Authentic marzipan, Sicilian couscous and low season travel

I love a good travel deal. It’s not so much about the destination, but more about the price of the ticket. A few years ago I went to Scotland just to celebrate Continental airlines’ new direct route to Edinburgh. Even though I knew seeing the Scottish highlands in late fall wasn’t the best time, the $300 round trip fare convinced me otherwise. Walking the frigid streets in afternoon darkness wasn’t very pleasant, but once I was home with the intense Mexican sun beating on my back, I fondly remembered my time abroad…at half the price.

I think of my off-season travel mantra (suck it up now and then manipulate the memories to eliminate the misery) as the strong, cold Mediterranean wind beats across my chapped, red face. My ears ache so much that I wish they would just fall off as I walk the steep, narrow, dim alleyways of Erice, a fortress town dating back to Roman times. Perched atop a mountain overlooking the Tyrrhenian coast of western Sicily and the famous salt flats of Trapani, Erice is known for its marzipan, the best in Sicily, which means some of the best in the world. Elizabeth (my friend who has a cooking school in Umbria) has joined me in my obsessive quest for quality food. This may seem a little extreme until you realize that I once took an overnight train from Germany to Switzerland to sample a real “Mozart Kugel”. These small chocolate truffles are exported all over the world, but only made with the finest ingredient–fresh cream, in Zurich. I had to try the authentic version, and the trip, I might add, was well worth it.

Back to Italy though. Sicilians are the masters of marzipan, which is a delectable sweet made from a paste of sugar syrup and water mixed with ground almonds (almond extract is sometimes added to enhance the flavor). The paste is kneaded until smooth and then shaped into an assortment of forms, from fruits and vegetables to barnyard animals and life like figurines. I learned from my friend Judy Witts Francini in Florence that the best marzipan was made by a woman named Maria Grammatico in Erice, which brings us back to the walk up the deserted stone streets in gale force winds and low laying fog.

Elizabeth and I find Maria’s shop easily, but only after stopping in a hotel to sit by their fire (inquiring about a future stay, of course), then a quick visit to a small café to warm our feet while consuming hot beverages, followed by a few minutes outside, until we can’t stand it any longer and decide to sit down for lunch. At this point we’ve gone a quarter of a mile and only half way to the main square, which is near our ultimate destination.

Marzipan Fruit Basket

A bottle of crisp white wine, a house mix of Chardonnay and Carricante (an indigenous variety known for its apple and almond aroma) is our reward for braving the hostile Sicilian weather that no one ever talks about (at least not to me). We order all the local specialties and I do mean all. Elizabeth and I make a good pair; we both love to eat and get overly enthusiastic in new culinary surroundings. We start with Caponata—sautéed eggplant tossed with olives, tomatoes, olive oil and lemon juice; Sicilian couscous—a thick fish stew spiced with saffron, cinnamon and almonds served over, you guessed it, couscous; and Pasta con le Sardine—fresh sardines cooked with saffron, raisins, fennel and pine nuts, tossed with spaghetti. These Arab inspired dishes are common to Sicily whose cuisine takes on the flavors on its many conquerors. The Arabs ruled this tiny island in the 8th and 9th centuries leaving their prominent mark in the architecture, as well as the kitchen. The dishes showcase a unique blend of flavors, as well as offer a history lesson.

Leaving the Arab world behind we move on to Erice’s neighbor—Marsala. Another coastal town, its claim to fame is its namesake fortified wine. Marsala has been produced in Marsala since the late 19th century and is one of the town’s main sources of employment. Veal Marsala is another local specialty, so we decide to try it, even though the Italian version of this dish doesn’t resemble what we know in the States. The meat is not pounded into thin sheets, rather served as a large, thick slice. It’s not very tender, however, the flavor of the Marsala wine is sweeter and more intense than usual. We end the meal with cassata—the most famous of Sicily’s dessert, a white cake filled with fresh ricotta and topped with sugared fruits. Once favored by the aristocracy, this intensely sweet dessert is found in all the local pastry shops.

Marsala Wine Barrels--Marsala, Sicily

Rejuvenated, we walk quickly uphill against the brutal wind and into Maria’s shop. The windows are full of colorful marzipan fruit–lemons, oranges, strawberries, bananas, as well simpler cream-colored marzipan cookies in different shapes, some sprinkled with sliced almonds. The inside store shelves are full of fruit laden wicker baskets, seeming real beyond belief, but actual fruit is not so perfect. The shop is small and attached to a café, where customers are urged to sample treats. Elizabeth and I choose an assortment of almond paste cookies, preferring simplicity. I honestly have never liked marzipan, but like most food, its authentic version has nothing to do with its commercial namesake. And once again, this theory holds true. The cookies are much less sweet and sugary than what I’ve tasted before and the natural almond flavor is addictive.

Assorted Marzipan Fruits

Maria Grammtico learned her trade with the nuns, who have preserved authentic marzipan making for centuries in Italy, as well as Spain and Germany. Some say the tradition dates back to the Egyptians who mixed crushed almonds with honey and was later prized by the emperors of Rome. Others say it began with the Persians, filtering into Europe with the medieval trade routes. No matter who discovered it, they did a good job.

Maria Grammatico's Lemon Marzipan Basket

Are they worth frostbite? Yes, I believe they are. Especially since I get to load up on boxes of Maria’s treats to take home for Christmas presents.

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