Often I think back about my life in Catania. Images come to my mind and they compose themselves with one another, they overlap, they shatter in the game of memories. Persons and characters who have marked the passing of time and periods almost materialize. And then flavors, smells, the memory of sudden gusts of wind coming down from Mt Etna that turned wonderful sunny mornings into frosty days. An internalized past that belongs to me and at the same time is far away in a different world.
A Christmas package of almond cookies has been delivered to my house. I sit down at the dinner table and I open it in a religious silence. I take a small dish, carefully open the plastic pouch, put two fingers inside and I take a morsel while the aroma gets to my brain. I bring that fragment of almond cookie to my lips and I perceive the scent and the softness of sugar. I half-open my lips and in that small piece of cookie, I perceive an entire world. My gaze falls on the little branch with pink flowers printed on the plastic pouch, I barely touch it with my fingertips, I look outside the window and the sun is shining on the ocean, the same sun that in a few hours will lighten up Mt Etna.
And all of a sudden, my island does not appear so far away. Almond cookies, those typically Sicilian treats which are not cookies nor cupcakes, maybe could be defined as soft cookies, but cookies, in Italian biscotti, literally “cooked twice”, would be nonsense because biscotti are not soft by definition. Almond cookies must not be confused with almond paste (in Italian the first are called paste and the latter it’s called pasta) because the difference in the Italian language is not in the number (pasta is also the singular of paste) but in the substance. The first is oven-baked treats made with almonds, sugar, egg whites, lemon zest, the second, also called royal paste, is a base to make other sweets.
Similar to marzipan, the royal paste is different because it has no egg whites among its ingredients which are sweet and bitter almonds, sugar, water, lemon, cinnamon, and vanilla.
The origin of this cookie with a soft heart, as well as of the paste, according to some date back to the Arabs who, in the 6th century, prepared sweets mixing sugar, dry fruits, and spices. According to others, their origin would be found in the Martorana convent in Palermo (the royal paste is also called Martorana fruits). Attached to Saint Mary of the Admiral Church (the admiral was John of Antioch, an admiral during the kingdom of King Roger the 2nd), the Martorana convent was where during the 11th century friars and nuns made sweets with water, almond and sugar. These sweets were then brought to King Roger the 2nd, almond paste and Martorana fruits were also called royal paste because it was fit for a king.
Almond paste or royal paste has been recognized as Sicilian and Italian Traditional Agri-Food product (PAT) and its use is exalted in the Martorana fruits, authentic reproduction of real fruits which are made with this base paste and then painted to appear as exact copies of fruits like Indian figs, tangerines, chestnuts, figs and many other. It is with almond paste that Easter lambs, presented in a small basket with a banner on the back, are produced.
According to tradition, Martorana fruits were created on the occasion of a bishop's visit to the convent. Indeed, the fame of the nuns’ culinary art had reached the bishop of Palermo who decided to visit in person the garden and the vegetable garden of the monastery, both considered among the most beautiful of the city. The visit happened in the Fall on the 1st of November when the garden was barren of any blossoms or fruits. The nuns, without losing heart, recreated the fruits with almond paste and hang them to the trees to make them appear in full production and not disappoint the distinguished guest. In 1575, however, the guild of Confettari (confectionery makers) petitioned for the monopoly of these sweets production and the Mazara del Vallo synod granted it to them, prohibiting the nuns from this production with the excuse it brought too much distraction to religious concentration.
In the 19th century, Sicilian aristocracy started to buy Martorana fruits for the commemoration of the dead and give them as presents to children on the part of those who were no more.
Martorana fruits are also made in Naples where the story goes that when Ferdinand the 4th of Borbone, also called King Big Nose, went to visit the convent of San Gregorio Armeno, he found a good number of nuns who had prepared a banquet with all kinds of delicacies in his honor. The king, who had just had lunch, though it was not the case to approach that table laden with so much food: lobsters, fish, chickens, pheasants, and amazing fruits. The nuns, cheerful and smiling, prayed him to taste something and the with great surprise the sovereign discovered they were just sweets, almond paste, artfully sculpted and painted to make it look as delicacies.
Differently than in Sicily, Martorana fruits in Naples are a Christmas tradition together with struffoli, mustaccioli, and susamielli. Almond paste, also sold in sticks, is the ingredient, together with water, to make almond milk, a typical Sicilian drink that has nothing in common with the sugarless almond milk found on supermarket shelves in many countries of the world.
Almond paste is also used to make granita, decorations for cakes, and disguised fruits, a classic of French cuisine where dry fruits like dates are cut in half, the stone is removed, and then they are filled with a little ball of almond paste.
Almond paste or royal paste, in Catania, is used to make Saint Agatha’s olives in honor of the city patron Saint. In the pistachio version, it is used on the entire island as a cover for the cassata cake. Instead of the Martorana fruits bright colors, almond cookies are S-shaped, white and covered with powder sugar, or golden brown and round with a candied cherry on top, or covered with pine nuts, or, in the Bronte area, made with pistachios instead of almonds but the differences are only in appearance because, except for the pistachio version, they are always made with almonds, sugar, aromas, and water.
As ingredients are so simple, the good quality of almonds is of paramount importance. Exactly in Sicily are cultivated three cultivars considered among the finest in the world: pizzuta, fascionello, and romana (or Avola corrente), all used in confectionery and patisserie. United under the name of Mandorla d’Avola (from the name of the town where they are mostly cultivated), they are protected by a special consortium that certifies each step of production and marketing.
Almond paste is also found in the regions of Apulia, Calabria, Campania, Latium, and Sardinia but in Sicily, it is recognized as a traditional product, while Apulia has registered the almond paste Easter lamb and Christmas fish. In Salento, for many years, almond paste has only been made by Benedictine nuns, keepers of the ancient recipe, whose origin probably date back to the 15th century but in that area, it triumphed in the 17th century during sumptuous Baroque. Each year, the nuns sold to aristocracy dozens of kilos of almond paste in the shape of fish, Easter lambs, fruits or shells. And this is the main characteristic of these sweets: until today they are produced with the same mold designs which have not changed for at least four centuries.