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.