We are all familiar with the old saying "an apple a day keeps the doctor away", and looking at the lovely display in the picture we can only agree with that. However, not everything is as it seems.
What if I told you that fruit is not really fruit? Exactly my friends, these colourful delicacies conceal an even tastier secret: a soft marzipan inside that gives them an unparalleled flavour. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you Frutta Martorana, one of the most ancient and refined dishes of the Sicilian culinary tradition.
-A blast from the past
In order to trace the origin of these sweets we have to go to Palermo, a centre that contains within itself the many legacies of the dominations that came in succession on the island over the centuries, shaping that wonderful mixture which is the cultural heritage of the ancient “Trinacria” (Sicily's very first name). In the heart of the city stands the church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, built in 1143 by order of Giorgio D'Antiochia, admiral of the Norman king Ruggero II. It was the noblewoman Eloisa Martorana who arranged for a Benedictine monastery to be built next to the church in 1194, thus giving her name to the entire area which from then on would be known as "La Martorana". You will ask yourself at this point: what can an ancient place of worship have to do with pastry making? Well, it is soon said.
In the convent there was a so-called "ruota degli esposti" (baby hatch), a sort of rotating mechanism used at the time to place unwanted infants without being seen, entrusting them to the care of the nuns who lived there. The holy women were therefore responsible for raising the orphans from an early age and it was precisely to assist them in their mission that one day the noble Eloisa came up with an idea. Inspired by an ancient Arabic recipe (we will talk about it soon, don't worry) she made some sweets out of almond paste that replicated the shapes and colours of fruit, creating some “edible works of art”; she then taught the method to the nuns. During the festivities of November the 1st and the 2nd (i.e. All Saints' Day and the All Souls' Day) they used to tell the children of the monastery that if they were obedient, the departed would bring to each one of them some delicious marzipan fruits, thus starting a custom that has been going on for centuries.
-How to impress a king
But that is not the end of the story. It seems that over the years the sisters had reached such a level of mastery in crafting the product, now universally known as "frutta martorana", that even an emperor has been fooled once! According to a popular tale, in fact, in 1537 Charles V visited the monastery, intrigued by the numerous rumors that depicted it as one of the most beautiful in Sicily, with a garden whose beauty rivalled that of the most opulent palaces. However, to the nuns' great dismay, the visit should have coincided with the arrival of the cold season, which is why the plants would have been totally bare. To overcome that inconvenience and welcome the monarch with all honours, the nuns used their art, working relentlessly to produce a massive amount of fruit, such as to completely cover the trees in the garden, giving the impression that they were in full bloom. It is said that Charles V was so impressed that he commissioned many of the fabulous sweets, which from that moment on could legitimately be defined as true royal delicacies.
-Between past and modernity
For centuries the sisters held the exclusive of the creation (and trade) of the delicate fruits, until, in 1575, the diocesan synod of Mazara del Vallo prohibited their production because they believed it was a distraction from their religious duties. From that moment on, the recipe became the prerogative of the artisan guilds; it was thus enriched and reworked, adopting new methods and ingredients capable of enhancing the brilliance of the fruits, making them almost indistinguishable from their counterparts. Even today when you look at the windows of Sicilian pastry shops you are greeted by such a variety of shapes and colours that you will certainly be amazed: there are pears, apples, strawberries, prickly pears, even watermelons and tomatoes! There is no decoration that is too bold for the hands of an expert pastry chef.
To celebrate this tradition, Verdetna offers a special selection of handcrafted frutta martorana in an elegant 180 grams format (6,34 ounces), or in the more generous 300 grams package (10,58 ounces). Treat yourself to an ancient but always enjoyable pleasure. But be careful: behave or there will be no sweets for you!