Modica and Noto: the land of the baroque

Modica and Noto: the land of the baroque

By
Manuela Darling-Gansser
Contains
6 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740669030
Photographer
Simon Griffiths

In 1693 a massive earthquake devastated a number of cities in southeastern Sicily. What was a disaster then has now become a source of delight, as the cities were rebuilt in the Spanish baroque style and are today extraordinary examples of that period.

It is unusual to find a whole city built in one style at one time, and to find them built in Spanish baroque style, with all its flourishes and extravagances, is something of a wonder. The cities of Palazzola, Ragusa and Ispica all contain wonderful baroque buildings, but it is the cities of Modica and Noto that are my favourites.

The main street in Modica runs along the bottom of a steep-walled valley. Both sides of the valley are almost completely built up, with the grandest houses and churches situated near the main street, the lesser ones rising up the hills. Along the valley, small squares are filled with fountains and statues and broad flights of steps lead up to the next level. With the quality of its buildings, the unity of its architecture and the very human scale, the old centre of Modica is delightful.

Perhaps in keeping with the frills of its architecture, Modica is known for its confectionery, and in particular for a local chocolate made from carob beans. Carob trees, like olives, are enormously tough and can grow to a great age. They grow on stony terrain in the area between Modica and the coast to the south, some clearly hundreds of years old. Over centuries of labour, local stone has been collected to build a network of walls that must stretch for over a hundred kilometres. The country here is divided into small fields bounded by these walls. The fields are planted with carob trees with grazing land beneath them. With the old stone walls and old carob trees, it is a remarkable landscape.

Carob chocolate is made from the pods of the tree and is dark, hard and brittle. It is sweetened with sugar and scented with cinnamon and orange. Despite its name, if you think of carob as chocolate, you will be disappointed. It is nothing like the smooth, rich, melt-in-the-mouth chocolate from the more familiar cocoa bean. Think of it instead as a type of spiced confectionery bar that is at its best when grated over pastry desserts and ice creams.

Modica has a reputation for the quality of its pasticcerie, where you can buy pastries, confectionery and ice cream. My favourite is the chantilly pasticceria–gelateria on Corso Umberto, the main street. It is here that Angelo Cataldi and his wife, Maria Concetta, work their magic. All the pastries are fine and delicate. There is an enormous variety of small marzipan fruits and a familiar range of ice creams, some in tiny cones, with the pastel colours of the ice creams dusted with ground pistachio. The shop is a delight and totally in keeping with the baroque flourishes of Modica itself.

Pasticcerie in Sicily have a rather unusual history. Although their beginnings lie back in the time of the Moors with the introduction of sugarcane to the island, today’s more refined sweets were developed several centuries later, in the many convents around the island.

It is thought likely that the convents started creating elaborate marzipan fruits and delicate pastries as a way to celebrate saints’ days. One local legend describes how a particular convent created marzipan oranges to hang on an out-of-season orange tree to decorate it for the bishop’s visit. Whatever the origins, sweet making soon grew into a source of regular income.

In those days, many of the convents were closed orders, and nuns were not permitted contact with outsiders. So they devised a technique to sell their produce without breaking the rules of the order. Their solution was a revolving wheel set in the convent wall – similar to what you sometimes see at a bank counter. The customers were unable to see into the room beyond, so they placed their written request and some money on the wheel and turned it. A short time later the wheel would turn back and their sweets would appear. There was just such a turning wheel in the wall of a convent in central Palermo until only a few years ago.

Quite by chance, I met a woman called Maria Grammatico, who had grown up in a convent where she learned the craft of confectionery and pastry making. Maria had been placed with the nuns as a child, as her mother could not afford to look after her. She lived a very austere life in the convent, and her skill in producing marzipan confectionery and delicate pastries was her one real pleasure. Today Maria is well known for the pasticceria she runs in the town of Erice near Trapani. Erice is an old fortified town spectacularly situated on top of a steep mountain with views of the coast. Maria Grammatico’s pasticceria is almost at the top of the mountain and it is visited by most of the people who go to Erice – both to sample its delicacies and to meet a woman of great vitality and charm.

On our travels we discovered another wonderful bakery in the small town of Frigintini, outside Modica, where we stopped for a coffee. On finding ourselves outside a flour mill (the Mulino I.M.M.A.), I naturally asked if I might look around. While we were admiring the beautiful grano duro flour, I noticed some sacks of the flour being carried across the road to a small bakery. We followed the trail and entered the realm of Giorgia Colomba, the San Antonio Panificio–Biscottificio (bread and biscuit bakery). At the back of the shop her two assistants, Angela and Graziana, were rolling out pastries and a large oven stood in the next room. As we quickly found out, the house specialty is impanatigghi, a small pastry with a delicious rich filling made from sugar, almonds, chocolate and spices and a small quantity of finely minced lean beef. Rather than giving a meaty taste to the pastries, the beef adds a real richness to the filling – in the same way that suet is used in traditional English Christmas mince pies and puddings.

Not far from Frigintini is the perfect baroque town of Noto. After the earthquake the city was rebuilt in a warm, light-golden stone, and the decoration on the facades of the palaces and churches is the most elaborate you will see anywhere.

Every balcony seems to be held up by a cast of mythical characters, each one more exotic than the next. If you are in the area then Noto is certainly a ‘must’ to visit. But on the whole, I find Modica a friendlier and more sympathetic city. Perhaps it’s because Modica is less of a museum town than Nota – and the people there are passionate about their city and its food.

One particular incident brought this home to me. I was in a menswear store with my husband who was buying a belt. There were two or three other customers in the store and a couple of attendants. As we were paying I casually asked the store manager where he would recommend we ate that evening. In an instant the atmosphere in the shop changed. Suddenly everyone crowded around the counter offering suggestions, criticising other recommendations and recounting their own experiences. This went on for a good fifteen minutes or so, and at the end of it all we had been given several good ideas, but there was no general consensus. As we were leaving the store we were approached by a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman (I later found out he was Franco Antonio Belgiorno, the author of well-known books on Modica) who advised me, ‘The best food in Sicily is eaten at home.’

In keeping with the spirit of Modica and Noto, the recipes I have selected for this chapter are all biscuits or pastries. Firstly there is Maria Grammatico’s ricetta base, which is the pastry recipe for all her almond pastries, and incredibly useful. She learned this recipe while at the convent of San Carlo.

Sigarette alla ricotta are similar to the mini cannoli that are the house specialty of pasticceria Amato, behind the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. They are light and delicate and you can flavour the ricotta filling with your choice of candied fruit or chocolate.

I had to include a recipe for Giorgia Colomba’s impanatigghi. Please don’t be put off by the inclusion of meat – if you try them I think you will really like them. I have also chosen a recipe for nnacatuli Liparesi, which are delicious small pastries with a rather exotic filling.

My friend Ada, whose family comes from Italy, makes wonderful almond macaroons so I had to include her recipe. And finally, there is a recipe for little biscuits that I call cucuricci. It comes from my aunt who lived in Palermo and they are a family favourite.

Recipes in this Chapter

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again