The Belice Valley
and Piana degli Albanesi
The Belice Valley is an area in the Western part of Sicily between the
provinces of Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento. This area is situated between two rivers: the
Right Belice and the Left Belice. These two rivers join into one Belice River that flows into
the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea near the ancient ruins of the city
Because of the abundance of water and the fertility of the land, the Belice
Valley has been populated since prehistoric times.
In the Paleolithic era, the Belice Valley became home to the Sicani, a people
originating from the Iberian Peninsula, and in the Bronze Age to the Elymians, people coming from what is today
Turkey. They introduced to Sicily new edible plants, among them the chickpea. The Phoenicians conquered the
coastal area of the Belice Valley and established textile manufacturers. Next, the Carthaginians
dominated this area and used the large supply of trees to build ships and the plentiful agricultural products to
feed their army.
The Greeks built Selinunte in the Belice Valley because of its lush land and mild
climate. They promoted agriculture, introducing the olive tree, cultivating artichokes and cardoons and
increasing the production of wheat. They developed the production of wine and established farms for rearing
cattle, goats and sheep to increase the cheese manufacture. They also built roads, infrastructures, housing and
temples, the ruins of which are scattered across the Belice
The Romans, Byzantines and all the populations that settled in the valley provided some
contribution to the traditions and economy, but they took back much more than they
In the Valle del Belice is lake Arancio, which is located in the territories Santa Margherita
del Belice, Sambuca di Sicilia and Sciacca. This artificial lake was actualized around 1950 to serve the
agricultural needs of the local farmers for the rearing of cattle, goats and sheep and for the other commercial
needs of local businesses.
The town of Partanna is situated
between the Belice and the Modione Rivers in the province of Trapani. The
name Partanna is of uncertain
origin, in fact it could mean “between two
rivers” or come from the Greek parthenos, meaning virgin.
In the eleventh century, Giovanni Grifeo
II was bestowed the title of Baron of Partanna by the Norman king Ruggero II, and under this dynasty, the town
started to develop and augment the local economic resources, olives and the rearing of cattle and
sheep. At this time, Partanna witnessed expansion around the newly built castle with the construction of
new roads, buildings and churches.
The Castle was occupied by the baron
Grifeo family. Today, the structure is in excellent conditions, the pride of the Partannesi and has been turned
into a museum.
The traditional agricultural activities,
the production of olive oil, cured olives, cheese and wine are still the area’s main trade.
The laborious and clever Partannesi
organized into cooperatives to promote and market their products to the international community, gaining an
increase in exports and profits. The cheeses, wines and citrus fruit have found a niche in the global markets;
the oil, which is made with the olives Nocellara del
Belice, is recognized as an extra virgin olive oil PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and it
has become sought after by gourmands across the world.
In all the creameries of Partanna and in
the valley of Belice, a cheese is exclusively produced,
called vastedda. In this valley, sheep produce flavorsome milk because the
region is abundant with fields for them to pasture, the soil is rich with minerals and the water is plentiful.
Only here is the vastedda della Valle di
Belice, a whole
sheep’s milk cheese, produced. Because it is processed differently and in the old tradition, it can be
produced only in the few hottest months of the year and in small quantities.
The vastedda della Valle di Belice is a fresh cheese, lightly
acidulated, with a delicate and refreshing taste.
The local economy, apart from agricultural products, is supported by active craft shops, small
paints factories and juice and soft drink companies.
Among the food specialties available: fresh ricotta cheese that
can be tasted as soon as it is made; u vacileddu, a breakfast soup made with hot
ricotta, whey and pieces of hard bread, which is a delightful and unforgettable experience for the taste
buds; all kind of cheeses; delicious dark bread; pasta con sarde and homemade pasta with
simple and delicious sauces, sometimes with
vegetables; frittate with the famous Cipolle di Partanna, sweet and pulpy with a strong yet subtle aroma; kid and lamb either barbequed, baked or
stewed; and some of the best Sicilian wines and homemade cassateddi filled with ricotta cream, sfingi,
almond cookies and cannoli almost as good as the ones made in
Piana degli Albanesi.
The source of the Right Belice River is near
Piana degli Albanesi, a town in the Belice Valley, in the province of Palermo.
The territory that comprises this township is
rich with game and has an abundance of water. The Belice River was barred in the beginning of the last century
to create a reservoir.
It is a beautiful location, up in the mountains
chosen by Albanian refugees in 1488 when they were given permission to occupy this then isolated land. They had
been living in this area practicing the Byzantine Catholic religion and passing on their customs, language,
folklore and Arberesh cooking style, today a bit influenced by Sicilian cuisine.
On holidays, the people in town dress in the
original Albanian costumes in a style six centuries old, going to church, celebrating a feast and following
ancient ceremonials and rituals.
As with all the towns in the Belice Valley, the
economy is based on the rearing of cattle, goat and sheep and the production of dairy products; agriculture is
concentrated in olives and olive oil, grapes for eating and wine, cereals and seasonal fruits.
Many Chianoti (the inhabitants of Piana degli Albanesi) are capable
goldsmiths, while others specialize in the production of mosaics and marble work. Women work in the production
of embroidery, creating traditional costumes or making dolls dressed in colorful Arberesh
An important resource is tourism: the area is a
paradise for sport lovers.
It offers horseback riding, canoeing, climbing,
hiking, fishing and hunting.
For nature lovers, there is a vast area
dedicated to the preservation of the local fauna and flora with sections protected by the World Wildlife
Piana degli Albanesi now offers a complex of
structures that cater to tourists and benefit to the local
A type of all-inclusive vacation in houses
located in the countryside, called agro-tourism, has significantly
developed in the area; old farmhouses and rural constructions have been restructured using the old materials,
tiles and decorations and leaving the characteristic look of the past while giving guests all the modern
comforts of today’s living.
There are many restaurants, tavole calde, sort of snack bars, cafes, hotels and lodgings to cater to
all budgets. The service is courteous and the food prepared by the Chianoti is rich in flavor, freshly made and prepared with a religious
dedication and passion.
All the bread and cheese made in Piana degli
Albanesi are indescribably tasty and some other unique dishes of the area are: dumpling gnocchi made with semolina in a basil tomato sauce; the soup of fave and beans; and
Milanese pasta with salted anchovies, fennels, tomato paste and
Excellent meat, lamb and pork dishes, pork
sausages with fennel seeds, and an assortment of locally grown fresh vegetables are offered
Among the desserts, you will find gruret, a sweet made with cooked wheat, sugar or honey, milk or ricotta and
chocolate; almond biscuits; plotit, a cookie stuffed with figs and
almonds; many cakes and desserts prepared for special festivities and also…the cannoli.
The cannoli made at Piana degli Albanesi are some of the biggest and
best cannoli in the world.
The ricotta cream that fills them is light,
creamy, and pleasantly sugary, possibly because it is made by mixing different kinds of ricotta—cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s; the candied citron mixed in the cream gives it a unique scent;
the delicate shell is crunchy and sprinkled with chocolate shavings and powdered sugar; and
the cannoli are garnished with strips
d’angelo, candied fragrant orange