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In Love with an Island http://inlovewithanisland.com An affair with the Aeolian Islands of Sicily Wed, 15 Apr 2015 12:19:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1 Vastedduzzi – Edible works of art http://inlovewithanisland.com/vastedduzzi-edible-works-art/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/vastedduzzi-edible-works-art/#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2015 11:58:13 +0000 http://inlovewithanisland.com/?p=494 The post Vastedduzzi – Edible works of art appeared first on In Love with an Island.

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Making vastedduzzi is not for the faint-hearted. It requires strength, endurance, attention to detail and most importantly, a giant heart filled with an abundance of love.

tileIt is a gastronomic art form that can easily intimidate any aspiring pastry cook. Filled with mandarin infused almond paste, each biscuit is uniquely shaped and exquisitely decorated by pinching, snipping and pricking the exterior pastry creating spectacular results as delicate and artistic as an embroidered piece of silk. Looking at them, one might even hesitate to break open the delicate pastry shell and dare sample the sticky sweet interior. They really do look too good to eat but fortunately also, too good to resist.

Vastedduzzi hold a special place in my heart. Ever since I could remember, my Nonna Maria Scafidi miraculously conjured these biscuits each Christmas. I say miraculously because they always turned up in a box that she had posted from Sydney to our home in Horsham, Victoria. My mother would carefully open the box and remove the tissue paper packed to protect the fragile biscuits. One by one, she removed the first letter of each of our names and placed them reverently on a plate before us. My mother told us that this was the tradition of Christmas gift giving as was practiced on the island she came from, Salina. ‘In those days,’ she said, ‘there wasn’t money for presents so mothers made a beautifully decorated biscuit for each of their children.’ Then, out came other marvelous shapes – flowers, hearts, crescents, flourishes, birds and even fish. They were so wonderful that it seemed logical that they had been made by magic. It was only years later when I witnessed the incredible skill that I understood the dedication required. But now that my Nonna had passed away, how was I ever going to learn the fine art of making vastedduzzi?

Fortunately, I found the perfect substitute maestra di dolci – master of all things sweet, delicious and remarkable ­– in the humble town of Lingua, Salina. Born in 1959 to her parents Adelina Scafidi from Quattropani and Vittorio Benenati from Lingua, Rosalba Benenati had all the prerequisites ­– she has a reputation for preparing sweets and pastries that precedes her, strong and solid arms for kneading, incredible patience and surprisingly delicate fingers and most critically, an enormous love for her family and community. Upon meeting Rosabla, I warmed to her immediately. So generous in spirit and passionate about the recipes she has perfected over the years. Childless herself, it was Rosalba’s favourite niece that introduced us. It seems that Rosalba holds high hopes for Marzia’s culinary future made evident by the beautiful scrapbook of recipes she has created for her niece to record and carry on the mastery of the family’s traditional dolci. It was my dream to make some vastedduzzi under her expert tuition and like any good fairy godmother, Rosalba gladly granted my wish.

Marzia and I arrived early the next morning, ready for action. Rosalba had spent the day before preparing the almonds by blanching and peeling them before leaving them out to dry overnight. She had also soaked the mandarin peel in a large bowl of water to release their fragrant oils. Earlier that morning, Rosalba ground the almonds to a flour, added the sugar, cinnamon and mixed in enough mandarin water to create a paste that was homogenous and workable, not unlike a marzipan. When we entered her kitchen, the table was well prepared. The artist’s utensils were splayed out before us – the pizzacarolo (a purposely made serrated edged tweezer), serrated pastry cutters of various sizes, a small pair of scissors and a few embroidery needles. The dough that Rosalba had already worked until it was smooth and elastic, rested patiently under a towel placed next to the pasta machine. This, we were told, would be Marzia’s job – to roll out paper-thin sheets of pastry at a rate we could work with. Sleeves rolled up, hands washed, the toil of love began.

 

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To start with, I thought it best to watch the master at work before attempting my own. Rosalba took a sheet of pastry and placed it on the board in front of her. Next, she took a walnut sized piece of almond paste and rolled it in her hands and formed a heart shape, laying it on the pastry sheet. With a finger dipped in the remaining mandarin water, she traced the shape to slightly moisten the pastry. This, I was told, was to ensure that the top sheet of pastry stuck to the bottom as it is important to seal the filling within the pastry. Then, Rosalba skillfully laid another sheet of pastry over the top, gently pressing out any air pockets. Using a serrated pastry cutter, Rosalba cut out the shape leaving a border of pastry of around 1 cm and removed the excess pastry from her workspace. Now the real artistry began and I moved in to pay full attention. Not unlike an artist with her pencil, Rosalba swiftly pinched, pierced and snipped the form producing an awe-inspiring work of art. She made it look so easy, as any master does.

