If you’ve been to Castelbuono, you’ve probably already heard about manna. “Manna from heaven”, “the lymph of the ash tree”,“the white gold of Sicily”, they’re all expressions used to refer to this precious substance, source of pride for the Madonie territory.
For those who have yet to visit our small town (and seriously, what are you waiting for?), getting to know manna might just be the thing to finally convince you to come and see for yourself all the beauties of the place.
But what is “manna”? How is it connected with the famous “manna from heaven”? How is it “made”? And what do you make with it?

Manna of Sicily, aka the lymph of the ash tree

Manna is a natural sap, a sugary substance extracted from the ash tree trunk. It doesn’t come from heaven then, though according to tradition it’s the same food that was gifted by God to the Jews in the Bible. In truth, manna is obtained when the trunk is cut and a resin comes out of it, which then dries in the air, becoming solid.

Manna of Sicily - cannoli
Manna cannoli. © Pro Loco Castelbuono

There are two main qualities of manna: a more refined one, called “cannolo”, which represents the purest part, and is destined to direct consumption.
And then there’s the second quality, less refined, the manna that remains attached to the trunk when it dries. It can also fall into cactus leaves, traditionally used as natural containers at the base of the tree. This part of manna is called “drogheria” and can either be eaten or, if too impure, used in the pharmaceutical or cosmetic field, to make soaps and lotions.

Manna is a natural diuretic and, if consumed regularly (in its raw form or in pharmaceutical products), helps keeping the organism clean. It’s a fully natural substance, and has therefore no collateral effects whatsoever, even for diabetic people, pregnant women or children. Moreover, it has special softening properties, which is why it’s much employed in the cosmetic industry.
If you wish to get a closer look at the manna-based products for the skin, you can check this article about its properties and different uses.

A perfect “marriage” between man and nature

The moment of the incision. © Laetitia Bourget

Manna production is a complex and delicate process, the result of a fragile equilibrium between man and nature. In fact, it can only be extracted under special circumstances, specifically in the summer, when the climate is hot and dry. It’s very important that it doesn’t rain during the harvest, from the phase of the “intacco” (the cutting) to the drying. For this reason, summer storms are sworn enemies of all frassinicoltori (ash tree farmers). It’s paramount to its quality and seal over time that manna is properly dry. Because of this complex conditions, manna is currently produced only in Madonie Park, and specifically in the territories of Castelbuono and Pollina.

The ripeness of the tree is also crucial, and it’s one of the most tricky thing to understand for the frassinicoltore. On one hand, if the incisions are made too soon, manna is too liquid, doesn’t dry and there’s even the risk of drying out the plant. If – on the other hand – the incisions are made too late, the manna that comes out is too thick and forms a sort of cup that covers the cut and stops the rest from coming out.

The mysteries of manna extraction

How do we know all this? Or better still, how do frassinicoltori know it? All the information, notions and techniques of producing manna are only known orally, passed on from father to son, or from old farmers to younger ones.
Everybody has their own “recipe” to make manna, developed after years of experience, treasuring all the accidents and mistakes, because those can always be expected to happen in abundance. Many of the actions of the frassinicoltore are not even really explicable: they can only be learned through observation and imitation, and they compose a sort of ritual, almost an intimate relationship (a “marriage” even) between the farmer and the ash tree.

In short, a world of its own, that works with its rhythms and balances: getting to know them becomes the job of a lifetime, the tale of a perfect connubium between nature and man’s action. For manna to exist, plant and man must work together. That’s the only way to “make” manna.

So, how is manna “made”?

After the incision, manna pours slowly along the thread, drying in the air. © Laetitia Bourget

Until recent times, the extraction of manna was carried out by cutting the bark and waiting for the sap to come out and dry in the air. Following this process, the quantity – and quality – of “cannoli” that could be made was quite limited.
Instead, the recent “thread” technique – invented by Giulio Gelardi, a frassinicoltore from Pollina – allows to get more cannoli out of the tree. After cutting the bark, a metal foil is inserted in the cut and a thread is knotted to it (with a small weight tied to the other end). The manna that comes out of the tree this way is “guided” along the thread. This procedure results in two main advantages: first, the “cannoli” obtained with this technique are much longer than the usual ones, and it is a much purer kind of manna, since it never touches the trunk.

This technique has greatly benefitted and changed the whole field of manna extraction. The challenge of involving young generations in its production was also met with great success, and all of this has given new lymph (a fitting word choice, we might say) to the market. At some point in its history, manna looked like something bound to disappear. And instead, it has turned into a promise for the future of this land.

Here are some curious facts and anecdotes about manna of Sicily:

  • “Manna from heaven” is actually a real thing. Or at least, there is evidence of a “rain of manna”, attested in Sicily on September the 25th, 1792. The strange episode was at the time described by a chemistry professor, Gaetano Maria La Pira, with these words: “a wonderful phenomenon when for an hour and a half or so, it rained a sugary substance, similar in taste and effect to manna”. The event – still without explanation – is also reported by Giulio Gelardi in his book (in Italian), one of the very few written texts on manna.
  • One of the names of manna is “white gold of Sicily”. The reason for this definition is quite clear: white is the colour of the “cannoli”, while its rarity makes it extremely precious, just like gold. Curiously enough though, it’s not the only “white gold” of Sicily, we have at least two others: the salt of Trapani and the donkey milk.
  • Manna, not “mannite”: there’s a certain amount of confusion between these two words, and they’re often used as synonyms (which they’re not). Sure, it’s true that manna is also mannite, but the same cannot be said for the opposite: mannite (or more exactly, “mannitolo”) is just a component of manna, not the whole thing, and it gets chemically extracted in order to be used in the industry field.
  • Manna is present in one of the novels of Giuseppina Torregrossa, a Sicilian writer: “Manna e miele, ferro e fuoco”, published by Mondadori in 2011.


Manna of Sicily - tools
Traditional tools used for manna extraction. From the left: archetto (small bow), scatula (metal box), rasula (spatula) and mannaluoro (curved knife). © Pro Loco Castelbuono

You’ve already encountered some words in the article above. To them we add a few more, though we are fully aware that it’s impossible to list them all:

  • Mannaluoro: a curved knife, extremely sharp, used to cut the trunk of the ash tree.
  • Ntaccaluori: the woodcutter, who makes the incisions on the bark
  • Sbintata/pizzicata: the moment of the first cut, where man and plant “join”. Another expression used to describe the same moment is fari a nsigna (put a sign)
  • A prima cuoita (the first harvest): happens after a week from the first cut.It is a poor harvest, but it gives already clear indications as to how the rest of the harvesting season is going to be.
  • Tabare: the cactus leaves, put at the base of the ash tree and used to collect the drops of manna that fall from the trunk.
  • Archetto (small bow): a tool made of an arched stick whose extremities are connected by a nylon thread. It’s used to cut the cannoli that naturally form along the trunk.
  • Rasula e scatula (spatula and box): the tools used to scrape and collect the manna that remains attached to the bark. The box has a typical concave shape, so to perfectly fit the curve surface of the tree, and to reduce the loss of manna  to the minimum.