Manna is the sap extracted from the bark of some species of plants of the genus Fraxinus (ash trees), in particular Fraxinus ornus (manna ash or manna ash) and is also a typical Sicilian product, as such it is recognized and is included in the list of traditional agri-food products (PAT) drawn up by the ministry of agricultural and forestry policies (Mipaaf).

Origins and History –
For centuries the term “manna” was of exclusive use by the Jews, derived from the expression “man hu”, which in ancient Hebrew translated the question “what is it?”, Referring to the food provided by heaven to the people of the Exodus.
In the 1st century Dioscorides used the term “manna” to indicate grains or incense dust, and this meaning remained with the Greeks and Romans until, with the affirmation of the Christian religion, it returned to use to identify the biblical manna.
Then in the ninth century. the Arabs, conquering Persia in which various mannees were known, acquired its use by spreading it among the peoples placed under their dominion. During the medieval period the market for various types of manna fueled a flourishing trade from Persia to the East and West, which was maintained until the affirmation of the manna extracted from the ash trees. The Madonie manna is in fact a resin produced by carving the bark of the ornello and verdello (in the months of July, August and September) grown for this purpose in a few places in the Mediterranean. This resin, from which it is possible to obtain a particular sugary substance also called “dew honey”, is used above all in herbal medicine for its laxative and refreshing properties, or as a sweetener tolerated even by diabetics.
It is therefore presumable that the cultivation of manna ash in Sicily dates back to Islamic domination (IX-XI century AD).
The oldest documentary finding that mentions the manna dates back to 1080 in a diploma from the bishop of Messina. Leandro Alberti, in his «Descrittione di tutto Italia» of 1577, speaks of the manna that was collected in the city of Thuri Sibarite. In 1505 Piero Del Riccio-Baldi, a distinguished humanist (Florence 1465 – therein 1507), in his “De Honesta Discipline” says: “In our times what they call the Calabrian manna is highly esteemed”. Sicily became the largest producer in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Until the 1950s, manna represented the basis of the local economy for some centers of Sicily and its production was carried out by local ash growers. The phenomenon that has pushed the new generations to prefer work in the city, rather than agriculture, has strongly contributed to the abandonment of the cultivation of manna.
However, the production of manna offers a good income compared to the past (each kilo costs more than 2,000 euros, and the price is currently growing).

Geographic area –
Manna is produced following traditional techniques, handed down in peasant families from father to son.
Today the cultivation is limited to a few areas of Sicily, precisely only to the territory of Pollina and Castelbuono, with a cultivated area (estimated in 2002) of about 3200 ha; here is the latest generation of ash growers who keep alive the precious cultural and cultural heritage linked to the world of the ancient craft of “ntaccaluòru”.
The areas in which the manna ash is (or was) cultivated are part of the very largest natural range of the species (described in the entry Fraxinus ornus). These are areas included in the altimetric range between 200 and 800 m, with a Mediterranean-arid climate (it is no coincidence that the ash is a xerophytic plant – it adapts well to drought), on calcareous or clayey soils.
The best productions are also indicated for the limestone-arenaceous soils facing south-east.

Raw material –
The plants from which manna can be obtained are substantially three, belonging to the genus Fraxinus:

  • Il Fraxinus excelsior, detto comunemente frassino maggiore, è un albero alto fino a 40 metri con chioma dapprima ovale e in seguito arrotondata, e con fusto diritto e slanciato. La corteccia nelle piante giovani è verde-olivastra e liscia, mentre nelle piante adulte, diviene finemente e densamente fessurata. Le foglie opposte, caduche, sono composte da 7-15 foglioline aventi la lamina di forma lanceolata ed il margine seghettato. I fiori, riuniti in infiorescenze a forma di “pannocchia”, compaiono prima delle foglie e fioriscono da marzo ad aprile. Il frutto secco e alato (samara) contiene un solo seme. Questa specie nell’Italia meridionale vive a quote elevate ed in Sicilia è presente solo sulle Madonie. Il clima non sufficientemente caldo e arido non permette però di far rapprendere la manna.
  • Il Fraxinus ornus, detto comunemente orniello o amolleo, è un albero spesso ridotto a cespuglio che può raggiungere al massimo i 10 m d’altezza. Il sistema radicale è fittonante ed arriva fino a notevole profondità; il tronco più o meno eretto ha una forma cilindrica con una corteccia grigio-verdastra e liscia anche nelle piante adulte. Le gemme sono di colore grigio cenere e si distinguono in terminali e laterali: le prime di forma ovale, allungate ed appuntite mentre le seconde più piccole ed ovato- acute. Le foglie sono opposte e imparipennate composte da 7-9 foglioline lanceolate o ellittiche; i fiori di colore biancastro, profumati e riuniti in pannocchie, si sviluppano contemporaneamente alle foglie dei rami dell’anno precedente e sono ermafroditi; la fioritura avviene in aprile-maggio. Il frutto è una samara bislunga lanceolata con una lunghezza di 2–3 cm. Questa è la specie tipicamente utilizzata per la produzione della manna.
  • Il Fraxinus angustifolia, chiamato volgarmente ossifillo, è un albero alto che può superare i 20 m con foglie opposte, imparipennate costituite da 5-13 foglioline strette, lanceolate e dentellate. I fiori che si sviluppano prima delle foglie sono riuniti in pannocchie ascellari e fioriscono a fine inverno; il frutto è una samara di 2– 4 cm. In Sicilia, oltre alla specie tipica, è presente la sottospecie oxycarpa che si differenzia per la pubescenza nella parte prossimale della pagina inferiore delle foglioline. La varietà più diffusa sui territori di Castelbuono e Pollina è il “verdello”, per le sue ottime caratteristiche di produttività, precocità e qualità del prodotto.

