“The first day of August is the first day of winter,” or so they say in Polizzi Generosa, Sicily. The adage goes back 1,000 years to the time when agriculture became the principle occupation in this mountain community.
Throughout the spring and summer, cuntadini, tenant farmers, nurtured their crops. By August, attention turned to the harvest and preservation of summer’s bounty. As each crop was gathered, this process of “winterizing” turned the landscape from green and lush to brown and empty.
Post-World War II land reforms broke up the feudal estates. The land, available on the open market, was purchased by the former cuntadini. Today, even though Polizzi no longer has an agrarian-based economy, many still tend pizzuddu ‘i terrenu, “a small piece of earth.”
The cornucopia of these farms, orchards and vegetable gardens is boundless. A portion of each crop is prepared fresh, but most is preserved for use during the rest of the year. History has taught the Polizzani to be frugal, and every gift of the Earth is put to use. Even wild berries and herbs of the forest are conserved as jams and liqueurs.
Each crop is picked at the peak of ripeness, for the distance between cropland and dinner table is a short walk. During one of my summer visits to Polizzi, I heard the morning shouts of a fruit grower on my street in the center of town. Selling his produce from a Lambretta, a three-wheeled motorcycle-truck, he’d sing out in Sicilian, “Pears! Peaches! They were fresh.”
I thought his choice of tense odd and puzzled over its meaning. A friend, Nino Gianfisco, explained.
“Every morning at first light,” Nino said, “the fruit grower goes into his orchard, picks the ripest pears and peaches, and loads the Lambretta. Then he takes breakfast coffee with his wife.” With a wry smile, Nino continued, “By the time he gets to town, it’s already 8 o’clock. The fruits were fresh at dawn, but by then there’s no guarantee.”
Polizzi has a mighty harvest of velvety, deep-red plum tomatoes, the type called San Marzano. Smoke billows from country sheds and city garages as huge pots of these tomatoes are cooked into sauce over wood fires. The sauce is then canned in recycled mineral water bottles.
The work is done by entire families. Small children, supervised by grandparents, wash the fruit, gleefully splashing their hands in the washtubs of cold water.
Women tend the caldrons, knowing exactly when and how much onion and salt to add. Young men carry the steaming pots across the sheds to milling machines that separate pulp from seeds and skins. Older men feed the small hoppers and refill the pots with the tomato sauce.
Stationed at other cooking fires in their cramped sheds, the most fastidious women of the household are in charge of bottle sterilization and canning, maintaining strict quality control. Over the course of two days, a large family can process 1,000 bottles of tomato sauce--enough to last the winter, with some carryover for the next.
During the tomato harvest, the hills around Polizzi are streaked with crimson, as women in straw hats keep vigil over plywood sheets covered in tomatoes. In one day, the Mediterranean sun will dry the tomatoes into a thick paste. Seeds are saved for next year’s planting.
Ripe cherry tomatoes still on the vine are hung in cool sheds, where they will remain fresh for months to come. All tomatoes that have not had enough time to ripen are eaten green in salad, pickled in vinegar or cooked into marmalade.
By this time of year, cucuzza, a long Sicilian squash, is beginning to go to seed. Some of these are candied into a sweet confection called cucuzzata; some are dried, primarily to be used as an important ingredient in cunigghiu, the traditional Christmas Eve dish of salt cod and vegetables.
In preparation for drying, the cucuzza is peeled and split. The seeds are removed and saved and the squash is well covered with sea salt. After a few days, a ring of thread is sewn through the end of each half, and they are suspended from bamboo poles and put in the sun to dry.
Small groups of old women gather in their gardens to accomplish this task. Sometimes, they are joined by their daughters or granddaughters.
If a young girl makes a stitch too close to the edge or ties a bad knot, the squash falls. The grandmothers smile and laugh, offering the same instructions given to them long ago. Their still-nimble fingers demonstrate the technique they’ve used for decades. From across the garden, the hanging squash look like primeval wind chimes in the late afternoon sun.
By late August, eggplant is in the produce spotlight. Spears of it are pickled in vinegar. Some is conserved as capunatina, a medley of eggplant, the previous season’s green olives, celery, some almonds and raisins, tomato sauce and a bit of red pepper and vinegar. Following an 18th century tradition, unsweetened cocoa powder is added to counter the piquant sweetness with its bitter flavor.
Of the four varieties of eggplant grown locally in Polizzi, most common is nostrali, “ours.” It is the same variety found in American markets, although slightly smaller.
Second in abundance is the tunisina (Tunisian) variety, long and thin, resembling an oversized Japanese eggplant. The Tunisian is a botanically older variety, close to the original type brought by Arab traders a millennium ago.
