We’re in a panificio in Cesarò, picking up supplies for lunch. It’s a family-run place which looks like a normal house from the outside – stone-built, low-roofed, farm implements stacked up against the wall, that kind of thing. Inside, there’s one room with an enormous bread oven, one holding the breadmaking equipment – including an industrial mixer which stands as high as a man – and one room which serves as the shop. We go into the oven room first, as that’s where all the activity seems to be, but are shooed out again by a tall, solidly-built man who I assume to be the owner. “You need to go to the other part, Signori.”
We obey, heading out through one fly curtain and back in through another to a small, dark room with a glass-covered deli counter filled with meats and cheeses. Around the walls there are display shelves with pretty, cellophane-wrapped packages of chocolate-chip cupcakes and biscuits. My eyes grow large. Davide gives me an amused, sideways look and tells the owner that we want pane condito – sandwiches made to order. The man, a little shamefaced, admits laughing defeat. “Ah. Yes, you need to go back to the oven, in that case. Sorry.”
The oven room is full of bread-scented haze – neither smoke nor steam, but a mixture of both – and a group of odd-seeming, middle-aged people milling around an industrial steel-covered kitchen counter. Standing at the counter, busy filling up freshly-baked bread with cheese and salami and handing the resulting sandwiches to the crowd around her, is a woman of the same sort of age as the man we’ve just spoken to. At the oven, meanwhile, there’s a bleary-eyed younger woman dressed in a flour-covered black tracksuit and heavy gloves. It’s a fair bet that they’re mother and daughter, while the man in the shop is the father of the family.
Her hands protected by thick gloves, the daughter pulls loaf after ring-shaped loaf out of the cavernous oven on a long-handled pallet, and stacks them in rectangular, tablecloth-lined laundry hampers. The hampers, sitting on plastic picnic chairs with their mouths at waist height, and with white cloth draping down their sides, look like baby bassinets with dark-blonde heads peeping out of the top. The illusion is broken when Mamma calls for another loaf and daughter unceremoniously heaves one of the ‘heads’ out; she tosses it across the room to her mother, who wastes no time hacking into it with her fearsome bread knife.
The odd group are twittering about how warm their sandwiches still are. Funny, that, considering they came out of the oven not five minutes previously. I’m not sure whether they’re eating breakfast or lunch or just snacking, but when they head to the picnic tables outside, Mamma yells out to them, ‘There’s wine if you want. Or Coca Cola or whatever.’ I don’t hear what they reply, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t get stuck into the wine, despite it being only about 10am. They looked like they were in need of … something.
It’s our turn to get our sandwiches. Daughter pulls a loaf out of the oven and hands it directly across to her mother. Mamma grabs it and places it flat on the counter in front of her before pulling it back towards her so that it’s steadied against her stomach. Holding her bread knife as if she intends to commit hara-kiri, she stabs it into the far edge of the loaf and starts hacking towards herself, rotating the loaf as she does so. From behind, it looks like there’s a grisly disembowelment in process.
Steam furls upwards.
Mamma pours oil from the kind of can that looks like it should belong to the Tin Man, liberally onto the opened, soft stomach of the bread. She sprinkles salt, oregano; flips round slices of cheese on top. “What do you want in it?” “Everything you have, signora.” She yells to her husband in the shop part. “Bring some salami?” He does. She heaves it onto the meat slicer and sets the blade in motion, forcing the salami across it with the same bloodthirsty zeal that she used for splitting the bread. Seven neat slices slither out and get layered on top of the cheese in an overlapping ring. She looks at the bread, then at Davide, and slices more. Without looking, she gropes underneath the counter and hauls out a plastic gallon container filled with sundried tomatoes in oil; she fishes out a good few spoonfuls and scatters them over the salami. “You want olives?” I look doubtful; Davide wants them. Mamma suggests a compromise: “We’ll put them in a bowl for you. You want black or white?” She shoos us out of the oven room and tells us to go and pay as she jams the lid back on the bread and rips lengths of brown paper from a large roll in which to wrap it. “I’ll bring this through in just a moment.”
We’re just short of Lago Trearie, our destination for today, and the highest lake (well, reservoir) in Sicily. There are two ways to get to it by road. One gets you to a point 4km below the lake, but leaves you on the far side of a locked gate unless you call the park wardens in advance and warn them you’re coming; the other is the way we’re arriving, from Maniace. This gets your car into the park, at least, but you have to drive a couple of kilometres along a road which becomes progressively more and more potholed until it stops dead at a bridge, which was deemed unsafe two years ago.
