It is always good to visit Sicily in May 2016 and this time I spent most of my time mainly in South-eastern Sicily. But we did wander elsewhere – distances are not that great.
As usual, the relatives in Ragusa and Augusta made sure that I was well fed, but I do enjoy getting out and about and seeing the changes and trends that are evident in their food culture. I do that here in Australia as well, or for that matter any place I revisit.
Below are some photos of Sicily and links to existing recipes from the blog … more writing and more recipes soon.
A Nature Reserve near Donna Fugata
A very old church in Modica.
Inside this old church that has been a stable for many years.
Area Archeologica di Cava d’Ispica
The old stone walls, some being repaired or rebuilt.
Ancient writers (Greek and Latin) referred to honey from the Iblean Mountains (south eastern Sicily) as the best they had ever tasted; honey from this area of Sicily has maintained its merits throughout the centuries.
This is a very old Sicilian Honey Press, now in the Buscemi Museum (south eastern Sicily).
Lately I have been using (and eating) some very good miele (Italian for honey) given to me by my friend Libby, who has a magnificent garden in Eden Hills, a suburb of Adelaide. On an acre of land she has two traditional, white, bee boxes and a wild hive in the trunk of a grey box tree.
Extracting honey is hard work and she does it in her kitchen; she has won prizes for her honey at the Royal Adelaide Show.
Honey is used in many Sicilian pastries and I have been reading about nucatuli (or nucatuli, nucatula and in Syracuse saschitedda).
I bought these three types of biscuits (photo below) in Modica from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. Modica is in the south east part of Sicily and only 20-30 minutes drive from Ragusa where my relatives live. A dolceria sells (and usually manufactures) sweets; a pasticceria has cakes, biscuits and may have sweets as well.
A visit to Modica is always a treat – the small city is dived into two parts: Modica Alta (Upper Modica), and Modica Bassa (Lower Modica). It is fringed by hills (part of Iblean Mountains), has many beautiful baroque buildings, narrow streets, interesting shops, churches and palazzi, pasticcerie and restaurants. And besides, it is a good way to stir up the emotions of my relatives; Modica is the rival of Ragusa.
Did I know that Modica become more famous than Ragusa because during fascist times Mussolini was friendly with a statesman from Modica? And the ravioli made in Ragusa are much better than the ones made in Modica; had I not noticed this when I ate them at that particular restaurant in Modica?
Modica in the evening
In the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, chocolate is made using the original methods in the style of the Aztecs and brought by the Spaniards in the 16th century – the Spaniards ruled Sicily at various times and foods from the “New World” (including cocoa beans) were introduced.
The biscuits with the white lattice are most commonly known as nucatuli and I chose to write about them because they include honey.
Finding any information about nucatuli in my Italian resources was not easy. In the recipes I found there were many variations in the ingredients and very few recipes had quantities or clear instructions – this is not very surprising in a country that cooks “al’ occhio”, by using one’s eyes, that means by the senses: sight, taste, smell, feel (including textures on the tongue) and hearing.
I am not sure if I will get around to ever making nucateli but I have certainly gathered some interesting information about these little biscuits that I have eaten often in Sicily.
The name is thought to have derived either from the Latin nucatus (nuts) or perhaps from the Arab word naqal (dry fruit). Apparently they were first made in the fifteenth century in the Santa Elizabetta Monastery in Palermo. Nucatuli were once usually associated as a Christmas pastry.
The outer case or pastry is made only from flour and warmed honey; the two ingredients are kneaded into a smooth paste which is left to rest for about five hours. In some variations of the recipe and as made in Messina, flour, lard, sugar and egg yolks are used and moistened with rose water or sweet white wine. (The ratio of flour is 1k, 150g of sugar and 150g of lard, 2 egg yolks).
The filling is made of ground walnuts and hazelnuts (lightly toasted) honey, orange peel and cinnamon – all the ingredients are combined, slowly cooked in a saucepan and stirred constantly. And like when making polenta, the filling is not removed from the heat until the contents detach from the sides of the saucepan.
Some recipes include ground almonds or a mixture of hazelnuts and almonds, but no walnuts. I have seen some variations that also include some finely chopped, dried figs in the mixture.
