I smelt them before I realized what they were. There were waves of eggy, smokey, boiled milk incense. Pistachio nuts.
‘Can I chat to you about pistachios?’ I asked the woman raking out the pistachios on sheets in the sun.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m working.’ She turned away and began raking again.
That was that.
Bronte is famous for its pistachios, in Sicily at any rate. The road that runs between Adrano and Bronte along the valley of the Simeto, is hemmed in by pistachio orchards. Eventually I twigged that the trunks leaping at random out of black volcanic rubble, gangling and untidy, their trunks and branches twisting this way and that, were the self-same pistachio trees. And among the dusty, holly-green leaves clusters of nuts hung like pink tear drops. I could hear and occasionally see groups of men and women among the trees harvesting them.
The process of picking seemed much like that of olives. Some of the picking team would bashing the branches with bits of wood , causing the nut clusters to cascade onto the ground. Family members, friends and hired hands did the back breaking business of picking them up. I couldn’t see how they could use machinery, given the nature of the terrain.
The picked-up nuts were put into sacks and the sacks transferred to a processing area. I say processing area. Let’s not exaggerate. There probably are splendid, hygienic, computer-controlled modern industrial units, but the one I watched was outside a small house beside the road. Two women hefted the sacks and poured the freshly-picked fruits into an ingenious machine that shook them all about, separating stalks and leaves from the nuts and getting rid of the husks. The more familiar shaped shells were spread out on the sheets in front of the house that had first caught my attention to dry in the sun, for how long may depend on the sun, the ehat, the nature so of the harvest and the level of moisture in the kernels. They may be shelled and even skinned after that.
After that they’re ready to be put into absolutely everything – pastries, ice creams, salamis, cheeses. They’re turned onto sauces for pasta and used to make a crust on a piece of pork. Nothing, it seems, can’t be dolled up by pistachios whole, pistachios chopped, pistachio crumbs, creamed pistachios. That mild, curiously penetrating, slightly sweet, slightly perfumed, flavour is absolutely ubiquitous.
‘It’s hard work,’ said the young man, one of the pickers, who was a bit more accommodating than the raking lady. ‘But they are the best pistachios in the world.’
‘What makes them so good?’ I asked.
‘The volcanic soil,’ he said. ‘It’s full of minerals. Just enough water. The sun. And our passion for them.’
That seemed fair enough.