Fourth Generation of Sicilian Farmers Celebrate Local Cultivars

In southeastern Sicily, the producers behind Vernèra share a sense of social responsibility and environmental sustainability.
(Photo: Vernèra)
By Ylenia Granitto
Feb. 19, 2024 15:42 UTC

Nestled in the south­east­ern cor­ner of Sicily, in Syracuse, Buccheri is the high­est munic­i­pal­ity in the Hyblaean Mountains. It is widely con­sid­ered one of Italy’s most beau­ti­ful vil­lages.

The village’s pic­turesque sur­round­ings are home to Vernèra, a com­pany founded nearly 200 years ago that has evolved into an award-win­ning olive oil pro­ducer.

Vernèra’s suc­cess story is dri­ven by a pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment and defined by human bonds that find expres­sion in top-notch extra vir­gin olive oils.

See Also:Producer Profiles

The com­pany was born in the mid-1800s when our great-grand­fa­ther bought a small plot of land for his eleven chil­dren,” Maria Grazia Spanò said, describ­ing the ori­gins of Vernèra, which she man­ages with her sis­ter Tania and her brother Gaetano.

All his sons, how­ever, emi­grated to the United States to find work, and the only one who even­tu­ally returned to Italy was our grand­fa­ther Gaetano,” she added. He had made his for­tune as a con­trac­tor build­ing roads in Philadelphia. Once back in Italy, with the money saved, he bought more land and took care of his father’s olive trees.”

When Spanò’s father, Vito, inher­ited the farm – named after the dis­trict of Vernèra, where it is located – he pur­chased more land and planted 2,000 new olive trees. The prop­erty now has 70 hectares with approx­i­mately 9,500 trees, mostly of the autochtho­nous Tonda Iblea vari­ety.

He con­tin­ued cul­ti­vat­ing the fam­i­ly’s pas­sion for olives despite engag­ing in sev­eral other activ­i­ties. Spanò was also a physi­cian and health offi­cial, pres­i­dent of the moun­tain com­mu­nity and mayor of Buccheri for 25 years.


Tania, Gaetano and Maria Grazia Spanò (Photo: Vernèra)

He was also in the group of Sicilian pro­fes­sion­als who drafted the pro­duc­tion spec­i­fi­ca­tion of the Monti Iblei Protected Designation of Origin cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

He did a great job in the admin­is­tra­tion of our town and was com­mit­ted to improv­ing the local olive oil sec­tor,” Spanò said, who has fol­lowed in her father’s foot­steps and also served as Buccheri’s mayor from 1994 to 1998.

In 1985, my mother passed away. We wanted to do some­thing that would make her, in a way, eter­nal,” Spanò said. Until that time, we used to sell our prod­ucts whole­sale. Therefore, we decided to start bot­tling our extra vir­gin olive oil, design­ing our label and ded­i­cat­ing it to her. Thus, our PDO Le Case di Lavinia (The Houses of Lavinia) was born.”

In 2010, the three sib­lings did the same to honor their father’s mem­ory after his pass­ing and cre­ated the blend Le Terre di Vito (The Lands of Vito). After a cou­ple of years, it was fol­lowed by the PGI Sicilia Vico Rosella N.1, which takes its name from their grandfather’s home address.

Carlo Coniglio, a tal­ented graphic designer, has taken care of our com­mu­ni­ca­tion from day one,” Spano said. Being a friend of ours, he knows our homes, fam­ily and par­ents. He was able to con­ceive labels that per­fectly describe their essence with exquis­ite details. Even the check­ered yel­low and red pat­tern that returns on all of them has aes­thetic value and recalls the floor tiles in our grand­moth­er’s house.”


Illustrated labels evoke the company’s history and philosophy. (Photo: Vernèra)

We worked together on a line of ceramic bot­tles with embossed designs and mes­sages like Make Oil Not War’ and Peace & Oil,’ with which I wanted to send out a mes­sage of peace,” she added.

A sense of cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­ity has guided the choices of Vernèra, which sup­ports orga­ni­za­tions oper­at­ing in human­i­tar­ian and social fields at both local and inter­na­tional lev­els.

In addi­tion to sup­port­ing the non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Doctors Without Borders, the Sicilian pro­ducer shares the goals of the Italian Association of Methylmalonic Acidemia with Homocystinuria cblC type (cblC aps), which sup­ports sci­en­tific research and improv­ing the qual­ity of life of patients affected by the rare con­di­tion that occurs pri­mar­ily in neona­tal infants caus­ing severe ill­ness.

Proceeds from sell­ing a spe­cial line of bot­tles, with labels hand painted by Carlo Coniglio, go to the asso­ci­a­tion.


The extra vir­gin olive oils orig­i­nate from orchards on the slopes of a plateau, an under­wa­ter vol­canic com­plex mil­lions of years ago that is now extinct. As a result, the soil is rich in min­er­als that favor the devel­op­ment of the trees, which also ben­e­fit from excel­lent day-to-night tem­per­a­ture swings.

Along with Tonda Iblea, Vernèra grows Biancolilla and Moresca olives, most of which are cen­turies old. The trees thrive at a remark­able alti­tude between 600 and 800 meters and are pro­tected by the local author­i­ties due to their prox­im­ity to the remains of the 13th-cen­tury Gothic church of Sant’Andrea.

We are not inter­ested in quan­tity but in fol­low­ing a process at the end of which we must be happy and those who use our extra vir­gin olive oils even more so,” Spanò said.

The har­vest is done by hand, at most with ras­trelli (hand­held rakes), not only because the slop­ing ter­rain does not allow the use of mechan­i­cal means like shak­ers but also for the com­pany phi­los­o­phy that aims to pre­serve the ancient trees and their fruits as much as pos­si­ble,” she added.


Vernèra harvests its centenarian and millenary trees by hand to preserve them. (Photo: Vernèra)

The olives are har­vested and milled within a few hours at Frantoi Covato, a state-of-the-art mill in San Giacomo, a short dis­tance from the farm in the province of Ragusa. Once extracted and fil­tered, the oil is placed under nitro­gen in a con­trolled tem­per­a­ture envi­ron­ment.

The prod­uct is bot­tled only at the time of the order, even if we receive an order for just one bot­tle, because I want it always to remain in ideal con­di­tion to pre­serve its organolep­tic prop­er­ties,” Spanò said.

Great atten­tion is also paid to the envi­ron­men­tal aspect of pro­duc­tion, as sus­tain­abil­ity is one of the core val­ues of the organic farm.

Sustainable farm­ing is essen­tial to tackle cli­mate change, the con­se­quences of which often caused pro­duc­tion decreases in recent years,” Spanò said. The work in the orchard is con­tin­u­ous and, due to this and other indus­try issues, is also harder and more expen­sive.”

However, Spanò believes the emo­tional and some­times tense ten months ahead of the har­vest are well worth it after enter­ing the mill and smelling and tast­ing the sea­son’s first extra vir­gin olive oil.

It brings me back to the cold nights with my father in the mill, to u pane ch’e olive stri­cate (‘bread rubbed with olives,’ in the local dialect) that my grand­mother pre­pared for us dur­ing the har­vest, putting the olives in the embers and then rub­bing them on slices of warm bread. And in those moments, I for­get all the dif­fi­cul­ties.”

When you look at that emer­ald green, and you feel that scent, it is a true moment of bliss,” she con­cluded. You feel real hap­pi­ness, and you do not think about any­thing else; you just think that is one of life’s truly joy­ous moments.”


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