Photo Credit: Arancini made at Nonna's Cucina class in June, 2019
Doing a spelling check on a recipe I was writing, I suddenly began to doubt myself and my knowledge of Sicilian cuisine. Was it arancino or arancina/ arancini or arancine?
It turns out that the answer to this conundrum is not simple and it has engaged erudite linguists, chefs and cooks, regional rivals and ultimately, the Accademia della Crusca itself, Italy’s pre-eminent research institution that involves itself in matters linguistic and philosophical.
If you will indulge me on a little tangent (and why wouldn’t you, it's my blog after all), I spent an interesting half hour exploring the machinations of this august body, the Accademia della Crusca.
I know that cusca means bran. And bran is a by-product of the milling of grain to obtain a healthy, ‘full of fibre’ flour. I know this because I am constantly encouraged to eat more bran for my gut health and to develop more lean muscle.
So what did thrifty agricultural practices have to do with etymology and the formation of the oldest linguistic academy in the world?
Bran is the part of the wheat that is discarded when the grain is cleaned up and this process reflected the role that the founders of the Academy claimed for themselves in 1582.
The Accademia della Crusca - literally 'the Bran Academy' - was founded by five Florentine men of letters. Clearly these men had a lively sense of humour, as most people who love language invariably do. They good-humouredly called their meetings "cruscate" ('bran-meetings'), and the term stuck. It represented their work of 'cleaning up' the language.
It was to this noble body that I referred my question as to the gender of those delicious rice orbs that have now become iconic in the Sicilian culinary lexicon. In Palermo, on the western side of the island, the round, deep fried balls of rice are golden spheres to represent the ubiquitous oranges that grow everywhere and they take the feminine name, arancina. In Catania in the east, though, they are cone shaped, poetically mimicking the grand Mount Etna in whose shadow they fall, and they have a masculine ending, arancino.
So, the Academy’s ruling could not be clear cut. Their findings were confounded by usage and I was reminded of the classic case of the definition of the tomato being arbitrated upon by a court of law in America at the turn of last century.
If I may digress upon a digression....
At hospitality trade school more than 30 years ago, I read the judgement of Nix v. Hedden heard in the Supreme Court of the United States in 1893.
At that time, a tax was required to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. John Nix & Co. filed a suit to recover duties paid for his crates of tomatoes. Nix argued against the tariff by pointing out that, botanically, a tomato is a fruit due to its seed-bearing structure growing from the flowering part of a plant and therefore tax was not due.
At the trial, however, lawyers entered into evidence, definitions of the words "fruit" and "vegetables" and they called witnesses who had been in the business of selling fruit and vegetables for years.
In the end, the judgement proclaimed that while botanically, a tomato is indeed a fruit, in common parlance it is seen as a vegetable; hence the United States Supreme Court ruled that a tomato is a vegetable for the purposes of the customs regulations and John Nix’s tomatoes were liable for tax.
In a similar argument, L’Accademia della Crusca, found that the feminine ending was correct since it emerged from arancia, the fruit upon which the shape was based. In practice, however, the masculine form came about through the Italianised version of the Sicilian name for them, "arancinu".
This was compounded by the fact that in the first Italian-Sicilian dictionary in 1857, the masculine ending was given. Thereafter, the masculine form arancino in singular and arancini in plural was more conventionally used.
In other words, there was no real solution to the problem of their name and neither to the birthplace – Palermo or Catania.
What is certain though is that this modest food has an exotic and long standing pedigree, dating back to when the Kalbids, a Muslim Arabic dynasty, ruled in Sicily from 948 to 1053.
Under the Kalbid dynasty, Sicily, and especially Palermo, was an important economic centre of the Mediterranean. The Muslims introduced lemons, oranges, sugar cane, saffron, rice, as well as cotton and mulberries for sericulture, and built irrigation systems for agriculture and specifically for rice cultivation.
Despite the unresolved dispute, everyone agrees on how good is this symbol of Sicilian street food. Perfectly crispy, with its hot filling, the arancino or arancina – whichever you prefer, leave me out of it – is never contested.
In Australia they are better known now and I wonder if it’s because tourists have finally discovered the paradise that is Sicily or can we thank my literary and television hero Commissario Montalbano?
'Gli arancini di Montalbano' ('Inspector Montalbano’s Arancini') is the title of the second collection of short stories by Andrea Camilleri.
This last tale gives its name to the entire second collection. In this story, we are at the end of the year and the Commissioner receives invitations from all his colleagues for New Year's Eve dinner. However, all he wants to do is to remain in Vigata alone and enjoy his housekeeper, Adelina’s, delicious arancini. As bad luck would have it, Adelina’s delinquent son, Pasquale, has been framed for a theft he did not commit (this time, at least) and so Montalbano has to work hard for the final delight of Adelina’s exquisite cooking.
