Giulio Gelardi walks from tree to tree, making precise incisions on each one with a billhook. He’s surrounded by 100 acres of ash trees, and each cut reveals white sap that also coats fishing lines he has hung from collection points on the branches. Overnight, the sap dries into stalactites that Gelardi plucks and places in a basket. Dark clouds roll in above. “If it rains too much, it could mean the end of the season,” he explains. “I don’t mind; it’s part of the game and part of being tied to the land.”
For centuries, scholars have debated the origins of manna, the mysterious, edible substance that the Bible describes God providing for the Israelites during their travels through the desert. But in Pollina, a region in the Madonie mountains of Sicily, there is no question about it: Manna is the sap of a narrow-leaf ash tree called Fraxinus angustifolia. In August, the creamy white substance is collected and used as a sweetener. Though its cultivation is limited to a tiny swath of land and a handful of producers, Gelardi is fighting to save this ancient tradition, and has been ever since he brought it back from oblivion 40 years ago.
Gelardi’s family is among the last bearers of a trade whose presence in Sicily dates back to the ancient world. The Greeks and Romans knew manna by the name of “honey dew” or “secretion of the stars,” and they prized it for its sweetness and laxative properties. Cultivation was introduced to Sicily around the ninth century by the Arabs, who considered it a luxury food with divine properties.
By the 18th century, Sicily was a primary producer of manna and remained so until the 1950s, exporting most of it to the pharmaceutical industry, which in turn extracted mannitol from it and sold it as a laxative. By then, cheap sugar from the Americas had all but relegated manna’s use as a sweetener to traditional bakeries in the area. With the discovery of synthesized mannitol after WWII, and younger generations leaving their family farms for work in the cities, production steadily fell until the 1980s, when it essentially faced extinction.
Gelardi had left his native village by then to travel Italy as a working photographer. On a visit home, he saw his family’s way of life disappearing. “We were one of three families who had held on till the very last moment.” At that point, he says, the cost of cultivating manna was far higher than the return. “I knew I had two choices: Let the culture of manna go extinct, and with it, 80 years of my father’s life and his father before him, or come back to try to save it. I chose to come back.”
It was an uphill battle. At the time, manna had almost no value on the market. “I knew that this was a nutritious product, but I needed proof,” Gelardi says. So he contacted the Department of Agriculture at the University of Palermo and convinced them to run tests.
The results confirmed his suspicions: Manna had excellent expectorant, digestive, and laxative properties, and contained beneficial minerals and vitamins. Most importantly, they found that it was incredibly low on the glycemic index, which could make it a substitute sweetener for diabetics. Armed with proof of its nutritious qualities, Gelardi began selling the product at farmer’s markets, to small bakeries, and to herbalists.