Masseria Susafa’U STRATTU
by Daniela Cicchetta ♦
The woman crossed the Baglio’s1 courtyard, carrying a wicker basket filled with vegetables right on her hip, giving her an off-balance stride, her pelvis leaning forward and the rest of her body backwards. She was wearing jodhpurs, a white shirt and the same boots for horseback riding she had used that morning during her walk, still dirty after crossing the vegetable garden. She arrived at the old Palmento2 door, currently used as a bar and living room; Manfredi stood up and went to help her:
“Give it to me, it must be heavy…”
Lidia smiled at him, yielding before such gallantry; the man placed it on the table, then watched as the woman picked a ripe tomato and bit into it, drinking its juice.
“Exquisite! It’s incredibly hot today!” she exclaimed, her cheeks red and her forehead slightly covered in sweat, glistening.
“There’s no messing with the Sicilian sun in August!” Manfredi stated.
“Sure, although picking all these vegetables with my own two hands was certainly worth it, plus the Chef was there, recommending what to choose for dinner…” she said, wiping a hint of dirt off her hands. “Ah, there! My husband is on his way, he went to bring back the horses while I checked out the vegetable garden. There’s that cooking class later and we didn’t want to miss it…”
“Good morning, Manfredi” the man said, walking through the door and taking off his sunglasses, holding out an enthusiastic hand. “What a charming place! We’ve been here a week; we wish this holiday would never end. The idea of leaving tomorrow leaves me a bit blue!”
“Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed yourselves”.
“Look, for us it was like going back in time; we had read some reviews, but we never could have imagined what this place would be able to give us. It’s like everything here goes in slow motion, and this continuous contact with nature is like paradise, allowing us to recover from the year’s rush”.
“I have to bring the vegetables to the kitchen now,” said the woman, “they told me that they’ll let us cook with the Chef to learn how to make homemade pasta. I would love that! I remember when my grandma used to make it; I’ve never tried. You know, life in the city doesn’t allow for much free time”.
“Well, you still have one day to recover, and don’t worry about the vegetables, I’ll make sure they get delivered” Manfredi replied. “Now, tell me, how was the morning ride?”
“Simply amazing! We went out early with a guide, we followed charming paths in the Madonie Park, such bucolic scenery, with those infinite fields, our eyes couldn’t ask for more! Enchanting. And now I can’t wait to eat something and to take a nice dip in the pool before this afternoon’s cooking lesson! Earlier, while I was picking those juicy tomatoes in the vegetable garden, the Chef told me that he’ll show me the red gold they make from it, but I still haven’t figured out what he meant. Do you know anything about it?”
“How could I not!? It’s one of the many gastronomical miracles happening all over Sicily, and especially here in Polizzi and in its neighboring areas. We’re talking about ‘u strattu!”
“’U strattu? What is it?”
“Come with me…” said Manfredi, inviting them to follow him on the iron staircase outside the building leading to a wide sunny terrace.
“I’d like to present Ms. Maria, still making it like they used to”.
A woman wearing a headscarf was busy stirring a thick sauce over a big wooden table; they greeted each other, then she diligently resumed her work.
“You’re making me curious, you know? Now, please, tell me what kind of alchemy you’re talking about”.
“Making ‘u strattu was everyone’s tradition, for both adults and children, where people would work really hard for at least three days to avoid ruining the final product. It’s a tradition set in stone and still passed on”.
“Passed on, really? Like a skill?”
“Well, knowing how to make ‘u strattu is almost more than a skill, it’s a piece of Sicilian culture! But I would love for Maria to tell you more about it”.
The woman smiled, her wrinkles crimping like a canvas on her face. She began, politely, “Alright, first of all we had to pick a good day to start, avoiding the dreaded sirocco wind that, instead of thickening the sauce, would make it turn sour instead…”
It was when she started to recount distant times that the magic began; the two guests, guided by her words and by her thorough descriptions, felt history rewinding, while lively colors began fading away, leaving room for sepia photograms reminiscent of older times.
All of a sudden they thought they could hear voices; they looked out intrigued onto the sunny Baglio from where the heat was rising while the Masseria3 became, in their imagination, crowded with working people, their overlapping choruses giving it life. They heard the baker yelling that the bread was ready, while Serafino came in with his mules tied to a rope carrying freshly harvested grain, and sparrows clinging to his belt, his hunting trophies: “Picciriddu4, you see these, with some sauce, you have no idea how good they are!”, he was telling a kid who kept following him, intrigued.
