SIMPLY DIVINE: remembering biscuits made by nuns and Tunisian hospitality.
I am leading a small tour to Sicily in October 2019 and so I have been trawling through my photos of previous trips. Memories, names and faces jostle for my attention with recipes, tastes and changed perceptions. I am re-reading, Maria Grammatica’s seminal book on biscuits and pastries made in convents, Bitter Almonds. Recollections and recipes from a Sicilian girlhood.
It is told through the eyes of a child from a poverty stricken family who grew up in the emotionally harsh environment of a working convent which subsidised its income by selling pastries made by its charges. When she finally left the drudgery and servitude of the convent, Maria Grammatica set up a pastry shop, taking with her the nuns’ recipes. She’d certainly earned the right to do that.
"We do everything by hand, starting with natural ingredients, from the milk and the squashes to the almonds and pistachios. The cost of the raw materials today is prohibitive, and the margins of profit are very narrow. We continue this activity so that we may maintain a window open - albeit protected by an iron grate - on the world, which is not hostile to us and which we have, after all, to love".
From an interview with a Benedictine nun, quoted in the preface to
Photo Credit: available at Amazon and on Kindle.
Sig.ra Grammatica’s pastry shop is in Erice which is a destination in itself for our little group in October.
Erice, a grey, sober, medieval town which rises out of the mists at 800 metres above sea level, is famous for its almond biscuits and pastries, proudly stacked up in the windows of the main street. Erice is often lost in swirls of mist and cloud, so a view isn't guaranteed. Locally these clouds are called "kisses of Venus" - a notion whose romance perhaps goes some way to compensate for the lost panorama. The most exciting way to get to Erice is by taking the cable-car (funivia) which climbs from the outskirts of Trapani to the town wall of Erice. The ten-minute journey is wonderfully panoramic, with views back over Trapani, the sea and the Egadi Islands.
Erice Castle - on a clear day.
But I digress.
The convents and monasteries of Sicily are the great repositories of Arab-Sicilian desserts and pastries. Crispelle di Riso Alla Beneditina and Cuoriccini are made by the Benedictines and can be bought in many market towns. Dolci di badia (sweets of the abbey) is a generic name given to extraordinary pastries and biscuits made traditionally in cloisters.
Almonds, sugar, honey were expensive and beyond the budget for most people. The convents, monasteries and abbeys perfected the recipes and sold the products, and they also made perfumes, distilled alcohol for medicines and tinctures and ultimately they made liqueurs and digestives, famous in Sicily and world wide. The pleasantly bitter, and entirely beneficial, Averna, is perhaps Sicily's most famous amaro.
My friend, Nancy, has allowed me to share her recipe for Sicilian Amaretti which reminds me of an extraordinary day spent in Erice some years ago.
250 g egg whites
1 kg almond meal – leave the skin on
500 g castor sugar
4-5 drops almond essence
blanched almonds or glace cherry to garnish
Preheat oven to 150C
Grind almonds and sugar together until the mixture forms a coarse flour. Add essence (drop by drop) and egg whites. Mix thoroughly by hand. Add a small amount of extra egg white if the mixture is too firm. Take a small, walnut size amount of mixture. Roll into a ball and set out on a paper lined baking sheet. Put one blanched almond or cherry on top and slightly flatten. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool completely before removing from baking sheet
Photo Credit: made by Nancy Colarco in the PISA kitchen.
Photo Credit: We ate these while sitting on some ancient steps in Agrigento's Valle dei Templi, just as the sun was setting.
1 kg blanched almonds -blanch them by plunging into hot water and then slipping the skin off. Don't buy ready blanched, they are too dry
500 g castor sugar
250 g egg whites, approx.
candied tangerine (or orange) peel
1 tsp chopped orange zest
Grind almonds and sugar together until the mixture forms a coarse flour. Add egg whites, peel and zest. Mix thoroughly by hand. Add a small amount of extra egg white if the mixture is too firm. Take a small, walnut size amount of mixture. Roll into a ball and set out on a paper lined baking sheet. Slightly flatten with your fingers. Cook for 20 minutes. Allow to cool completely before removing from baking sheet
We had an appointment to meet Sig. Grammatica in her pastry shop in the main street of Erice and desperate not to offend, we ate our way through the range of biscuits. She was a wonderful storyteller and though the stories were well worn and rehearsed, we had a deeply emotional sense of her hardship and her fight to be successful and independent. I think she admired our stamina because she shared with us a glass of Liquore Elisir for our digestion and told us the recipe. Over the years, I have played around with it - it is sweet and perfumed, not to everyone’s taste, but certainly to mine.
