An Unusual Ingredient – Manna
Manna, a gift from nature, comes from a kind of ash called “Fraxinus angustifolia” or “Fraxinus ornus” found in the surrounding areas of the towns of Castelbuono, Pollina and Cefalù (Italy). In the past, it was grown extensively in the Mediterranean basin though all traces of it seem to be lost. The history is pieced together with historical references from the Bible, health manuals from ancient civilizations, and references to the implements used to harvest it. Its mysterious or miraculous properties are presented; two kinds of manna were thought to exist, one from Heaven, and the other from a tree.
The ideal conditions for growing the trees and harvest are described with plentiful folklore, local customs, special vocabulary and tools mentioned. Manna is harvested in summertime when the plant is “in love”, from June to September or until the first rains, which would dissolve it, start to fall. The people of Pollina romantically call manna, “a sweet gift of nature”. It tastes like honey mixed with carob. The sap flows through a gash made with a special technique, using a curved cutter called a “mannarolo,” on the vein of the trunk of the tree, and it is left to drip for several days. The sap crystallizes and forms long clumps similar to stalactites, which are called “cannolo” in the manna-world vocabulary. The juice is violet and very bitter when it drips, but the contact with the air and the strong Sicilian sun dries and sweetens it. “Cannoli” are harvested with an “archetto.” There is a second and third grade of sap, which doesn’t crystallize or form cannoli. Prickly-pear leaves act as a sort of spout to catch the manna.
Its medicinal qualities include its mild laxative effect, its natural sweetness for dietary purposes, and its use in digestive alcoholic drinks and cosmetics is noted. It is sold at pharmacies and tobacco stores.