(NYTIMES) BRONTE, Sicily - Like the big, sweet onions of Vidalia, Georgia, the tiny dusky lentils from Le Puy in France and prosciutto from the area around Parma, Italy, there is something so special about the pistachios grown here in the foothills of Mount Etna in eastern Sicily that they have been granted government protection.
In Italy, when chefs use those pistachios, they proudly label them Bronte, after the town in the heart of the region.
In New York, one of the flavours scooped by the Arte del Gelato chain is pistachio di Bronte. The quality of these particular nuts, which have been growing in Sicily for centuries, is known throughout Italy and, lately, they are being recognised for their distinctiveness in America.
Usually, chefs in the United States simply call them Sicilian, said Fortunato Nicotra, executive chef at Felidia in New York; he thinks it is because the term Bronte takes too much explaining. But he scatters Bronte pistachios on a beet salad, adds them to a vinaigrette for veal and relies on them for desserts. “They’re very fresh and sweet,” he said.
At Nougatine, Jean-Georges Vongerichten candies them to serve alongside foie gras, and dresses verdant spaccatelli pasta in basil-pistachio pesto with caramelised brussels sprouts. “They’re moist and rich, not rancid,” he said. “Others are dry, like peanuts.”
They are definitely different. Compared with California pistachios, they are smaller, more deeply green, with skins beautifully brushed in royal purple, and they have a more richly concentrated flavour.
In Sicily, Bronte pistachios are used everywhere. While visiting the island in mid-October, I met Mary Taylor Simeti, author of Pomp And Sustenance: 25 Centuries Of Sicilian Food, about Sicily’s culinary traditions. We were at Antico Caffè Pasticceria Spinnato in Palermo, where we discussed the confections coloured, perfumed and textured with pistachios that covered our table: cassatas, cannoli, biscotti, cakes, semifreddos, panettones, fig-stuffed buccellatos, cookies and more.
Several days later, I took a detour to the source, Bronte. Mr Nunzio Caudullo, 57, whose grandparents founded the Antonino Caudullo pistachio company in Bronte, one of the first to open just after World War II, calls the nuts “green gold from the base of the volcano”.
Mount Etna rose in the distance, a wisp of smoke drifting from its summit. “The lava in the earth, the minerals in the lava, makes the taste of our pistachios different,” Mr Caudullo said. “Other places like Iran, Turkey, California, do not have this kind of soil.”
A few miles from the centre of the town, the trees, fairly low and spreading with shiny green leaves, are tangled everywhere. The harvest, usually from late August through September, is done entirely by hand. The nuts are spread under cloth canopies overnight, then shelled and packaged whole, chopped, ground or as paste at simple factories such as the one attached to Mr Caudullo’s house. His mother, Maria Luca Caudullo, 85, is still involved in the company.
With little prompting, she will reel off her favourite recipes for the nuts, like filet of beef encrusted with them, and a simple but lush pistachio cake. “That one I make only for Christmas,” she said.
Her son said: “Every family in Bronte has some pistachio trees,” adding that the Romans first brought pistachios to Sicily from the Middle East, but then they were more or less forgotten. “When the Arabs conquered in the ninth century,” he said, “they restarted the cultivation.”
The nuts are harvested every other year. Alternate fallow years protect the trees and improve quality. And, unlike with California pistachios, the trees are never irrigated, making the flavour more intense.
In the US, Sicilian pistachios are imported out of the shell and vacuum-packed to help them retain their freshness. Sicilian pistachio cream or paste and ground pistachios are also sold. But, as Mr Caudullo explained, since Bronte pistachios account for less than 1 per cent of the world’s pistachio production, and they are very expensive, there is great demand worldwide for nuts from California and elsewhere.
Gustiamo, the importer of fine Italian foods in the Bronx, sells 250g of shelled Bronte pistachios for US$33.50 (S$45), which can be a deal-breaker.
“I love those pistachios, but the cost of them really limits our ability to use them more freely,” said Ignacio Mattos, the chef and a partner in Cafe Altro Paradiso in SoHo, who uses them in gelato. Gustiamo also sells Sicilian pistachio cream: A 277g jar costs US$24.50.
On its website, Grom, the Italian gelato chain, compares the price of the pistachios with that of “fine jewellery”. No wonder. The beautiful little nutmeats grown around Bronte are variety called Smeraldo, meaning emerald.