Ok so forget whatever you’ve heard about Sicily. I’m sure one of the first things that comes to mind is the Mafia. That’s one tiny facet of Sicilian life. Let me tell you about my first two days in-country where I was welcomed with open arms and had the time of my life.
Number one: Sicilian’s know hospitality like no other. I’m not kidding. I lived in Egypt for a year and thought those were some of the nicest people I'd ever met. I had random shopkeepers in Cairo invite me in for tea and cookies after I said I wasn’t interested in buying anything. Sicilians have them beat.
Let me start by telling you about how I came to find myself living in a small medieval town in Mineo, Sicily, near Catania. After I graduated college and lived in Egypt as a freelance journalist, I came back to the States and worked at a restaurant from my college days. I wanted to save up money and figure out what to do next. I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to travel again. So my plans started to form, and I picked Western Europe as a good place to travel around for a few months.
In the meantime, however, I had to work and save up money. Working at one of the most popular Italian restaurants in Washington, DC meant I was able to meet a lot of people who have been all over the world and gave good advice they were eager to share. One such family had recently returned from Naples and Sicily where the husband had been serving at the American Navy bases in each city.
I chatted them up when I realized they were calling the food by their Italian names. After I found out about their time in Naples and Sicily, I told them about my plans to travel to Europe. The mother quickly jumped in and said, “You have to get in touch with Emilio and Mariska! They have a farm in Sicily, and they’d love to have you.” When someone gives you information like this, you owe it to yourself to inquire more and get yourself there!
I started an email exchange with this couple in a small town in Sicily, and they said to let them know when I thought I would be coming and they would get things ready for me. They took in backpackers all the time for help on their olive orchard. So I continued working through the winter since I had decided to go backpacking in the springtime for the obvious reason: it wouldn’t be cold. Plus I knew it would be before high season started and the tourists flooded in.
In the beginning of April I hightailed it to Spain. After traveling around for 3 weeks, I contacted Mariska and told her when I thought I would be coming. On April 27, 2010 I arrived in the Catania airport where Mariska picked me up because she’s that nice.
First impressions of Sicily as we drove through the countryside for forty minutes: Sicily looks kind of like Ireland with all the green rolling hills, but at the same time had old falling down stone houses kind of like England. Oh wait, those patches of flowers reminded me of France. Hmm, those little farms look like Midwest America. Oh wow, look at those rows of orange trees, am I in Florida? Add on top of that the information flowing from Mariska, and I quickly realized Sicily is pretty much the coolest place. Did you know Sicily has mountains? And the most active volcano in Europe (Mt. Etna)? And amazing beaches with gorgeous blue water? And temples in better condition than the ones in Greece or Rome? And castles; I’m not talking left-over stones that people say used to be castles, I’m talking completely intact castles that make you think you’re in medieval times? Yea, neither did I.
After we zip through the countryside, we pull up to their farm. Emilio and Mariska were both raised in Switzerland but met in Sicily when Mariska was visiting friends and Emilio was seeing his family – he’s Sicilian, he just wasn’t raised here. They grow olive trees, lemon trees, orange trees, all the basic vegetables you would find in any Italian garden (lettuce, fava beans, artichokes, green beans, fennel, wild oregano, rosemary, sage, tomatoes, strawberries, etc.) and make their own olive oils. They pretty much make everything else too. Such as their own bread from scratch. And tomato paste and sauce. And wine. And jams. And juice.
Mariska helps me bring my things into the house, drops it all on the ground and says “Let’s have some wine, huh?” and proceeds to sit me down outside in the refreshing night air, pour me some homemade wine, put out some of their olives soaking in their olive oil and cut up some bread that was made hours before I came. Does it get any better than that? I’m thinking this is what our is food for the night, which I’m totally fine with. But that’s not a proper Sicilian meal...
She then brings out pasta, beef, and some delicious cooked fava beans that they, of course, grew themselves. Plus, more homemade wine. We got to talking about limoncello (a liquor that’s made from leaving lemon juice with sugar and some other ingredients to ferment over about a week’s time and make an extremely strong and delicious after-dinner drink), so of course she brings out some homemade limoncello that a friend of theirs made.
