Tuesday, March 08, 2011


This carnival season I was determined  to visit one of Sicily's more unusual celebrations and when I read about what the good folk of Novara di Sicilia get up to at this time of year, I knew I had to go there, so yesterday Rosa, Fulvio and I set out early and headed towards Etna.  

First of all here are some views of Etna and the surrounding countryside as we drove along. The Etna snow was the lowest I've ever seen it and weather, visibility and temperature changed dramatically as we neared our destination:

Novara di Sicilia is a very small but proud town about 51 kilometres northwest of Taormina and to get there you have to come off the motorway at Giardini Naxos and follow the signs to Francavilla.  Then you climb, following curvy roads through countryside that seems totally isolated - apart, that is, from the sheep and the occasional herd of goats.

Reaching Novara di Sicilia at last, we couldn't figure out where to park Fulvio's car but everyone else had parked right in the main street so we did the same.  When Fulvio asked a group of passers-by if it was all right to park there, they laughed and assured us that the vigili don't work on Sundays and this must be true, as, despite the presence of numerous camera crews and the biggest influx of visitors the town gets all year, we did not see one vigile all the time we were there.

As I said, Novara di Sicilia seems a proud little town.  It even has a Davide!

And it has lots of the narrowest streets I've ever seen, even in Sicily:

It was also immediately clear that the town's citizens eat well, for the display in a tiny butcher's-cum-salumeria was sumptuous.  "Here we make sandwiches with roast suckling pig", said the owner and those sandwiches did look good.   But I contented myself with buying a chunk of maiorchino, the local cheese, which is a kind of pecorino.  Maiorchino, as you will see, had a big part to play in the day's events.

Next we went in search of a restaurant.  There was one, but as you might expect on a day like this, it was fully booked, so we made enquiries in a nearby bar where the kind owner recommended an agriturismo called the Girasole.  She found the number for me, I called and yes, they could accommodate three people for lunch - just!  The Girasole is only about five minutes from the town by car and we sped there like homing pigeons.  There were stunning views from here, too:

Reader, what a lunch we had!

There were arancini and focacce

with broccoli, potatoes and green beans:

Then there was the local speciality of maccheroni in a sauce of sausage and pork

with maiorchino to grate over it:

The main course was beautifully cooked veal and spring vegetables

and my, the bread was good!

For dessert there were these little pastries, filled with hot, sweet ricotta.

Local wine was served throughout and home-made liqueurs were offered at the end - all for €25 per head.

During lunch, I was called upon to explain to an American tourist that the owner was sorry, but as she had not booked she could not eat in the restaurant that day.  The poor woman seemed to think that if she waited long enough, she would get a table.  That's not how it works in Sicily, honey and it's not how it works in an agriturismo, where everyone eats the set menu and finishes their meal at the same time - between 3 and 4 pm.  I do hope this lady went back into the town and got some roast suckling pig sandwiches!

At last, it was our turn to head back into the town too, for the event we had come to see was about to begin.  This was the gioco del maiorchino, a contest dating back to the beginning of the seventeenth century and the reason for which is now lost in time and myth.  The contest takes place over the last three days of carnival - well, at least the finals do - and it consists of the rolling of a giant maiorchino cheese down a precise route through the narrow streets.  Many different teams take part and I can tell you that the game is taken very seriously.   It has a lot of strictly observed rules and its own vocabulary of archaisms which are never uttered at any other time of the year.

But wait a minute -what's going on here?  In the middle of the square, this gentleman is making ricotta for the evening's communal feast:

Suddenly there is a cheer, as two men carry the chosen mairchino out onto the street and begin to prepare it for the contest.  First they scrape the top with knives, then prop it against the wall to dry out a little more:

After that it is taken into a narrow alleyway where the sides are rubbed against the ancient stone wall, presumably to make them smoother:

Then string is tied around the cheese and there are several trial rolls, with stewards shouting to the crowd to please mind their legs, because if the cheese veers off course, you could get a nasty bash!

At last the cheese is deemed ready and the real contest can begin.

The cheese rolls too quickly to get a good shot of it and for us, it was time to leave, as those twisty roads would have been no fun in the fast-approaching darkness.  We could hear the enthusiastic shouts of the spectators for a long time as we drove away and, as the contest would last for another four hours, I'm sure everyone had a great time.  We certainly did!


Patricia said...

This is a fantastic post...thanks so much for taking the time to document all of it for us. I have hiked Mt. Etna and the landscape shots were wonderful. I love the local traditions...rolling the cheese, amazing!! La Bella Sicilia!

Pranavam Ravikumar said...

Clicks are just superb! My mouth is full now seeing the delicious food too...! Thanks for the lovely post..

Wishes from,

Pranavam Ravikumar!

J. M. P. said...

What a complete report you wrote for your readers, thank you! I'm intrigued by Maiorchino; has it anything to do with Majorca, the Spanish island?

Dragonstar said...

What wonderful views you have there! I have to say that I'd prefer to eat the cheese than roll it!

Liz Hinds said...

It sounds like you had a great day. The cheese rolling sounds a little more sophisticated than that indulged in by the people of ... somewhere in Derbyshire.

LindyLouMac said...

Thanks for sharing a great outing with us Pat. always so interesting but you know I love this sort of thing. Beautiful picture of Mt Etna as well with the snow.

Lucia said...

That was great so good of you to take us a long...actually, the lunch looked delicious! Especially the warm filled ricotta pastries.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks, Patricia. I'm happy that you enjoyed the post. Thanks, Pranavam. Best wishes to you, too. Thanks, Josep. I've been trying to find out about the etymology and I think the name comes from a dialect word meaning "rolling". Me too, Dragonstar! Hi, Liz. Yes, it was great. I forgot about that Derbyshire btradition. I'll look it up. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, LindyLouMac. Hi, Lucia. Glad you enjoyed it. The pastries were fantastic!

Laura said...

I loved this! The photos, the food, the competition - thank you so much for sharing it all with us.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks, Laura. I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.


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