Story and Photos by Jacqueline Harmon-Butler.
Mount Etna, Italy. As I stood pondering the wares of the Antico Souvenir, near the summit of Mount Etna, a hand suddenly appeared in front of me, offering a small piece of bread smeared with a greenish-colored concoction. I looked up into the smiling face of the proprietor of the shop. “Signora, piacere,” he indicated for me to taste. I sniffed at the bread. It smelled heavenly. Then I slid my tongue over the paste. It tasted delicious. Happily, I popped the entire piece of bread into my mouth and smiled in appreciation.
The proprietor pointed to a small jar among the selection of bottled spreads displayed in front of me. “Pesto al Pistacchio di Bronte,” he read from the label. “Yumm,” I replied. He then prepared another chunk of bread for me. This time he chose “Crema di Capperi.” The sharp bite of the capers and peperoncino were mellowed in the richness of the extra virgin olive oil. He did not stop his preparations until I had tasted the “Pate’ di Olive Nere,” rich black olives ground to a paste with basil, peperoncino and extra virgin olive oil; the “Crema di Melanzane,” a smooth spread of eggplant; followed by the “Pate’ di Pomodoro,” which tasted of the sun-filled countryside, laced with garlic and basil; and finally the “Crema di Carciofi,” artichokes creamed with extra virgin olive oil.
My Italian is very limited, but I managed to understand that all these spreads were produced locally. Enrico, the shop owner, went on to explain the many uses for these little treasures. Not only could they be spread on bread or crackers, but also would become a “volcanic explosion” of flavor when added to hot pasta. Delighted with his description, I chose a variety of the small jars.
The weather had turned surprisingly cool for Sicily in mid-April and the air had felt chilly when I boarded the tour bus earlier that morning. Clutching my thin jacket around me, I had hoped it would warm up later. However, the sun streamed into the bus and I quickly forgot all about being cold as we headed toward Mount Etna along the dramatic Riviera dei Ciclopi.
The area is littered with Greek mythology, and stories of gods and goddesses living along this coast abound. According to legend, Homer claimed it was here at the small Aci Trezza harbor that Polyphemus hurled rocks at the sea in a raging attempt to strike down the ships of the fleeing Ulysses, who had just blinded him.
A little further along the coast is the town of Acireale, which is the largest of the seven towns that string along the eastern slope of Mount Etna. The story goes that there is a stream flowing here that, although disturbed by a series of volcanic eruptions and buried, continues to flow underground. The stream is linked by tradition to the legend of the shepherd Aci and his love for the sea nymph, Galatea. Polyphemus was in love with the nymph himself and in another one of his rages, this time of jealousy, tossed a huge boulder onto Aci, crushing the life out of him. The gods were moved by pity and turned the shepherd into the river that runs through underground caverns and pours out into the sea where he could be united with his beloved sea nymph.
Just beyond Acireale, the bus turned away from the sea and began the long ascent up the twisting, tortured road that winds up the slope of Mount Etna. I saw masses of prickly pears, groves of oak, chestnut, hazelnut and pistachio trees, and forests of birch and pine, cut through in places by long ebony fingers of cooled lava. Dotted here and there were vineyards, lemon and orange groves, their lush foliage sharply contrasting with the devastation of the lava streams. Now and then the ruins of a home or church would poke up through the cooled magma. I was amazed to find small islands of trees, whose roots had somehow survived the fiery inferno, growing up through the lava beds.
Getting off the tour bus at Rifugio Sapienza, I discovered that although the sun was bright, the day hadn’t warmed up. In fact, at 10,000 feet, it was a lot colder than it had been at sea level. As my group headed toward the cable cars, I noticed that the top of Etna was entirely covered with snow and decided not to go up there. Instead, I found a sheltered area where I had a clear view of the summit, as well as one of the more recently opened volcanic side vents. However the mountain was quiet, and it was boring to see only small wisps of smoke trailing in the wind.
I wandered over to a string of gift shops that dotted the edge of the parking area. There was the usual array of tawdry tourist trinkets: picture postcards, black lava rock Madonnas with blue glittery robes, black lava rock beads strung into necklaces, bracelets and dangling ear rings and key chains; an assortment of t-shirts, cooking aprons, ashtrays and commemorative plates. I took my time looking at each item, marveling that people actually buy miniature black lava rock volcanoes with glittery red lava flowing from their tops.
The Antico Souvenir is the last shop along the strand. Dark green bottles of extra virgin olive oil caught my eye. Enrico told me it was produced in nearby Nicolosi as he opened a bottle and poured a small amount of oil into his hand. He then rubbed his hands together and in an amazingly short time, the oil was completely absorbed. “Very special,” he explained. “Extra Virgin,” he added with a grin. Of course I had to add a bottle of this local delicacy to my growing stack of goodies.
Nearby was a display of “Fuoco dell’ Etna” –– firewater from Etna, an alcoholic beverage named after the volcano. Naturally, Enrico insisted I taste it. “Whew!” I nearly choked on the bright red liquid. My throat felt like it was on fire and I could feel the burn all the way down into my stomach. For the first time all day I was warm. Two glistening scarlet bottles were added to my stash.
When I met my group back at the bus, they were all shivering and somewhat disappointed that Etna hadn’t let out any big belches or trembles or anything really, other than the occasional, and very ordinary, puffs of smoke. They told me I hadn’t missed a thing. I just smiled my secret smile because I had the glory of the produce and the fire of Etna safely packaged in the shopping bag under my seat.