In Search of Food Heroes in Sicily

In Search of Food Heroes in Sicily
From, by Henna Garrison

What do chocolate, salami, tomato sauce, and fried sage leaves all have in common? To start, they are all being made in Sicily. They are food products that have been around for ages, sometimes stemming from family recipes (tomato sauce) and other times adapted to fit local ingredients (beer made with hints of basil) and they are being revived in parts of rural Sicily to share with the rest of the globe. Each product and producer had its own story, and students of the Food Innovation Summer School Mediterraneo recently had a chance to discover their rich stories.

The Food Innovation Summer School Mediterraneo, sponsored by the Future Food Institute, kicked off on Monday, July 4th for three intensive weeks of exploration of the Mediterranean food culture, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Gathered on the campus of the University of Messina overlooking the blue sea of Sicily, 25 students from over ten different countries came together in the name of food and innovation. The course aims to create food for thought on how tradition and innovation can share space in the future of food using the Mediterranean diet as a focal point for discussion.

The Mediterranean diet is often cited as an exemplary notion of health, but demystifying the wondrous regimen isn’t so simple. According to UNESCO, the diet is prevalent in the geographical areas of Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Portugal, and was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. UNESCO points out that the Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills and knowledge around food from harvest to processing to consumption. At the same time, there are important cultural and social aspects of the Mediterranean diet that make it more than just about food and nutrition, such as communal meals and the ritual of passing down food knowledge through generations. What this means for the Summer School Mediterraneo is that the conversation goes far beyond basic nutrition and into social understanding, which bodes well for the international group that is sharing meals together over the course of three weeks.

During two weeks of intensive lessons at the University of Messina’s CUS campus, students explored everything from entrepreneurship tactics with Professor Steve Gedeon, to design thinking with Food Innovation Program’s Matteo Vignoli. They also studied nutrition and health with UC Davis Professors Matthew Lange and Daniela Barile, the Mediterranean diet with anthropologist and senior lecturer at University of West London Surinder Phull, and flavor profiles with gastronomy professor Peter Klosse. The group of 25 international students from 10 different countries took to the trip to experience the roots of the Sicilian culture themselves through local food producers.

The 48-hour trip took the group to the south eastern tip of Sicily in the area surrounding Ragusa to find companies and individuals who are reinvesting in Sicilian territory to create valuable, innovative food products that help Sicily maintain its reputation as one of the epicenters of Italian food and agriculture. Throughout history, Sicily was a highly sought-after location for conquering forces, including Arab, Norman, and Germanic reigns. Its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea has allowed a unique food culture to flourish that often combines traditions, practices, and ingredients from its varied history.

As Enrico Russino points out, “We’re at the end of the world.” Enrico is one-third of the team that makes up Gli Aromi di Russino, a family run business started just fifteen years ago in rural Scicli. The road to get there winds through sleepy towns that don’t appear to wake up, but arriving at the entrance of Gli Aromi’s sprawling property, new life is immediately evident: plant life. As an expert in agricultural and botanical sciences, Russino started a nursery from scratch, specializing in medicinal herbs and Mediterranean spices, that has grown over the years to cultivate more than 150 species of typical, tropical, and unusual plants. From the classics like fennel, thyme, wild oregano, and local giant sweet onions, to geraniums of all sorts (mint, nutmeg, and lemon scented), and varieties of lavender for every possible creation: soap, essential oil, perfume, etc., Russino has created a plant-filled wonderland that doesn’t simply end with a purchase. “We wanted to do something new,” says Russino. “To create an experience with the land we have. With what is available to us.”

While Gli Aromi dries, packs, and sells their own spices and herbs alongside fresh plants, they also have created curated boxes of their plant seeds and special soils so that visitors can take a bit of Sicily home with them. In addition, the open hoop-houses (covered in passion fruit vines and overlooking the sea) play host to events ranging from group parties, concerts, and yoga and Tai Chi classes. Russino and his family developed what they called TappeTimo (combining the Italian “tappetto” or mat with “timo” or thyme). Grown directly into the ground, these so-called mats are made of beds of soft thyme, so your mindful practice not only smells good but feels good against bare feet. They are working with local hotels and studios to create an installation service of the TappeTimo in the surrounding area.

Working with what was available to him, Russino innovated on local growing traditions to create accessible and natural experiences for all, often involving food but sometimes just nature. After a sensational and sensory-driven tour of the grounds, the group had a chance to chow down on some of Russino’s delights: gigantic sweet onions pulled right from the ground smothered in thyme and rosemary honey, delicately battered and fried sage leaves, and pasta piled high with fresh veggies and hints of dried oregano, all from the Russino homestead. With the Mediterranean Sea in the distance, there seemed to be a true essence of what makes the Mediterranean diet so unique: conviviality.

The group of students was also invited to experience Agromonte, a family run and vertically operated company that produces tomato products and sauces. Inspired by Mrs. Ida’s family recipe (the mother of the four siblings that now run the business) and the summer tradition of creating “passata,” or tomato sauce base, to preserve the tomato harvest, Agromonte started less than 20 years ago with the aim to make family tradition accessible to all. The company focuses on cherry tomato products, with their cherry tomato sauce and their semi-dry cherry tomatoes in oil being their main products. Tomatoes come directly from their greenhouses, where they are cultivated using organic methods.

Export sales manager Erika Libero and owner Carmelo Arestia guided the students through the factory which produces in 48-hour shifts, making sure all the sweetness and flavors of their tomatoes are preserved fresh from the field. For a company that distributes in both national grocery chains and to global markets, they still cling to tradition. Even now, their semi-dry cherry tomatoes are mixed by hand with fresh basil and salt and packed by hand into glass jars. The revival of family tradition into international success was particularly appreciated by the young food innovators who are learning to look to the past when planning for the future.

The trip also included visits to Progetto Natura, a small cheese producer reviving the tradition of Ragusano DOP, a 6-month aged cheese, as well as Salumificio Il Chiaramontano where a unique type of sausage from Sicily’s past is being reestablished: sausages made from donkey meat. The group experienced the unique texture of chocolate from Modica at Casa Ciomod, tasted microbrewed beers at Birra Tari, and sipped on wines at the organic vineyards of Maggio Vini. While ingredients changed, personalities differed, and tastes continually delighted and surprised, stories often remained linked to one thing: tradition.

Most of the companies visited were started in the past 20 years. They were young organizations mostly run by families that are working with traditions from the land. Whether it is bringing innovation to ancient wines with organic farming methods, adding value to historically-cultivated herbs, or incorporating local ingredients into new beer brewing methods, there wasn’t one company that wasn’t in some way linked to the past. It’s safe to say that the food heroes we have found in Sicily are truly innovating on tradition and preserving a unique food culture formed from a history rich in cultural diversity.

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