Rather than rebuild the damaged bridge, the powers that be have just closed it off at either end and left it to rot. When it first became unusable, it was completely closed, with boulders across both ends and an eight foot high barrier of heavy-duty wire mesh blocking even pedestrian access. At some point in the last two years, however, someone has cut a door-sized hole into the mesh and it’s now possible to walk across. Watch out for potholes that may or may not go right through the rotten concrete, though …
According to signs in the park, it’s a 1.4km walk from the bridge to the picnic area by the park gate. It’s then a 4km walk (uphill) from the picnic area to the lake. The lake itself is a coffee-coloured, muddy body of water held in place at one end by a dam made of large concrete blocks, and it’s nothing special. The hike to get there, on the other hand, is exhilarating, and works up an appetite for lunch. When we get there, it’s just started to drizzle, so we head for the pine forest on the far side of the reservoir and sit down on a convenient wooden pallet to eat the Cesarò sandwich.
I unwrap the outer layers of plastic bags and brown paper and break the loaf into pieces along the rough lines that Mamma hacked into it in the shop. The liberal coating of oil she gave it has soaked through the paper and slicked the inside of the first bag. My fingers covered with bread-warmed oil, I thank heaven that we had the foresight to wrap a second plastic bag around the first before putting it all in the rucksack.
The bread was still warm when I opened the rough package. Now that it’s been opened to the air, however, it’s a race against the cold. My hands go numb within minutes as cloud descends around us. The lake disappears into mist as Davide paces around outside the treeline, chasing brief moments of sunshine. He takes a second slab of filled bread and shoves it down as fast as he can – no easy feat. It’s delicious, but classically ‘casereccio’. My temples pound from the exertion of chewing it. Davide swallows his last bite. “Let’s go.” I eye the cupcakes that – at the last moment – I grabbed from the shelf at the paneficio and sneaked into the rucksack. Davide follows my gaze. “We can eat them at the picnic place, amore,” he says. “Come on – I’m freezing.” I ignore him and tear the sellotape off the top of the bag with my teeth, determined to get my sweet fix before we go. It doesn’t disappoint: somebody in that bakery has found the secret to proper cupcake sponge, and I’m in fluffy, chocolate-chipped heaven.
“Look! A dog!” says Davide, as we near the picnic area. My hands have finally regained a little pinkness, as opposed to their deathly whiteness at the lake, and I was too busy looking at them to see the dog appear. I see it running away from us, however. Davide hesitates. “Actually – is it a fox?” The dog-slash-fox appears at the top of another rise ahead of us, running towards the smell of roasting meat which we’re also following, and I see what he means. It’s longer-legged than an English fox, but the colouring’s right. I shrug. “Could be …?”
When we get into the picnic area, there’s a large group there and the smell of roast meat fills the air. Davide is hunting for the hikers’ hostels that a friend of his has rented in the past. He spots them, over the stream behind the main picnic area, and we head over to take a closer look. There’s a fluffy St Bernard puppy peering out at us from behind a mesh fence, paws up on the knee-high wall below it. We move closer to say hello, and the dog-slash-fox appears from around an unexpected corner. It’s scuttled around the back, probably to avoid the crowded picnic area. Davide whistles and it comes closer. She’s a dog, but there’s fox in her not-too-distant genes. She’s also female, we can see at these close quarters. She pricks her ears and looks up at us with honey-amber eyes, then moves towards the puppy to say hello.
Another dog – a large, brindle-coloured thing that looks like she has Dobermann in her somewhere – appears out of a previously unnoticed kennel to the left of us, on the far side of the mesh fence. She’s wearing a heavy choke-chain and doesn’t look like the kind of animal you mess with. I move out of range. The dog-slash-fox, however, is unfazed. She leaps up onto the wall and greets the Dobey like an old friend. The Dobey, in turn, dances about on her side of the fence, squirming her tummy and wiggling her little stump of a tail as she snuffles through the wire mesh, rubbing noses with the dog-slash-fox. So much for the tough-girl exterior.
We head back over the stream as it starts to rain, to shelter under the trees. When the rain stops, we get up to leave. The man in charge of the barbecue, however, has other ideas. “Guys! Do you want some meat? We’ve got loads! Wine? Go on!” We refuse politely, but he’s insistent. “Come on! Seriously, there’s loads!” We’re not getting out of here without being fed and watered. We laughingly submit.
Our host pours the wine out of the kind of container that would usually house a few gallons of petrol. His friends call over to him: “MORE wine, mbare?!” He laughs back at them and indicates towards us. “It’s for the guys, here, honest!” He pours two beakers full to the brim and hands them over. I take a sip. It’s murky red and sweet. Someone’s home-produced stuff, no doubt. I like it, but am aware of the fact that it’s probably hideously alcoholic and I’m the designated driver on the way home. I sneak over to the fence by the stream to try to surreptitiously pour some away.
Davide follows me. He’s also trying to jettison his wine, but for different reasons: he’s not a fan of the homebrew style. We giggle as we try to work out how to get rid of it without causing any offence. We’re nearly rumbled when one of the group appears, silent ninja-like, with a plate of sausages for us. He hands it over and disappears again, just as silently as he arrived; Davide and I choke back borderline hysterical laughter as we realise how close we were to being caught in the act. This wine is definitely more alcoholic than it appears.
Time to go home.