Tag Archive for: Sicily food tours from Australia

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.

Sicily your perfect holiday - Dominique Rizzo

What’s So Special About Sicily Anyway?

Is it the food? Is it the people? Is it the culture? Is it the history?

Yes, it is all of these things in that wonderful interaction of the slow way of Sicilian life, where little old nonnas (grandmothers) sit outside their front door of the house they have lived in for 50 years; where older men gather in the afternoon to play bocce in the town square;  where the traditional ways of slow cooking are passed on from family to family.

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.

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Historical Sicily – Piazza Armerina, Villa Romana di Casale, Caltagirone

Learn all about Historical Sicily at Piazza Armerina, Villa Romana di Casale and Caltagirone on Dominique Rizzo’s Sicilian tours.

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!

How travel and culture has influenced my cooking

How travelling and experiencing different cultures has influenced my cooking – Dominique Rizzo’s Interview by A Taste of Harmony

 

You’ve been running food and wine tours since 2012 now, how has travelling and exploring the cuisines of Sicily, Spain, Greece and Norfolk Island and others, influenced your cooking and recipes?  

How travel and culture has influenced my cooking - Ortigia Sicily with Dominique Rizzo

Everyone would have to agree they are inspired, even just a little by the gastronomic delights they experience when travelling. For me it’s the same, I come back from my tours completely energised and even more inspired to cook more, use more fresh seasonal produce, shop at local markets explore new places, and most importantly what I bring back with me from my travels is the emphasis on keeping things simple and to let the star ingredient shine through.

How travel and culture has influenced my cooking - Arncini with Dominique Rizzo

The simplicity of the street food in Sicily, chickpea panelle arancini, Pane con le milza,sfincioni and croquettes, date back thousands of years, with traditions that have been handed down through generations and techniques and customs passed on through the many different cultures that has stepped upon Sicily’s soil. Romans, the Spanish, Swabians, Greeks, Normans, Arabs and so on have all left their mark on the food here. I used to think that my food was sometimes too simple and then whenever I come back from one of my food tours, I am comfortably confident in what I do and the recipes I come up with. I give them my own twist and flavour but fundamentally I always reflect back to the food I ate on my tours, their way of life and the importance of culture, tradition and community and it always grounds me.

How travel and culture has influenced my cooking - Fresh tomatoes and basil with Dominique Rizzo

My cooking has become a melting pot of them all, combining the flavours, ingredients and methods of cookery. In all honesty, I feel that these cuisines are some of the healthiest ways of cooking. Their cuisine styles are simple and I believe it is with the addition of the exotic spices, fresh herbs, fresh and dried fruits and nuts, that simple 3 or 4 ingredient dishes can sing louder with flavour, and have us drooling more than some of the more lavishly garnished, intricate ingredients and long, complicated dishes we find.

How travel and culture has influenced my cooking - Norfolk Island with Dominique Rizzo

More locally, Norfolk Island has been an amazing food experience and left a definite mark, not only on my cooking, but more so on my philosophy for living and importance in strength of community. Norfolk has this amazing, friendly, wonderful sense of freedom. Its waters and air are pristine, it has a very interesting history and unique flora and fauna. Apart from some pre-packaged items and a couple of fresh ingredients, everything is grown, harvested and produced locally. I absolutely love that. Their traditions and history are really embraced with great pride and respect from the locals, their precious island and its unique lifestyle is embraced by everyone. It is an amazing place to visit for either a quiet relaxed getaway enjoying some amazing wine and food experiences or a wild adventure of fishing, sailing, boating, rock climbing, bush walking and attending the many events and festivals which they have on the island.

 

Your tours involve small groups of 14-16 people, have you found through sharing and learning about food together while on tour you also learn a lot about each other?