A close third is the missinisa (Messina) type. Medium-size and more round than oval, this type is not the common aubergine color but violet and white. It has a more delicate, less bitter flavor than the other two.
The bianca is the rarest of Polizzi’s eggplants. Small, white and nearly round, it is the inspiration for the American English word, “egg-plant.” The other varieties require salt-leaching to draw out their bitter liquid. Fresh white eggplant, however, does not require this procedure.
During the 10 or so days of the eggplant onslaught, home cooks prepare course after course of the fruit for lunch and dinner, employing a prodigious repertoire of recipes. The true mark of a good cook is how interested she can keep her family at mealtime with daily repetition of the same ingredients. In this regard, the Polizzani cook achieves high marks indeed.
First among these is my friend Nino’s mother, Stefana. An invitation to lunch at the Gianfisco family country house is highly prized. The house built by Nino and his father, Turiddu Gianfisco, lies in the center of a massive property that includes a large kitchen garden; several stands of fruit, nut and olive trees; and a sizable vineyard.
On one part of the patio is a pergola roofed with bamboo matting, walled on one side with flowering vines against the hot afternoon sun. The table inside, large enough for 20, is often the setting for a gathering of family and friends. Lunch is the main meal of the day, and guests often volunteer to help Turiddu Gianfisco skin the peppers that have been roasted in the cinders of a hazelnut-wood fire.
In a different part of the patio, others stand near a large copper pot of water set on a wood fire where pasta will be cooked. They try to cajole Stefana Gianfisco into giving up her cooking secrets. “Pasta always tastes sweeter when it’s cooked outdoors on a wood fire,” is all she will say, with a shy smile. She holds on to her secrets.
The grand lunch begins with an antipasto of more than 10 dishes. Bowls of olives are placed at the edges of the table. Some are black, some oil-cured and some green, cured in brine flavored with lemon peel, bay leaves, wild fennel seeds and cloves. A platter of pungent, chewy salami and one of young, soft pecorino cheese pass to praise. We eat the roasted peppers with our fingers in one bite, using a piece of bread as a charger to catch the fruity olive oil drizzle.
In this season, four of the antipasto dishes are made with eggplant. A fresh capunatina is scooped up with bread, Moroccan-style. Thinly sliced violet-skinned eggplants are eaten hot off the grill. The tart flavor of raw, white eggplant marinated in lemon juice is offset by curls of aged pecorino scattered on top. Little eggplant balls fried in olive oil require a refreshing sip of dry white wine to neutralize the oily richness.
Stefana Gianfisco seems somewhat embarrassed by the compliments she always receives, but at the same time she knows we’re right; her food is great.
And whichever dish is lauded, Turiddu Gianfisco responds, “That’s from here.” Adding special emphasis by tapping his strong farmer’s finger on the table, he repeats, “From here.” Only the cheese is not from his domain. He flatly states, “That’s not from here.” Holding the moment just long enough to set up the punch line, he then gestures to a nearby hillside and says, “That’s from there.”
The first course is rigatoni in tomato sauce with pieces of fried eggplant cut to the size of the pasta. Stefana Gianfisco’s eggplant is fried in her own extra-virgin olive oil. Its sweet-pungent taste and mousse-y texture are a counterpoint in this hearty dish.
A large piece of pressed, salted ewes’ milk ricotta, ricotta salata, is passed around the table. We coarsely grate it over our pasta. The flakes fall into the bowl like gentle snow, melting slightly.
The second course takes Turiddu Gianfisco back to the wood fire, where he covers the grill with thinly cut mutton chops. Stefana Gianfisco joins him, and together they grill the chops, turning them often to prevent the surface from being charred and bitter.
The mutton chops are carried to the table mounded on a platter. For accompaniment, there is a just-picked mixed green salad. We delicately eat the chops off the bone, using our folding knives and fingers.
Almost as a footnote, Stefana Gianfisco sets down her final masterpiece of the day, eggplant palmigiana cut in small squares, “just to try.”
After a dessert of very fresh ripe fruit and a toast of wild strawberry liqueur, the entire company takes a post-prandial walk through the vineyard. Arm in arm, Stefana and Turiddu Gianfisco lead the strolling parade down a sunny dirt road. Soon we are wandering through the rows of vines crowned by their lush canopies. Turiddu and Nino Gianfisco casually sample grapes, beginning to think about the harvest and the wine-making work ahead.
In the center of the vineyard is an ancient hazelnut tree. A collection of battered outdoor chairs is nestled in its shade. We all settle in. Conversation meanders and our breathing slows like the balmy afternoon breeze. We fall into our naps, content and grateful for the gifts of this piece of Earth.
Schiavelli is an actor and author.