01 August 2015

Pistachios everywhere, but
no sign of Nelson anywhere

Almost all the pistachios in Italy are grown on the slopes of Mount Etna, near the Nelson estate at Bronte (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Sicily and Sardinia are the only parts of Italy that Napoleon never conquered, and Sicily is the only part of Italy where pistachio trees are grown.

Indeed, more than 85% of Sicily’s pistachio trees grow on the slopes of Mount Etna, because of its mineral-rich volcanic soil, and most of those trees grow in orchards around the town of Bronte, on the north-western slopes of the volcano.

In all the shops, cafés and souvenir stalls around Rifugio Sapienza, they sell every imaginable pistachio product: pistachio pesto, pistachio biscuits, pistachio jam, pistachio pasta sauce, pistachio liqueurs, pistachio-carved wooden kitchen utensils … as well as pistachios in packages and loose pistachios.

You simply cannot get enough pistachios from Bronte anywhere near Mount Etna.

As Napoleon advanced though Italy, King Ferdinand IV and the Bourbon court fled revolutionary Naples in 1799. They were brought to safety in Sicily by Admiral Horatio Nelson on his ship. Also on board were Sir William Hamilton, and Emma Lady Hamilton.

To show his gratitude, King Ferdinand made Nelson a Sicilian duke, with the title of Duke of Bronte, and gave him a large estate – with pistachio orchards, needless to say. The estate was then called named Maniace, after the Byzantine general George Maniakes, but it was promptly renamed Castello Nelson.

Castello Nelson looks like an English country house with an English country garden, rather than an Italian palazzo. Nelson never visited the place.

The grant of Bronte, allowed Nelson to name any members of his family as his heir, but his will never named Orazia, the daughter he had with Emma Hamilton. Instead, Bronte and the ducal title passed to Nelson’s elder brother, the Revd William Nelson.

Nelson’s family still owned the Bronte estate until 1978, and the family still actually own the nearby English cemetery.

Patrick Prunty, who was born in Rathfriland, Co Down, on Saint Patrick’s Day 1777, the son of a farm labourer. He started off life as an apprentice blacksmith and then an apprentice linen draper, but eventually became a teacher and then managed to fund his way through a theological education at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

Either because he was so in awe of Nelson, or so keen to mask his Irish identity, he changed his family name while he was at Cambridge to Brontë, adding an affectatious umlaut to the final E.

He hardly changed his name in honour of the cyclops Brontes, buried beneath Mount Etna after being slain by Apollo.

Can you imagine reading the novels of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Prunty?


Pistachio pesto on sale on the slopes of Mount Etna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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