Erice’s conventual pastries

The art of pastry making in Sicily has its roots in the Arabian era, but it refined and reached its maximum expression inside the monasteries, remaining so to this day. We are not talking about cannoli, cassate or traditional baroque desserts, but rather about the true gems, those treasures of monastery baking unknown to most. This tradition belongs solely to those places that have always hosted monasteries. Erice in fact had five, and this is why it can be considered one of the most important poles of island monastery baking. Here the art of confectionery making has for centuries enjoyed great fervour. The most important production occurred in two convents, San Carlo and Santa Teresa. In the kitchens, cloistered nuns prepared cakes and biscuits with local ingredients: almonds, honey, ricotta cheese, citrus fruits and figs. The recipes, jealously guarded in secret, were used at events programmed by the liturgical calendar and were characterized by strong iconographic and exquisite floral decorations with coloured icing. These delicacies, once sold to customers ‘through the wheel’, the only system that allowed cloistered nuns to interact with the outside world, now reign in the windows of Maria Grammatico’s pastry shops and that of San Carlo. It is thanks to Maria Grammatico, who spent her childhood in the convent of San Carlo, that the fame of these sweets has conquered the world in recent years. She in fact took, in a primitive form of industrial espionage, some of the monastery’s recipes, making them freely available and tearing them out of secrecy and enclosure.The almond is the main ingredient of conventual pastry making. It is used to prepare small treats with different names, brutti ma buoni (ugly but good), sospiri (sighs) and i dolci di riposto (pantry sweets) made of citrus fruit conserve and liquor, authentic masterpieces decorated with almond paste and sugar. Even today as was in the past, the liturgical calendar dictates the time for cake making: at Easter the preparation of marzipan lambs, for the 2nd of November marzipan fruit and biscuits filled with dried figs, June 30th the so-called chiavi di San Pietro made of marzipan and jam (‘keys of St. Peter’). Also interesting are the dried biscuits, i tricotti or i mustazzoli made of flour and honey and typically flavoured with cloves. Finally, a place of honour is reserved for the Genovesi, the newest of the preparations mentioned and one of Erice’s most popular specialties. Erice’s Genovesi is the meeting of sweet crust pastry with custard. Best to try while very hot and freshly baked.

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