 

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The time came to attempt my own. Under Rosalba’s watchful eye, I followed her example, be it at a much slower pace. An illustrator myself, it seemed I had the necessary skill and produced my first vastedduzzi to a standard that at least satisfied Rosalba. The morning progressed slowly but joyfully. In all, we had 60 biscuits to create (Rosalba had halved her quantities for my demonstration). Amidst, the chatter and family stories, I thought of my Nonna Maria. Was she looking down on me, brimming with pride? I hoped so. Rosalba had told me that these biscuits were traditionally made by groups of women during the week before Christmas and for the feast of St Joseph. Often, the women were related and it was a time that cemented the bonds of family and community. Sadly, not so many of the younger generation are interested enough to devote an entire day to the painstaking process of making vastedduzzi and Rosalba fears that some of these traditions might actual cease one day. But not if she can help it, she tells me and darts a look towards Marzia who sweats a smile in return. It seemed that Marzia realized that she has very high hopes to live up to!

 

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I’d like to extend a very warm thank you to Marzia and Rosalba for providing me with one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable days on Salina.

To get Rosalba’s recipe for making vastedduzzi, click on the button below. Good luck!

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Recipe: Vastedduzzi http://inlovewithanisland.com/recipe-vastedduzzi/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/recipe-vastedduzzi/#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2015 11:57:10 +0000 http://inlovewithanisland.com/?p=509 This recipe was kindly provided by la maestra di dolci a Lingua, Rosalba Benenati. This quantity makes approx. 120 biscuits. INGREDIENTS For the pastry 1 kg flour 4 egg yolks Malvasia or sweet sherry 250 g lard For the filling 1 kg whole almonds 900 g sugar 3 teaspoons of freshly ground cinnamon water infused with […]

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This recipe was kindly provided by la maestra di dolci a Lingua, Rosalba Benenati. This quantity makes approx. 120 biscuits.

INGREDIENTS

For the pastry
1 kg flour
4 egg yolks
Malvasia or sweet sherry
250 g lard

For the filling
1 kg whole almonds
900 g sugar
3 teaspoons of freshly ground cinnamon
water infused with mandarin peel

METHOD

Begin with preparing the almonds and mandarin water the day before you intend to make the vastedduzzi. For the almonds: blanch the almonds, peel and leave to dry overnight. For the mandarin water: soak the peel of 10 mandarins in 1 litre of water overnight.

The next day, grind the almonds until it become like flour. Then, mix in the sugar and the cinnamon, adding little by little enough mandarin water to achieve a moldable paste and set aside.

To prepare the pastry, mix flour, eggs, lard and sugar adding little by little, enough Malvasia or sweet sherry to bind the dough. Knead until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.

Using a pasta machine, roll out a sheet of pastry until it is paper thin and lay on a working surface. (Only roll out enough dough to work with as if left to dry, the pastry will crack when you try to mold it.)

Take a small amount of almond paste and work into a form such as a heart, crescent, flower etc. and place on the sheet of pastry. Trace edges with a little remaining mandarin water and cover with another sheet of pastry. Take care to lightly press out any air pockets. Leaving a border of about 1 cm around the shaped filling cut away excess pastry using a serrated pastry cutter.

Decorate the biscuits by pinching – using a pizzicarolo (or a pair of sterile tweezers), snipping – using a small scissors, and pricking – using a sewing needle.

Once you have filled a tray, bake at 110˚C (230˚F) for 20 minutes or until edges brown.

