Good old-fashioned home cooking like that which can be enjoyed at the Eremo cannot but be grounded in the raw materials of the local terrain. The farms in the Hyblean Highlands are well-established locations of extraordinary production, which explains why we have entitled this Menu “La Masseria di Terra” ,as opposed to Sea Farm, the historical motivation for our decision being illustrated in the following:
More than simply a production site, the “Masseria” extended over a vast area of terrain (generally speaking at least thirty hectares), which from 1500 had been subdivided into “chiuse” defined by the famous dry stone walls characteristic to our landscape. Each “chiusa” lays claim to a particular productive trait and a diverse quality of soil - a fact to which attention is often drawn by the typical name given to it by the farmers, such as: vignale (favourable for vineyards), cicerata (optimal for the production of chick peas), favata (exceptional for broad beans) and so forth.
This almost frenzied research for productive soil traits in every single segment of land was reflected in the crop rotation cycle which generally began, after a thorough fertilization process, with an enriching crop of pulses (broad beans), to be followed up the subsequent year by a crop of strong wheat grain (of which Sicily’s is arguably the best in the world), followed lastly by at least two fallow years, during which time the land would be used as pasture for the grazing of cattle. In the pasture lands thus enriched, where a variety of over 130 essences grow wild, was begun the rearing of a prominent indigenous breed of cattle: “la modicana”, whose milk, with its elevated fat content, enabled farmers to produce “caciocavallo”, a well-known local variety of spun-paste cheese “Ragusano”, which today has obtained the D.O.P. label.
Dried pulses, particularly broad beans, were fundamentally important for the fattening of animals bred for meat consumption, rendering them an extraordinary texture and a subtle flavour: cattle, sheep, but also the famous black pigs (which were once found widespread over the whole Sicilian territory but which today are relegated to the area of the Nebrodi mountains) which are the source of traditional produce such as lard, gelatine and dried sausage. The productive and self-sufficient enclave of the “Masseria” was completed by the rearing of animals of smaller stature, even for eggs, using the business’ own wheat and barley.
Then there were the kitchen gardens, enclosed by high stone walls and very similar to the oases of North Africa for the crops and essences cultivated (and also regarding irrigation methods), which were the only plots reserved for intense crop production, providing fruit and vegetables, oil and wine.
Farms whose lands ran along the coastline had a unique brand of productivity. In fact from the month of May well into October (the so-called “time of the pirates”) farmers transformed themselves in fishermen and, pushing small boats out to sea, dedicated themselves mainly to the catch of bluefish such as sardines, mackerel, skipjack and dolphin-fish, which were then salted and preserved in small wooden barrels. Their catch constituted an important support to the payment of ground rents, with farmers paying their aristocratic landlords in kind with these “carnagghi”. “Masserie di Mare” incorporated into their usual production of cheeses, meat and eggs such items as salted fish or fish in oil, and also fresh fish caught closer to shore – smaller perhaps, but particularly tasty.
Farms situated along stretches of coast habitually frequented by shoals of large tuna specialised in the hauling in and preparation of these prized fish, becoming known as “Le Tonnare” , of which one splendid example, not least from an architectural point of view, is that of “Bruno di Belmonte” at Portopalo. Excepting these “Tonnare”, however, the Sea Farms remained hybrid industries - one of the main reasons why there never developed a specialised fishing fleet worthy of bearing the name and why fish markets appeared on the local scene only at the end of the century around the loading ports of Pozzallo and Marina.
The extensive presence of squid, cuttlefish, mullet, scorpions, sea bream, white bream, not to mention a variety of preserved fish, in the earliest known hyblean recipes of the aristocracy is due mainly to the existence (strange but true, for Mediterranean terrain) of the Sea Farms, and to such the Eremo kitchens refer, offering our guests exquisite platters of fish caught mainly close to the shoreline using small fishing boats and age-old local methods.
Our guests will discover the flavours of the small fish which are to be found off the Hyblean Mediterranean coast and the sophisticated simplicity of Sea Farm recipes.
The Eremo della Giubiliana is an important example of a traditional farm, and the structure in which it is housed still occupies a margin of the original sixty-plus hectares property, cultivated today according to olden methods and exemplary in organic production. Our own organic produce is widely used in our cooking, starting from the strong wheat grain, the flour of which is the prime ingredient of our superb bread produce and pasta; broad beans are still used to fatten the cattle and black pigs of the Nebrodi mountains. Our guests will immediately recognise the top quality of these raw materials, perceiving the distinction of tastes and the many cultural influences which flavour our recipes, fruit of rich layers of history which have made great the culinary reputation of this fascinating island.
The idiosyncratic array of pastureland, with its numerous green vegetables growing uncultivated, along with edible mushrooms, capers and other fruits of this Mediterranean area, fuelled the practise of “harvest”, so reconnecting, going back in history, to those bygone inhabitants of Sicily, those “Siculi” who in the latter years of the Bronze Age integrated a primordial husbandry with the gathering of the numerous feral essences and also with hunting.
Wild game, predominantly abundant from the start of the nineteenth century, found a natural habitat in this semi-cultivated terrain: partridges and pigeons, woodcocks and thrushes, turtle-doves and quail, lapwings and plovers, as well as boar, hares and rabbits were regularly hunted by the landowning aristocracy; moreover the presence of the river Irminio and various streams (which distinguish with an abundant water supply this corner of Eastern Sicily from the rest of the island) consented the angling of abundant fish and freshwater fauna, amongst which stand out a native variety of “macro-stigma” trout which boast extremely flavoursome flesh, and creek crabs.
This remarkable provision of superior natural proteins constituted the basis of countless time-honoured and refined recipes which our “Antique Gourmet” menu intends to re-propose to our guests; not merely being “revisited” by our “Creative Chef”, but rather rigorously and entirely restored from ancient family recipe books, in order to embark upon a journey in taste and time, evoking the magnificent table of Don Eusebio Nifosì of Canalazzi.