marzipan pastry known as Martorana Fruit
makes its annual debut late in the year when Autumn is upon us - usually
in late October. This is traditional because of two annual occurrences,
namely the harvesting of almonds (in early September)
and the first "cool" days and nights (always a relative term in
sunny Sicily) in October. The marzipan is usually on display in pastry shops
by All Saints Day, celebrated on the first of November
as an Italian national holiday.
Martorana Fruit has a bit of an identity crisis. In Palermo it's named
for the Martorana monastery, for reasons we'll explain, while elsewhere
it's called pasta reale or even frutta reale,
the Italian word reale meaning both real and royal.
Almond marzipan probably came to Sicily from Spain, where the Arabs may have introduced it during the Middle Ages. Whether
they also brought it to Sicily, which was home to several emirates before
1071, is a matter of debate. However, there is no doubt that it was the
Arabs who introduced sugar cane in both Sicily and Spain, and without this
key ingredient marzipan could not exist. The Arab almond marzipan is lozina.
Similar pastries are known in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus. In antiquity,
almond marzipan was probably first made in Persia or what is now Turkey.
The Martorana church began its life as a place of worship for Palermo's
Greek Orthodox community after the Great Schism
(and is pictured on our page about that event), but by the eighteenth century
it was part of a monastic complex run by an order of nuns. Across southern
Europe the nuns of the larger religious orders often made and sold various
kinds of pastries. Marzipan, which also includes the sticky white "almond
milk," should not be confused with the soft cookies made with almond
paste. Marzipan is not a cookie.
Surprisingly little is known of marzipan's history in Sicily. The story
about the Martorana's nuns shaping and decorating the marzipan to resemble
fruit, then hanging it from dormant fruit trees to impress a bishop visiting
one Easter, may well be an urban legend. Even so, it makes for an interesting
one. Easter culminates the marzipan season. You won't find much Martorana
Fruit in Sicily after April.
The pastry called persipan, which you won't find in Sicily, is
made in cooler climates where almonds don't thrive using peach or apricot
kernels. In fact, these common fruits are closely related to the more aristocratic
almond, and their edible if bitter kernels (the center of the pit) substitute
for almonds in the manufacture of products such as "almond" soap.
There are two things to consider in the quality of Martorana Fruit. Firstly,
it should not be too sweet. That may seem counterintuitive, but this is
one pastry where sugar is not the main ingredient. Nowadays most Sicilian
marzipan available commercially contains too much sugar. Worse yet, it is
usually refined white sugar rather than the tastier, brownish, unrefined
Next is the question of what might be called aesthetics or "design."
In other words, the marzipan as a work of art. The best pasta reale is formed
into shape using custom-made moulds which pastry-makers guard jealously
and then "painted" to resemble actual fruit as realistically as
possible. Yes, pasta reale may mean "realistic paste." Even those
who get the recipe and method right may fail when it comes to the decorating
because, after all, not all pastry chefs are competent artists. (For our
photograph we visited seven pastry shops in Palermo before finding one,
called Oscar, which sells Martorana Fruit that looks realistic and also
tastes like the "real deal.")
In the end, Martorana Fruit isn't just tasty pastry. It's part of Sicilian
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.