In Palermo and other areas, the day of arancina/arancino is December 13, during the feast of Santa Lucia. On this day, the typical dessert of boiled wheat and ricotta, the cuccìa, is also served. Variations are endless: there are the classic arancini, with peas and stewed pork ragu or the butter, béchamel and cheese ones. In rosticcerie (take away shops) you will find more creative ones, with pistachios, squid ink or eggplant, mushrooms and bacon, or ricotta, mint and cheese. You can even find small, sweet ones filled with chocolate or ricotta cream, then rolled in sugar and cinnamon.
The island remains steadfastly divided between two schools of thoughts: western Sicily, arancina, eastern Sicily: arancino. But my generous friend, Nancy Colarco, has shared her recipe and tips for making both the plain, saffron and cheese variety (she does not use béchamel) and the more substantial cone shaped ones with ragu and peas.
NANCY COLARCO'S ARANCINI
Nancy's family come from the small town of St Angelo di Brolo, in the province of Messina, established in the 11th century by Roger 1. For a town of just over 3,000 people, they have many sagre (country food festivals), including the Sagra Di Maccarruna col sugo di maiale, the Fiera Regionale del Salame, Festa della Porchetta, and the Sagra dei Maccheroni.
ARANCINI: FIRST MAKE A DRY, PLAIN, SAFFRON RISOTTO AND ALLOW IT TO GET COLD:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion finely chopped
2 cups Arborio, Cannaroli or Vialone Nano rice
1 clove garlic
125ml white wine
4 cups stock (preferably homemade)
generous pinch saffron
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp parmesan grated
Salt and pepper to taste
1 beaten egg
250 g mozzarella cheese, cut into 1 cm dice
Warm the olive oil in a saucepan with tight lid. Sauté onion until soft and transparent but not coloured. Add 2 cups rice at once and stir to coat in oil. Cook quickly until rice is hot and toasted but do not allow to burn. Add garlic, then pour in the wine. Shake the pan and allow the wine to evaporate to around 2-3 tbsp.
Meanwhile heat stock and saffron to boiling then ladle in half a cup stock and stir until most of liquid is absorbed then add another ladle of stock and stir until absorbed. Over this time (approx. 20 min.), the rice should be just under al dente). Pour in last of stock, cover tightly and allow to finish cooking for 5-6 minutes. Uncover.
Taste, add butter, parmesan and season with salt and pepper.
Allow to cool quickly by spreading it out on a clean bench or try. Mix in the beaten egg and proceed to make arancini. Flatten out a ball of risotto in the palm of your hand. Put in a piece of cheese and fold the rice over to completely enclose the cheese. Roll tightly.
Roll in flour, eggs and breadcrumbs as described below.*
Photo Credit: Nonna's Cucina, 2019 We do not know how to make small quantities. This is the production team making arancini for the catering menu. From left: Nonna Maria, Nancy, Karen and Chef Stefan
Below: arancini before and after coating with breadcrumbs, ready for the deep fryer.
TO MAKE SICILIAN ARANCINE with RAGU: first make one batch of saffron risotto above.
TO MAKE THE RAGU FILLING
2 tbsp olive oil
1⁄2 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic chopped
500 g mixed pork and veal mince
400 g can peeled and chopped tomato pulp
1 cup peas, thawed
1 egg, lightly beaten
100g caciocavallo, pecorino or provolone cut into small cubes
Warm the oil and saute the onion and garlic until the onion is translucent but not coloured. Add the mince and cook until brown. Tip in the tomatoes and cook until the mixture is very dry. Season with salt and pepper.
To the cold risotto add one lightly beaten egg and fold through thoroughly. Dip hands in cold water. Take a small handful of risotto and flatten it in the palm of your hand. Add about 1 teaspoon of mixture and nestle a cube of cheese in the middle.
Wrap the risotto around the filling and roll tightly into a firm ball OR shape into the distinctive cone shape. Nancy taught us to oil a sheet of plastic wrap and bring up the edges to help shape into a cone.
Photo Credit: Nonna's Cucina. Patient Nancy teaching a student how to shape the cone arancini.
*TO FINISH THE ARANCINI
1 cup seasoned plain flour
2 lightly beaten eggs extra
1 cup toasted breadcrumbs
Oil for frying (Use olive oil, sunflower or safflower)
Dip each ball in flour then shake off excess. Dip into eggs and finally into breadcrumbs. When all the arancini are coated, refrigerate for half an hour. When ready to serve, heat up oil and fry gently until golden. You can fry 4 to 5 arancini at a time.
Photo Credit: Nonna's Cucina, June 2019