Manna From Heaven Falling in Sicily

Manna, to most people -- if they have heard of it at all -- means a windfall, an unexpected gift from heaven.

Others recognize it from the Bible as the food sent by God to feed the Hebrews during their 40 years in the desert, a sort of hoarfrost that fell on the land at night and was collected, milled and baked into small loaves of the bread.

Ancient Greek and Latin sources refer to it as "perspiration from the sky" or the "saliva of the stars." It was believed to be a gift from above that the bees had only to collect, though they may have been referring to honey.

But manna is more than a literary anachronism -- it actually exists today in Italy, in a small corner of the island of Sicily.

It does not fall from the sky -- it drips from the ash tree. When exposed to the hot summer sun of Sicily, this Italian variety of maple syrup solidifies into white stalactites of spongy sugar.

Mario Cicero, the mayor of Castelbuono, was listing the cultural and historical attractions of his small town near Palermo, when he told ABC News, "And then, of course, we have manna!"

Of course.

When queried further he pointed down the road to a small shop that sells herbs and local produce on the main street of Castelbuono. It's run by Giulio Gelardi, the local manna expert and president of the manna presidium of Italy's Slow Food Movement, which supports the country's local food heritage.

Today manna has become a specialty product -- produced as purely as possible by traditionalists like Gelardi in the area around Castelbuono and Pollino and sold to herbalist shops with the support and encouragement of the Slow Food movement, which believes that keeping the tradition alive will preserve the ash groves, the local environment and local culture.

When Gelardi gets on the subject of manna, there is no stopping him. He will wax poetic for hours about the nutritional qualities of manna and the harvesting tradition that has been in his family for generations to which he has devoted a good part of his life. He produces manna, sells it, promotes it, educates young people about it and has researched it extensively. And in just two weeks time, he will be harvesting it.

"For decades manna was a principal source of income in this corner of Sicily," Gelardi explained.

"My grandfather and father produced it, along with other crops," Gelardi recounted. "Wheat provided our livelihood, olive oil permitted us to buy a few things and manna paid for the boys to study and the girls to marry." If it was a bad year and there was no extra money, the boys and girls had to help in the fields.

Lore and legends aside, there are records from the Middle Ages of Italian merchants importing manna from Damascus and other cities in the East. In the 16th century it was already being produced in the far south of Italy, and by the 18th century Sicily had become the leading producer of manna in the Mediterranean. Thousands of acres of rough mountain land in what is now Madonie Park were devoted to the growing of ash trees, the harvesting of manna and the extraction of mannitol, at that time the best natural laxative available.

In the 1920s hundreds of thousands of kilograms of mannitol were exported yearly to be sold in South and North America or processed in Italy's own factories.

"Three to four thousand tons of mannitol were produced back then and used in the chemical industry," Gelardi said. In the '50s a cheaper form of mannitol came on the market, a byproduct of refined cane molasses, followed by a synthetic variety until eventually the market for manna pretty much died. For the next 40 years the Sicilian regional government continued to subsidize manna producers, buying up the crop.

Today in Castelbuono and Pollina there are only 250 or so acres of ash groves left and about 50 producers, and most of them quite elderly: only 10 are under the age of 80, according to Gelardi.

Gelardi and Sicily's other manna harvesters continue to use the simple tools and methods of the trade, which haven't changed in centuries.

Because the ash tree secretes its nectar when it is dehydrated or under "water stress," as Gelardi put it, manna is collected in the hottest and driest weeks of summer.

It takes years of experience to know exactly the right moment to sink the sickle-shaped mannarolu knife into the trunk of the tree. If you've timed it right, a light blue syrup will start to trickle out and run down the trunk. If the tree is on an angle it solidifies in the heat and forms a stalactite to the ground.

The manna is collected from the ground in the picturesque leaf of a prickly pear plant. "It is perfect, you put it in the sun and it curls into a bowl and provides ideal insulation," Gelardi explained. It keeps the manna cool, so it doesn't turn to syrup.

Gelardi has introduced a small innovation into the time-tried manna production: He strings nylon thread from the trees to the cactus leaves so the manna runs down the string and stays as pure as possible. Manna is usually collected once a week for five weeks and dried before it is sold; each tree produces about one kilogram of manna per season.

At Gelardi's shop in Castelbuono, Manna, miele e gusto (manna, honey, and taste), visitors can select from pure chunks of manna stalactites and chocolate and cheese with manna, but sadly, no syrup. "Manna syrup soon ferments and turns bad," Gelardi explained to a disappointed buyer.

The only drawback to his seemingly perfect product.