If you are ever in New York for Halloween your experience will be a little different. Imagine the macabre costumes, drags, and all sorts of weird makeup; the adults here welcome Halloween in all its spooky Boo York glory.
For a young Brooklyn kid like me, it included all the trick or treating shenanigans imaginable. As the leader of my block, I was considered something of a “hero” owing to the innovative tricks I cooked up.
The shaving cream we slathered on doors, tossed eggs, toilet papered houses, and lots of soap suds – we did it all! And, no… never any concern for damage; They don’t call it “Crooklyn” around here for nothing.
However, in other parts of the world, Halloween is a little different than what’s celebrated around the borough of Brooklyn.
When I first arrived in Sicily, I couldn’t help but remember all the pranks we played. It’s different from the celebration back home. Here in Italy, it’s a two-day show.
I arrived on the 1st of November. Quite luckily, I got a full taste of the Tutti i Santi or Ognissanti when all the saints are celebrated.
November 2nd is when the country celebrates All Souls Day – their version of the American Halloween. In Sicily, they call it the “Il Giorno dei Morti” or “U juornu re muorti” that translates into “day of the dead.” On this day, Italians honour beloved members of their families that have passed before them.
I remember waking up at dawn in Novara di Sicilia to the sounds of Mass coming from the Church. I realized that they were the towns-folk offering prayers for their long-gone dear ones. After the prayers, they would visit the graveyard to decorate the the lost with candles and flowers.
The Sicilian Day of the Dead is a unique tradition that seems to have nuances of Santa Claus and the Easter Egg Hunt all rolled into one. And that makes it fascinating – a tradition that is solemn but also celebratory.
For kids, Sicily becomes a playground on Halloween. So much so that I found myself remembering my own stash of Halloween candy.
Kids are told that the good souls of their dead ancestors or “i bonarmuzza re muorticieddi” would bring them gifts of toys and sweets that are hidden around the house. The caveat? The kids would have to be good if they wanted the rewards. It’s a nice way of keeping kids connected with their family members even if they aren’t around.
And now the delicious part of the Sicilian holiday: Frutta Martorana
Frutta Martorana is a unique kind of marzipan candy crafted from almond paste with an interesting history behind it.
Considered a delicacy in Palermo, Sicily, they were made by the nuns at the Monastero della Martorana in honor of the archbishop who was visiting at Easter. The nuns crafted brightly colored fruits and vegetables out of almond paste and presented them to their honored guest. Legend has it that he was utterly delighted and fascinated at the sight of the earth’s bounty harvested so early in spring. And, that’s how Frutta Martorana found a special place in Italian table fare.
Interested and intrigued? Join me as I explore how to make this fascinating candy.
I picked up a tip or two from Candelora, a lovely Sicilian lady who I made friends with. She let me pitch-in around her little kitchen, learning one of the most exciting secrets of her town.
A little bit of a background: the marzipan of the Frutta Martorana, also called “marzapane” is somewhat less sweet than the kind you find back in New York. But, I found that once you acquire the taste, you seemed to like it better.
However more than the taste, I found an unequivocal love for the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into making these delicious hand painted fruits and vegetables! They look incredibly realistic so much so that you could easily mistake it for fresh fruit just picked from the orchards and fields.
Candelora opened a bottle of local Frappato di Vittoria, a light and fruity wine. In between sips we set about mastering the art of creating Frutta Martorana.
Preparing the basic recipe for the marzipan is deceptively simple.
Here’s what you’ll need:
Let’s get started!
1. Boil the corn syrup and sugar together on low heat until the sugar has dissolved completely.
2. Ensure to not let the liquid come to a boil.)
3. Allow the syrup to cool until it is lukewarm.
3. Stir in the almond flour a little at a time so no lumps form.
4. Once cool, knead thoroughly to remove wrinkles and folds.
5. You’ll find that it has a smooth Play-Doh texture.
6. Place the mixture into the desired molds.
7. Refrigerate for around 24 hours.
8. Voila! The Frutta is ready for a creative table fare!
Now, you get to play around with the food colors and create the most vibrant-looking fruits and vegetables on the planet! As an example, I learned the art of hand painting each piece and adding the little touches to transform them into works of art. Trust me, they are an absolute feast for the eyes.
Let me give you some more interesting and in-depth information about how the art has evolved – for the better of course.
Originally, as it turns out, the fruits were made into forms and later carved into the specific shapes the chef was looking for. Nowadays, they have wood or plaster molds that saves up a considerable amount of time.
But, even with the molds, you’re not quite done. That’s because the molds give you only one side of the piece. You have to learn how to mold the other half.
To give the fruits their authentic fresh-from-the-orchard shine, chefs (I’m going to call them artists and sculptors) use a lacquer of benzoin which is an edible resin. Alternatively, they might use gum arabic as the last, finishing touch.
Each piece is painstakingly colored, one stage at a time. Why? Because you have to let each color dry completely before you begin work with the next! Yes. All good things take effort and time.
So while it took a lot of technique and practice, eventually, I mastered the art of adding fuzz to the peaches, seed dimples to the strawberries, and freckles to the pears and bananas. You’ll even have that little white line where the pulp of the watermelon touches the rind.
And, that’s not all. You’ll also have mandarins that are partly peeled with the peel in place. Of course, you get a peek into the fruit inside!
Each peeled ear of corn, each apple, each placement of a watermelon seed, and each pear has character and personality of its own. Just like they appear in nature.
I spent a lot of time working with the masters of Sicily, picking up the smaller details and little secrets that go into making each work of art.
Note: a true artist will not make each piece identical.
Unfortunately, I also learned that the true art of making Frutta Martorana is fading away. While you do have artists perfecting the art over 50 years, there are fewer apprentices signing up to learn. For instance, in the Villabate Alba, there are less than 40 such sculptors left!
Now before I sign off, I am going to let you in on a little secret: once the Frutta are ready with the paint and polish, they’ll keep for a very long time. When wandering through the bakeries of Sicily, I came across a few that had been on display for at least 20 years!
Yes, these works of art are edible. And yes, they make for a delicious time in Sicily!