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Catherine Fulvio: Bake Like an Italian ... and a nun!


17-09-2014 11:15

Why is it that Italians simply do it better? No one knows this more than Catherine Fulvio, chef, honorary Italian and author of award-winning cookbooks explains how to bake like an Italian ... and a nun!

It’s almost 20 years ago that I first bumped into Mr Claudio Fulvio. To say it was a romantic meeting might be a stretch. I can’t claim to have been lolling in a gondola in Venice or enjoying a real cornetto on the Spanish Steps in Rome. No, I was in O’Dwyer’s Pub on Mount Street in Dublin. But it was his first day in Ireland and he had no intention of staying any longer than two weeks – and now, almost two decades later, here we are!


Being married to an Italian, nay, Sicilian has introduced me to a whole new culinary world. The ingredients, whilst easily accessible to us here in Ireland, have inspired me so much in my professional cooking life – at my cookery school as well as in my home life. What has impacted on me the most are the traditions and pride in the culinary culture that one sees in Italy, and the traditions of baking go back many, many centuries.

From the stories I have been told, the people I have met and the history I have read, almost everything seems to point in the direction of the cloister. You see, nuns have been the guardians of the most traditional Italian baking delicacies and, in many cases, were also the creators of new sweet treats.

Many of the young ladies entering the convents were the second daughter of reasonably wealthy families. When a suitable husband had been found for the eldest daughter, in order to prevent the family estate from being divided into a smaller holding the next daughter in line was sent to the convent. They would have been very familiar with sweet delicacies from their upbringing and would hone their skills during their vocation. Apparently there was quite a lot of competition between convents, trying to outdo each other by creating the finest breads and pastries in order to please the priests.

That explains why there is such an abundance of breads and speciality sweet treats enjoyed on religious holidays in Italy. Traditionally, these breads and treats were presented as gifts to the eminent priests and local noble families. Almost every convent had their own traditions and secret recipes. In the ‘Something for Easter’ chapter, you’ll find a recipe for cenci – fried pastry strips dusted with icing sugar. Cenci are traditionally enjoyed at carnivale, just before lent – the last of the treats before abstaining. There is also a recipe for Neapolitan mini dough balls, struffoli, in the ‘Sweet Yeast Breads’ chapter. Considered to bring good luck, these treats were gifted to the noble families at Christmas in gratitude for their charitable donations.

The traditional panforte dates back to the 12th century and evidence suggests that the convents of Sienna had a hand in the recipe because the sticky sweet treat was traditionally lined with communion wafers. For those of you who wish to recreate this, the recipe is in the ‘Something for Christmas’ chapter and rice paper is a great substitute for communion wafers!

My friend Solina Testagrossa, who runs her amazing bakery Panificio Testagrossa in Ballestrate, Sicily, showed me how to make Frutti di Martorana. This marzipan shaped like fruit is named after La Martorana convent in Palermo. To make Martorana requires an artistic flair and lots of patience. First, the marzipan gets shaped into apples, pears, apricots and other fruit. When it is set, out comes the paintbrush and each piece is delicately painted to resemble the real fruit. They are then assembled on a tray, wrapped beautifully and presented as gifts.


Follow Gill Books’ board Why Italians do it better? Catherine Fulvio’s la dolce vita on Pinterest.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Maria Grammatico, who is a legend in the town of Erice in Sicily. Maria was brought up by the nuns in the local convent. It was there that she learned the art of baking the most delicate of pastries and she went on to open her own pasticceria in Erice, which is a mecca among locals and tourists alike. Maria herself will be there to greet you and encourage you to try before you buy!

To this day, one can walk by the outer wall of the convent in Erice and see the tiny metal shutter that would have been slid open and used to sell pastries to the locals. The nuns did not have direct contact with the locals; instead business was done through the small hole in the wall. In the south of Italy in particular, the sale of breads and pastries funded the operations of the convent.

Modica in Sicily is famous for its chocolate: granular in texture, it’s quite distinctive. In Modica the nuns baked for the priests and monks. The story goes that during lent, the clergy were not allowed to eat meat, but the nuns felt that they needed some protein as they were physically working hard, toiling the land. So they would sneak minced meat mixed with chocolate into little pastries and give them to the priests and monks as snacks during lent. The taste is most definitely of chocolate and if I didn’t know what was in them, I would say they were delicious!

A pastry that undoubtedly has its origin in religion is the minne di vergine, meaning ‘virgin’s breasts’. These were originally made in the Collegio di Maria monastery in Sambuca, in the province of Agrigento, for the occasion of the wedding of the area’s lord, Marquis Beccardelli. Although the nuns had the more modest title of cassatine for such delicacies, it is no wonder that the small, round pastries, topped with a red cherry are also known as minne di vergine all over Sicily.

Now, I wonder what happened the day the Calabrian treat, sospiri di monaca, got its name. These delicate, light almond biscuits are known as ‘nun’s sighs’…

So, if you follow the recipes in my new book, you can learn to bake like an Italian and a nun! What a colourful history and what delicious delicacies.

Catherine

Catherine Fulvio’s new cookbook, Bake Like an Italian, is published on September 19. Follow Catherine on Twitter (@CFulvio) for more recipes and photos from her visit to Italy, or visit our gallery on Facebook!



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