Despite its location high above the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean seas, with 360-degree views of potential invaders, the village of Erice on Sicily’s west coast has seen its share of intruders. Pedestrians who leave their cars at the foot of the village and begin walking up the main street are rewarded with similarly comprehensive views of Sicily’s past: a stone gateway from the era of Frederick II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, architectural remnants left by Phoenicians and Saracens and a redoubtable Norman fortress on the ruins of a Roman temple. Combing the weave and waft of its medieval streets and alleys, lodged on small church squares around restaurant and café tables, day-trippers take one break of many and sip on coffee and wine, discreetly charmed by history.
Amid these distant echoes, Maria Grammatico’s pasticceria (mariagrammatico.it) at 14 Via Vittorio Emanuele is a place of certainties. The wood-paneled sales space is thronged with Italians lingering over vast molehills of almond and marzipan dolci. The cake and coffee shop throbs with the business of indulgence. Those admitted to Maria’s kitchen, as I am today, learn more than just baking secrets.
Belli e brutti, Maria tells me, is what we’ll start with: belli, because they taste beautiful, brutti because they don’t look it. The basic recipe for one batch calls for: 1 kg white sugar; 1 kg ground almonds; 300 g egg whites; the peel of one large lemon; 1 teaspoon of “pane degli angeli” (or baking soda).
Maria uses only almonds from Avola in eastern Sicily, ground (but not too finely – you need to taste the texture) in an industrial size meat grinder churning away behind her. We sit at a marble kitchen table, on which Maria has worked for all of the 53 years that she’s been in business, pinching portions of dough from a bowl and arranging them on a baking tray in a series of small mountains, as pale as Sicily’s parched summer hills. Maria works quickly, keeping her shrewd brown eyes on my awkward fingers. I feel a little nervous.
Locals know Maria’s story. Her family was poor, hungry poor. Aged 11, after the death of her father, Maria and her sister were put into a convent where they worked in the kitchens with the nuns, producing Sicily’s famous dolci di badia and memorizing the recipes and skills that she took with her into her business. Maria tells her story with more sense than sentiment. It was what it was. It’s not the hardship she remembers today, but Mother Superior’s beauty and the flawless skin on her arms.
I ask whether they sang as they worked and get a startled look. No: it was strict silence. Maria shows me the kind of rolling pin with which she and her sister crushed the almonds by hand back then. It’s not much bigger than a spindle. Their arms ached at night. Entertainment was not a priority. When they were given a radio as a Christmas present, the nuns wouldn’t let them use it, worried that it might transmit convent secrets to the outside world.
We move on to the production of cuscinetti and tette delle monache. Maria forms small round pyramids for the tette, rolling the dough into her palm. It takes me a while to get the knack but in the end, she praises me. Good hands, she says and I’m ridiculously pleased. Do I know what it means, she asks, tette delle monache? Her eyes sparkle and Maria Pia, who has been translating as we go, smiles. Nun’s boobies.
No, no. Definitely boobies.
There’s a difference, it seems, that has to do with affection. Breasts are anatomy, boobies are harmless little appendages. A tray comes back out of the 300 degrees Celsius oven. The tops of the tette have turned into brown nipples. Si, now I understand.
Whilst Maria steps out to greet a group of visitors, young Alessia, an apprentice from neighbouring Trapani steps in, showing me how to roll the sticky dough carefully on scattered sugar, folding it around a line of Maria’s citron marmalade for the cuscinetti.
One hour has turned into two and more. We’ve moved on to marzipan sweets with rum-soaked raisins. Coffee is served – with Maria’s pasticcini – shop staff pass in and out of the kitchen. Nicola, Gaetano and Francesco clean and carry. A bishop pops in to pay his respects.
Maria gets up now, a little stiffly. Takes me by the hand and says good-bye. She’s packed me a signature box of products, (one of those that find their way to far flung corners of Europe and America). My own lumpy little offerings sit beside hers in happy proximity.
Sicilians say: na linguia sula mai abbasta – one language is never enough. The proof of this pudding has been not only in the eating, but in the making, the sharing and the giving. Many languages.