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What’s so special about “Minni Di Virgini” from Catania

What are “Minni Di Virgini”

Minni di virgini, cassata di Sant’Agata, or minni di Sant’Agata typically are made of a round marzipan shell moulded into a smooth half sphere. Looking like the shape of a small breast they are often served with white porcelain sheen icing topped with candied cherries. There are a couple of varieties you will find particularly in Catania where they are celebrated on the 5th of February for St Agatha’s saint day. According to experts, there are a couple of versions of these little cakes most of them have an outer layer of short crust pastry but their fillings change, one is filled with pastry cream or a type of vanilla custard, covered in pink icing and topped with a candied cherry, the other is traditionally filled with sweet sheeps milk ricotta cheese, chocolate, and candied citron or candied squash. Not to be confused with the “Sicilian cassata” with is of a similar combination although using sponge cake and covered with marzipan. The other Minni di Virgini you will find is filled with a type of cream filling flavored with chocolate and candied orange peel. 

The story behind these pastries is that they were inspired by Saint Agatha,  who is embraced as the patron saint of Catania.  St. Agatha had her breasts cut off in martydom and is depicted forever carrying them on a plate.  The pastries called ‘virgin’s breasts’ were created in her honor by the sisters of the Monastero della Vergine in Palermo and later adapted by the Catalians who, in the interest of anatomical correctness, added the cherry on top.  For reasons of modesty, minni di virgini were called cassatine by the nuns.  At one time, minni di virgini were baked in monasteries, now they are available in the pasticcerie or pastry shops though out Sicily but particularly in Catania.

The Story of St Agatha

St. Agatha, also known as Agatha of Sicily, is one of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs of the Catholic Church. It is believed that she was born around 231 in either Catania or Palermo, Sicily to a rich and noble family.

From her very early years, the notably beautiful Agatha dedicated her life to God. She was living as a Christian in Catania during a period of intense religious persecution, she became a consecrated virgin, a state in life where young women choose to remain celibate and give themselves wholly to the Church in a life of prayer and service. That did not stop men from desiring her and making unwanted advances toward her.

One of the men who desired Agatha was Quintianus, a high diplomatic. He thought he could force her to turn away from her vow and force her to marry. His persistent proposals were consistently spurned by Agatha, so Quintianus, knowing she was a Christian during the persecution of Decius, had her arrested and brought before the judge. He was the Judge.

He expected her to give in to his demands when she was faced with torture and possible death, but she simply reaffirmed her belief in God by praying.

To force her to change her mind, Quintianus had her imprisoned in a brothel. Agatha never lost her confidence in God, even though she suffered a month of assaults and efforts to get her to abandon her vow to God and go against her virtue. Quintianus heard of her calm strength and ordered that she be brought before him once again. During her interrogation, she told him that to be a servant of Jesus Christ was her true freedom.

Enraged, Quintianus sent her off to prison instead of back to the brothel a move intended to make her even more afraid, but it was probably a great relief to her. Agatha continued to proclaim Jesus as her Savior, Lord, Life and Hope. Quintianus ordered her to be tortured. He had her stretched on a rack to be torn with iron hooks, burned with torches, and whipped. Noticing Agatha was enduring all the torture with a sense of cheer, he commanded she be subjected to a worse form of torture, that her breasts be cut off with pincers – often seen with her in painting and religious images of the saint.

He then sent her back to prison with an order of no food or medical attention. But the Lord gave her all the care she needed. He was her Sacred Physician and protector. Agatha had a vision of the apostle, St. Peter, who comforted her and healed her wounds through his prayers.

After four days, Quintianus ignored the miraculous cure of her wounds. He had her stripped naked and rolled over naked over hot coals and fragments of broken pottery. When she was returned to prison, Agatha prayed, tradition has it that, although her breasts were miraculously restored by Saint Peter, she died on February 5, 251,

She is commonly featured in religious art with shears, tongs, or breasts on a plate.

The History of the Nuns and Sicilian Sweets

Minni di virgini have been a specialty of Sicilian convents for hundreds of years, but in recent history, they’ve become associated with Catania’s celebrations. It might seem odd that convents or Catholic festivities would embrace breast-shaped cakes. In Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard, the narrator recoils in horror as he beholds minni di virgini, which he calls “a profane caricature of St. Agatha.”

