An urban farm in Sicily might sound like a bit of a contradiction to many foreigners. But the fact is, globalization is affecting food delivery systems in Italy, too. While locally sourced ingredients and “cucina naturale” was something taken for granted up until very recently, in many regions it now requires some effort to ensure that your food is as close to “zero kilometer” as possible.
This is a guest post by Jessica Burgio from Cartoline dalla Florida. As per her request, I’m not linking to her blog, but rather to the website of a very worthy cause that deserves our respect and patronage (if you happen to find yourself in the area). Yes, it’s a farm in Sicily, but it’s the unique location that makes it so special. I’ll let Jessica explain it better.
During my early childhood in Sicily, my family lived in an apartment on the outskirts of Messina. It wasn’t the best neighborhood, and my poor but snobbish mother would not allow me and my siblings to make friends with the other kids and play outside with them. “Outside” was the parking lot of the building complex, where the children seemed to have the greatest fun playing soccer, often using a rock for a ball.
From our balcony on the third floor, my sister and I watched them, and listened as they called each other “Bergomi,” “Baresi,” and “Zoff.” When the goalkeeper Zoff missed a rock (I mean a ball), it normally turned into an issue, because the goal would pass through the imaginary net, and all the way into a parked car. The car’s owner would yell at the kids, and then set the record straight with his parents over coffee and almond cookies (granted, one more scratch would not mean much to any of those cars).
On a recent trip back to Sicily, I took my daughter Demetra to my hometown, hoping to show her the good sides of it. Trust me; this is not an easy task. I have already talked about the 1908 Messina Earthquake that still leaves its mark in a previous post, and I had explained why the town might not be in your top ten places to visit in the Boot.
Yet I wanted my daughter to have fun and make some good memories of the other half of her culture. I searched and searched, and I did not find very many kid-friendly amenities in this Italian version of Cleveland. Then something on the Internet caught my attention.
An Urban Farm in Sicily
I found a place called Villaré, an organic farm located half a mile away from the very same old building where I grew up. Their website promised so much that I thought it was too good to be true. Not only organic, locally grown produces, but also eggs, honey and homemade preserves, as well as a unique experience for grown-ups and kids along a countryside itinerary.
And last but not least, they offer the opportunity to stay as a guest in either one of their remodeled rustic rooms, or in a glamping bubble in the very middle of the farmland. You read that right. Now, in case you are not familiar with the area, let me tell you that glamping bubbles are most probably unavailable in the whole country, but for sure no one else has used them before in Sicily.
So my sister and I and our kids showed up unannounced and found a little crowd of children on a school field trip. The students were learning about the territory and its history.
The area was cultivated with olives and grapes as far back as the Roman days. Apparently the Romans particularly appreciated the wine from this area. Later on, a large portion of the land came into the possession of Prince Alliata, from which the Salaparuta family descended. You might have heard the name Salaparuta, still these days they are producers of fine Sicilian wines. For a while, a congregation of Carmelite Monks ran the place, which was eventually abandoned, possibly after one of the great quakes (either 1783 or 1908).
Soon the owner Angelo, founder of Villaré, came to welcome us and offered us a tour. Once the gate closed behind us, it really was like finding ourselves transported to a different time – with our car parked just outside, three minutes away from the city chaos.
As we walked toward the “office,” an undaubed building made of rocks and covered in jasmine and bougainvillea, Angelo explained that his main aim was precisely that: to create an “urban farm in Sicily,” a farm that you can reach without having to drive for miles and miles out of town.
Blending the Old Ways with the Best of the New
A path behind the office led to what remained of an ancient olive mill. The press was still in a decent and certainly charming shape, but the wheel still stood, showing the old scars of the olive pits. We could also see the remains of a bell tower, from the Monks’ period, the ancient animals drinking trough (now turned into a suitable resting area for the visitors) and a stone oven rebuilt where once the venerable original stood.
In the old days, people did not have ovens at home, so they’d make their own bread dough and then stood in line at the public oven where they could cook it. Around the newly made oven, Angelo explained that he is envisioning a meeting point for his guests and visitors.
On each side of the trail there are orchards, olive tree groves, and vegetable gardens. Further uphill there are goats and chickens (that are truly free to wander around the open range), black pigs of the Nebrodi (a type of pig that only exists in the eponymous Sicilian Mountains), rabbits, and beehives surrounded by prickly pears.
A lot of work is yet to be done, but Angelo’s creativity is contagious and it easily rubs off on you. He shows semi-empty plots of lands and he explains in great detail how he intends to turn them into dining and event spaces, trekking trails, or gardens. A large lot is currently dedicated to the training and rehabilitation of pets. A number of dog owners come here twice a week with their pet rehab specialist and they let their furry babies be aided by the contact with nature.