I obviously slept like a baby that night. We’re now on to day number one at the farm. I wake up bright and early to the rooster crowing. Yes, a rooster actually woke me up on a farm. And I have to talk again, about the food we ate, because every meal in Sicily was something to write home about. We had fresh bread, homemade jams, homegrown fruits, cheeses, speck (smoked prosciutto), coffee, and the winner: homemade and fresh-squeezed blood orange juice. Blood oranges are from this region. They are Catania, through and through. They’re these delicious oranges that look like any other orange on the outside but then are different shades of magenta and red on the inside (depending on where exactly they were grown and what time in the season they were picked, etc). The BEST orange juice I’ve ever had.
After our hearty breakfast we started chores. I worked in the olive oil room all morning. Essentially, I put labels on their olive oil jars and artichoke jars and packaged them to be sold.
A few hours of that and it was time for lunch. A little taste testing of their oils including: garlic olive oil, rosemary olive oil, red pepper olive oil, lemon olive oil, and the mixture. It’s a combination of garlic, oregano, and red pepper infused with the oil. Mariska brought out the antipasti next. Artichokes in olive oil, artichokes in vinegar water, mushrooms in olive oil, eggplant in olive oil, and sardines in olive oil. Are you jealous of my life yet? Now it’s the main course: more pasta and fresh fava beans. Oh, and of course more wine. This is a normal lunch.
We relaxed a little after lunch and then back to work. I watered the garden while Mariska cleaned out the coop. Have I mentioned the animals yet? They have two dogs, two cats who each just had litters of kittens, lots of chickens and one rooster, and three big fat bunnies. Oh, and one hamster. Their plan is to have some sheep this summer, too.
After all this it was yet again another time to relax until Mariska took me into town to show me around. All this time I thought I was staying with them in their house right outside of town, but Mariska generously offered to let me stay in their apartment that’s in the town of Mineo (about 20 minutes away by walking) if I wanted.
One thing that’s noteworthy, most people from the town of Mineo have lived in Switzerland or have relatives in Switzerland. It used to be a bustling little town, but now has about 4,500 people living year-round in it. A lot of people move up to Switzerland or Germany to make more money and then come back to retire.
In town we go to Mariska’s local bar, owned by a lovely Swiss gent named Julio. We also meet up with her Swiss friend Sonya. After our prosecco, Mariska moves me into her apartment. Bonus: her husband, Emilio, his parents are literally across the street.
Having your landlord’s parents across the street? Really? Is this good or bad? Well, in Sicily, this is a good thing. I go over with Mariska to meet Pippa (Emilio’s mother), and the dear woman starts fussing around the kitchen. She had already prepared a meal for me (seriously, I’m not making that up) for when I came into town, and started putting it on a plate for me to take across the alley to my apartment. Her little meal was stuffed fresh artichokes. They were stuffed with meat, cheese, breadcrumbs, and lots of herbs, and some salt potatoes on the side. Oh and a bottle of wine because you can’t have dinner without wine. This was the small meal she had prepared just to give me something to eat. Oh and she threw in some bread she had just made as well, you know. Of course.
So if you didn’t pick up on my examples of their generosity, allow me to summarize: these people, who were in essence strangers, picked up from the airport when I could have taken a bus; they made amazing meal after meal for me; they gave me an apartment stocked with food and toiletries and everything I could possibly need; and they did all this just because it’s the Sicilian way. I’m supposed to be working for them, and they treat me like a long-lost relative. Mariska even told me to take the next day to relax and take some photographs (she knows it’s what I do) and we’d figure out over the weekend work I could do for them, no rush.
Stay tuned for more stories from my trip throughout Sicily, and start making plans to travel there yourself. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Danielle Desnoyers is a traveling freelance photographer with a focus on humanitarian, travel, and family photography. She currently splits her time between the United States and Vietnam with travels to other countries as well.