1 lt vodka or flavourless grappa
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon anise seeds
15 mint leaves
1 vanilla bean
1 cup sugar
1 cup orange blossom water
pinch of saffron
The Arabic word al iksir or elixir means "the medicine of long life". Alcohol, from the Arabic al-kuhul, was used as a disinfectant and medicine and not as a drink since Muslims are prohibited from imbibing alcohol. In Sicilian dialect a perfect wine is known as taibbi another Arabic word, meaning 'just right'.
Infuse all the ingredients except the sugar, orange blossom water and saffron for 1 week. At the end of this time, strain. Dissolve the sugar in 2 cups water and bring to the boil. Cool. Add orange blossom water and saffron to the infused vodka and leave in a cool, dark place for another week.
So many people avoid travel to Sicily perhaps because of misplaced fear. Then if they go, they stay on the quintessentially Greek side, the eastern side, and visit Taormina, Siracusa, Noto, Ragusa, Agrigento. Perhaps they might venture to Cefalu` and Palermo and are thus rewarded a thousand fold. What if they ventured to the North West coastline – what would they see? Palm trees, low, flat houses, salt mines, fishing villages, signage in Arabic script, views of North Africa – yes, on a clear day from Trapani - and extraordinary food.
Photo Credit: salt pans at Mothia (Mozia) near Marsala.
One year, we based ourselves in an agriturismo near Castellammare del Golfo and travelled daily to wonderful towns in this much overlooked part of Sicily. I recall a long, languid afternoon, losing myself in the narrow lanes of the Casbah of Mazara Del Vallo. The others on my tour were happily swimming, shopping or sipping iced coffee and liqueurs – I no longer remember why I was alone.
Photo Credit: Luca Fortis. Painted doorways in the Casbah of Mazara del Vallo.
The thin corridors between the brightly coloured houses of the Casbah suddenly started to close in, colourful doorways that had charmed me moments before began to look the same and offered no clue to the exit. A Tunisian woman suddenly opened her door, she was carrying a basket of prickly pears, fighi d’india, a pair of garden gloves and a small knife balanced on top of it all. She looked at me quizzically – I asked her the way back to the Museum of the Dancing Satyr where my group had arranged to meet after our free afternoon. Her weathered face cracked in a smile that lit up the gloom that was gathering in my chest. “Ah”, she said in Sicilian, smiling all the while, “You’re Italian!”
I didn’t have the heart to explain that no, I was not. I was from another island, but one just as remote and foreign as mainland Italy. Instead, I nodded apologetically and asked if she would help me nonetheless. Laughing, she invited me in. No, she ushered me in, I don’t remember having a choice. I recall that the tiny room off the front door was the kitchen, a table with five chairs took up nearly all the space. To my right, was a curtain and through the gap where the fabric didn’t quite stretch to the wall, I saw an iron bedstead with a number of thin mattresses rolled up neatly on top. On the other side, was a door, waxed to high brilliance but shut tight. The house was spotless, but joyful and lived in by a happy family, somehow I knew that.
She poured me an icy cold almond milk – and set before me, a bowl of fruit bobbing in cold water, some mazarisi, the sponge like pistachio cakes that we found only on the north west coast, and cubbaita, a sort of torrone with orange blossom honey and sesame seeds. She asked me to wait a moment for her daughter to come with her children and then we would all set off together to the Museum, delivering the fighi d’india to her neighbour and me to the bosom of safety.
This was before the age of selfies and Facebook, so I only have my memory of the warmth of female hospitality and the giggles of the children – wondrous that an adult could lose her way in the muddle of streets that they called home. The memory of that hospitality given so freely floods back even now.
When, breathlessly, I tried to share the experience with the other group members, all bronzed from the late summer sun, they dismissed me and turned it into a competition, flushed, as they were, with the joy of salt, sun and granita di caffe.
Rosa Matto’s The Travelling Epicure – October 1st to October 20th: A tour of the island, orientale ed occidentale. The tour, costed with so many inclusions, is up now on the website. Let me know if you need any more inspiration.
“Amunninni in Sicilia? (Andiamo in Sicilia?) Spacchiuso!” (Ottimo!):
Shall we go to Sicily? Perfect, cool!