One of the easiest ways to access the saint is by eating minni di Sant’Agata, especially since they’re available year-round in Catania. It’s impossible to pinpoint when, exactly, these anatomical cakes went from pagan treat to saintly sweet, but Sicilian nuns are credited with popularizing them. Before they became associated with Agatha, early versions of the cakes were simply known as minni di virgini, which may imply that they were a specialty of the nuns of the Monastero di Vergini in Palermo.

Plato, plumbing, and pastry might not be around today if not for Italian monks and nuns, who are credited with saving Western culture in the tumultuous centuries known as the Dark Ages. As barbarian hordes conquered and reshaped western Europe, monasteries and convents became safe havens. Classical literature was protected, studied, and translated by scholar monks.

They preserved medicinal knowledge from the ancient world and used Roman plumbing systems to pull water through their cloister fountains. Nuns took in orphans and raised them. (Esposito, meaning “exposed,” is a common Italian surname given to babies left on the doorsteps of convents.) They also baked elaborate, labor-intensive pastries from ancient recipes that they sold to the public to support themselves.

Not only were the convents bastions of tradition; they were (and are, where they remain) the most authentic source for classic Sicilian sweets. Some monastries still producing sweets are monastery of Sant’Andrea in Palermo making cannoli. In Agrigento, the Santo Spirito monastery of cloistered Cistercian nuns, famed for the sweet couscous with crushed pistachios that’s made there. But perhaps the most famous baker is Maria Grammatico, in the mountain peak town of Erice. Grammatico’s life story has been recounted in the book Bitter Almonds, which she coauthored with Mary Taylor Simeti (William Morrow & Co., 1994). She was raised in an orphanage run by Franciscan sisters, where she helped in the preparation of sweets. Deciding against the nun’s life, Grammatico opened a modest pasticceria, which has since grown into one of the largest pastry businesses in Sicily.

Grammatico, who is now 70, makes an amazing assortment of traditional cookies and small pastries, but her true talent lies in frutta di Martorana (marzipan fruit, named after the Palermo convent where they originated) shaped from almonds she grinds into a paste daily and paints in realistic colors.

St Agatha. Her tomb was originally in Sicily in a cave, but then her body was taken to Constantinople for about nine years, before being brought back to Catania in 1126. It now rests in the Cathedral here in Catania The Cathedral also houses the tomb of Catania’s famous opera composer, Bellini.

     

Catania La Pescherio Markets Dominique Rizzo

Catania and “La Pescheria” Markets

One of my favourite Sicilian tours takes in the region of Eastern Sicily, the rich lands surrounding the famous Mount Etna, the provinces of Catania, Syracusa and Ragusa, the towns of chocolate-loving Modica and the island of Ortigia and the alluring Aeolian Islands. We welcome you to charming, lively Catania which is, after Palermo, the second-largest city in Sicily.

Scintillating Sicily - Dominique Rizzo

Scintillating Sicily

Have you been dreaming of experiencing a trip to Sicily? It’s scintillating and fascinating, it’s tasty, it’s colorful and passionate. Your senses will implode as you experience rich ancient historic sites, pristine turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and white-washed coastal villas.

Western Sicily for Food Wine and Culture

Tour Western Sicily, personally guided by Dominique Rizzo to take an in-depth look at of Sicily’s most historic cities and sights.

trips to Sicily - Dominique Rizzo

On your trips to Sicily, Caltagirone is a must-do

Perched on a hilltop like many hidden treasures is the town of Caltagirone, the town of ceramics.

A place which always takes my breath away on my trips to Sicily, is Caltagirone.

Trips to Sicily - Dominique Rizzo

A long time ago, the soil here was perfect for making the original terracotta pots used by the Greeks. The original designs were usually yellows and browns with geometric patterns. Influences from the Arabs brought the art of firing. Pottery also became highly decorative with the introduction of colours such as blues and yellows. Designs became more intricate.

The ceramic stairs

On your trips to Sicily, you will find a major interest in this tiny town with it’s wonderful staircase studded with decorated tiles. Colourful hand painted tiles line each of the 142 stairs. They entice you to journey to the top where the views of the town are magnificent. During the festival of the Madonna, the locals will line the stairs beautifully with tubs of flowers precisely placed. They form a floral design when you view the staircase from the bottom or top. In the evening they line the stairs with candles. This makes for an amazing photo and unique visiting experience.

