in Italy, certain foods are associated with certain feasts and occasions.
Sicily is not unique in this regard (Americans' Thanksgiving turkey comes
to mind), but it is certainly a good example.
Sicily's answer to rice pudding is something called cuccìa,
based on a similar recipe but made with wheat grain - or "wheat berries"
as they are commonly known. Only in early December, for the feast of Saint Lucy, are you likely
to find cuccìa in Sicily. On her feast day (December 13th), few restaurants,
pizzerias or pastry bars
in Sicily serve baked wheat products, and some bakeries may be closed. Those
eateries that are open serve cuccìa and rice
Saint Lucy is the patroness of Syracuse. The cuccìa marks her saving
the island from starvation in 1643, when a ship arriving in port loaded
with grain was commandeered and its cargo seized to feed the people. They
didn't bother grinding the wheat into flower, but simply boiled it. Historians
debate whether that famine and others resulted more from a bad season or
from poor administration of Sicily's agriculture and markets by greedy landlords,
but that's another story.
Of course, wheat grains differ from rice grains, even in Italy. Especially
in Italy, it may be said. The world's creamiest, most tender rice is something
called arborio grown for centuries in Italy's Piedmont region and
used in risotto and arancine. It is well-suited to rice pudding.
Wheat berries, on the other hand, remain somewhat firm even after extensive
boiling, never achieving the texture of rice or creating much of a cream.
The point is that, unlike rice pudding, cuccìa owes most of its flavour
and creaminess to the milk and cream used in its preparation, rather than
the wheat grains. Incidentally, the fact that the durum ("hard")
wheat cultivated in southern Italy is especially firm - better suited to
farina for pasta than anything else - only adds to the strange texture of
Cuccìa recipes are similar to those for rice pudding, including
milk, cream, sugar, corn starch and vanilla. One might add a few small cubes
of dried citron to the mixture just before chilling it. In recent years
some "creative" Sicilian chefs have decided to add chocolate,
or even take a shortcut and mix the boiled berries with the sweet ricotta
cheese filling used in cannoli. Don't do that. It is a heresy of which Saint
Lucy would never approve.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.