January is upon us here in the Ragusa Valley. One truth about the local climates is that it is hot during the day (from the high 50s to low 60s) and freezing cold at night. Winter shadows cause some of this temperature change. Cast during the day, the north sides of the hills are bitter cold and see almost no sunlight until April. You’ll see a lot of hikers keeping to the south side of the mountains to stay warm. But here in Southern Sicily, how much influence can these mountains effect on the local climate?
As it turns out, a lot.
About 25 kilometers north of Ragusa lies Monte Lauro, deep in the Hyblean Mountains. A very unassuming mountain, it always appeared as one of several small peaks in the Hyblean mountain chain. What you don’t realize is how much this mountain changes the weather patterns in the valley.
The Real Deal.
To begin with, it’s not a mountain, it’s a volcano. Monte Lauro dates back to the Miocene geological epoch (five to 23 million years ago). It belongs to a chain of multiple underwater volcanoes of that time. Which means the eruptions deposited basalt and other volcanic mass along her slopes over the ages. This rich mineral layer is an excellent foundation for numerous plants living there today (over 5,700 acres of Mediterranean coniferous trees). In fact, the name “Lauro” comes from the Latin Laurus nobilis (laurel) which grew in abundance on these hillsides.
Monte Lauro is also the source of some interesting ecological phenomenon. For example, it is the source of multiple rivers. This bedrock is ideal for absorbing rainwater throughout the fall and winter and feeding the rivers in the dry months. The Ànapo river – one of the longest in Sicily – has its source just below the mountain top (986m) and runs all the way to the Ionian Sea. The Irminio also begins on this principle peak of the Hyblean Mountains. It feeds the Diga Rosalia just north of Ragusa and then continues its way toward Marina di Ragusa in the island’s south.
It’s All About the Food!
Monte Lauro holds further surprises. On the south side of the mountain, volcanic activity and glacial movement formed a “bowl”-like plateau. During the spring the rain runoff flows down the hillsides creating a wonderful location for crops to grow. Giarratana’s famous – and enormous – onions have won international culinary awards. These are not your ordinary onions: they have been recognized by the Slow Food movement. These onions can only grow in the summer when the porous lava rock is wet with winter runoff and only in this microclimate can they flourish.
On the north side of the mountain, the temperatures get frightfully cold in winter. Yet the oranges from Francofonte can still grow strong. You may have heard of them: Sicilian blood oranges. The cold weather causes an antioxidant pigment (Anthocyanin) to undergo crystallization causing the orange to change color and taste. Granted, there are many types of species of blood oranges (such as tarocco and sanguinello among others), but the cold temperatures have a significant effect on the harvest. So the next time you’re in the ragusano valley near Giarratana, make sure you pay your respects to this ancient volcano: she has given us (and continues to give!) a lot! Just stay on the sunny side in winter….brrr!