 

 

They are often studded with the iconic ceramic pine cones that feature in many ceramic shops throughout Sicily.   The road leading into Caltagirione is lined with vases and glorious coloured cones.

trips to Sicily - Dominique Rizzo Food Tour

They remind you that this is the town of the vases. While browsing the many stores, you will notice that the ceramics come in many designs. With traditional and artisan patterns, some historically original and others unique to each artist. You can often find artists hand painting the ceramics as you enter in the stores.

 

  Dominique Rizzo Food Tours trips to Sicily - Dominique Rizzo Food Tourstrips to Sicily - Dominique Rizzo Food Tours

 

The ceramics are not only a sight to behold in Caltagirone, they are a fantastic experience of Sicilian culture that you can enjoy on my Sicilian Tours.

For the latest news on trips to Italy, go to Dom’s travels to Italy and Sicily, and her next tour dates

Any questions? Contact me.

Italian cheese - Dominique Rizzo Italy Food Tours

All About Italian Cheese

Italians and Sicilians in particular do cheese so well, that’s why I love to incorporate cheese as part of my Sicilian food tours!

Cracking the Misconceptions about Escorted Tours

7 reasons why Dominique Rizzo Food and Wine Tours are better than travelling on your own

cracking the misconceptions about escorted tours - Dominique Rizzo food wine tours

That’s what cracking the misconceptions about escorted tours is all about.

  1. Better value for money and flexibility with flights

Cracking the misconceptions that escorted tours are expensive is easy when you weigh up the cost and time taken to book and organise your own itinerary. With an escorted tour, you pay the one price up front, usually outlaying a deposit to secure the booking and then using a payment plan to work within your budget to finalise the remainder of the payments. This is a great way of planning a trip in the future as you can make the deposit a year before the trip begins and you have the whole year to pay it off.

Most tour companies include flights in their price, Dominique Rizzo’s Food and Wine Tours offer a land price only leaving more flexibility for the traveller to tailor the beginning and the end of the tour to suit any extra travelling they wish to do outside of the tour dates. Most travellers have their own preferred airline they like to travel with, and for the frequent flyer, of course, there are the benefits of using your preferred airline taking advantage of your accumulated points.

Building relationships with local guides/hotels/restaurants and local suppliers mean that we are able to negotiate special rates and our experience in the industry means that our escorted tours are crafted to maximise the efficiency of time and cost for the traveller. Often people look at the price of an escorted tour thinking it is higher than other trips but in reality, an escorted tour is perfectly pre-packaged, designed to take all the planning out, so the only decision you have to make on tour is what to wear.

  1. You have the best of both worlds…Your own leisure time and escorted tours by local insightful guides

People often think that escorted tours leave you no time for yourself to just wander around and explore, which is part of why we all love travelling. Dominique Rizzo’s Food tours offer bespoke itineraries with action-packed days ensuring you get to see, taste and experience as much of a region as possible, but you do have the option to do as little or as much as you like. Often it’s great to get a guided tour of a city from one of our local guides first, for you to get your bearings of the city, understand the culture, history and the importance of the specific sites and monuments and to work out where it is in relation to the hotel. You can then head out on your own for shopping, wandering or just taking in the atmosphere and really make the most of your free time.

  1. All your transportation is taken care of in private, comfortable, airconditioned comfort booked only for tour guests.

There is nothing worse than seeing large bus loads of tourists pulling up to then get ferried onto trains, boats and planes all dragging their own luggage behind them. Dominique Rizzo’s Escorted Tours are small group tours with 12 – 14 people. We travel in comfortable, private, modern, airconditioned small busses for the flexibility of getting onto those small off the beaten-track roads, and narrow cobbled streets often found in Europe. We usually have the one driver for the whole journey who often becomes part of the fun of the tour. Time spent on the bus is minimal in comparison to the rest of the tour, and you are able to leave your belongings on the bus safely when hoping off for lunch or rest stops. Having small group tours means we can accommodate each individual personally, stopping to take photos, bathroom stops and spontaneous places of interest is very easy without fuss or hassle.

