A few years back, I tasted my first granita.
Today, with a spoon in one hand, a brioche in the other, a grin from ear to ear and a heaped-high glass of the stuff placed just beneath my nose, I concur: I am a self-confessed granita addict. I am an utter freak, both fiend and fanatic for this iciest of confections.
If you too have delighted in tasting granita, I am sure you will agree that whilst ice, sugar and various flavourings are indeed the tangible ingredients that come together in the making of this ingeniously simple receipt, its foremost flavour, the one in which we savour and salivate over at the mere mention of the word, is the taste of summer. Even better, an Italian summer. And where more perfect a place to test out this sunshiny tang and palate this balmy punch than in Italy’s ball to its boot and granita capital of the world: the island of Sicily.
A sweet so scrumptious it is fit for the gods; I was solemnly defeated in my attempt to track down any Roman deity of the granita variety to whom I could dole out my devotion. I did however discover the ‘men of the snow’, known as ‘Nivaroli’, who for reasons I shall now go on to explain are the ancient people more worthy of we granita addicts’ worship and gratitude, than any mythological being could ever be. The ‘Nivaroli’ forerunners, with a pun on the run, go back to antiquity. Emperor Nero, for one, evidently as greedy as he was notoriously evil, supposedly sent his servants running to the nearest mountains for snow. In batches they brought it back, flavoured it with fruits and juices and the snowy delight was served as a refreshing finish to his leadership’s long and lavish banquets.
Bringing us back to Sicily, but moving forward to the Middle Ages, it was with the arrival of the Arabs and their domination of the island that the ‘Nivoroli’ profession fired into full-fledged swing. These laborious men went at Mount Etna from dawn to dusk. They gathered the snow in the winter months and stored it there within icy caves they had dug themselves, further preserving the snow under layers of volcanic ash. In the summer, the remarkably-kept frozen ice, together with fruits, nuts and even rose petals, were blended with cane-sugar in the creation of ‘Sharbat’. The addition of the granulated latter, as well as the citrus fruits, pistachios, mulberries, and the many other ingredients imported by the Arabs, is what makes ‘Sharbat’ a firm predecessor to the frosty treat we eat and love today. Over time, modern technologies along with a good deal of Sicilian spirit have been stirred into the mixture to give us granita.
Neither ice cream, nor sorbet, nor slushie; the granita is a perfect cross-breed of all three. Its rather special consistency is what gives granita it’s wow-factor…boom! and what brings me, and other granita guzzlers alike, wanting more and more and more. Too soft to cone up, yet too thick for a straw, the granita’s one and only partner-in-crime is the infamous Brioche col Tuppo, a specifically shaped pastry that is as much kneaded in Sicily’s history as granita is churned to it. Named for its similarity in appearance to the tight-bun hairstyle, dubbed ‘il tuppo’ in Sicilian, favoured by the Island’s long-ago female inhabitants, this sweetened bread is formed from two different shaped balls of dough, baked one upon the other. Served straight from the oven, the warm brioche is torn apart, starting from tuppo downwards, and used as an edible spoon to scoop up the ice-cold granita.
If the idea of brioche with frozen dessert is sounding a rather crazy combo to you now, I must confess I was just as bemused when I first holidayed in Sicily. What’s more, Sicilians eat this for breakfast! As a Rome-based, cappuccino and cornetto girl through and through, I was rather reluctant to trade up my morning ritual repast. Yet with a little persuasion from my partner, an avid Sicily goer and long-time granita convert, I took the plunge and compromised that very first time on a coffee variation generously topped with whipped cream. Love at first bite, I was hooked. From Catania, to Palermo, to the Aeolian Islands we went and in almond, pistachio, lemon, peach, watermelon…coffee and chocolate granitas we guzzled.
The true taste of a summer in Sicily is never quite there without a granita. If you want to keep cool while you watch Stromboli spill its lava into the sea, take a granita! Don’t lose the aquamarine freshness after your swim: order a granita. And of course, if you go to the hot heart of the island and gaze upon the mosaic bikini girls and embracing lovers of Piazza Armerina you will need a granita too!