His Majesty, the Cannolo

According to legend, it is believed that the cannolo had its “birth” in Caltanissetta, one of the nine provincial capitals, situated in the geographic center of Sicily. “Kalt El Nissa” is the original Arab pronunciation of Caltanissetta, which means, “Castle of woman”, since at that time, (IX to XII centuries), was the seat of numerous harems of the many Saracen emirs.

The most credible hypothesis about the origins of the cannolo speculates that the favorite concubines of the emir, to while away the time would also dedicate themselves in the preparation of delicius dishes especially pastries. From among the many culinary experiments, they came whith the “cannolo”, with the obvious allusion  to the sultan’s “well endowed”manliness.

Another source, however, posits thath the cannoli were prepared for the first time in a convent always in the proximity of Caltanissetta. The story goes that on the occasion of the Carnival celebrations, the nuns “invented” a phallus shaped pastry consisting of a crunchy tubular shell, “scorcia”, filled whit sheep’s milk ricotta filling sweetened with sugar and savored with roasted almond and chocolate chips, “cucuzzata”.

Whether or noti t were nuns or concubines, “these women rather different in their vows dealing with chastity, most likely in their innermost consciousness were not so different, after all, when faced with the sensual pleasure offered by this magnificent pastry.” To be sure we know that its roots go back to the period of the Arabdomination of Sicily, (from 827 to 1097).

The hypothesis on the origin of this sublime cylinder with ricotta filling, stimulating for its taste, for its interpretation between the sacred and the profane, is advanced by the duke Alberto Denti di Piraino who insisted that the cannolo most likely had been created by the skillful hand of the cloistered nuns of a convent in the vicinity of Caltanissetta. This thesis is believable when considering that at the end of the Arab domination of Sicily, which coincided with the arrival of the Normans, the harems were emptied, with one or more women once freed, having converted to Christianity, entered the convent.Here is where they could have reproduced some of the recipies with which the had seduced the courts of the emirs. These historical coincidences could explain the existence of the close connection between the two legend.

That which up to here emerges is clearly the link between the origin of the cannolo and the city of Caltanissetta, and all this, apart from what has been the exact historical fact, whether sacred of profane, point to the convent or the ancient castle of Pietra Santa.

This is all about a pastry that is Sicilian in its totality, especially in its strong contrasts:                       
for its color, its fragrance, its taste, its consistency, and intriguing cylindrical shapethat have been preserved throughout the centuries.

translation of Professor Anthony Perrone for Sicilia Bella ©
The Historic Arancina

The arancina is a specialty of Sicilian Cuisine. It consists of a deep fried rice ball of approximately 8-10 centimeters in diameters. It is filled at the center with ragu, the all purpose savory meat sauce whose ingredients are representative of the many civilizations that have influenced the culture of Sicily.

The name of this rice ball, arancina, comes from its shape and color that typically resemble those of an orange. In the eastern part of the island of Sicily the arancina might come in a conical shape that brings to mind Etna volcano.

It is important to mmention that the arancina was introduced in Sicily during the period of Saracen domination, between te IX and XII centuries. For the arabic diet rice was a basic staple. During banquets, at the center the table, they place an ample platter of rice richly seasoned with saffron and loaded with greens, meat and other aromatic spices. The guest could serve themselves by a simple stretch of the hand. These were the origins and composition of the arancine, minus the tomato component which was yet to be introduced from Americas.

The finisced product of the arancina was and ingenious invention, making the ball shaped rice confection easy to carry araund. Coated with a crusty golden shell, as a result of deep frying, the arancinibecame traveling food, able to keep for a long period whithout spoiling. Some historian attribute this clever idea to Federick II, (1194-1250), who had a particular weakness for rice, and who didn’t want to deprive himself of it during his external hunting parties.

In fact, the arancina’s filling underwent a slow evolution up to the introduction of the tomato in the XIX century, when this garden vegetable made its apparence of the dining tables of the nobility. Over time, the custom of flavoring and coloring the arancine filling with tomatoes, as a substitute to expensive saffron, became acceptable as an option.

translation of Professor Anthony Perrone for Sicilia Bella ©

(Eggplant appetizer)
The immortal Caponata
From a “humble” dish to a sovereign of Sicilian cuisine

Etymologically the word caponata seems to have come from “capone”, the name of a fish common in the Mediterranean Sea called lampuga. The prized but dry flesh of this seasonal fish had always been a favorite in the baronial repasts of the Sicilian aristocracy. In order to mitigate its dryness this fish was seasoned with a sweet and sour sauce typical in the preparation of either fish or salad greens. In contrast, in the majority of the kitchens of the common people, where vegetables, legumes and greens were valued and commonly used for obvious local and economic reasons, costly fish was eliminated and replaced by less expensive seasonal garden produce, with the eggplant, in first place as the vegetale of choice.

The merit for substitution of fish with the eggplant and the subsequent creation of caponata, as we know it, belongs to the lower classes tied to the cultivation of vegetable gardens and the land.

As a consequence of removing fish as it man ingedient, this “mock” caponata evolved into a popular dish consisting solely of vegetables. Besides the use of the eggplant as main ingredient, its recipe also call for capers, olives, celery, pine nuts and raisins, as well as vinegar and sugar, to give its classical sweet and sour taste. The caponata can also be completed with the additional of chopped toasted almonds, or with a less orthodox addition of bitter cacao powder, to further enhance its already rich history of taste and tradition.

Translation of Professor Anthony Perrone for Sicilia Bella ©