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Recipe: Pasta e Ceci http://inlovewithanisland.com/recipe-pasta-e-ceci/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/recipe-pasta-e-ceci/#comments Fri, 13 Mar 2015 22:48:40 +0000 http://inlovewithanisland.com/?p=474 Pasta with Chick Peas Recipe by Giulia Biviano – Cucina di Casa Nostra Photograph by Giuseppe Biviano INGREDIENTS    Serves 8 300g dried chick peas, soaked overnight in plenty of cold water 1 small onion, chopped finely 1 kg dried pasta, (Ditalini is good) 2 fresh bay leaves 1 cup silvery beat, chopped 5 gloves garlic, […]

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Pasta with Chick Peas

Recipe by Giulia Biviano Cucina di Casa Nostra
Photograph by Giuseppe Biviano

INGREDIENTS    Serves 8

  • 300g dried chick peas, soaked overnight in plenty of cold water
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1 kg dried pasta, (Ditalini is good)
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 1 cup silvery beat, chopped
  • 5 gloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 cup wild fennel, chopped
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil, for cooking
  • 1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes (optional)

METHOD

Drain and rinse the chick peas thoroughly. Place the drained chick peas in a saucepan, then add the onion, bay leaves, garlic, a few grind of pepper and enough water to cover the chick peas by about 5cm.

Add a 1/4 cup of olive oil, add the chopped silvery beat and the fennel, then cover with the lid and bring to the boil.

Cook over a low heat for one hour or until the chick peas are tender. Keep checking the water level and if it reduces below the chick peas, then top up to just cover them. Remove the bay leaves from the pan. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large saucepan of boiling water until al dente. Drain and pour the cooked pasta into the warm chick peas and mix thoroughly. Leave to stand in the pan covered for about 10 minutes so that the flavours will infuse.

Serve in bowls drizzled with a little extra olive oil and chilli flakes if so desired.

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Celebrating the Feast of San Giuseppe Aeolian Style http://inlovewithanisland.com/celebrating-feast-san-giuseppe-aeolian-style/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/celebrating-feast-san-giuseppe-aeolian-style/#comments Fri, 13 Mar 2015 22:48:02 +0000 http://inlovewithanisland.com/?p=454 It was the year 1835. Somewhere off the coast of Naples the fishing boat, U Mulinciana, was caught in violent combat with the tempestuous god of the sea, Poseidon. Having departed from the village of Malfa, Salina, the boat was laden with a cargo of capers, Malvasia and local wines to trade in return for […]

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tileIt was the year 1835. Somewhere off the coast of Naples the fishing boat, U Mulinciana, was caught in violent combat with the tempestuous god of the sea, Poseidon. Having departed from the village of Malfa, Salina, the boat was laden with a cargo of capers, Malvasia and local wines to trade in return for dried pasta and legumes. Scandalised by the seafarer’s fervent faith, the jealous god unleased wave after wave of his contempt upon their boat. He blasted the winds across their voices that implored Christ’s earthly father, San Giuseppe for his aid with a litany of promises to feed the poor. Then suddenly, with a deafening crack, the ominous clouds parted and the hand of San Giuseppe picked up the wooden boat and delivered it to safety, plonking it out of Poseiden’s way in the bay of Naples. ‘Che miracolo!’ they cried in gratitude, ‘San Giuseppe has saved us!’

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An Aeolian Tradition Begins

Every Italian loves a miracle and the survival of a sea storm was reason enough to lay claim to a supernatural event. One can only imagine how the drama escalated once the fishermen returned to Salina and the story spread like wildfire across the island. And so it was that the tradition of u quadara (cauldron) di San Giuseppe was born. As promised, the return cargo of U Mulinciana was distributed to the poor via a minestra (soup) of chickpeas and pasta prepared by the menfolk themselves in a massive copper cauldron perched over a wood-fired pit. In the years that followed, this event was re-enacted on March 19, the official feast day of San Giuseppe by the fishermen who stored their boats at Punto Scario, passing down instruction from father to son. Nowadays, this responsibility is upheld by a select group of men who have been bestowed this honour as protectors of the secret recipe of u quadara. My cousin Roberto, a newly accepted apprentice to the group tells me that it will take years of assistance before he is entrusted with this privileged knowledge!

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La Tavola di San Giuseppe

The tavola (table) of San Giuseppe was already a strong tradition of the Sicilians that resettled the Aeolian Islands after Barbarossa had pillaged them in 1544. Legend has it that sometime during the Middle Ages, the people of Sicily were in crisis as the rains had not come for years and the land had become parched and fruitless. In desperation, the people prayed to San Giuseppe, their patron saint, to intervene, promising to prepare a grand feast in his honour. Responding to their pleas, the heavens opened soaking the lands that gifted abundant crops of fava beans saving them from starvation. In gratitude, huge, public banquet tables were dressed by wealthy families who invited the less fortunate people of the village to partake in a buffet of meatless foods that included decorative breads called cudureddi and piles of fava beans. The festivities often started with a procession lead by an elderly man, a young woman and a young male child dressed as the Holy Family, who were then seated at the head of the table. To this day, this tradition is continued with great devotion in many Sicilian villages and as well as many Sicilian migrant communities throughout the world.