Description –
Manna is the sap extracted from the bark of some species of plants of the genus Fraxinus (ash trees), in particular Fraxinus ornus (manna ash or manna ash).
Manna is a sugary exudate consisting mainly of mannite, organic acids, water, glucose and, to a lesser extent, levulose, mucilage, resins and nitrogen compounds. The qualitative and quantitive composition of manna is very complex and the percentage incidence of its constituents depends on various factors (the area of origin, the age of the ash, the chemical-physical constitution of the soil and its exposure, the seasonal trend , etc., type of manna used).

Manna in scrap % Manna in cannolo %
Mannite 40 55 and more
Water 10 10
Glucose 3 2.2
Fructose 3.04 205
Stachyose 16 12-16
Mannotriose 16 6
Salts (Fe, Al, Cu, Mn) 2 1,5
Protein fraction 0.01 0.005
Unknown substances 9.06 10785

Some principles, even present in a homeopathic percentage, are positively felt by the fine biological reactivity of the human organism.
But manna generally contains 40-60% (with peaks over 70%) of mannite or D-mannitol (C6H14O6), which is a hexavalent alcohol of mannose, commonly called manna sugar.
D-mannitol occurs in the form of a crystalline powder, or of transparent rhombic prisms (crystallization from water), or bright needles gathered in groups or arranged in rays (crystallization from hot alcohol).
This substance is odorless, colorless and non-hygroscopic. It tastes sweet, but the sweetening power is lower than that of sugar. Melts at 165-166º C.
Above melting point it decomposes and emits a burnt sugar smell.
It has a specific weight of 1,485-1,489.
It is well soluble in hot water, less so in cold water. At the same temperature it is all the more soluble in alcohol the lower the alcohol content.
It is also insoluble in the ether.
It can be oxidized to d-fructose (ie the corresponding monoketone) by Bacterium xylinum or Bacterium aceti.
It can be fermented in the presence of mineral salts by schizomycetes giving alcohol, butyric acid and lactic acid, and can also undergo lactic and butyric fermentation.
Mannite can be considered as one of the final products of chlorophyll photosynthesis, a complex photochemical process that allows the transformation of light energy into chemical energy, thus making it possible to synthesize complex organic substances such as sugars, starting from simple inorganic substances such as carbon dioxide and water, according to the reaction:
nH2O + nCO2 —> (CH2O) n + nO2
Photosynthesis occurs in cytoplasmic organelles surrounded by double membranes called chloroplasts, whose outer membrane is freely permeable to low molecular weight substances, while the inner one is permeable only to a few substances including carbon dioxide.
The region of the chloroplast enclosed by the inner membrane is called the stroma; suspended in the stroma there is a continuous membrane, the thylakoid membrane, which is considerably folded to form a network of flattened vesicles called thylakoids.
The photosynthetic process consists of two sets of reactions, those to light and those to dark.
The first (reactions of the light phase) take place at the level of the thylakoid membranes, where the light energy captured by the chlorophyll molecules is, through the splitting of water, converted into chemical energy (ATP, NADPH).
The second (dark phase reactions) take place in the stroma of the chloroplast and transform carbon dioxide into phosphorylated sugars (3-phosphoglyceraldehyde) and water through the cycle of photosynthetic reduction of carbon called the Calvin-Benson cycle. A part of the 3-phosphoglyceraldehyde molecules produced remains in the chloroplast and guarantees the maintenance of the Calvin-Benson cycle; others are transported into the cytoplasm and following condensation with a second molecule with three carbon atoms, they determine the formation of a fructose molecule which is transformed into D-mannose which is subsequently reduced to mannitol. Organic compounds deriving from photosynthesis are distributed throughout the plant by translocation that takes place in the phloem, a vascular tissue containing thin interconnected tubes formed by living cell walls.
The incision of the ash stem, at phloem level, causes the escape of the circulating elaborate sap which, solidifying in contact with the air, gives rise to the formation of manna.
The cost of manna is high and is around 1,900-2,000 euros per kilo. The least expensive manna (extracted from the branches) costs 200 euros per kilo.

