Back in the mythic past, a Cyclops named Bronte, The Thunderer, lived here, an assistant to the blacksmith god, Vulcan, in his forge. They were working hard in that forge on the day I had lunch at La Fucina di Vulcano.
Horatio Nelson, Duke of Bronte
Ferdinand III created the Duchy of Bronte in 1799 and handed it over to Nelson for ‘saving’ Naples from revolution. At a stroke this generous present made Nelson into the owner of the largest amount of land in Bronte. It turned out to be a poisoned chalice, not only for Nelson himself (who never even visited) but also for his family and the heirs to the estate who had a bad time all round with malaria and rebellious peasantry. They were the good old days when monarchs would blithely chop up territory and pass over swathes of land, livestock, crops, not to mention people, to strangers. Nelson’s managers hated the locals and the locals, who hated the managers, proceeded to rip them off at every opportunity. The Sicilians were well used to being passed around and they knew how to get their own back.
A junior member of Nelson’s family took up residence in the Castello Maniace, a former Benedictine Monastery. The golden brown building was in a sad state of disrepair when the family, in 1982, sold it back to the regional government of Catania, and now Horatio’s fief is a museum called the Castello Nelson.
Bronte is known for a violent revolt in 1860, when Garibaldi and his “Thousand” swept through Sicily on the way to liberate Italy from the Bourbons. There was an uprising in Bronte, and many were killed.
After 1860 the British owners of the estate did a deal over common land rights, and the duchy was greatly reduced in size. But the British presence remained. It wasn’t until the Second World War and the postwar agrarian reforms that the Nelson family finally relinquished its hold on this Sicilian town and farmlands.
However, there’s a much happier reason for Bronte being legendary.
Pistachios, oro verde, green gold!
The Phoenicians brought pistachios to Sicily way back in the ancient past and now the value of the 3,000 hectares of Bronte pistacchieti amounts to around 15 million euros and over one percent of the world’s pistachio.
That’s a heck of a lot of nuts.
Ferrovia Circumetnea, the train that circles Mt Etna, will carry you from Catania to Riposto in a journey of about 3 1/2 hours but I couldn’t sit in the older style, wooden seat, clackety-clack train carriage for that time, no matter how charming the experience, so I jumped off at Bronte for lunch.
It’s a terrific train ride and I recommend it, just bring a cushion and rug for comfort.
From the train window you’re treated to stunning views of tortuous morphology, lunar landscapes of lava rocks, harsh black scenes relieved, gloriously, by orange trees and pistachio plantations.
For a close-up look at the lava rocks, here’s a short (1.21) video of the train tracks around Bronte
The train travels around Etna (circum etnea) and, on one side, you have the sweep of fertile farmlands in terraces of valleys and, on the other side, the magnificent mountain herself.
The Forge of Vulcan wasn’t my usual type of eating place but why not splash out on a posh place for once in my life? I was served pistachio salami, pasta al pistacchio and, of course, gelato al pistacchio.
I can’t make the gelato and I’m still trying to make the lovely biscuit things, paste di mandorla al pistacchio, but I’ve cracked the code for Pesto with Pistachio.
You can use your mortar and pestle and the pesto is just as good as comes out of a kitchen appliance. Up to you.