May 11, 2019

Field Notes from Sicily; Family & Wild Fennel

Sicily has a beautiful color palette - at once soft and faded by the bright sun and the willful passage of time, contrasted against the searing blues of the Ionian sea and the bright pops of color from gelato, tomatoes, pistachio.
Last August we traveled abroad as a family for the first time. While we were nervous about traveling with an infant—how would we eat dinner? How would we adjust to a different rhythm?—Italy turned out to be the perfect choice, as the very culture is built around food and family. For one of our first meals in Tuscany we were greeted by a young man who was so thrilled we brought our tiny daughter to his family's restaurant that he told us to wait a moment and five minutes later came back pushing a baby carriage to introduce us to his infant son, Tiego, only 3 months old. We toasted the babies and enjoyed an incredible meal of wild boar, saffron infused applesauce and buttery Tuscan beans with rosemary.

When we arrived to Sicily we met up with our friends Chiara and Giovanni, whom we'd met five years prior on the side of a volcano in Bali. It just so happened that Mark, my boyfriend at the time, had planned a sunrise hike up the side of Mt. Batur, thinking it would be a very romantic place to ask a special question. While he thought we'd be alone, our guide introduced us to another couple whom we'd be hiking with in the dark - Chiara and Giovanni from Sicily. Needless to say we had a blast hiking up the basalt-covered mountainside, chattering away with these two (Mark with one hand in his pocket making sure not to misplace a certain round metal thing). When we got to the top and the sun began to peek over the horizon, Mark handed the camera to Chiara and asked her to take our photo. As she snapped a few shots, he pulled the ring out of his pocket and proposed. I burst into tears, and Giovanni, watching nearby, let out a string of American curse words and snapped some photos of his own, yelling excitedly ‘Cry! Cry!’

We stayed in touch and I promised we'd visit them in Sicily. While some promises made on trips fade into oblivion, this one didn’t. Chiara and I stayed in touch and after five years we finally made it, complete with our new +1, baby Linden. Chiara gave us a whirlwind tour of the villages at the base of Catania, where she grew up, followed by a tour of Giovanni's orange groves, where Linden inspected the ripening fruit of the red and blood orange trees twinkling in the August sun. December is harvest time - oh how I wish we could have slipped back there to enjoy the fruit! Giovanni plucked a few blossoms for us to mount in the air vents of our rental, and we enjoyed a late lunch of fried vegetables and pasta with local fennel sausage in a quiet village.

Our purpose for visiting Sicily was not only to reunite with our friends but to investigate some potential partnerships for Curio. I had been in touch with a farm in Ferla, SE Sicily, not far from Siracusa, where wild fennel grows in abundance. We arrived to the base of the farm, a beautiful compound run by a brother and sister complete with a fountain in the shape of a dolphin. They showed us their operation, which, while mostly centered on their award-winning olive oil, also featured an incredible array of aromatics that they harvest from the surrounding countryside. Their laboratory featured a giant photo of one of their children as a baby, like a mascot for the business. After a tour of the facility we piled into cars and headed out into the landscape so they could show us where they gathered the herbs and spices. It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to dip over a dramatic landscape carved with limestone canyons - as we drove along I stared out the window and inhaled the sweet air and felt my body fill with peace.

We stopped along the edge of one of the canyons to get out and see the fennel transitioning from blossom to seed – it wasn’t ready to harvest just yet – and the earth seemed to be glowing chartreuse from the shoulder-high fennel plants. Katia explained how they were allowed to harvest from the park (the land is government protected), so long as they didn’t disturb the other plants and the overall eco-system. The fennel was everywhere, the air steeped in it. She explained how the limestone cliffs were historically significant for being made into an ancient cemetery: the Necropolis of Pantalica. We explored the edges of the park where the wild thyme grew on small spiky shrubs - so unlike the creeping thyme here in New England. And finally the sun sank too low and the baby began to cry and it was time to head to Giovanni’s mother’s house because she’d made us a pasta dinner.

Maurizio & Katia Marino