The Belice Valley    

  

Partanna and Piana degli Albanesi 

  

The Belice Valley is an area in the Western part of Sicily between the provinces of Palermo, Trapani  and  Agrigento. This area is situated between two rivers: the Right Belice and the Left Belice. These two rivers join into one Belice River that flows into the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea near the ancient ruins of the city of Selinunte.  

 

Because of the abundance of water and the fertility of the land, the Belice Valley has been populated since prehistoric times.   

 

In the Paleolithic era, the Belice Valley became home to the Sicani, a people originating from the Iberian Peninsula, and in the Bronze Age to the Elymians, people coming from what is today Turkey. They introduced to Sicily new edible plants, among them the chickpea. The Phoenicians conquered the coastal area of the Belice Valley and established textile manufacturers. Next, the Carthaginians dominated this area and used the large supply of trees to build ships and the plentiful agricultural products to feed their army.   

 

The Greeks built Selinunte in the Belice Valley because of its lush land and mild climate. They promoted agriculture, introducing the olive tree, cultivating artichokes and cardoons and increasing the production of wheat. They developed the production of wine and established farms for rearing cattle, goats and sheep to increase the cheese manufacture. They also built roads, infrastructures, housing and temples, the ruins of which are scattered across the Belice Valley.  

 

The Romans, Byzantines and all the populations that settled in the valley provided some contribution to the traditions and economy, but they took back much more than they offered.  

 

In the Valle del Belice is lake Arancio, which is located in the territories Santa Margherita del Belice, Sambuca di Sicilia and Sciacca. This artificial lake was actualized around 1950 to serve the agricultural needs of the local farmers for the rearing of cattle, goats and sheep and for the other commercial needs of local businesses. 

  

 

 

Lake Arancio

 

 

Partanna   

 

The town of Partanna is situated between the Belice and the Modione  Rivers  in the province  of  Trapani. The name Partanna is of uncertain origin, in fact it could mean “between two rivers” or come from the Greek parthenos, meaning virgin 

 

In the eleventh century, Giovanni Grifeo II was bestowed the title of Baron of Partanna by the Norman king Ruggero II, and under this dynasty, the town started to develop and augment the local economic resources, olives and  the rearing of cattle and sheep.  At this time, Partanna witnessed expansion around the newly built castle with the construction of new roads, buildings and churches.   

 

The Castle was occupied by the baron Grifeo family. Today, the structure is in excellent conditions, the pride of the Partannesi and has been turned into a museum.   

 

The traditional agricultural activities, the production of olive oil, cured olives, cheese and wine are still the area’s main trade.   

 

The laborious and clever Partannesi organized into cooperatives to promote and market their products to the international community, gaining an increase in exports and profits. The cheeses, wines and citrus fruit have found a niche in the global markets; the oil, which is made with the olives Nocellara del Belice, is recognized as an extra virgin olive oil PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and it has become sought after by gourmands across the world.  

 

   

In all the creameries of Partanna and in the valley of Belice, a cheese is exclusively produced, called vastedda. In this valley, sheep produce flavorsome milk because the region is abundant with fields for them to pasture, the soil is rich with minerals and the water is plentiful. Only here is the vastedda della Valle di Belice, a whole sheep’s milk cheese, produced. Because it is processed differently and in the old tradition, it can be produced only in the few hottest months of the year and in small quantities. The vastedda della Valle di Belice is a fresh cheese, lightly acidulated, with a delicate and refreshing taste.   

  

 

RicottaVastedda del BelicePasta con Sarde

 

The local economy, apart from agricultural products, is supported by active craft shops, small paints factories and juice and soft drink companies. 

