My last surviving aunt, Zia Licia, died last week. She died in Adelaide and the funeral was a couple of days ago, but because I live in Melbourne I was unable to attend.
I was visiting friends in Pambula, on the south coast of NSW when my brother rang last week to give me the news about Zia’s death and since her death, I have been remembering many things.
Zia Licia was from Trieste and was married to my mother’s brother, Pippo.
My mother’s family moved to Trieste from Catania, Sicily, when my mother was five years old. She lived in Trieste till my father, mother and I come to Australia. I was eight years old but my memories remain strong.
I consider myself very lucky to have roots in Trieste, Sicily and Australia.
Just like my Sicilian aunts, Zia Licia liked to cook.
When we came to Adelaide we shared a house for a while with my Zia Licia and her husband, Zio Pippo.
My mum did not cook much in Trieste, my parents went out to eat or Zia Renata, my other aunt in Trieste would often cook.
When we came to Australia, mum and Zia Licia cooked together. It was a form of entertainment… what else could you do in a new country when things were so different? Of course my uncle also enjoyed cooking and because he worked on weekdays, he joined in on weekends. There were the three of them on a Sunday morning cooking up new things for the guests we often invited for Sunday lunch. Those lunches were special, and I was required to help in the kitchen.
Maybe that is where my love of cooking comes from?
My Zia Licia had a good sense of humour and a way of laughing that brought fun into any situation; as expected we all laughed a lot during these cooking sessions.
One of the very first things that I can remember really enjoying was the making of Fritole (Frittole in Italian, from fritto, fried).
So what are they?
Fritole are fragrant and flavourful balls of sweet dough. Once fried they are coated in granulated sugar (and cinnamon, optional); the spoonfuls of batter were once most likely fried in lard but in recent years, olive oil. Some may use vegetable oil but I think that olive oil has a special fragrance that enhances the taste of Fritole.
The batter is made with flour, yeast, milk, eggs, sugar, lemon zest, raisins or sultanas soaked in sufficient dark rum (sometimes in grappa) to rehydrate the raisins. In most recipes pine nuts are also added, but not always.
Frìtole are also a well established sweet in Venezia, especially during the Carnevale. The Venice Carnivale takes place each year in February. It begins around two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French or Martedi Grasso in Italian).
Trieste and Venice are neighbours, so sharing this recipe is not surprising, but in Trieste Fritole are popular at Christmas time. Bakeries, pastry shops and Christmas street markets all have Fritole and they are also made at home.
We had no recipe for Fritole, so we relied heavily on Zia Licia’s memory of making Fritole because Zia would have helped her mother make them in her Triestinian kitchen. Having eaten them very frequently in Trieste we also relied on our collective memories of how Fritole should look, taste, smell and feel…and always eaten warm and fragrant – so important when it comes to reproducing recipes.
I cannot remember how the adults felt about the Fritole, but I remember enjoying them very much as a child.
In those days we did not add pine nuts to our Fritole; we had no access to them and it was a nut not familiar in Australia at that time.
I found various recipes for Fritole in the large number of books about the cooking of Trieste (in Friuli Venezia Giulia) and in the Veneto regions of northern Italy and the recipe below is probably the closest to what we would have made. The instructions in the ancient Italian recipe I’ve chosen, are not very specific because it is assumed that cooks would know what steps to follow, so I will spell them out.
Ingredients: 3eggs, 30g fresh yeast, 400g plain flour, cinnamon, milk, 50g sugar, lemon peel (grated), rum, 50g raisins (or sultanas), 40g pine nuts.
To the above, add a little salt to the batter. If you wish to use dry yeast, 10g should be sufficient. As for the milk , you will need at least 2 cups, but maybe more – the mixture should be like a thick batter.
Place the raisins or sultanas in a small bowl and pour some dark rum or grappa over them (to cover). Set aside for a few hours or overnight.
Place about a cup of warm milk in a mixing bowl and sprinkle in the yeast. Mix well to incorporate the yeast into the milk. Add about half of the flour and mix it in gently. Cover the bowl with a cloth and set aside to rest for half an hour. The mixture will bubble as the yeast activates.
Drain the raisins or sultanas and reserve any rum in a small bowl. Toss them around in a little flour to coat lightly; this will prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the Fritole as they fry.
When the yeast mixture has risen, use a wooden spoon or spatula to incorporate all the ingredients – the remaining flour, raisins sugar, egg, lemon zest, rum and pine nuts (if using). Add more warm milk as necessary to ensure that the mixture is like a thick batter. Cover the bowl with cloth again and set aside in a warm and draft-free area for at least 30-45 minutes to rest – it should double in size and the batter should be bubbly and airy.
Use a heavy-bottomed pot to heat sufficient oil (for the batter to swim/float in). The oil needs to be hot. Use a spoon to carefully drop the batter into the hot oil. It is better to fry a few Fritole at the time and not overcrowd them in the pan.
Once fried, drain the Fritole with a slotted spoon or tongs and place them on paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Roll them in sugar and cinnamon.
In the last few days I have found myself bursting into old Triestinian songs…like Le Ragazze di Trieste and Trieste Mia. I will need to stop myself otherwise i will drive my partner mad!
I have returned to Trieste on many occasions and the photos of Trieste have been taken over a number of years .