La Tavuliata di San Giuseppe

It is unsure whether the Sicilian tradition of la tavola was upheld as a public celebration prior to the miraculous occurring of 1835. However, miracles have the effect of changing lives and the lives of those simple fishermen stirred great piety amongst the Malfitani who still maintain the custom fervently.

Today, the townspeople of Malfa prepare a variety of dishes made from local produce sourced from the earth and sea. These offerings are brought to the piazza and placed on a long table adorned with a white tablecloth and freshly cut flowers.

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Just as in other parts of Sicily, the festivities commence with the parade of the Holy Family that begins at the church of San Lorenzo and meanders to the piazza in front of the eighteenth century church of Sant’Anna. Accompanied by a small group of musicians playing traditional tunes, the Holy Family take their place at la tavuliata while the pasta e ceci prepared in the two quadare is shared with the entire community.

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The table’s offerings of all manner of polpetti, salads, fish and vegetable dishes with a variety of typical Aeolian sweets including sfinci d’ova, pasta squadata and many types of traditional biscotti are then offered to the public who represent the poor of centuries past.

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La tavuliata di San Giuseppe has become a much-loved public event, drawing crowds from neighbouring islands and Sicily. After all, the Italians love a party almost as much as they love a miracle! Viva San Giuseppe!

SOURCES:
Brundu, Antonio. L’Isola, Vele Bianche Editori Srl Piazza Matteotti 7, Registrazione Tribunale di Napoli n. 25 (2003).
Racheli, Gin. Eolie di Vento e di Fuoco, Milano, U. Mursia editore S.p.A. (1977).

 

WAIT, THERE’S MORE… If you are wishing you were there, check out this youtube clip uploaded by Santino Ruggera from A Cannata to see last year’s festa in full swing. Or if you would like to try making pasta e ceci this March 19, click on this link to find a recipe although you must be aware that this is not the actual recipe guarded by the protectorate of Malfa!

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Recipe: Spicchiteddi alla Nonna Maria http://inlovewithanisland.com/recipe-spicchiteddi-alla-nonna-maria/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/recipe-spicchiteddi-alla-nonna-maria/#comments Mon, 09 Feb 2015 04:55:31 +0000 http://inlovewithanisland.com/?p=442 Spiced cookies with vinu cuotto Christmas is the one occasion when the Eoliani all come together to eat, pray and celebrate the birth of Jesus. The saying is ‘Natale con i tuoi e Pasqua con chi vuoi ma non ti dimenticare i spicchiteddi’, Christmas is with yours and Easter is with who you want but […]

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Spiced cookies with vinu cuotto

Christmas is the one occasion when the Eoliani all come together to eat, pray and celebrate the birth of Jesus. The saying is ‘Natale con i tuoi e Pasqua con chi vuoi ma non ti dimenticare i spicchiteddi’, Christmas is with yours and Easter is with who you want but don’t forget the spicchitedi!

 INGREDIENTS

  • ½ kg of plain flour
  • ½ kg of self-raising flour
  • 2 desert spoons of caster sugar
  • 1 cup of olive oil
  • zest of one orange
  • ½ teaspoon of ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon of ground white pepper
  • Vinu cuotto (as needed)
  • Blanched, whole almonds (as needed)

 

METHOD

In a large bowl, sift together flour and spices. Add sugar and the orange zest.

Add the oil and mix with your hands until all combined.

Start to pour in the Vinu cuotto slowly, continuing to mix together with your hands until the mixture comes together in a ball. It will be soft.

Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently until thoroughly combined. Do not over work the dough.

spicchiteddiPinch a tablespoon of dough at a time and roll a rope about 20cm long. The easiest design is to coil the ends of the rope inward to meet at the centre, or twist them in opposite directions to form a coiled ‘S’ shape. However, get creative. Try cutting slits into a thicker rope of dough and coiling those back to creative decorative flourishes. Just don’t over work the dough or it risks splitting. Don’t worry about being precise, as long as all your designs are roughly the same size they will bake evenly.

Press a whole almond into the centre of each cookie and place them 7.5cm apart on a greased baking tray.

