The thin whistle blows, barely louder than one found on a Disneyland train. But the inauspicious Circumetnea train barely needs to make its presence known. This is the first time I have been on a one-car train since I went down to visit Laurent Jalabert at his home in Mazamet back in 1996, and Jaja recently told me that the train has long since been retired. But here in Sicily the Circumetnea still very much serves its needs, because it’s used to navigate through the jagged terrain around the mythical Mount Etna volcano.
In some ways, the Ferrovia Circumetnea is lost in time. There is only one set of tracks. Trains coming from opposite directions must wait in one of the many stations scattered around the volcano until the oncoming train comes in. But while the train is still active today, it is not because of tourism, but rather the ever-vital daily function it still provides, because the little train is the best way to reach many of the small villages around Etna.
My reason for grabbing the Circumetnea on this April day is well defined. I’m in search of the world’s greatest pistachios, those found in the remote village of Bronte, halfway between Catania and the train’s final destination in Riposto.
While Sicily is well known for its wine and olives, Bronte is known for its nuts. Tucked on the slopes of Etna, the village seemingly springs up from the impressive lava fields that lie around the western side of the historic volcano. But it is these lava fields that make the Bronte pistachio so unique. Seemingly against all odds, it is the pistachio tree that manages to best take root amid this rocky soil. And it is also due to the tree’s ability to thrive in such a seemingly hostile environment that the Bronte pistachio is world renowned, due to its particularly high mineral count.
Approaching the village, one is easily impressed by the rugged beauty of the landscape, with the yellow-and-green leaves of the pistachio trees sitting across the brutal rock formations formed by the lava that has periodically flowed down the volcano’s slopes over the centuries. And it becomes evident that the price of the Bronte pistachio is well earned, as no machine could harvest the pistachios from these rocky formations. Every aspect of the farming is still done by hand.
But as much as one is impressed by the approaching landscape, one is instantly unimpressed when the Circumetnea arrives in Bronte. Where are the signs welcoming me to the planet’s pistachio capital? Only a modest café on the edge of the station offers any sign of life, and it is even hard to imagine where exactly the town center is. There is no direction sign offering such information. And there is no sign of the renowned pistachio festival that accompanies the local harvest every two years, either. I’m bemused.
Following a pack of schoolgirls down the steep streets, it becomes immediately apparent that Bronte makes no effort to attract tourists. It is simply a working town. Women chat from their balconies to one another as they tend to the laundry while vegetable and fruit vendors work directly out of their trucks.
Arriving at the Piazza Guglielmo, I finally feel as though I am at least nearing the town center. But it still appears sparse compared to the activity I generally associate with an Italian downtown. Spotting a local merchant, I simply ask where I might find a pistachio vendor.
“You want pistachios?” says Francesco Meli, the shop owner. “Well, come inside.” Once inside his quiet bar, I finally started to feel as though I was finding what I came looking for. A pastry rack sat next to his bar, and virtually every pastry had the color of what locals call simply their “green gold.”
I order an espresso, but it’s immediately followed by an assortment of goodies, not to mention a unique and delicious liqueur. Little matter that locals are playing slot machines on the wall behind. I’m starting to feel the love.
Another shop, just slightly farther on, boasts hand creams, oils and soaps made with the nuts. Clearly it’s hard to find something that the people of Bronte do not find appropriate for their prized pistachios.
Soon it’s time for lunch, as I foster dreams of the exquisite ways in which the locals will integrate the pistachio into their culinary dishes. And while finding a restaurant in the town center proves as difficult as finding the town center—there were two—once again I am not disappointed.
Although I retrace my steps on numerous occasions, I finally come across the Trattoria Conti hidden on a small side street away from the center. No tables are set, but my request to eat outside is easily met with a smile. And soon a selection of local antipasti is served. Pistachios, it seems, manage to make their way into every food group. But the local cheese is as irresistible as the salami and I quickly admit that pistachios indeed have a unique way of enhancing virtually every food.
The starters are followed by an equally sumptuous pistachio-sauce pasta dish that’s utterly unique and delicious. Suddenly, the confusing search for the perfect pistachio is proving well worth the effort.
For dessert I ask for cannoli, another Sicilian specialty. It goes without saying what flavor will be found in the rich ricotta cream found inside the crisp shell. And as lunch draws to a close, I know it’s time to make my way back up the hill to catch the return train to Catania. I knew it’ll be a slow walk, but one that is well worth the effort, satisfied that I have finally found the heart and soul of the world’s most renowned pistachios.