 

Among the food specialties available: fresh ricotta cheese that can be tasted as soon as it is made; u vacileddu, a breakfast soup made with hot ricotta, whey and pieces of hard bread, which is a delightful and unforgettable experience for the taste buds; all kind of cheeses; delicious dark bread; pasta con sarde  and homemade pasta with simple and delicious sauces,  sometimes with vegetables; frittate with the famous Cipolle di Partanna, sweet and pulpy with a strong yet subtle aroma; kid and lamb either barbequed, baked or stewed; and some of the best Sicilian wines and homemade cassateddi filled with ricotta cream, sfingi, almond cookies and cannoli almost as good as the ones made in Piana degli Albanesi. 

 

 

Cookies  Cannoli  Cassateddi

 



 

 

Piana degli Albanesi 

 

The source of the Right Belice River is near Piana degli Albanesi, a town in the Belice Valley, in the province of Palermo.

 

The territory that comprises this township is rich with game and has an abundance of water. The Belice River was barred in the beginning of the last century to create a reservoir.

 

It is a beautiful location, up in the mountains chosen by Albanian refugees in 1488 when they were given permission to occupy this then isolated land. They had been living in this area practicing the Byzantine Catholic religion and passing on their customs, language, folklore and Arberesh cooking style, today a bit influenced by Sicilian cuisine.

 

On holidays, the people in town dress in the original Albanian costumes in a style six centuries old, going to church, celebrating a feast and following ancient ceremonials and rituals.   

 

As with all the towns in the Belice Valley, the economy is based on the rearing of cattle, goat and sheep and the production of dairy products; agriculture is concentrated in olives and olive oil, grapes for eating and wine, cereals and seasonal fruits.

  

 

                         

OlivesOlive OilGrapes

 

Many Chianoti (the inhabitants of Piana degli Albanesi) are capable goldsmiths, while others specialize in the production of mosaics and marble work. Women work in the production of embroidery, creating traditional costumes or making dolls dressed in colorful Arberesh outfits.

 

An important resource is tourism: the area is a paradise for sport lovers.

It offers horseback riding, canoeing, climbing, hiking, fishing and hunting.

 

For nature lovers, there is a vast area dedicated to the preservation of the local fauna and flora with sections protected by the World Wildlife Foundation.

 

Piana degli Albanesi now offers a complex of structures that cater to tourists and  benefit to the local economy.

 

A type of all-inclusive vacation in houses located in the countryside, called agro-tourism, has significantly developed in the area; old farmhouses and rural constructions have been restructured using the old materials, tiles and decorations and leaving the characteristic look of the past while giving guests all the modern comforts of today’s living.

 

There are many restaurants, tavole calde, sort of snack bars, cafes, hotels and lodgings to cater to all budgets. The service is courteous and the food prepared by the Chianoti is rich in flavor, freshly made and prepared with a religious dedication and passion.

 

All the bread and cheese made in Piana degli Albanesi are indescribably tasty and some other unique dishes of the area are: dumpling gnocchi made with semolina in a basil tomato sauce; the soup of fave and beans; and Milanese pasta with salted anchovies, fennels, tomato paste and toasted breadcrumbs. 

 

 

La MilaneseLocal Assorted vegetablesThe Bread

  

 

Excellent meat, lamb and pork dishes, pork sausages with fennel seeds, and an assortment of locally grown fresh vegetables are offered daily.

 

Among the desserts, you will find gruret, a sweet made with cooked wheat, sugar or honey, milk or ricotta and chocolate; almond biscuits; plotit, a cookie stuffed with figs and almonds; many cakes and desserts prepared for special festivities and also…the cannoli.

 

 

Figs and AlmondsCannoliCookies

 

  

The cannoli made at Piana degli Albanesi are some of the biggest and best cannoli in the world. The ricotta cream that fills them is light, creamy, and pleasantly sugary, possibly because it is made by mixing different kinds of ricotta—cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s; the candied citron mixed in the cream gives it a unique scent; the delicate shell is crunchy and sprinkled with chocolate shavings and powdered sugar; and the cannoli are garnished with strips of capello d’angelo, candied fragrant orange peels!