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A culinary journey through Sicily’s food and wine, in the shadow of Mount Etna

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

It’s closing time at the gelateria, but Giovanna Musumeci is waiting patiently as I pick the flavour to crown my cone. It’s a tricky choice: will it be pistachio from nearby Bronte? Yellow raspberries, grown on the slopes of Mount Etna? Or local walnuts, toasted in their shells by Giovanna?

In the end, I opt for the triumvirate of Sicilian ingredients. Oro Verde della Sicilia (Sicilian Green Gold) is an award-winning mix of pistachio, mandarin and caramelised almonds. It’s fresh and tangy but with a creamy base.

The tasting isn’t over. Giovanna and sister Sandra want to introduce me to something even better than gelato. At Santo Musumeci – the gelateria founded by their late father – they’re known for their granita: shaved ice swirled with fruit. Figs, raspberries, prickly pears, those yellow raspberries and creamy toasted almonds – I try them all.

Here, in the shadow of Mount Etna, things hit differently. People are warmer, flavours are more pronounced, the landscape is more dramatic. Opposite Giovanna’s gelateria in Randazzo stands a gothic church built of dark volcanic stone. Rearing up above an alleyway is Etna herself. To Giovanna, she’s “mamma Etna”. The Musumeci family has always sourced their ingredients from producers working on the slopes of what Sicilians call ‘idda’ – simply, ‘her’. “Turning fresh fruit into gelato is a real responsibility – not just to the producers, but to Etna herself,” says Giovanna with some seriousness.

She’s not alone. All around the volcano, Mamma Etna’s charges are using her fertile land to produce things to make a mother proud. Santo Musumeci’s gelato has won countless awards. Foodies flock to nearby Linguaglossa, where the Pennisi family of butchers has a Michelin-starred restaurant, Shalai, in their hotel of the same name. At Dai Pennisi, a tiny trattoria inside their butcher’s shop, I tackle a salsiccia al ceppo – a giant sausage, prepared on a slice of Etnean oak and spiced with wild fennel plucked from the volcano side. It’s a product of the Slow Food Organisation’s ‘Ark of Taste’ – a list of at-risk regional heritage foods. Coiled like a snail and grilled, it’s a match for any fancy meal served in Shalai.

Tourists to Sicily used to stick to the coast, but these days, magnetic Etna pulls them towards her. At Cottanera vineyard, on the volcano’s northern flank, I get another taste of what they come for. In a jeep that hurtles up and down rocky hills, agronomist Davide Cavallaro shows me the effort that goes into producing a bottle of Etna Rosso, a fierce red dubbed Italy’s ‘sexiest wine’ by Vinitaly, a prestigious wine fair. Dust blowing back in our faces, we screech to a halt by dry-stone wall terraces, where men are clearing weeds between the vines with hand-held motorised hoes.

That’s as mechanised as agriculture gets on Etna, whose prickly slopes are studded with intractable lava flows and boulders flung out from her core. There are no easy farming hacks here. A typical Italian vine yields six to seven kilos of grapes per year; on Etna, they’re lucky if they manage two. So why do they still do it? “It’s intrinsic to our culture,” says Davide with a shrug. “She’s mamma. She’s inseparable from us, and she’s alive.”

As are her wines. It’s only by doing a vineyard crawl that you notice just how much the volcano governs the taste of what emerges from her. At Cottanera, they’re earthy – just like the moisture-heavy soil that Davide describes as “fat”. Yet on Etna’s southeast side, on a near-sheer hill above Catalania, Seby Costanzo’s red wine is lip-smackingly salty – thanks to the sea air rising up the mountainside.

Near Seby’s vineyard, Cantine di Nessuno, is Monaci delle Terre Nere, an agriturismo where owner Guido Coffa has scattered the rooms amid 60 acres of orchards, wildflower meadows and still more vines. “I’m not the owner – I’m a servant of the land,” he tells me, as we sit in the garden, watching the Med sparkle below. Above us, Mamma Etna puffs her approval.