Gaetano Grassenio was one of the first to recognise the value of Fico d’India, the funny-looking fruit known colloquially as the prickly pear. With persistence and the help of his children, Gaetano – a quiet but constantly smiling Sicilian, faced the challenges of modern agriculture and transformed an unpopular local fruit into something much more.
The roads that take you from SENTIDO Acacia Marina towards Syracuse are lined with prickly pear catci laden with fruit – a taste of the day which awaited us. Driving east across Sicily is as picturesque as it gets, and arriving in the main square of San Cono, a tiny village where everyone knows everyone, Gaetano Grassenio’s youngest son Emilio greets us as old friends.
On our drive to Azienda Agricola Grassenio just outside of San Cono, Emilio humbly explains the family business: ‘Before my father started our farm in San Cono, nobody in Sicily had ever tried to build a business with Fico d’India. It was perceived solely as the fruit of the poor.’ And what a business his father built! Further than simply pioneering an unloved fruit, Gaetano challenged ideas about local production – paving the way for a new generation of organic Sicilian agriculture.
At the farm we walk from the house through fields and past a small series of lakes created for irrigation purposes – Gaetano and his sons chatting and laughing. The cactus valley is the hero of this idyllic Italian scene, full of this season’s bastardoni. ‘Bastardoni means big bastards,’ Emilio explains with a smile, ‘but in the case of our fruits it is nothing offensive! It just describes fruit that is bigger and juicier than usual. Everyone in Sicily knows what they are getting when they hear someone shouting ‘bastardoni’ in the markets!’
In just ten years, the bastardoni business of the Grassenio family has grown far beyond their Sicilian borders. Producing around 60 tonnes of the green, pink and white fruit seasonally, the company consists of seven to thirty employees depending on the time of the year. Today Azienda Agricola Grassenio exports locally grown and packaged produce to Germany, Switzerland and other European countries.
At Azienda Agricola Grassenio, everything is organic. As we walk Emilio bends down occasionally to remove weeds and partially edible wild asparagus – something he does whenever strolling through the so-called cactus valley. ‘We respect the environment and the health of our consumers. That’s why we would never question organic farming.’ The Grassenio’s saw the need for natural produce, and since beginning Azienda Agricola Grassenio have implemented methods of organic cultivation – much to their success.
The story of the Fico d’India does not end here – extracts from prickly pear seeds and oil from the cactus are also being utilised for their beauty and health benefits. And if that’s not enough to pique your interest, the Grassenio family is currently collaborating with a university on the use of the Fico d’India’s biomass for power generation – watch this fruit.