cooks – all of whom adored the young princess and chaffed at her treatment - prepare the king’s meals without salt.

 

A week, then a month, go by with the King throwing the food against the wall in disgust. It was bland, tasteless, inedible. Slowly he learns the lesson that the cooks are trying to teach him.

 

So, he forgave his daughter, welcomed her back from exile, and agreed that salt is, indeed, just as precious as gold or diamonds.”

 

The Romans paid their soldiers a salarium which was the amount of salt that was given to the men who were leaving for abroad and which gives us our word, ‘salary’; good, kind people are described as being “salt of the earth”; places are named as salt towns along the great Roman roads as far away as Salisbury in England. The Romans used this substance in votive offerings to the gods, they used it as medicine, as well as in the process of preserving food before refrigeration and as ritualistic cleansing of spaces and bodies. In ancient times the fact that salt was also a bargaining chip makes us understand the importance of this spice.

 

We are waiting for our guide to accompany us along the lagoon of the nature reserve, “Lo Stagnone”, home to a wide variety of wading and other birds – especially during the spring and autumn migrations. Lo Stagnone contains three small islands: Santa Maria, The School and San Pantaleo with the remains of the ancient city of Mozia, which is our destination. 

 

Our boat eases the distance to the archaeological site of Mozia (sometimes written as Motya or Mothia on some maps) as the sun beats down and we are given Marsala wine as a welcome drink.

 

Mozia still retains important traces of its glorious past.  Among the most famous archaeological finds, is undoubtedly the magnificent marble statue of Efebo of Mozia, also known as  “The Young Man of Mozia”, preserved in the Whitaker Museum on the island.

Photo credit: I took this photo on a previous trip when we got off the boat and walked around the island. Nowadays, it is not encouraged to go without a guide.The beautiful Mozia Charioteer, found in 1979, is on display at the Giuseppe Whitaker museum. Mine is a poor photograph which does not do the sculpture justice. It does not capture the fluid garment that barely covers the body.  

 

Traces of human settlement date back to the Bronze Age, but it was with the arrival of the Phoenicians, around the eighth century BC that the island was able to acquire strategic importance to the shipping lanes of the western Mediterranean, becoming a commercial port of exceptional importance. Mozia is a kind of museum dedicated to the Phoenicians who inhabited the area. The Phoenicians harvested sea-salt from the shallow lagoon surrounding their island which flourished, becoming the most important town in western Sicily. The windmills, however, were a medieval development.

 

From Mozia to the Salt Museum at Nubia is but a short distance by road along a very pretty coast. There, the presence of a shallow lagoon and the lack of tidal activity has allowed the Sicilians to maintain a series of ponds known as saline.

 

Photo credit: Fiona Wald's photo in the mid-morning light shows the series of pans, and in the foreground, the terracotta tiles that shield the 'salt dunes' from the weather, racked and ready for next season. 

 

The salt-making process begins by filling the outermost saline, the one closest to the oceanwith fresh sea-water. Then, the coastal breeze and the perishingly hot Sicilian sun allows the water to evaporate, concentrating the salt in the remaining water.  During the harvesting season which runs from June to late September/early October, the increasingly salty water is pumped by the windmills into another salina nearer to the land. 

 

Eventually, the briny water gets so concentrated that a crust of salt crystals begins to form on the surface, this is the highly prized fleur de sel, and this is scooped off the top on a windless day, using rustic wooden paddles and sieves.

 

The strong scirocco (Sirocco) wind that blows straight from the Sahara Desert soon removes the last of the water and the salt is then ready for harvesting.

 

Photo Credit: harvesting salt is hard, uncompromising work. Photo from Museo del Sale.

Below: my photo shows Mount Erice in the distance with the magical town of Erice high in the clouds and Trapani on the plains. 

Salt workers, their skin like leather, their faces lined with the effects of squinting and sun damage, pile the salt into heaps about a metre high and allow it to dry completely. The men shovel the salt into barrows and with the help of a crude but labour saving conveyor-belt, heap the salt into a white pyramid, a ‘salt dune” of about three metres high. To protect the finished stacks from the weather, a ‘roof’ of loose terracotta tiles is then overlapped on top. What a sight this would be. We were too late in the season to see this, but the evidence of broken terracotta tiles lay all around the ‘salt dunes’.

 

The saline themselves are a living landscape painting – they delicately change their colour as the salt becomes more and more concentrated. While we were there in the blazing midday, the colours interchanged - some ponds reflected the brilliant blue of the sky, while others were tinged with shades of pink and mauve. The scene  of this multi-coloured checkerboard was awe inspiring.

 

The ‘Museum of Salt’ has been set up inside a windmill. Fluently, it conveys the history, the process and the importance of the salt industry in the culinary and commercial story of Sicily.

Photo credit: stone grinder.  

 

Along the western coast of Sicily, the production of salt reached its peak in the 1860s, with 31 salt pans producing over 100,000 tonnes per year. During this period, salt was a vital method of preserving foods and demand for it was high.

 

Today, the salt here is primarily produced for a small, discerning food market. In Sicily, the sea salt is often sold damp. For this reason a few grains of rice are sometimes placed with the salt in a shaker to absorb moisture and prevent caking. Being 100% natural and containing a higher proportion of potassium and magnesium, the flavour and quality of Sicilian salt impressed even our jaded palates and, of course, we bought our body weight in salt to bring home in our suitcases.

 

Lunch that day was in nearby Marsala. An astonishing array of antipasto was followed by fish couscous. Something simple, we were assured. It was as if the vitality and intense history of this part of the island was packed into each intoxicating mouthful. And maybe it was.

Photo Credit: Fiona Wald captures the wonder of our 'simple' couscous lunch in Marsala at Ristorante Garibaldi. Our appetisers were flavour bombs. While we were dazzled, the locals took tiny amounts of one or two dishes that took their fancy, lest they spoiled their appetite for the main event. 

Couscous, couscusu` in Sicilian. Traditionally, it is always a fish dish in these parts. The real hero is the splendid broth to be poured over the moist and delicious grains. "Bon appetitu!", as the locals said to our happy table. 

The couscous grain was a coarse sphere, deliciously moist with fish broth. We were at first dismayed at the scarcity of fish. One small piece of white flesh sat atop a pile of couscous. Surely that was not all. The travellers looked at me for guidance. I poured a generous ladle of saffron scented broth over my grains and dug in.  I held my spoon aloft for dramatic pause, rolled my eyes in beatific wonder and exhaled deeply. My Sicilian cousins had done me proud, again. 

 

Couscous in Sicily is a dish at once simple and homely but rich in layers of disciplined tradition, history, economy and culture. A study of just this one recipe would tell you all you need to know about Sicily in general and the north west region in particular. 

 

I want to go back. Annamu?

 

 

 

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