 

  1. The most exciting and fun aspect of travel is often what happens spontaneously, meeting and mixing with the locals and discovering unique experiences that are off the beaten track taking you into the true culture of a region.

Travelling on your own whether you are driving or by public transport, you often will play it safe sticking to guide book routes and recommendations. It’s only when you get out of the big cities and meet people “in the know” that you discover the true essence of a region, its people and their culture. This doesn’t often happen on mass-produced tours as they tend to stick to a repetitious itinerary with “made for tourist” experiences. Dominique Rizzo’s Food Tours are all about offering you unique experiences. Building relationships with local guides who are always on the lookout for diverse and interesting local activities mean that on Dominique’s tours you get to really be part of and feel the European culture in the raw. Visiting the families, who make award-winning sausages and salami, walking amongst their black pigs and enjoying some of their products right in the heart of the Spanish hills; meeting and having lunch on their property in Sicily with the family who owns the sheep farm and seeing them in action making fresh ricotta; kneading the dough with the baker in their ancient bakery handed down through generations; enjoying a true Sicily family lunch, cooking with the family, playing cards, is experiencing a culture that has stood the test of time. This is what travelling is all about. After you have seen all the sights, taken a thousand pictures of monuments and churches, it’s the memories of the people you meet, the relationships you make, the laughter, the inclusion that sticks in your mind. It is these unique experiences that we are always on the lookout for, so our tours are always flexible and changing.

cracking the misconceptions about escorted tours - Dominique Rizzo food wine tours

  1. Dominique is a qualified Chef and restaurateur who personally ensures your food and wine experiences are a highlight on the tour

We would all have to agree that trying new cuisines while travelling is one of the biggest highlights. We cringe at the sight of a “tourist menu” on blackboards, menu boards or menus and we do our best to stay away from eateries who predominately cater for tourists. Also quite often large travel companies aren’t so concerned that restaurants tend to all serve the same regional specials or a slight variation of them. Dominique Rizzo’s Food Tours ensure you enjoy a wide selection of a region’s cuisine, guaranteeing that you are not eating the same dishes over and over again. We focus on hand selecting venues for their quality, location, zero food miles and attention to the “Slow Food” movement, taking great care to maintain their regionality, traditions and diversity, resulting in experiences of the sea, mountain, country and city. Most of the meals and beverages are included on Dominique Rizzo’s Food Tours and where we do give you free time to wander and eat on your own, then our lunch or dinner on that day are of bountiful abundance. The main comment on most of our Food Tours is there was “too much” food. We have designed each day to include activities that include tastings of food and or wine-focused around lunch or dinner or both. As well as our hand-selected A La Carte dinners, shared table banquet dining, long lunches, and lavish dinners, we also offer relaxed dining at some of the noted wineries and enotecas or speciality pizza restaurants and also give you the opportunity to practice your language skills, ordering whatever you would like to eat.

  1. Quality, comfort, luxury, style and experience

Dominique’s Food Tours focus on giving her clients personalised, professional service throughout the whole tour, from booking the tour right through to saying goodbye. We personally select all accommodation with 4 and 5-star ratings, often with Spa experiences available to give you maximum opportunity to relax and enjoy your stay in that particular region. Our aim is to give you a feel of contrasting horizons, vistas, scenery and emotional connection to the land. From modern city style hotels to historic, converted stone convents, caves and farmhouses in the country and mountains, cliff side rooms with sea views, small-town traditional boutique hotels, and family run Agriturismo. All of the accommodations are unique in their own style; some are quirky, some are perhaps not what we are used to, although all have the modern facilities you need to make you feel at home and are well located giving you the opportunity to head out to explore on your own. This diverse collection makes up the bespoke experiences that come with a Dominique Rizzo Tour.

cracking the misconceptions about escorted tours - Dominique Rizzo Food Wine Tours

  1. Dominique Rizzo Food Tours are for everyone

There is such a stigma that Personally Escorted Tours are only for the retirees. Dominique Rizzo’s clients range from 18 – 70+, retirees, professionals, businessmen and women, couples, single women, single men, mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, siblings. Dominique’s small group tours are for everyone and are an amazing way to meet new and interesting people with the same passion and curiosity about the world. Often the tours are a melting pot of people from all different walks of life. Some clients meeting on tour have forged long friendships, often planning their next holiday with Dominique’s Food Tours to travel together. For people who may not be able-bodied as others, we do have small amounts of walking on the tour and can accommodate those who find large amounts of walking difficult. In essence, Dominique’s Food Tours are perfect for anyone wanting to just sit back, relax, take in the moment and just have a wonderful time. Let all the organising, bookings and logistics of a unique tour be taken care of for you. Book One of Dominique’s Food Tours today.

