Food festivals are my thing. Especially when they are built around an esoteric food item in an obscure place. Like the kurtoshkalacs festival in Budapest. Or the Kytherian wine festival in Mitata. Bring it on.
Pistachios are not exactly rare but to me they’ve always sat at the more exotic end of the nut scale. I’ve always associated pistachios with my Sicilian bestie Katia who uses them in a pasta recipe handed down from her nonna. Crushed pistachios envelop pancetta and cream to create a dish that makes grown men weep with pleasure. I’ve actually seen it happen.
One of my foodie dreams came true last year when I had the opportunity to travel through Sicily with Katia during its iconic pistachio festival, Expo del Pistacchio. I was beyond excited.
Pistachios are a big deal in Bronte because they are arguably the best in the world. Why? Because Bronte (which incidentally means ‘thunder’) sits at the base of Mt Etna and the pistachio trees grow out of the volcanic lava rock. The minerals in the lava soil are absorbed by the plants to create a distinctive nut which is sweet and fragrant.
So distinctive in fact that in 2009 they were granted the coveted DOP marque (Protected Designation of Origin), which guarantees locally grown and harvested produce using traditional methods. In the case of Bronte pistachios that means only picking, hulling and drying the pistachios by hand every two years to protect the trees and quality.
2018 was not a harvest year but you’d scarcely have known. Supplies are held back in the year of harvest to ensure there’s enough for the following year, especially for the famous festival.
Ahh the festival. For two weekends in October at the end of harvest, the entire town shuts down to pay homage to this revered nut. Everyone from chubby cheeked babies to nonnas clutching walking frames are littered across the length of the main drag. This is passeggiata (the Italian ritual of strolling through town each evening) on steroids.
How many pistachio flavoured things have you eaten in your life? Pistachio gelato, maybe pistachio amaretti? You’ve basically just been warming up. The Sicilians have mastered the preparation of this deep green and purple nut to perfection.
There’s so much to love about pistachios. As if the flavour and texture were not enough, the intense green colour adds so much vibrancy and personality to everything it touches. Bronte is literally green washed during pistachio season.
Let’s start with savoury. When you travel to Sicily be prepared to eat arancini night and day. They are that good you’ll want to. One night in Bronte with Katia’s family we ate only arancini and they were sublime. Fresh pistachio and porchetta risotto crafted into balls, stuffed with mozzarella, crumbed and fried. Then there’s the pistachio pizza, again matched with pork (prosciutto) to create a medley of pink and mint. Almost too pretty to eat.
There’s no form of antipasti immune to the charms of pistachios. The locals add it to every type of cured meat they can find, from salame and mortadella to sopressata. It adds brilliant flecks of green along with texture to every bite.
Pistachios are also delicious studded in cheese and the most common one I spotted was pecorino, made from fresh sheep or goat’s milk.
When it came to the sweet stuff it was a never ending parade of pastries, cakes, gelati, nougat, biscuits, cannoli and crepes in daring shades of mint green. Most stands offered samples and we took full advantage.
My absolute favourite item is what I call pistachio ‘nutella’, basically a rich and creamy spread made with pistachios, sugar and cocoa butter. It’s the most moorish thing I’ve ever eaten from a jar and despite buying multiple jars I exhausted my supplies within a few days of returning to Sydney. Thankfully the foodie gene runs deep in my family and weeks later I had fresh supplies – thanks Aunty Kathy!
Beverages are certainly not immune to the pistachio treatment and I tried several shots of espresso coffee with a dollop of the aforementioned pistachio cream. I have a cast iron stomach but even I found that a touch too rich. Creamy pistachio liqueur on the other hand was a revelation.
Katia’s family did a double take when they saw how many pistachio products I bought (bags and bags and bags) but only a few months on most of it is long gone. Either gifted to my nearest and dearest or devoured by yours truly. I even bought local crushed pistachios to make nonna’s famous pistachio pasta. Who wants to come over for dinner?