Bake the spicchiteddi in a moderate oven for ten to fifteen minutes, or until brown at the edges. They will be springy to touch but they will harden as they cool. Cool on a rack.

Enjoy!

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Poetry: Salina Calling http://inlovewithanisland.com/poetry-salina-calling/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/poetry-salina-calling/#comments Fri, 06 Feb 2015 14:43:44 +0000 http://inlovewithanisland.com/?p=426 Our mother is an island, born of fire At her feet, ancient children sway back and forth Pebbles polished smooth by the hand of existence Caught in the tide of the infinite ocean that licks At the breast that her children once suckled Longingly, they turn towards the bountiful sea Enchanted by the promise of […]

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Our mother is an island, born of fire
At her feet, ancient children sway back and forth
Pebbles polished smooth by the hand of existence
Caught in the tide of the infinite ocean that licks
At the breast that her children once suckled
Longingly, they turn towards the bountiful sea
Enchanted by the promise of glorious fortunes
And stories washed in from faraway shores
They roll, across each other, laughing along the way,
For they are a community of brothers and sisters
A community born of volcanic soil, family and toil
They depart, one by one to prosper in foreign lands
But across the Mediterranean winds, our mother whispers
Awakening a desire to return to the past, we roll once again
Like a newborn babe bewitched by the scent of her mother’s milk,
We seek the security of her lap and the comfort of her embrace
Our mother awaits us, hear her, Salina is calling.

Cristina Neri, 2010.

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Recipe: Sfinci d’ovo http://inlovewithanisland.com/recipe-no-1-sfinci-dovo/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/recipe-no-1-sfinci-dovo/#comments Fri, 06 Feb 2015 12:50:21 +0000 http://inlovewithanisland.com/?p=395 INGREDIENTS 21/2 cups plain flour 21/2 cups water a pinch of salt 7–8 large eggs a light vegetable oil for frying 1 cup of granulated sugar 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon   METHOD Place water, salt and sugar in a saucepan (large enough to hold all of the ingredients) and bring almost to the boil. […]

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INGREDIENTS

  • 21/2 cups plain flour
  • 21/2 cups water
  • a pinch of salt
  • 7–8 large eggs
  • a light vegetable oil for frying
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon

 

METHOD

Place water, salt and sugar in a saucepan (large enough to hold all of the ingredients) and bring almost to the boil. Add the flour all at once.

Beat the mixture immediately with a wooden spoon and work quickly. When the dough starts to come together, switch off the heat. Stir until the dough forms a ball and no longer stick to the sides of pan.

If you prefer, at this point you can move the dough into a mix master. Allow the dough to cool for about 10–15 minutes, but stir it often or beat on low to allow the steam to escape.

While the dough is cooling, mix together sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.

Add eggs one at a time, beating each egg completely into the dough before adding the next. Add enough eggs so that the batter becomes pliable enough to fall off a spoon but not be runny.

Heat some oil to frying temperature – there should be sufficient oil to nearly cover the level tablespoonfuls of dough, which will be dropped into it.

Fry only a few at the time or the sfinci will broil rather than fry. Perfect sfinci will turn on their own accord, however if you need to, turn once or twice until they are golden brown and have swelled in size. Remove and drain on paper before rolling the sfinci in the sugar and cinnamon mix.

Note: If you are unsure of the required consistency, test a spoonful of batter by placing it in the hot oil to see if it turns. Err on the side of a thicker batter as you can always beat another egg in after you’ve tested it.

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An affair with the Aeolian Islands of Sicily http://inlovewithanisland.com/an-affair-with-the-aeolian-islands-of-sicily/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/an-affair-with-the-aeolian-islands-of-sicily/#comments Thu, 05 Feb 2015 10:38:56 +0000 http://inlovewithanisland.com/?p=340 “Happy the children that grow up in love with an island. There they learn certain important characteristics for their future lives: fantasia, solitude, freedom, and even a certain amount of disrespect towards the mainland… and they learn and scan the horizon, to sail and leave (… to come back one day).” Inselsommer by Eric Orsenna

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  • “Happy the children that grow up in love with an island. There they learn certain important characteristics for their future lives: fantasia, solitude, freedom, and even a certain amount of disrespect towards the mainland… and they learn and scan the horizon, to sail and leave (… to come back one day).”