 

 

 

 

the-big-story-sicily

The Big Story – Sicily

The Courier Mail’s the Big Escape story is one of the best articles about Sicily… Book now into Sicily 2020.

the-sicilian-carretto

The Sicilian Carretto

the-sicilian-carretto

A beautiful cultural symbol you will find repeated throughout the region when you travel to Sicily is the Carretto. These carts, with their beautiful bright colours, are seen across Sicily. So how did Sicilians come to have the Carretto as such a rich part of their culture? Find out a little bit about the origins, the craftsmanship and the subtle differences of the Carretto.

Origins

The original idea of carts was introduced to the island by the ancient Greeks. However, the history of the now highly-recognised traditional Sicilian cart is relatively new. It dates back to the early 19th century and the need for transportation on the poorly-developed roads. It was thanks to the decree of 1830 that major routes, called “royal trazzere”, were opened. This is where the first appearance of the original type of wagon, the “stràscinu”, appears in history. This was a four-wheeled wagon whose front wheels are smaller than the rear, as in a type of carriage or cart.

The Sicilian carts reached the height of their popularity in the 11920s when many thousands were on the island. The carts were mainly drawn by horses in the city and on flat plains. Donkeys or mules were more often used in rough terrain for hauling heavy loads. The carts commonly used for pulling light loads, such as produce, wood, wine, and people, were called “Carretto del Lavoro” (cart for work). They were also used for ceremonies and festive occasions such as weddings and parades, where they were called “Carretto de Gara”. The Carretto was almost like the taxi or truck of today.

Craftsmanship

The cart has two wheels and is primarily hand-made out of wood built by woodcarvers, metal workers, and painters. The woodcarvers carved the many panels that were often historic reliefs. The metal workers worked the iron in a “ferro battuto” style, which included highly-decorated metal undercarriages with iron metal components. The painters had great skill depicting brightly painted scenes from Sicilian history and folklore, as well as intricate geometrical designs. These scenes also served the purpose of conveying historical information and important historic events in Sicily. Originally meant to keep in memory the turning points of local history for those who couldn’t read.

The colours of Palermo’s flag, yellow and red, feature prominently on the carts, along with details in bright blues and greens. Many of the carts showcase, in intricate details, religious scenes. They may depict the story of Jesus or that of his mother, and patron saints in Sicily, such as St. John the Baptist, Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo, or Sant’Agata, the patron saint of Catania. Some have been found to have scenes or visions of the saints, Charlemagne, operatic scenes, and the histories of Napoleon, Columbus, Cortez, and even Mussolini.

Provincial differences

The Sicilian Carretto is still made in several provinces in Sicily, each with its own style. Carretti made in the province of Palermo have more of a square box design. Those made in Catania are made with more elaborate “keys.” Then, there are the carts made in Agrigento which have their own distinctive style. The craft of making the carts is handed down from generation to generation through the training of apprentices. The animals pulling the carts are often elaborately adorned as well, with a decorated plume covering their head and a headband decorated with plaques of leather and gilt nails and bells. They also wear another elaborately decorated piece in the middle of their back.

Today the Sicilian Carretto can be found available for tourists to enjoy in some museums, while smaller Carretti can be bought as souvenirs. They are often depicted in artworks, postcards and pieces of the old Carretto can now be found on the walls of hotels and homes.

See it for yourself

Just one of the fascinating aspects of Sicilian life. Learn more about this beautiful region by visiting it yourself. Join Australian Chef Dominique Rizzo on a gastronomic and cultural food, wine and cooking tour of Sicily. Click here for more information about touring this amazing region.

 

Sicilian Pasta alla Carrettiera

Pasta alla Carrettiera

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