One benefit of opting for the monthly rental discount AirBnB is that we feel justified heading out on excursions out of Siracusa for a couple of nights at a time. Our first “vacation” was to visit Mount Etna - especially to sample some wine. On a bright Tuesday morning we packed into our rented FIAT Panda with Etna in our sights. Our first stop was Oro D’Etna in the town of Zafferana Etnea, where honey is the main source of income for 2/3 of the population. This family-run business featured free tastings of their wines, olives & olive oil, pestos, and - most importantly - their honey. The wines were just OK, their olives (especially the delectable large green ones) and their pestos and flavored oils were first rate, but the honey was the star of the show.
The honey tasting stations featured 9 varieties of honey and 6 varieties of “honey cream”. The young man at the counter gave us the full story of how the honey is completely transformed by the flora surrounding the hives - not just the flavor but the amount of crystallization changes depending on the bees’ nectar sources. The deep-colored and strong-flavored “Chestnut” would stay liquified forever, while the “Orange” was a cream-colored paste, with a range of possibilities in between. There was even a “Wild Flower” variety made by bees left to their own devices when picking pollen sources. The Honey Creams were made by adding finely chopped dried fruits - “water is the enemy of honey”. We drove off with a jar of Pistachio Pesto ("great on pasta"), Chestnut Honey (“tasty with cheese”) and a Mixed Berry Honey Cream, headed for the modern Sicilia Hotel Spa in the town of Giarre.
The next morning began with breakfast in bed - a nice perk when your bed is your office - before venturing off to Taormina. Neither of us did much reading about Sicily’s most popular tourist town, so we had no idea what to expect. In fact, as we approached we wondered about the cluster of buildings at the top of a mountain in the distance - only to find out that was where we were headed! Steep winding roads and switchbacks brought us up to the crest where we parked the car and started are usual strolling. We quickly understood why this was such a popular place - the views were spectacular and the town was fun to explore. We could only imagine what it would be like in the high season - we had the place practically to ourselves. We couldn’t leave without sampling the Arancini.
Next stop was the town of Trecastagni for a tasting at the Biondi winery. We were met at the gate by Stephanie - British-born wife of the fourth-generation owner of the vineyards. It was clearly off-season - it would be a private tour and tasting for us. The walk through the vineyards was full of information about the various grape varieties growing on the sides of hills and craters created by minor eruptions millennia before. Stephanie emphasized their philosophy of focusing on “healthy fruit and very little intervention in the cellar”.
“Time for tasting? I hope you like dogs.” We climbed the stairs of the rustic stone cottage as she reassured us that once the not one, not two, not three, but four bull mastiffs got to know us they would calm down. We sat at a large table made from ancient wine barrels, sampled four wines, and noshed on sun-dried tomatoes, olives, fresh bread dipped in extra virgin, and Sicilian salami. There were 2 whites and 2 reds - all quite delicious. At one point “Arthur” - the patriarch of the mastiff clan - nestled his huge head on Nancy’s lap - no doubt hoping for a dropped crumb or two. Who said she’s not a dog person?
Back at the hotel we answered a knock on our door and were presented with plush terry robes and flip-flops in anticipation of our “spa time”. We enjoyed the cedar-scented sauna and a dip in the warm pool with it’s relaxing Jacuzzi jets. Then we slipped into the “Himalayan room” to relax, sip Prosecco, and nibble on nuts and fruit salad, the spa music lulling us in the background - decadence looks great on us. Fully refreshed we headed out for dinner at “Novecento” - a charming local restaurant with friendly service and regional specialties - the “Etna salad” was a bed of arugula with sliced pears, chopped almonds, and shredded cheese. After a small smorgasbord of ragu-braised beef and vegetables we indulged with a Pistacchio & Chocolate Bombe - irresistible.
Our final day in the Etna region began with a drive up the winding roads to Rifugio Sapienza where we stopped for coffee and tea to let the altitude effects settle down. We then boarded the Funivia Dell’Etna for the gondola ride closer to the summit - we passed on the ride all the way to the crater in the all-terrain bus. Black lava rock makes it easy to imaging walking on the surface of the moon. A gentle breeze stirs the crisp air and a blue-gray fog makes the view down to the sea magical - nature’s majesty in shades of gray.
After a drive down the mountain's winding roads, we are greeted by Sebastiano at the gate of Tenuta Monte Gorna. He leads us up to a perfect stone house at the end of a gravel road, surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see. We begin our tour in his halting English, but he's relieved when Richard encourages him to speak Italian instead - good practice! He is part of the third generation of this family business and speaks with first-hand knowledge and passion. We learn that the Etna region is unique in that it is extremely diverse in soil content, altitude, day-to-night temperature swings, and length of growing season. These variations are greatest between the north and south faces of the volcano, but even his small patch of land had at least three distinct micro-climates suited to one grape or another. The result is that each vineyard can have its own personality and flavor - it's not a homogeneous region at all - with the vines adapting to the local conditions over the years.
We enter the nicely appointed tasting room and sit down to a spread of salami, cheese, olives, fresh bread and extra virgin, and an amazing eggplant caponata (Mama's secret recipe - we encouraged him to start selling it). The wines were excellent and he drank along with us as we discussed his worries about potential tariffs on Italian wine coming out of the Trump administration. As we packaged up our purchases, Sebastiano tossed in a couple of jars of wine jell, one red, one white - great with cheese or on crackers.
We set off back to Siracusa, grateful we planned this side trip to Mount Etna.
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Nancy McCabe &