Tuesday, April 01, 2008


It was clear from the comments on Friday’s “lemon made from almond paste” post that many of you were interested in the frutta di Martorana so I thought I’d talk some more about them and take the opportunity to tell you about two books on the sweet produce of Sicily as well.

Before I visited my lovely island for the first time, I had read about Martorana fruit but nothing prepared me for the shiny beauty of these replicas of fruit, nor for their delicate taste: they are made from pasta reale [almond paste] but “marzipan” is a very inadequate translation which does not do justice to the work involved in its making. Legend has it that the first ever batch of Martorana fruit was made on the orders of a certain mother superior, who wanted to impress her Bishop during his visit. So the nuns prepared the “fruit” and hung it from the cloister trees; so “real” did it look that the Bishop declared that a miracle had happened, as all the fruits had appeared in the same season! Oh, I hope with all my heart that this story is true!

True or not, it is recounted in both the books that I am going to tell you about tonight and the first is Sweet Sicily by Victoria Granof. In this beautifully illustrated tome Granof, inspired by the idea that in Palermo granita [ flavoured, crushed ice] is presented inside a brioche for breakfast [and indeed it is, in summer] tours the island and interviews many pastry chefs. Unusually in an English-language book about Sicilian cookery, my adopted town of Modica gets a chapter all to itself, so of course the volume has pride of place on my kitchen bookshelves! Recipes are given, their origins are discussed and there is a helpful historical timeline of Sicily which helps the reader place the recipes in their historical context. I dip into this book whenever I feel low and it reminds me how lucky I am to be here.

Some of you may recall that my favourite non-fiction author on Sicily is Mary Taylor Simeti and I have said before that no volume on culinary Sicily in general compares in scholarship with her Sicilian Food. In Bitter Almonds Simeti interviews the famous Ericean pastry chef Maria Grammatico and watches her at work. The book tells the fascinating tale of Maria’s early life and I reread it in one sitting last night, as preparation for this post. I appreciated the book very much when I first read it in 2003 but I am glad that I have read it again here, for I can relate to so much more of its detail now. Poverty forced Maria’s mother to send her and her sister to the San Carlo convent in Erice in the 1950s. There the girls lived under a severe and harsh regime but they learnt a skill which has remained with Maria all her life – that of making frutta di Martorana and other Sicilian pastries. Maria now runs a famous pastry shop in her beloved Erice and the tourists flock there.

The book contains some of Maria’s recipes, Simeti’s observations, an insight into Sicilian frugality [for nothing was wasted in the convent kitchen, and this is a trend I have observed myself here]. We also learn a little of Maria’s philosophy and I leave you with this, for I cannot paraphrase this wonderful lady:

What we value has to be inside of us. This sort of work, making the Christmas hearts, embroidering them with marzipan, it’s an art that’s disappearing….. Young people today don’t want to learn these things. For me, sitting here and and making these things is really relaxing. They’re so beautiful! And I like it because I’m creating something with my own hands, it’s not like machine work…… You can’t think about the money… [because] then you can’t put in all the love that it takes.” [My bolds.]

That is very Sicilian – so wonderfully Sicilian that it moves me to tears, reader – and very wise indeed.


Ellee Seymour said...

It's always heartbreaking when these traditional roles decline. I always imagined Sicilian young people to be more compliant than those in Britain, prepared to work at keeping these skills alive.

Crushed said...

Isn't it an attitude as a whole that's disappearing, doing something out of the sheer enjoyment?

Nowadays, if you do something, it's because you're paid.
The only 'enjoyment' is TV and alcohol, for most people.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Very sad, I agree, Ellee. But work is scarce here and young people have to find it where they can. But they are proud of their traditions and I am hopeful that they will not let them die.
Crushed, I fear you may be right.

jmb said...

I suppose the problem is that most people don't want to pay properly for the effort that people put into these things so young people want to have jobs which give them an adequate salary to support their families.

I always look at pottery and wonder how little the artist is paid for their efforts, for it is often so cheap.

James Higham said...

Sweet Sicily indeed. I've just been trying to convince a friend of mine to go there.

Now a very serious matter. When, oh when, are you going to use MyBlogLog so we can just click on your avatar and get to your site instantly?

As it is, it involves a longwinded process of three clicks to find you and reach you.

MBL - one click and we're with Welshcakes.

Whispering Walls said...

The problem with making such beautiful sweets is that it feels a great shame to see them eaten.

Rowena said...

Put two of my favorite words in a title and I'm all ears...put three [sicilian, pastry, cookery] and I'm dancing in my seat! What a very informative and enjoyable post to continue my day. I feel the same way about the young generation not carrying on traditions, so it is with much admiration when I do witness it in person, as in the Giubiana of Canzo, which was voiced entirely in bergamasche dialect by both adults AND little kids.

Liz Hinds said...

Oh what lovely stories. Though i think that everywhere you will find people of all ages that put great care into their art or craft. I'm not sure that it's dying in reality. In fact, these days, there might even be an upsurge of interest in traditional crafts. (I'm particulalry thinking of cheese-makers at the moment. Mmmm, cheese.)

flutterby said...

Young people are bombarded with so much stimulus, so many "things" these days that there is no time to delve into anything in depth. No time to appreciate the value of being quiet and introspective while developing a skill that has been around for ages.

Those of us who have been around longer did have a grounding in doing something with our hands and reaching inside ourselves when we were so engaged. We are bombarded with sound bites, too, but have learned what is valuable.

Does this make sense?

Nunyaa said...

Would much rather enjoy doing something and not get paid than doing it with pay but no enjoyment or satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

Allthese are fascinating posts I am really keen tolearn more!

Claire said...

I love the little story of the Martorana fruit. You talk of the Sicilian food, the frugal way of not wasting anything and Sweet Sicily by Victoria Granof.I wonder if I can find this book here? Skills learnt for life still exist as there are something that just can't be replicated by machine - long may these rarities continue.

Ellee Seymour said...

Do Sicilians celebrate April Fools Day too?

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Good analogy, jmb. Yes, this sort of work takes ages to do and is poorly rewarded.
Well, James, that's techie and you know I avoid doing that stuff. Besides, you'd gone off the idea a while ago?
Agree, WW.
Thanks, Rowena and I agree. Will follow the link now.
Hi, Liz. I think young people here are proud of these traditions so I do not think they are dying out yet. But of course they have to seek jobs that will pay their way.
Flutterby, you are making total sense and I agree.
So would I, nunyaa but it is not always possible to work for no remuneration.
Many thanks, Mutley.
Hi, kissa. You should be able to find the book there as I got mine from "Books for Cooks". I echo your last sentence.
Hi, Ellee. Not a big thing here but certainly known and kept much in the French tradition - ie, "pesce d'aprile" - if you are an April fool, you get a paper cut-out fish pinned to your back.

CherryPie said...

It is sad about the traditional roles, it seems to happen everywhere...

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, cherrypie. Agree, it is sad.


View My Stats