Production Method –
Manna is recognized as a Slow Food Presidium and it is for this reason that together with the ash growers a production specification has been drawn up which guarantees its quality and origin.
The manna, as written, is the sap extracted from the suitably engraved bark.
The number of growers is decreasing more and more; now almost only the elderly know how to cultivate and make incisions on the bark of the ash tree trunk with a particular knife called mannaruolo.
From the small transversal incisions created with precise gestures, a juice slowly gushes initially cerulean in color and with a bitter taste (lagrima), which in contact with the air quickly clears up and takes on a sweet taste. Condensing, it forms white and fragrant cannoli and stalactites.
The harvesting operation is carried out every week with the bow, the shovel and the box (special tools for collecting the manna)
Manna is classified according to how it is collected:

– manna cannolo: it is the most valuable, similar to a stalactite; it is formed by the dripping of the sap along the bark of the tree and is collected with the bow;

– manna scrap: it is made up of the sap that flows along the bark; it is detached with the rasula and collected in the box;
– manna in fate: it is formed by the sap that accumulates in the prickly pear cladodes specially prepared at the base of the trunk.

Since the most valuable category is the cannoli manna, a new collection system has been developed in order to increase the quantity. This system involves the use of nylon threads tied to a small steel sheet placed immediately under the incision; the sap flows along the threads and solidifies forming cannoli of considerable length, which can be harvested every two days, contrary to the traditional method which provided for weekly harvesting.
The production is left to dry (stinnitura) for the first 24-36 hours in the shade, to remove and clean the cannoli and the stalactites from impurities; subsequently in full sun on the drying racks or stinnituri for about a week, until the product reaches the right moisture content (about 9%). Finally, carefully selected, it is placed in special wooden containers and stored in a dry environment.
Usually the first incision falls in the second-third decade of July. In this period the undermining (or squashing) is practiced which consists in removing the earth around the trunk until the upper part of the larger roots is exposed; in doing so, the plant is facilitated to enter a condition of water stress which is essential for production purposes.
To identify the right moment for the first incision, the ash grower makes an examination to verify the maturity of the plant by checking that the soil is completely dry and detaches from the roots, that the leaves turn from intense green to a green tending to yellow; furthermore, to verify the actual stress of the tree, the degree of withering of the foliage is tested by hand.
When the plant is ready, the first incision is made with the mannaruolu; the incision is made transversely at the base of the trunk starting from 5-10 cm above the ground. The incisions (ntacche) are made every morning at a distance of about 2-3 cm from the previous groove. The first recording begins in the second half of July and ends at the end of September, if the weather conditions permit.

Gastronomic use –
Tradition, quality, naturalness, typicality, genuineness and uniqueness, plus the well-being for the organism, resulting from its consumption, are characteristic qualities of the Madonie manna.
Manna is primarily a mild laxative with no contraindications, particularly suitable for early childhood, for the very elderly, debilitated and convalescent (it is generally administered in milk, or as a decoction of manna, which is a mild purgative). It is also a natural cosmetic, and has a beneficial action on the respiratory system, in fact it acts as a fluidifying, emollient and sedative for coughs; it is also a natural sweetener with a low glucose and fructose content, which can be used as a sweetener for diabetics. Manna has numerous therapeutic virtues and is harmless and free of relevant secondary actions, which among other things makes it particularly recommendable in pediatrics: it is indicated in cases of indigestion and hypertension, it has bechiche and anti-catarrhal properties, it is a cough suppressant and calming in bronchitis; bits of manna slowly dissolved in the mouth have expectorant properties. Finally, it can be used as eye drops in ocular congestions.
Then in Sicily there is a pastry production made with manna: pralines, nougats and even a sort of panettone.
It is an exquisite panettone glazed with manna invented by pastry chefs and is characterized by a truly delicate and inviting fragrance and unique sweetness.
In other words, manna is a sweetener that corrects the acidity of the ingredients and sweetens without distorting the flavors.
For example, it is used to sweeten dark chocolate or to flavor pastry desserts without using sugar.
Furthermore, given the numerous therapeutic properties, manna can be used to aid digestion or avoid sugar in the kitchen.
Specifically, it can be mixed in coffee, milk or infusions and be taken pure to aid digestion or as a laxative.
Surely it is an ideal element for those who want to purify themselves from a period of excesses but be careful not to overdo the doses because it can become a powerful purgative.
According to some, it helps autoimmunity, improves the healing of some wounds and detoxifies the liver.

Guido Bissanti

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