    Inselsommer by Eric Orsenna

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    The fine art of making Aeolian sfinci d’ovo http://inlovewithanisland.com/the_fine_art_of_making_sfinci_dovo/ http://inlovewithanisland.com/the_fine_art_of_making_sfinci_dovo/#comments Wed, 04 Feb 2015 09:03:58 +0000 http://trendis.si/wp-themes/inkstory/?p=51 The post The fine art of making Aeolian sfinci d’ovo appeared first on In Love with an Island.

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    Mention the words sfinci d’ovo to any Aeolian and you’ll see the glint of adoration sparkle in their eyes immediately. So beloved are these deep-fried spongy puffs dusted with granulated sugar and cinnamon, they have acquired cult status amongst the children of Aeolian migrants living around the globe.

    tileIt’s true that i sfinci are revered by all that grew up at their Nonna’s heels watching them miraculously turn by themselves as the batter puffed into a golden ball as they fried happily in a sea of vegetable or olive oil. To a child, anything rolled in sweet, crunchy sugar is ridiculously enticing but add a delicately squishy interior with an exterior shell that collapses in your mouth and you’ll have died and gone to heaven. When I organized the Eoliano Heritage Study Program that brought Australian participants of Aeolian descent to the Aeolian Islands for a two week course of cultural immersion, it was the cooking demonstration of sfinci d’ovo that was most described as the highlight. Indeed, even for myself who was one of those children strapped to her Nonna’s side, the thought of attempting such a legendary treat left me nervous and doubtful. Dare I ever risk making a mess of such a sanctified family memory?

    Many times I ran my fingers over the short list of ingredients I’d handwritten into the exercise book where I compiled some of the recipes I managed to extract from my Nonna Maria before she passed away. My mother had also made them but often with unsatisfactory results. Unlike myself, my mother was not privileged to spend as much time with her mother absorbing her culinary knowledge as I was. When Nonna Maria was in the kitchen behind their fruit shop in Mattraville, my mother was needed to serve fruit and vegetables to their customers. Consequently, my mother never really understood the consistency required, adding either too many eggs or not enough to ensure the perfect result. After a few mishaps and the look on her children’s disappointed faces, Mum left them to Nonna until one day, they disappeared into thin air, along with Nonna herself. When we loose someone loved so dearly, we grieve so many aspects of that person and Nonna’s sfinci d’ovo were just one of them. So when Zia Erminia flew into town recently from Palermo and asked me whether I made sfinci d’ovo for my children, I blushed and said, “I want to but I’m too scared to try in case they are a disaster.” “Nah,” she laughed in her broken English, “It’s a easy. I make a them all a de time for a mi kids… they love em! Come ona, we’ll make em together. I show a you the way an olda ladee from Lingua (Salina) taughta me ow to do it.”

    A little bit of history

    That evening as I excitedly awaited the next day’s agenda and my pending benediction for making sfinci d’ovo for the first time, I got to thinking about these randomly shaped sponges of dough. Who invented them? And what is their story? In Sicily, they make sfinci from a very similar dough and process and often fill them with ricotta cream sweetened with candied fruit to celebrate the feast day of Saint Joseph who is known locally as San Giuseppe. While I was unable to find any written information specifically on the history of sfinci d’ovo, I decided that investigating the sfinci di San Giuseppe was the perfect place to start. After all, when the Turkish pirate Barbarossa ransacked Lipari Island in 15441 and killed or enslaved almost the entire population the Aeolian Islands were resettled largely by Sicilians. The reigning emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V had ordered the bishop of Lipari to increase his flock of the remaining Liparoti who had escaped to Messina, by offering land to Southern Italian and Spanish families. Needless to say, the Sicilians turned up with their zappa (hoe) on their backs and their own cultural traditions in their pockets!

    So what do sfinci d’ovo and sfinci di San Giuseppe have in common? Apart from the ingredients of which are practically the same (except for the addition of butter to the sfinci di San Giuseppe) and the same method of cooking the dough prior to adding whole eggs as well as frying them in oil and tossing them in cinnamon sugar, both sfinci share just that – the word sfinci. As obvious as this may seem, it is the origins of this word that tells us much about the entwined history of the Sicilian and Aeolian peoples that ultimately translates into their greatest form of cultural expression – their food.

