Spring represents a rinascita, or rebirth, of nature… and for us at Journey Through Italy Sicily is one of our favorite places to travel this time of year.
Sicily does not have very cold winters, so spring arrives and nature reawakens here earlier than in other parts of the country. Already in March the almond trees are blooming in Agrigento.
Every season bears marvelous highlights but the colors of spring are definitely the most lyrical. Every blade of grass, tiny wild plant and new leaf boasts its own particular shade of brilliant green: the large fields planted with wheat and sprinkled with crimson poppies are breathtaking when lit by the sun. The landscape is so evocative that one understands why Sicily is the setting for countless Greek myths, which have survived for millennium, as have the numerous temples still dotting the Island. Could you have imagined that so many otherworldly heroes walked the same paths that we do?
Even the beloved story of the seasons takes place in Sicily: the myth of Demeter, the goddess of grains and harvests, and her beautiful daughter Persephone. While innocently picking flowers near Enna, in central Sicily, Persephone was kidnapped and carried to the depths of the underworld by Hades. Heartbroken, in her search for her daughter, Demeter forgot to make the world bloom (hence autumn and winter) and overjoyed at Persephone’s return, the advent, once again, of fertile spring and summer.
Savor the Sicilian Spring Flavors
Spring is a time for gathering herbs and wild plants in Sicily. The local markets are teeming with wild herb vendors called fogliamari (leaf collectors). Spring is also the best time to savor creamy ricotta cheese; the pastures and mountains are full of fresh plants and the sheep that graze on them produce milk that is aromatic and perfect for making the most delicate and delicious ricotta. There is a tradition that is still observed whereby local Sicilians visit shepherds early in the morning to taste the warm, just prepared, ricotta cheese. Spring is also the season of broccoli or ‘ndaganati’ (tossed in a pan with oil) and added to pasta, a real farmer dish. Wild asparagus is gathered in the countryside and used in frittata. Bunches of wild fennel are chopped fine and used in a delectable dish of spaghetti made with fresh sardines, dried currents, pine nuts, and topped with toasted bread crumbs. Artichokes are another spring delight: roasted, marinated, or fried– all delicious. Every year on April 25th the small town of Cerda outside of Palermo hosts the Festa del Carciofo (Artichoke Festival). Artichokes are served in more ways than you could possibly imagine!
Easter & the Arches of Bread Festival
Easter is one of the most important holidays here, and many cities and towns all over Italy are known for their spectacular festivities. Some of the most evocative celebrations are the pagan festivals in Sicily. Small towns all over the island have centuries-old celebrations acting out ancient legends, both religious and mythological, taking place during the entire “Week of Passion”, la Settimana Santa, Holy Week, leading up to Easter.
Altars are decked with ornate floral sepulchers. Antique painted wooden statues of saints are paraded through the streets. Palm leaves are intricately twisted, braided, woven, and blessed, and these lacy creations are hung next to the pictures of the Madonna in every home in Sicily. Many cakes and sweets are made just this time of year, including beautifully decorated cakes in the shape of doves and marzipan lambs of all sizes. The Easter traditions are important and heartfelt. But when it comes to food and celebrations, perhaps nothing rivals the “Arches of Bread” festival, also known as the Archi di Pasqua or “Easter Arches”, of San Biagio Platani, north of Agrigento.
Every year, in the months leading up to Easter Sunday, villagers team up to create life-size structures made of herbs, beans, grains, and bread. This unique architectural food tradition has its roots in 17th century feudal times, when Sicilians welcomed visiting rulers by constructing triumphal arches made of marble and other precious stones. San Biagio is located inland in a poor agricultural area. With no money to buy marble, locals opted for arches made of bread. Even after visiting rulers stopped demanding ornate displays of welcome, the tradition survived and was adapted for religious purposes. As attested by a document kept in San Biagio’s main church, the diocese declared that each year a portion of the harvest was to be used for building bread arches in the spring.
Today, the tradition lives on, and draws thousands of people to this remote rural town every Easter. Over time, the festival has evolved to become a playful competition between locals. The challenge is to recreate, using food, the interior of San Biagio’s church, complete with side altars dedicated to Jesus and Mary. One team recreates the Jesus altar; the other tackles Mary’s section. Preparations take place in abandoned warehouses that turn into secret food-sculpting labs. On Easter Sunday, the much anticipated structures, featuring pasta-and-rice mosaics, date chandeliers, and bread arches, are unveiled to the oohs and ahhs of both local and visiting spectators.