The filling is allowed to cool and then spooned onto rectangular strips of the paste – this has been rolled out thinly and most recipes suggest the size to be 3-4 cm wide and 6-7cm long.
The filling is placed to one side of the pastry, rather than in the centre. The pastry casing should cover the entire filling and from the pictures I have seen in books and from my memory, it is pinched together on one side of the biscuit. Once the filling is covered, the biscuits are formed into an S shape.
Usually the biscuits are decorated with a coating of a soft paste made with cocoa thickened with a little flour and hot water and then baked on a well-greased baking sheet in a moderate oven for about 15 minutes; they should only be lightly coloured. In those recipes that give temperatures, anything from 200C – 250C is suggested.
As you can see in the photo these nucatuli bought from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto have an extra squiggle on top and as far as I could tell (by using my senses!) it was likely to be egg white and sugar (like a meringue made by whisking egg white till firm, then adding about 1 cup of caster sugar and a few drops of lemon juice).
Dot it on each biscuit (or pipe it in a squiggle as they did in Modica) then re bake them for another 5 minutes at 250C. One recipe suggested returning them to a very low oven until the frosting dried out.
One day, when I have more time and am in the mood, I will make them – I am pretty good at using recipes without weights and measures or relying on memory, (I may wait until I return to Modica). In the meantime I will continue to enjoy my friend’s honey. My favourite way is to beat some honey lightly into ricotta and to present this with thin, almond biscotti – guests can spread the cream on their biscuits if they wish.
Salsa moresca is an interesting name for a pasta sauce. The sauce is eaten in and around the town of Scicli, a beautiful baroque town not far from Modica (also beautiful) which is close to Ragusa (where my father’s relatives live). The ingredients are a combination of the sweet and the savoury and include bottarga (tuna roe), sugar, pine nuts, cinnamon and the juice and peel of citrus.
I was interested in the name – murisca (moresca is Italian for Moorish). The ingredients could well be of Moorish origins but it is also the name of a dance – la moresca. It is still performed in some regions of Sicily, especially on certain religious feast days.
The dance is said to have been introduced by the Moors into Spain and became popular all over Europe during the 15 th and 16th Centuries. Dances with similar names and features are mentioned in Renaissance documents throughout many Catholic countries of Europe – Sicily, France, Corsica and Malta – and, from the times of the Venetian Republic, Dalmatia – also through Spanish trade, Flanders and Germany.
La moresca is remarkably like the English Morris dance (or Moorish dance) a folk dance usually accompanied by music where the group of dancers use implements such as sticks, swords, and handkerchiefs. In Sicily they only use handkerchiefs, but this may have been modified over time. La Moresca and the Morris dance are considered to be one of the oldest traditional European dances still performed and inspired by the struggle of Christians against the Moors, in some places Christians and Turks, in other places between Arabs and Turks. In parts of England, France, the Netherlands and Germany the performers still blacken their faces but it is uncertain if it is because they represent the Moors. This custom is not observed in Sicily.
Each year in May, there is a sacred performance in Scicli that recalls the historical battle in 1091 between Arabs and Christians. Legend says that “La Madonna delle Milizie” came astride a white horse to champion the Christians. Pasta alla moresca is still cooked to commemorate this event.
Salsa moresca (the sauce for the pasta) is not cooked – it is an impasto – a paste or mixture, and probably traditionally made with a mortar and pestle.
INGREDIENTS: 500g long pasta, (spaghetti or bucatini), 150ggrated bottarga,¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, 1-2 chopped red chili, 2 cloves of finely chopped garlic, 4 finely cut anchovies, juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon, peel of ½ lemon, ½ teaspoon of powdered cinnamon, 1 large spoonful of sugar and 1 of vinegar,1 cup pine nuts, ½ cup finely cut parsley, 1 cup breadcrumbs ( from 1-2 day old bread) lightly browned in a little extra virgin olive oil.
Pound all of the ingredients together preferably in a mortar and pestle: begin with the garlic the bottarga and anchovies. Follow with the sugar, cinnamon, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, parsley, peel and chilies – lubricating the paste gradually with the oil and juices as you pound.
Add the vinegar last of all.
And by now, having read about it, you can probably smell it.
Use this to dress spaghetti or bucatini. I scattered basil leaves on top to decorate the pasta dish.