This summer we went for a day trip to a town called Castelbuono.
If you speak Italian you’ll know that this means “good castle”. The place is well named because there is a castle there, and it is pretty good actually. It’s medieval, huge, has a scary portcullis and a massive dungeon, a secret undergroud tunnel leading you to the church, and there are countless places with no handrail where an inattentive six-year-old (or a woman who doesn’t know how to negotiate cobblestones in high heels) could fall about 30 feet onto a solid slab of rock.
To be brutally honest, it’s not quite as good as the castle at Caccamo. In that Medieval castle, there is a carved wooden altar opposite the long dining table, with an antique rug upon which visitors could kneel while praying. But – aha! – the rug hides a trap door, operated by a lever the other side of the room. The wicked count who owned this castle would lure his enemies into his home with the offer of lavish dinners, feigned friendship and terribly expensive imported wines; wait till they were inspired by the urge to pray (they were Medieval, after all); and then send them down the chute directly into his dungeon, which had no exit. Then he would sit back down, thump his fist on the dining table and shout “More capons and a flagon of wine, wench!” as he listened to his victim howling about having two broken legs, probably.
As I said, Castelbuono’s castle is not quite as exciting as that one, but it’s well worth a visit. The chapel is particularly astonishing, with several hundred sculpted cherubs appearing to emerge out of the walls rather like ghosts.
The town of Castelbuono is also a wonderful place to spend a day. It has bars on every corner which sell mouthwatering sorbet ice cream, home-made from fruits such as mandarins and mulberries and watermelons. It has a cavernous and jaw-dropping antique shop (it’s not just the prices that are jaw-dropping, the antiques are spectacular too). It also has a very exciting emporium where they bring in organic meat from surrounding farms and make exotic sausages and salami and other meat dishes. Castelbuono is one of the centres of the “Slow Food Association”, an organization which encourages the appreciation of top quality food, eaten with the respect and enjoyment it deserves.
Yet even this isn’t what makes Castelbuono really exciting. In Castelbuono, you can eat Manna.
Yes Manna, that stuff in the bible, that falls out of the sky.
“And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat. This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded, Gather of it every man according to his eating.”
Manna is the sap of the manna tree, a type of narrow-leaf ash called fraxinus angustifolia. The manna trees have grown wild around Castelbuono for many centuries. They grow in the Central and Western Mediterranean, and so may be indigenous to Sicily. Since they recently began to become rare in the mountains around Castelbuono, they are now cultivated as well.
In July and August, the creamy white sap flows so abundantly that it drips out of the branches and gradually crystallises, so it looks like icicles hanging off the tree. Local experts – generally, very small, very old men who look a lot like Getafix The Druid – know how to cut slits in the bark to create far more of these stalactites than occur naturally, and they monitor the trees over many days as they extend ever downwards. They are cut from the tree when they reach the ground.
If it rains or gets too humid during these days, the manna just dissolves and is lost. It takes a lot of dedication to monitor the precious crop and protect it from the elements. The manna is broken up into sticks to be sold. It tastes like something between honey and maple syrup, but it is a little less sweet than either of them, so you notice the distinctive (heavenly?) flavour, and its lovely crystalline texture as it melts in your mouth, rather more.
Manna only contains about 3% glucose, which makes it very useful for diabetics. In Sicily, if you flick a cupcake into a crowd, it has a 99.9% probability of landing on someone diabetic.
It is about 45% mannitol, a type of sugar that is absorbed very slowly and which has laxative effects if you eat too much of it. Being constipated is the Italian national sport (serves them right for eating pasta all the time), so this is touted as its other great medicinal property. It is also another bonus for diabetics, of course: nobody will scoff all the manna when they’re not looking. If anyone does, Diabetic Uncle Danilo will stake out the loo and expose the culprit!
A number of ludicrously extravagant claims have been made for the magical medicinal properties of Manna. I was told by various vendors in Castelbuono that it will cure all allergies. It will cure any liver disease. It will even cure death – honestly, one woman said that. It does contain various useful nutrients such as zinc, but frankly, the main reason for eating it is just that it tastes really nice.
If you go to Castelbuno, you can eat manna ice cream, too. Just don’t have too much! Uncle Danilo may be watching!
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