The almond tree was brought to Sicily by the Ancient Greeks who made marzipan with ground almonds and honey. When the Arabs introduced sugar cane to Sicily they started the great tradition of Sicilian marzipan fruits, biscuits, refreshing granita and liqueur made with the nut they found growing there.
Almonds have influenced every aspect of Sicilian life: a sharp tongue in Sicilian dialect is "pizzuta" which references the famous sweet almonds grown around Sicily. The name derives from the shape of the shell that curves at the end and ends with a point. They are a bit like our ‘paper shell’ almonds from McLaren Vale (prunus dulcis) but the flavour is even sweeter and more intense (or was that because I was on holiday and my senses were sharper?) These nuts melt in the mouth - soft, rich and full of sweet oil.
There are other varieties too: large flat ones with a consistent size. These are suitable for sugared almonds or "Confetti". This confection is at any Sicilian celebration - white for weddings, green for engagements, red for a degree, silver for a 25th wedding anniversary, golden for a 50th wedding anniversary, pink and blue for births and baptisms
In Adelaide, the Quinzi family maintain the tradition of supplying confetti for bomboniere and have in fact added to the repertoire - yellow for welcoming guests, and orange for new beginnings.
Principally, sugared confetti are presented in one of three ways: loose in a large dish or bowl which is my personal preference; packaged in an individual presentation pouch or box. Here another Italian convention suggests that confetti at weddings are served in a multiple of the number 5 symbolising the 5 good wishes of health, prosperity, happiness, fertility and longevity; sometimes, the almonds are fashioned into decorative shapes, usually flowers. It is said that the sugared almond is an imitation of life - bitter sweet.
In Sicily the association of the almond tree with love is rooted in Greek mythology and stories. Almond blossoms first bloom in all their scented glory, between late winter and early spring. For this reason they carry with them the symbols of hope, fidelity, delicacy and of course, love.
Almonds are also added to a lot of Sicilian dishes to add an exotic Arabic influence, to thicken a pesto and to add nutrition and goodness to simple grilled vegetables or fish. Of course, many a Sicilian meal is completed with a glass of sweet almond wine and the heat of late summer is assuaged with an iced latte di mandorla – almond milk.
Photo credit: the travel bite. Every street corner will have a counter top machine to churn granite to cool you down with a 'not so sweet', nutty almond granita.
Every town we visited this hot October offered us a chilled and delicious almond milk drink or churned the same version into a blindingly cold granita. I loved the nutty, semi sweet flavour and the gritty, wholesome texture. Just to be clear, this is not the almond milk we can buy as a dairy substitute, it is thicker and richer and it is worthwhile to make your own.
My first foray into making fresh almond milk was at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in the heart of Sicily at Vallelunga sometime in the early 1990s. Our efforts were overseen by the formidable Anna Tasca Lanza herself. Last month, we were back, but this time under the watchful eye of her daughter, Fabrizia, also an uncompromising and measured teacher. We had a lot to learn as we turned almond milk into that most quintessential of Sicilian desserts, biancomangiare.
Lattte di Mandorle, Squeezed almond milk for biancomangiare
500 g raw whole almonds
2 litres water
6 bitter almonds (or substitute 2 drops pure almond essence
Debate rages about slipping the skins off the almonds or not when making latte di mandorle for drinking. I like the extra flavour but I concede that my almond milk is flecked with tiny brown skins. It's a personal thing. However, when making the liquid for biancomangiare it is necessary to remove the skins.
This is easily done by plunging the almonds into boiling water until they begin to float to the surface. Drain and peel off their skins. (The skins can go onto the garden as mulch.) Allow the almonds to dry, then chop them until fine in a food processor. Line a bowl with cheesecloth and pour cold water over the almonds. Bring up the sides of the cheesecloth and twist to squeeze the water through the cloth. The liquid will be a cloudy, milky colour. Repeat this step by adding more water and squeezing the cheesecloth until the liquid starts to run clear. Sweeten if you like with a very little sugar and store in the refrigerator.
(You will be left with almond pulp - if you do not have a neighbour with chickens, then use it to make the Jewish passover cake of boiled oranges and almond - it is necessary to add almond essence for the flavour but it is a way of avoiding waste.)
You now have a refreshing drink and the basis for your biancomangiare dessert.
We made this dessert at two separate and very different cookery classes in Sicily. We had our first cookery lesson on our second day in Ortigia with Gilda from Le Cesarine. Le Cesarine is an Italian wide organisation where home cooks invite travellers into their kitchens and give them a taste of authentic home cookery.
Our menu was vegetable based and held in a beautiful country estate. The dessert, which controversially split the group into lovers and haters was this famous, biancomangiare. We would make it again at the Anna Tasca Lanza School. By then, the haters had become accustomed to the taste of almond with its slightly aromatic bitterness and I was pleased we had a 100% conversion rate, with everyone loving it as much as I did. The recipe below is an amalgamation of the two recipes, tempered with my own experience and preferences.