The windows were opened wide to let the rooms air out; men were crossing the Baglio, hauling steers and horses with full bags on their backs, some of them even carrying bundles of wood. The dark coppole5 were shielding them from the heatwave, while handkerchiefs black as their clothes were tied under their chins, soaked with the sweat of their work. Such hard work, especially the women’s, the kind that could never be lost to time. The picciriddi would jump around the fimmine6, who were busy washing and drying the harvested tomatoes.
“… that were then scafazzatu7, which means smashed, crushed and squeezed simply by hand, without using knives or tomato presses. They’d be left macerating in the sun for a few days, and when the mixture was ready it was time for the culatura8, which meant pressing the tomato in big maidde9, wooden containers with holes on the bottom. The women would squeeze it with their hands, using remarkable strength, until it became a thick pulp that was then left to dry in the sun for a few more days… I remember my grandma used to always say: daricci l’urtima stringiuteddra10, one last squeeze, even though her role was so specific she had to be the one doing it!”
“Then what?” Lidia asked, coming back to the present, her eyes filled with wonder.
“The sauce was salted, spread out in a thin layer on the maidde, left to dry in the sun some more and riminata11, continuously stirred with wooden spoons, amassed in one place and spread again, until it was so concentrated it turned into a dark, inviting red. Of course, it had to be covered with a cloth to keep the insects away from it. The tomato was ready when you could grab some from the maidda and there wouldn’t be any trace left on the wood, almost like jelly. It was then stored in a cool place to rest, ‘o friscu, and then placed in clay jars, sealed with a thin layer of oil on top, to make it would last the whole year. In order to use it, you had to add some water, so the sauce would return to its soft and creamy consistency; to this day here in Susafa they make eggplant patties using the very same concentrated tomato. They’re one of the favorite dishes of our cuisine”.
“So that’s why the Chef said to pick a few big, juicy eggplants so we could cook and taste quite the delicacy tonight!”
“Hum… now I’m sorry I spoiled the surprise; don’t tell the Chef, please! He values his culinary secrets” she winked at her.
Filippo intervened after having been silent for so long; he was still looking at the Baglio, fascinated.
“You know what, Maria? Every story told here in Susafa feels like a type of Sicily we never could have pictured. We could see the ancient busy masseria with all its inhabitants, almost like a dejà vù, and this tomato tradition will be one of the countless things we’ll never forget. While you were explaining the whole process, I could see the women dressed like in those pictures on the walls, kids running around asking if they could help, and I almost smelled that concentrated tomato. Now I’m craving it!”
Maria smiled, pleased, her eyes filled with pride, proud of a passion that had so lovingly been passed down to her.
When Manfredi went back up to the terrace, he found them helping Maria; they were stirring the sauce with a couple wooden spatulas, making it thicker and thicker.
“I see you’ve become quite invested. Sicilian traditions always bring people together!”
“Yes, but now we have to run to take a shower, we’ve lost track of time and we can’t be seen at dinner still wearing these horse riding clothes!”
The next morning, while Filippo was loading the luggage and Lidia was saying her goodbyes to Manfredi, they noticed Ms. Maria coming towards them; she was at the end of the road, walking slowly, with the unmistakable pace of one who has had a remarkable life, and was in no rush to spend what was left of it.
“Hold on a second, Maria would really like to say goodbye…” Manfredi said.
When she reached them, they realized she was holding in her hands a glass jar filled with a thick, purple sauce. She looked at the man, seeking some sort of approval.
Manfredi smiled ecstatically and said “this is some of our sauce; it isn’t much, but it’s made like how they used to do it!”
“We don’t know how to thank you, it’s the most amazing gift! Now, thanks to you, we know the recipe, so we’ll try to make our own in small doses on our terrace. We’ve picked some tomatoes from the vegetable garden… Who knows!” Lidia said, pointing to a wicker basket filled up to the brim on the car’s backseat.
“It’s true,” Manfredi replied, “you have the recipe, although there’s a component that, unfortunately, you won’t be able to find anywhere else, since it exists only here!”
“Is there something you haven’t told us, then? A secret ingredient, perhaps?” Lidia asked, suggestively, a clever smile on her lips, looking at Ms. Maria.
“Not really, I’ve told you all the ingredients, but you certainly won’t be able to carry with you the Sicilian sun!”
- A building with a courtyard within its walls.
- A place where they would stomp the grapes to produce must, which was then stored in big tubs.
- A fortified farmhouse or country house on a country estate.
- Sicilian for piccolino, small one.
- Typical flat caps, coppola is the singular form.
- Sicilian for femmine, which means women.
- Explained shortly after.
- Explained shortly after.
- Sicilian for madia, a container carved out of one wooden block used to press the tomato.
- Sicilian for “dacci un’ultima strizzatina”, “give it one last squeeze”.
- Sicilian for rimescolata, stirred over and over.