Many of those who love to visit Italy, after seeing the “classic” beauties (Rome, Florence or Venice), then want to get away from the tourist capitals and uncover the authenticity of Italian life. Interesting historical artifacts can also be found in the quiet villages and small provincial towns; certainly they are less known and there will be no queues at the ticket offices as in the museums of Rome, but for this reason the visit will be even more fascinating! What about the landscape? Wild nature alternates with villages shaped by the aesthetic taste of the Romans or the Italians who lived in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Traveling through Italy you can discover gastronomic specialties that cannot be found in supermarkets; if you are in the company of an Italian, he will surely also be able to tell you about the origins of that gluttony! Then there are places that are the symbol of Italian sociality: the bar, the restaurant, the small town squares. All this is the most authentic Italy.
I will tell you about Italy with a series of episodes, always accompanied by a special guide: a local winemaker. I believe that wine producers are custodians of an inestimable cultural heritage. They know how to logically explain the configuration of a landscape shaped by man centuries ago and they deeply know their territory. For many generations they have lived on the spot and handed down an “ancient knowledge” made up of legends, anecdotes and recipes. I always say that “meeting a wine producer is first of all a cultural encounter”. In this episode we will go to the extreme west of Sicily, to Mazara del Vallo, to meet Annamaria and Clara, the two sisters who own the Gorghi Tondi winery. The entire estate is a jewel set between the land and the sea.
Annamaria offers to accompany me to discover something that goes beyond the Grillo vineyards.
The landscape, WWF oasis
A few hundred meters from the sea, in a land generally parched by the drought of the Sicilian summers, there is a certain abundance of vegetation, at times it is even rich and luxuriant. Suddenly a small lake appears first, then the “gorghi tondi“, small ponds (also referred to in Italian as “gorghi“) perfectly round (locally called “tondi“). This wild oasis of extraordinary natural beauty is protected by the WWF, especially for the protection of migratory birds that stop here for a few days during their annual migrations. All 115 hectares of the vineyard are located within the oasis, between the lakes and the sea coast. Being lucky enough to visit this hidden corner gives us the thrill of embracing, with a single glance, two different beauties, perfectly in harmony. The first attractiveness is the natural landscape with the oasis and the sapphire blue sea; the second beauty is the landscape shaped by man with the cultivation of Grillo vineyards.
Annamaria tells us: “These lands were a hunting reserve of the Saporito princes. The pristine beauty of this oasis near Mazara del Vallo had already conquered Dora, my great-grandmother, who loved walking on the shores of these lakes and admiring the rare wild orchids or hearing the song of the hundreds of birds that hide in the reeds or on the trees “.
Annamaria’s words lead us to ask her something more about the cellar. Thus we discover that at the beginning of the twentieth century it was the great-grandmother who transformed part of the land into vineyards, to cultivate them with Grillo grapes. A rather rare fact, all the vineyards are enclosed within the WWF protected area. “This means…”, Annamaria says, “an organic cultivation of the vineyard and an extreme reduction of treatments. In this, we are also favored by an extraordinary micro-climate; our vineyards overlooking the sea of Mazara del Vallo and constantly receive a breeze that prevents the attack of parasites and fungal diseases“.
2800 years of history
With Annamaria we are ready to face other historical insights, beyond those relating to her family. It will be a journey backwards, from the current Italian culture, to the Greek roots of Sicily, 2,800 years ago. Thus we arrive in nearby Selinunte, about fifteen kilometers from Mazara del Vallo. It is the town that the Greek colonists erected in 650 BC. A series of hills group the ruins of several Greek temples, ancient walls and necropolis. The temple of Hera dominates all the ruins, which with its 67 x 25 meters measures impresses with its size. These Greek temples remind us how koinè was once spoken in these lands of Sicily. It was a language understood by all the peoples of the Mediterranean, a bit like today English, which allows commercial relations even between different cultures.
We then move to Mazara del Vallo to admire one of the most beautiful sculptures of the Greek era; the so-called “statue of the dancing satyr”. For the ancient Greeks, satyrs were mythological beings who lived in the woods, often lovers of wine and orgies. The grand master of sculpture who created this bronze statue caught the satyr in the moment of ecstasy of the orgiastic dance, with his hair disheveled as he rotated only on his right leg, holding the glass of wine and with his gaze in a trance. In this 2,400-year-old bronze, we seem to find the roots of the artistic beauty of all subsequent Italian masterpieces.
Raw fish of excellence
One of the moments in which our winemakers make us discover something rare, impossible to find for the simple tourist, is that of gastronomy. We arrive with Annamaria at the historic restaurant “Il cozzaro”, built close to the cliff, not far from Mazara del Vallo.
It is a family-run trattoria, very actively frequented by locals. Annamaria tells us: “Throughout Italy the consumption of raw fish and seafood is very expensive and considered a rarity. For us inhabitants of Mazara del Vallo the consumption of raw fish and crustaceans is a custom of any restaurant. In this part of Sicily there are also fishmongers, inside which it is possible to consume raw seafood of excellent quality and at modest prices“. Gaspare, the owner, comes to meet us and immediately begins to list which fresh fish are available. In these seaside villages the written menu contains pasta dishes and little else, the rest is told verbally. For example, some fish are not caught in certain seasons, others are not fished if the sea was rough the previous night. Thus, the real menu is mostly told verbally!
For our blog Sentieri di Vino we have the opportunity to take notes on the wine from the Grillo vine, the most representative of this extreme South-West of Sicily. Annamaria opens, with understandable pride, the most precious gem that comes from her vineyards: the Sicilia Doc Grillo “Kheirè”. This is the vinification of selected grapes from a Grillo vineyard over 30 years old. I read from my wine tasting notebook: “Fresh and delicate aromas of almond blossom, sea breeze and citrus. In the mouth a harmony between acidity and a delicate salinity”.
Annamaria raises her glass, saying “Kheirè !!”. The name of the wine is the ancient Greek word for “welcome”. Let’s start with an extraordinary dish of raw food, including prawns, which most of all smell intensely of the sea. Another house specialty follows: octopus in a spicy red sauce. Then the “busiate”, a local form of pasta cooked with mussels, shrimps and fish eggs. And finally the “mollame“, a frying of tiny silver fish only 2-3 centimeters long. All so tasty and authentic, the real seaside trattoria of the mazaresi people!
An evening in a trattoria with Annamaria is truly the synthesis of this extraordinary day in the far west of Sicily, in Mazara del Vallo. The label of his wine that represents the lake and the three small round (“tondi”) lakes, the raw prawns that smell of the sea, the warm hospitality of the Sala family and the guys from the restaurant. Annamaria, at the end of the evening, predicts some of the events she has organized for tomorrow.
The second episode will also contain details of authentic Italian life, past and present, which we can only get to know by being accompanied by our winemaker friends!
20th December 2020,