BIANCOMANGIARE ALLE MANDORLE
500 ml almond milk, unsweetened
100 g sugar
75 g corn starch
1-2 drops pure almond essence
1 very finely grated lemon rind
Set aside half the milk and pour the rest, together with the grated rind of lemon, sugar and almond essence, in the pan. Cook over moderate heat. While the milk warms up, combine the sifted corn starch with the remaining cold milk. When the two ingredients are smooth, pour them into the hot milk, stirring constantly with a whisk to combine. Change over now to a wooden spoon and stir constantly until the mixture thickens to the density of a bechamel, this may take up to 20 minutes of constant stirring. When the mixture has thickened sufficiently, remove it from the heat and pour it into a mould or pretty glasses. Let it cool down first to room temperature and then place it in the fridge for at least 2 hours. Serve the biancomangiare by unmoulding it on a serving dish and sprinkling the surface with cinnamon powder and coarsely chopped toasted almonds. Or you can leave it in the glasses and save yourself the anxiety of unmoulding. ( I am sure there is a saint to watch over this process - St Monica of the Unmoulding? Reputedly, St Monica is the patron saint of patience.)
Photo Credit: two versions of the same dish. Above with Gilda from Le Cesarine, refrigerated overnight and unmoulded. Below at Anna Tasca Lanza left in its glass and garnished with candied zuccata and pistachio. Photos by Fiona Wald.
While the almond orchards in Sicily are concentrated mostly around Noto and Avola, and scattered around the province of Siracusa, we saw huge plantings in the fields around the temples of Agrigento – imagine them in bloom at the Almond Festival in Spring. One of our party, Heather, bought sublime pizzute almonds at a market in Agrigento. They sustained us over many evenings drinking Grillo and Nero D'Avola.
Photo credit: White Almond Sicily. The splendour of the Temple Concordia framed by almond blossom.
Sicily is the centre of almond production for Italy, contributing 21 of the 36 million hectares of groves across the country from Abruzzo heading south. Much of the crop is for export but centuries of multicultural influences have utilised the nuts in a variety of culinary traditions.
Old desserts from the Arab tradition abound, like Sicilian torrone called cubbaita or croccante which is more a version of almond brittle, than the torrone that I learned to make as a girl in the Campania tradition.
This sticky brittle is made from almonds in hard caramel and is a Sicilian specialty, symbolic of all holidays, fairs, and festivals, from Carnevale to Christmas. In Sicily, particularly in the Noto Valley, you'll find it in pastry shops and cafés. We found it at a street market where we bought it to share on our bus.
Photo credit: croccante from a street market. Photo by Connie Granozio.
It is a deceptively simple recipe, but pay careful attention while the caramel is on the stove — otherwise you can easily end up with a sticky disaster.
The sugar changes character and colour very quickly. You want to take it off the heat when it has just finished melting into a syrup the colour of dark honey but not much darker. You're aiming for a pleasantly bitter flavour like the top of a crème brûlée.
olive oil, for greasing
500 grams caster sugar
500 grams whole almonds, with the skin left on
1/2 orange zest only, chopped very fine, optional
Toast the almonds at 180C for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a marble slab, silicone mat or piece of baking paper with olive oil. Grease another sheet of baking paper the same dimensions and set this aside.
Place the sugar in a wide, flat frypan in an even layer and turn the heat on low. Watch it carefully but don't stir it. As soon as it starts to melt, pay close attention that it doesn't become too dark (which means it will be bitter). It should be a medium or dark amber colour, like honey. Do not be tempted to stir.
Soon you can see the caramel forming around the edges. As soon as it has liquified completely and it is dark amber in colour, tip in the almonds. The almonds will cool down the caramel and make it harder to work. Keep it over the low heat and mix to combine until all the almonds are coated, then tip it out onto your prepared surface.
Working very quickly, place the second oiled sheet of paper face down on the top of the almond mixture and use a rolling pin to roll it to a depth of 1 cm. While the brittle is still warm, cut into pieces using a large, heavy kitchen knife.
Keep in an airtight container separated in layers with baking paper to avoid sticking and store in a cool, dark, dry place.
The list of almond biscuits we ate is endless - from amaretti, to ricci, colombine, and cosi dunci. In Ortigia, we bought kilos to eat on the long bus rides into the countryside to reach our daily destinations.
We waited until we reached Erice near Trapani on the west coast of Sicily to replenish our stocks. Here, with the wind whipping our hair and scarves, and the rain threatening us at every turn, we made our pilgrimage to Pasticceria Maria Grammatico. Maria Grammatico's story and recipes for various almond biscuits and cassata can be found in a previous post - April 30th Simply Devine.
Photo credit: Fiona Wald's photo of Castello di Venere makes it look warmer than it was in Erice on the day we toured. Below the window showcase of Pasticceria Maria Grammatico. We tried each one - we had to.
