Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tucked into the foothills of the Madonie mountain range is the industrious little town of Castelbuono.   One of the gateways into the national park area.   What appears at first glance to be yet another sleepy Sicilian town is in fact a hive of activity behind all those closed shutters during siesta time.   Castelbuono seems to have business acumen running through its veins, vying with each other to see what they can invent next.



Oil producing, award winning agriturismi (farm holiday establishments), high class patisseries, the production of honey and manna, the list goes on.    They even came up with the genial idea of refuse collecting in the town centre using retired donkeys put out to pasture.   The streets are too narrow or with too many steps for trucks to get down.  Donkeys carrying panniers, and their carers, collect the rubbish, saving the local authorities thousands of euros in petrol, insurance, road tax and vehicle maintenance every year.



One family business continually making the headlines here isFiasconaro, who make panettone to die for.   But not only.   Their ice creams, granita, cannoli, cassata cakes, torroncini and profiteroles are all available when you feel a sugar fix coming on.     Back in 1953 Mario Fiasconaro started the business using local fruits to make granita with snow collected on horseback from the Madonie mountains.    No fridges in those days. 



We usually associate panettone with northern Italy not Sicily, but Nicola Fiasconaro, Master Pastry Chef and one of the three brothers who runs the business today together with Fausto and Martino, says that all the ingredients are Sicilian however.   Candied orange peel, sultanas, marsala wine, almonds from Avola, pistachios from Bronte, hazelnuts, and the recent addition of manna used as a sweetener instead of sugar, all come from this island and only those are used for their cake making.

Every evening at 8 o’clock Nicola is in the laboratory caressing his ‘mother yeast’ which has been going for 65 years now.   It is regenerated daily to make the panettone with part of it being put aside for the following day’s bake.   In all it takes 3 days to make that soft succulent cake before you can eat it.



As far as we know the brothers do not have an MBA in marketing, they just naturally have it in their DNA, Nicola Fiasconaro especially.    In 2008 they decided to compete with 100 other patisseries sending a sample of their cake to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) with a view to sending it up into space with the Discovery Shuttle.   After vetting it, the Official Taster, or whatever his title, said yes, but no refined sugar content.    That is when they first introduced manna into their cakes as a natural sweetener obtained from the bark of the ash tree.   Between Castelbuono and Pollina there is quite an important manna industry.  It is one of those natural products that can be used in a million different ways, but that is another story on its own.



After feeding the crew of the Discovery Shuttle, the next venture was making a life size guitar of chocolate from Modica for Bruce Springsteen, who was on tour in Italy in 2013.   As Fiasconaro’s advertising slogan is “born in Sicily” they wanted to pay homage to the rock star who was “born in the USA”.   Springsteen was suitably impressed with his chocolate fender.



For Nicola, the sky is his limit and nothing was going to stop him from reaching out to Pope Francis who is renowned for his sweet tooth.   The first time was last Christmas with their panettone and the second time was just the other day with an Easter Colomba (dove cake) during the public meetings in St. Peter’s Square.   Pope Francis on more than one occasion has expressed his appreciation for Sicilian sweet things.


Their latest exciting and ambitious project is the opening of another patisserie in Doha, Qatar this coming autumn.  Last year Sheik El Amadi was in Sicily scouting around to see what he could take back with him to fill his new shopping mall of 54,000 sq.mts. in Doha.   The Fiasconaro brothers gave him a spectacular street party in Castelbuono where the Sheik’s taste buds were salivating for weeks afterwards.  There will also be two restaurants, one specializing in Sicilian meat dishes and the other in fish.   Nicola has already said that his establishments will be strictly Italian speaking and his carefully selected staff will all be from the island too.  


All the ingredients will be imported from Sicily so next time you are in Doha do not forget to pop in for a granita made only from Sicilian lemons or one of Fiasconaro’s myriad flavour ice creams

This is just one of the island’s entrepreneurial gems.   There are many more.   Sicily is spreading its wings in the right direction.   

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