How travel and culture has influenced my cooking - Sicilian market with Dominique Rizzo

Yes absolutely, it’s part of the main reason I love running my food tours. I have the greatest honour of meeting so many amazing, passionate and interesting people and as much as I have learnt so much about them, the stories of their lives and how they interact with others, their quirks and why they might do the things they do. I have learnt so much about myself, which I have been so grateful for.

I have always believed that sharing a meal, engaging in a cooking lesson together, tasting wine and enjoying conversation, any means of gathering together around food brings out the best and sometimes the worst in people, but usually the best.

The biggest lesson I have learnt in my life that has been reinforced through running my food tours is never judge or make judgment on others as you never know what is really going on for someone behind closed doors. Until you have sat with them, engaged, connected, communicated and listened to their stories, it’s hard to imagine some of the painful events that people have experienced, which in turn has made them who they are.

I really like to just sit back, ask questions and listen to get to know people and what they like, dislike and I really enjoy asking people about their life. I find the more I know about someone, the more I am able to better understand who they are, their culture, beliefs, and in return they can better understand me and I believe this is the basis to peace and harmony between us as humans.

If you had to pick one experience from your tours that has been a highlight for you so far, what would it be?

How travel and culture has influenced my cooking - Dinner Sicily with Dominique Rizzo

That’s a very difficult question!

It wasn’t necessarily an experience, more like a moment where we were all in the most beautiful moment of laughter, joy and sharing a stunning dinner on the Island of Salina. It was a series of little events, positive outcomes for some of my clients and some wonderful transformations they had simply by being able to just sit back, relax and be guided around on my tour. I design and host my tours because I know what it’s like to organise travel either before you go or while you are on the go and quite frankly it can be exhausting.

Sometimes you come back not rested or relaxed but slightly stressed and underwhelmed at all the places you missed seeing, the restaurants you didn’t get to, the distance you didn’t travel and sights you didn’t see because you were travelling on your own or organising it yourself. It’s a big job. I saw my clients faces lighten up, their smiles grow more frequent, they were glowing, their personalities opened up and on that occasion, we just laughed and laughed.

For me it was one of the most special times I have had on tour.

Why do you think it’s important to celebrate cultural diversity in our workplaces, kitchens and in general?

I personally, am becoming so despondent at the way we as humans are treating each other. It’s frightening and really sad to see and hear the way some people talk to each other, tease, taunt, troll and hurt others. People don’t listen, they refuse to open up and understand. If everyone could just stop and listen, and accept that everyone is different, that we all have different cultures, backgrounds, beliefs, understandings, ways we do things and ways we think., then I believe we would have way less hate and way more harmony.

I really feel that it is beyond important, almost a necessity to celebrate cultural diversity, not only celebrate but we need to be constantly educated and reminded of its importance. Without celebrating cultural diversity, we wouldn’t have half the interesting aspects of our country that now exist. We would not be open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

The more we can celebrate and be open to cultural diversity, the more we will have stronger communities looking out for each other and not just it being mine, yours and theirs. I sincerely hope that in my lifetime we will be celebrating not just one day through A Taste of Harmony and bringing this awareness to cultural diversity on this day, but that it will just be the norm. Acceptance, understanding and freedom for everyone to live their lives embracing their tradition, culture and to embrace everybody else’s’ with the same respect would be my greatest joy.How travel and culture has influenced my cooking - Pasta making class in Ragusa Siciy Dominique Rizzo

Why should workplaces get involved in A Taste of Harmony? 

 

To get involved with Taste of Harmony is to say to your employees, we embrace and accept everyone equally. We see the importance of cultural differences as a benefit to our business and we support and respect it. We welcome different, we welcome diverse and we are open and willing to engage in bridging the gaps and to open the lines of communication. It can only be a good positive outcome for businesses to engage everyone together on an even platform – strength in numbers.

 

Dominique Rizzo is one of Queensland’s leading chefs, author and owner of Putia Pure Food Kitchen. Learn more about Dominique’s Food, Wine & Culture Tours to destinations such as Sicily, Greece, Spain and Norfolk Island here.

 

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.

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