    Which came first? The Arabs, Romans or the Greeks

    There exist two theories on the origins of the word sfinci, also spelt spingi or sfingi, both originating from Sicily’s distant past of foreign domination. Historian, Michele Amari wrote in his Storia dei Musulemani in Sicilia2, ‘Arabs remained in name and in fact in Sicily. Fried pastries in Sicily like those from Barbary (Maghreb) are called sfinci … from the Arab word isfang or sfang’. The isfang of Arab origin, a kind of fried pancake pastry drizzled in honey, were introduced during the tenth century CE after the Saracens and Berbers conquered western Sicily3. However, another respected authority on the history of Sicilian cuisine, Pino Correnti, ascribes sfinci to the pagan era during which time, were consumed to celebrate the winter solstice4. Correnti claims the word sfinci is derivative from the Greek word for sponge, sponghìa and the Latin spongia.

    Celebrating San Giuseppe with sfinci

    One might consider the Aeolian sfinci d’ovo to be the poorer cousin to the Sicilian sfinci di San Giuseppe. Even Susan Lord and Danilo Baroncini refer to sfinci d’ovo as sfinci di San Giuseppe in their collection of anecdotal recipes from the Aeolian Islands titled Pani Caliatu5. Celebrated on the 19th of March, the Festa di San Giuseppe on the island of Salina features la tavuliata (a festive table) dedicated to the saint. The long table adorned with a white table cloth and flowers is prepared outdoors, laden with typical Aeolian foods prepared by locals including generous platters piled high with sfinci d’ovo that are presented as an offering to the holy family and as tradition has it, to the poor. San Giuseppe has particular significance to the town of Malfa. Legend tells that in 1835, a boat called U Mulinciani was caught in a menacing storm as it approached Naples where it was to deliver its load of Malvasia wine and local produce. Fearing for their lives as the violent sea thrashed them about, the pious fishermen implored San Giuseppe for their salvation, promising to feed the poor in gratitude. There is a lot more to this story but I’d like to save that for another time. The point is that San Giuseppe was as important to the Aeolians as he was to the Sicilians.

    So, if sfinci d’ovo are in fact, derived from the traditional fritters of the sfinci di San Giuseppe, why the variation in ingredients? I have asked many Aeolians for their version of sfinci d’ovo and the basic ingredients are incredibly simple: one part flour, one part water, a pinch of salt and as many eggs as required. Some add a small amount of sugar, perhaps a tablespoon but this is basically it. Interestingly, the recipe given in Pani Caliatu and supplied by Eugenia Renda from Stromboli includes 2 tablespoons of butter but I am told emphatically by some of my Aeolian migrant friends that this is not traditional. Whatever the case, the mystery of the missing butter ingredient can be easily explained. Butter was not produced on the islands nor did the islanders of yesteryear have regular access to Sicily to purchase it. Sure they produced cheese but this was made from goat or sheep’s milk. This would explain the ‘or olive oil’ in Eugenia’s recipe. The Aeolians produced their own high-grade olive oil and traditional Aeolian biscuits use olive oil as the fat component, not butter or lard as used on Sicily.

    When Zia Erminia arrived the next morning, she swung into full action. Wait! I’ve got to set my video camera up. Aspetta, Zia! I was determined not to miss a second of this inaugural moment but unfortunately, there was no taming the lion once she’s escaped the clutches of feeling useless in somebody else’s house. Consequently, if you’d like to watch the video published with this article, you’ll notice that my head is often cut of the video frame – I simply couldn’t get Zia to wait for me to check anything! Never mind, after all, it’s all about sharing the recipe with all of you enthusiasts. So without further ado, click here for my idiot-proof step-by-step instructions. Enjoy!

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    (Sorry, I’m still working on the video footage – stay tuned)

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    Footnotes:

    1. Racheli, Gin. Eolie di Vento e di Fuoco, Milano, U. Mursia editore S.p.A. (1977), p. 186.
    2. Amari, Michele,Storia dei musulmani di sicilia, Catania: Dafni, (1986), (3) pt. 5, 892 n. 2.
    3. Previté-Orton, William Carles. A Short History of Medieval Europe: Volumes I and II, Cambridge Unviersity Press (1971), vol. 1, pg. 370.
    4. Correnti, Pino. Il libro d’oro della cucina e dei vini di Sicilia, Mursia; Nuova ed. riv. e ampliata edition (1992).
    5. Lord, Susan and Baroncini, Danilo. Pani Caliatu, Centro Studi e Ricerche di Storia e Problemi Eoliani (2001), p. 165.

     

    NEXT…

    Miracolo! Saved by San Giuseppe!
    The tradition of the quadara di San Giuseppe of Malfa, Salina

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