"Hidden" Sicily is a land that looks at the sea from far away, from the heights of a mountain landscape where snow has been forever a friend to winter, and where winters are immersed in the loneliness and the silence of rocks weathered by centuries and mountains. The Madonie range is a sort of austere "Northern Sicily", where people live in a harmonious and mysterious relationship with nature - an increasingly rare dimension. These mountains add richness and complexity to our understanding of Sicily and its inhabitants.
With their millennia-old agricultural and pastoral traditions, these lands supply a generous bounty of products and specialties that play a role in the limitless repertoire of Madonite cuisine, whose recipes vary from place to place. One such specialty is the ancient "Sciuscieddu" - whose name is derived from "sciusciari", which in the local dialect means "to blow". "Sciuscieddu" is a soup served very hot in its tasty local variations throughout the Madonie. An especially interesting version is the Castelbuono Sciuscieddu - from Palermo, the town of Castelbuono is reached by way of Route A20 Palermo-Messina, and Ss 286 - prepared with sheep meat stripped from the bone from which the broth is made, with the addition of beaten egg, grated Sicilian pecorino cheese and chopped parsley.
An immense variety of smells and flavours pervades the local cuisine, enriched by mushrooms, olive oil, locally-produced preserves and the ever-present cheeses. Called "tuma", if for immediate consumption, "primintiu" after the first seasoning and "tumazzu" if fully-aged, cheese is a traditional complement of Madonita cuisine, featuring excellent caciocavallo, pecorino, ricotta and inviting recipes. Other notable traditional specialties that can be tasted in the comfortable surroundings of the agriturismo hostels of San Mauro Castelverde and Geraci Siculo, two tiny mountain jewels traversed by Route Ss 286, are "risu 'ntianu" (pie with cheese) and tuma con acciughe, a suitable accompaniment for "pittrina cca fas˛la" (sheep belly, tomato, green pees).
Desserts deserve a special mention. The traditional "buccellati", the pride of the Isnello and Collesano Municipalities, north of the magnificent Cefal¨ beaches, are worthy competitors of the famous cassate and cannoli (filled with local ricotta). Along with buccellati, which are square pasta pouches filled with dried figs, almonds, walnuts, sultana grapes, boiled wine or honey, cinnamon and clovers, frosted or covered with confectionery sugar, other excellent traditional sweets include zuccata-filled genovesi, "sfinci" (fritters) with honey, "cuccureddi" (cookies with sugar frosting) and "sfoglio" (pastry filled with tuma, zuccata, egg whites, cocoa, sugar and lemon peel, baked in the oven and served cold). Sfoglio is made at Petraia Sottana and Polizzi Generosa, both towns reached by Ss 120. In keeping with this region's religious traditions, at Easter all local bakeries make "Pupi ccu l'ova", bread in the shape of a doll with an egg in the shell in its middle.
In coastal towns, the flavours of seaside recipes merge with the traditional land-based hinterland cuisine. When anchovy and sardine fishing is most abundant, at Tusa, Finale di Pollina and especially at Cefal¨, fish salting by many small entrepreneurs is still an important segment of the local economy. The rock salt comes from the nearby Petraia Soprana mines.
Plentiful salt and sunny weather are essential ingredients of another traditional local activity, the preservation of vegetables for use during the winter months. Tomato juice is one of the most popular products. After boiling, salting and bottling with a variety of methods, the juice turns into "sarsa", or sauce. When more heavily salted and spread over wooden boards under direct sunlight, "sarsa" becomes "astrattu" (extract). Once well concentrated and substantially dried, the extract is shaped into bread-like loaves which, greased with olive oil and wrapped in laurel leaves, are kept in earthen "burnie". Another typical preserve for winter use consist of round zucchini slices, with seeds removed, and tomatoes cut in half covered in salt, which are dried under the sun.
Sicily, as represented by the fascinating Park of the Madonie, offers unforgettable places, flavours and smells evoking, in their composition, millennia of history which still have the power to amaze.