The almond marzipan pastry known as Martorana fruit makes its annual debut in Autumn - luckily around October when we visited.
At this time two things come together, namely the harvesting of the nuts in early September and the first "cool" days and nights in October. The marzipan is usually on display in pastry shops by All Saints Day, celebrated on the first of November as an Italian national holiday.
Martorana Fruit has a bit of an identity crisis. In Palermo it's named for the Martorana monastery, while elsewhere it's called pasta reale or frutta reale, the Italian word reale meaning both real and royal.
Almond marzipan probably came to Sicily from Spain, where the Arabs may have introduced it during the Middle Ages. Whether they also brought it to Sicily, which was home to several emirates before 1071, is a matter of debate. However, there is no doubt that it was the Arabs who introduced sugar cane in both Sicily and Spain, and without this key ingredient marzipan as we know it, could not exist. Of course, similar pastries are known in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus and other cities that the Arabs colonised.
Photo Credit: The church that gives its name to Martorana fruits. Known colloquially as the Martorana, the official name is the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, an homage to its patron, the Syrian-Greek adventurer George of Antioch. It is through him that we’ve inherited the term admiral, a title the Sicilian Normans derived from the Arabic title “emir al-bar,” roughly translating to “chief military commander of the sea.” George of Antioch gave Palermo the Martorana, one of the highlights of Sicily’s Arab-Norman architecture style.
The Martorana church began its life as a place of worship for Palermo's Greek Orthodox community after the Great Schism, but by the eighteenth century it was part of a monastic complex run by an order of nuns. Across southern Europe the nuns of the larger religious orders often made and sold various kinds of pastries.
The story about the Martorana's nuns shaping and decorating the marzipan to resemble fruit, then hanging it from dormant fruit trees to impress a bishop visiting one Easter, may well be an urban legend. Even so, it makes for an amusing story.
There are three things to consider in the quality of Martorana Fruit.
Firstly, it should not be too sweet. Nowadays most Sicilian marzipan available commercially contains far too much sugar, and it is why I have always made my own.
Next, is the question of “art”. The best pasta reale is formed into shapes using custom-made moulds which pastry-makers guard jealously and then "painted" to resemble actual fruit as realistically as possible. We saw these moulds in a lovely little shop in Trapani where our friend, Fiona, bought ceramic figures for her nativity scene. I resisted the temptation to buy the moulds, and now I regret it.
Photo credit: Fruit and veg. shop? No a little pastry shop in Taormina. I love the conceit of storing the fruit in market boxes.
For my photograph we visited a little pastry shop in Taormina which sold Martorana Fruit that looked realistic and also tasted like the "real deal." In Palermo, of course, we bought our little fruits, almond biscuits and minni d' virgine at the convent of Santa Caterina, where they still had the little turntable where the ‘deals’ were conducted. The order was placed, the money slapped down on the turntable and the nuns delivered the boxes of biscuits and cakes without being seen nor heard.
Photo Credit: The historian, Maria Oliveri writes about the restoration of the convent of Santa Caterina in The Secrets of the Cloister, The convent has re-opened its doors as a museum with a kitchen and retail pantry in the section that was once the refectory and the office of the abbess. Oliveri writes: " At the beginning, making sweets was a way to repay. Soon, however, the business became a way to have economic revenues”. Today, this activity is charged with cultural values, inheriting recipes, tastes and pastry techniques from the people who have come to the island, from the Arabs, then the Normans, until today when we come as travellers to make our own pilgrimage. Below, cassata and minni di vergine. Photos by Fiona Wald.
Importantly, in Sicily, almonds are not only used in sweet applications.
Many years ago at a cookery school given by Valentina Harris at Fattoria Mose` just out of Agrigento, I learned to make PESTO TRAPANESE. Over the years, however, with few authoritative cooks to keep me in check, my version became overwhelmed with tomatoes. This trip has recalibrated my thinking and therefore my recipe. We had Pesto Trapanese tossed through pasta, on toasted bread and as a dip with tender, tiny artichokes.
Photo Credit: Fiona Wald's photo of our crostini with pesto trapanese. We ate this lungomare at San Vito lo Capo, sitting in wet bathers and drinking beer, on our last day in Sicily. Bittersweet memories.
Asking for culinary advice is always a dangerous proposition in Sicily, so I offer you my own new, improved recipe for PESTO TRAPANESE.
1 cup whole unskinned almonds, roasted lightly and cooled
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 bunch basil
1/2 bunch flat leaved parsley
salt and pepper
up to 1 cup robust extra virgin olive oil
1 medium tomato, peeled and chopped
In a food processor, process until chunky the almonds, garlic, herbs and seasoning, drizzling the olive oil in gradually until you obtain a coarse paste. Transfer to bowl and stir in the tomatoes.
Na lingua sula, mai abbasta.
One language is never enough.