A brief history: Cassata, Cannoli and Frutta Martorana
I will never forget my first encounter with Cassata Siciliana; a Sicilian classic I have termed ‘dessert of the gods’ ever since. It was my first day in Palermo and I had already fallen deeply in love with the city and its crumbling Baroque beauty. As always, I’d gone straight to a local for advice on where to eat and so Bar Rosanero – just across from the Botanical Gardens – it was for something sweet and an espresso.
‘Something sweet’ is an understatement.
Peering through the glass counter across a glowing array of glazed, powdered and iced treats like a rich woman eyeing up the next colossal jewel to weigh herself down with, my eyes froze on a round cake with white icing, topped with red, orange and green candied fruit.
“Questo,” I pointed and watched as the mirrored surface of the dessert spatula sliced straight through a Maraschino cherry and plunged into a thick ricotta centre, emerging with smeared traces of chocolate. Cassata Siciliana, I would find out, is decadent both on the outside and on the inside.
Taking a seat in the pink and black toned bar (the colours of Palermo’s football team), I tucked into my Cassata with a plastic fork. It almost broke on contact with a slice of candied orange. Below the sugar paste smothered surface, hides a rich and decadent ricotta filling, sometimes dotted with tiny chocolate chips and always atop a bed of liqueur soaked sponge. Ricotta has its origins in Sicily and is more of a creamy curd than a cheese, making it perfect for indulgent desserts like this one.
As if not saccharine enough, cassata is made in a dish with sloping sides, of which almond or pistachio marzipan is pressed against, giving the cake an almost absurd green tint. Being an aficionado of all that others deem ‘just too sweet’ my eyes bulged at first bite. Finally, a dessert to crown all desserts.
I imagine the Palermitans of the 10th Century felt the same upon discovering sugar, brought to the island in the Arab invasion. It’s thought that the very word ‘Cassata’ comes from the Arabic word, ‘qas’at’, meaning a wide circular pan (in which the dessert is made). The newly-discovered ingredient gave rise to a fascination and a new obsession with desserts. It seems like me, the Sicilian’s of the 900s thought, ‘the sweeter, the better.’ Hence the sweet sponge base, sugary marzipan, sticky icing paste and extra naughty candied fruit on top. This dessert is not for the faint hearted. It is pure heaven for the sweetest tooth, traditionally served at Easter but now on the menu all year round.
One wedge of this might be too much for some. For those, the ‘cassatina’ exists. A mini, dome-shaped version of its grander sibling, Cassatina, or ‘Cassatella di Sant’Agata’ as it is known in Catania is topped with a single Maraschino cherry. Those likening it to a perfectly porcelain breast are not wrong in doing so, for this sweet dessert has a less than savoury story attached to it. Saint Agata, after whom these individual cassatas are named, was tortured by having her breasts cut off. Nice.
Not dissimilar to the cassatina in its origin stories, another of my all time favourite Sicilian desserts, the cannolo (or ‘cannoli’ if we’re talking multiple), is said to have been modelled on a man’s phallus. A long, crunchy cylinder of delicious deep fried dough is filled with an oozing, sweetened ricotta and topped with a single piece of candied fruit and occasionally filled with pieces of chocolate. Bite into one end, expect cream to spill out of the other. The comparisons are not wrong.
Trying my best ( and failing) to not think about its origins as I lift mine to my mouth at Caffe Spinnato in Palermo, the ricotta and chocolate filled cannolo of my choice cracks, crunches and plunges me into a sugary abyss on first bite.
The history of cannoli dates back to the pre-lent festival of Carnevale, in which Sicilians would let loose and indulge before curbing the vices for 40 days before easter. Some historians have drawn a link between cannoli and symbols of fertility, suggesting cannoli were consumed during carnival in order to promote fertility before a long period of abstinence. What most do agree on is the dessert’s likeness to sweet-filled qanawāt tubes in the Middle East – again, nodding to the influence that the invading Arabs had on Sicily’s now rich food culture.
The origin story of Frutta Martorana is rather more pious than that of the cassata and the cannolo. A expertly crafted paste of almond and sugar marzipan bearing an uncanny resemblance to any fruit you can think of, Frutta Martorana is a regular fixture in any Palermitan pastry shop window. On first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking what you’re seeing is actually a persimmons or an ever-so-shiny pear. Biting into one, you discover something much sweeter.
In the middle ages, nuns of the Martorana cloister awaiting a visit from the archbishop of Palermo decided to sculpt fruits to hang on the trees to impress their visitor. Using marzipan and natural dyes, these were the very first Frutta Martorana.
Traditionally served at Easter and All Saints Day on 1 November, Frutta Martorana are potentially the most paint-staking dessert to make of my holy trinity. Once out of its wooden mold, each piece of ‘fruit’ is painted using a mix of powdered food colouring and water, with each colour or detail painted on in layers. This involves waiting for each layer of paint to dry before proceeding to the next. It’s a time-consuming exercising, with each piece taking up to an hour to perfect. When I do decide to treat myself to this one, the first bite is always accompanied with a sense of guilt at ruining such a perfect piece of art.