The glamping bubbles are fully operative, while the rooms are under construction/remodeling, with the help of local laborers, and all in the utmost respect of the original structure.
I left with a ton of organic strawberries (the sweetest I have ever eaten), a few jars of marinated zucchini (apparently a nearly 100 year-old woman from a nearby village shared her ancient knowledge and her secret recipe… thank you!), organic honey and eggs. And a bunch of happy kids that had an invigorating run in the open air, chased ducklings, learned that berries grow in bushes (and not at the grocery store) and that chickens really stink (Demetra said so.)
I also left with a sense of pride for the vision and enthusiasm of a fellow citizen that started this ambitious project amidst the many, many difficulties of starting a business in Italy. Further, I also felt some degree of sympathy for a man who stored his University degree in a drawer, and went looking for the old ladies in the village that could teach him how to make bread and preserves – before those memories and expertise would be lost forever.
Driving back, my sister and I passed right under our old building. We both looked up and thought we could still see our younger selves, sitting on the balcony in the shade of a canopy created with bed sheets and clothespins. There were no kids kicking rocks. The kids nowadays have school and activities and are taught about the dangers of wandering without adult supervision, which was a needed thing.
And now, with Villaré nearby, they can also keep traditions alive and learn about their history and take pride in belonging to a culture—which is an even better thing.
Villarè – Azienda Agricola Biologica in Sicilia
Nice story. Those glamping bubbles are interesting. This is why I love agriturismo when I travel for the chance to experience life on a farm and staying with the owners and feeling as part of the family at times.
Hi Patrizia, and thanks for the feedback. I guess I should clarify, as Jessica’s first language is not English.
I think what she meant was this: for Americans visiting Italy, they think of Rome, Venice, Florence, and other such famous cities. Not Messina. Nothing wrong with Messina, but it can’t claim the same fame and cultural treasures as those other places.
Same with Cleveland. Italians dreaming of a trip to the US envision NYC or San Francisco. It would be hard to convince them to give up a chance to see the Statue of Liberty and go check out Cleveland’s cultural offerings instead. As wonderful as they may be, they don’t have the same emotional appeal for folks planning a visit to the US.
I would like to believe that you are correct.
thank you for your reply.
I confirm that Rick correctly interpreted what I wrote.
I’ll add that every time we speak generically of a culture, we have to make a small concession to stereotypes – I do it all the time when I read Rick writing about Italy.
Of course, generalization can be unfair, and it is understood that there is no thing such as a uniform culture.
I would never insult Cleveland, that I have never had the pleasure of visiting, and hearing that it’s working hard towards improvement makes me glad and it also makes my comparison to my hometown Messina further apt.
Just for your reference, “Demetra” is our daughter’s name. The town where Villare’is located, is called Messina.
I totally understood the point Jessica was trying yo make. Cleveland has an amazing art collection, which we were lucky enough to see in vancouvrer, but it still doesn’t make it on your average tourist’s top 10 destinations list. Ciao, cristina
I have just arrived home from a 3 month trip to Italy. The first 16 days were spent in Sicilia and I was pleasantly surprised by its beauty and friendliness of its people. This may sound petty, but I found Jessica’s comment that Demetra is “the Italian version of Cleveland” offensive. Just as the people of Sicily are trying to overcome the reputation their area of Italy has, we in Cleveland are trying to overcome our reputation. I have lived in Cleveland for 43 years and it is a wonderfully cultural place to live. No need to downgrade one area to lift up another, especially if you are not familiar with it.
Just had to vent. Thank you.
Love this Rick. What a very special experience for all of you.
Great post, thanks for sharing! Sounds like the urban farm in Sicily will be a big hit…at least I hope so!
Thanks, Tony. Yes, I hope the idea gains more traction throughout the country as people continue to migrate towards the cities to find work. It takes some creativity, as Angelo has shown us…but it can be done!
This story delighted me not only about the changes in food delivery in Italy and to have you keeping us current on all Italian but because the story reminded me of when my mother (she passed this year) would tell the story of how she used to play with the children of the Princess Alliata. Her mother was the Baronessa Lisi di Gravitelli. I always asked her to write the story of her life but she never did and its like this story has brought me a little vignette of the book she might have written. Grazie di cuore.
You’re welcome, Alexandra. I’m sure her stories would have been very similar. Thanks for your comments.
Wishing Angelo every success with his enterprise. Such a great idea.
I believe the fruit tree is a quince. Chaenomeles being the proper name.
Quince! I’ll bet you’re right…grazie!!
Wonderful post – great sense of the place!