Le Neviere of Monte Lauro

January 27, 2012 / Places
Monte Lauro, Buccheri, Sicilia

Sicily often conjures up images of beaches and suntans, but once had a great reputation for ice. Gathering snow and compacting it into ice has been done for centuries, and Sicily’s high mountains provided ice not only for its hot coastal cities, but was shipped as far as Tunisia and Malta.

On the flat top of Monte Lauro, an extinct volcano nearly a 1000 meters high in the Monti Iblei, there are 25 neviere – snow huts – that stand in testament to the once-thriving ice industry, when gathering snow to make ice was big business. From the 15th to the 19th century these neviere supplied ice to Buccheri and other neighboring towns, as well as half the ice for the entire city of Siracusa.

The neviere were built in a few different shapes, with the majority of the structure being beneath the earth. The most common shape is the cupola, built as a deep stone cylinder underground, topped with a visible cupola. Snow was gathered within a limited area called a “zàccanu” (most often owned by a noble family and occasionally, the church), which was enclosed by a low stone wall. When it snowed, a bell would be rung in the town, and anyone willing to work for a few cents would gather in the cold night to roll the snow towards the neviera, then pack it into 100 kilo layers that were separated by straw, which served as both insulation and to mark a section that would be later cut as ice in the summer months.

Used for protecting food from spoilage as well as making cooling sorbets with lemon and salt in the hot summer, the ice was also used as a medicinal remedy for a high fever, when doctors would prescribe “la cura di lu friddu“, the cold cure, which involved packing the patient in ice – survivors definitely had no fever.

While no longer in use, the fine craftsmanship of the neviere is lovely to behold, and when the Mt. Etna volcano appears as a backdrop in winter, they make a stunning site. You may have to clamber over a few barbed wire fences and dodge some feisty cows, but the neviere of Monte Lauro are worth a visit.

Anita Iaconangelo

by Anita Iaconangelo

An expert on walking and culinary tours in many areas of Italy, with a special focus on Sicily, Anita Iaconangelo is the founder of Italian Connection Tours and author of the blog Anita’s Italy. She is currently at work on a book entitled Savoring Sicily: A Culinary Quest. 

13 Responses to “Le Neviere of Monte Lauro”

  1. giuseppe spano (jojo)
    giuseppe spano (jojo)

    It is an amazement how simple it is to preserve ice, even without refrigerants. Mama used to keep it from winter in a wooden box with saw dust ti insulate the bottom and side and straw on top under the lid. This would last long into the summer to keep out alimenti e pasti at good temperatures (in Puglia)

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  2. giuseppe spano (jojo)
    giuseppe spano (jojo)

    vi prego di scusarmi
    It was to say ‘to insulate’ and ‘ ‘ to keep our alimenti e pasti at good temperatures. The fingers are old and crooked to the keys….

    Reply
  3. Anita Iaconangelo

    Yes Giuseppe, this was a widespread practice and many of the houses in Buccheri had their own little grottoes used for keeping a personal supply of ice.

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  4. Gian Banchero

    Thank you Anita for the article and photos… The photo of the pasture with Mount Etna in the background reminded me of when I lived in Sicily that in order to escape the heat and humidity I would spend the day in the small tourist village near the volcano’s summit. Though scary I was quite excited one visit when after a small earthquake lava and sulfuric vapor started to rise, being not too bright I went to the crater’s rim and immediately understood how and why the ancients thought volcanoes to be the portals to hell, not only did the vapor seem as large dancing demons of the underworld but the lava had a neon brilliancy that is never captured on film, totally mesmerizing!

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  5. Anne Robichaud

    ..and ice was kept in the nevieri near Etna, too…..and centuries ago, the kitchen staffs of the wealthy Catanesi added lemon juice to the ice, making granita, vero?

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  6. Anita Iaconangelo

    Thanks Anne,a nd yes there are neviere on Mt Etna as well as the Madonie and other places of a high enough altitude to have snow in Sicily. At first I think there were icy sorbetti made with a lemon or mint syrup, and the granita came a bit later. The method of mixing ice and salt in a large basin, so that it surrouneded a smaller basin containing the granita mixture of water, sugar and lemon juice, then as it was stirred it froze- kind of like our American ice cream chruns with rock salt!

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  7. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Once again I learned something intriguing. I’m familiar with ice-houses in English country estates – quite a few survive in the landscape – but these seem to be on a much bigger scale. Thanks for the fascinating note and the photos.

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  8. Catherine Iaquinta

    Returned from Sicily in October, 2012 and wished I had been able to visit and view the houses. Thanks for the wonderful pictures and information on my last names origin.

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  9. Anita Iaconangelo

    Penny – it makes sense that there would be ice houses on country estates in England, just as they are to be found in other places in Italy, and I find the different architectural shapes for them to be quite fascinating. But I do tend to get overexcited about anything beautifully built out of stone!

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  10. neviere

    I now know where my last name comes from and what it means. Thanks a lot !

    Sophie “snowhut” Neviere

    Reply

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