Arab influences are strong in Sicily, from the architecture to the sweets, from the underground Arab acqueducts of Palermo to the granulated-ice dessert, la granita. The Arabs brought their sherbert to Sicily, an iced drink flavored with fruit juices or rosewater. In the Middle Ages, the nevaroli – “ice-gatherers” – had the important task of conserving the snow of Mt. Etna and other mountain ranges in stone depositories built over grottoes, natural ones and man-made ones. The nobility bought the mounds of ice during the sizzling summer months, mixing in the juice of the island’s lemons with grated ice to make a perfect thirst-quencher – and thus the granita was born.
Later, juices of different fruits were added and sometimes, edible flowers. Palermo is still today best known for its granita di limone, while the granita di café
and strawberry granita with whipped cream reign in the Messina area. Bronte – not far from Mount Etna – area is famed for its pistachios and la granita di pistacchio. Catania lays claim to the minnulata or the toasted almond granita (where some bitter almonds are an essential ingredient), topped with a splash of espresso – but le granite of Avola, Siracusa and Agrigento, all almond areas, are not to underestimated.
La granita was sometimes accompanied by crusts of fresh bread, over time replaced by la brioscia, a soft yeasty roll, split open and filled with granita – (Sicilians love gelato this way, too). La brioscia con granita can be a revitalizing breakfast on a hot Siclian morning. Traditionally served in deep glass dushes, granite nowadays are often served in plastic cups da passeggio, for evening strolls with friends round the town piazza on hot summer nights.
Nowadays, the array of granite reflects the myriad flavors of Sicily: tangerine, mint, pomegranate, prickly pear, peach, tiny wild strawberries, winter melon, hazelnut, dark chocolate, pistachio and jasmine. It’s always tough to zero in on a favorite granita flavor: Limone is a winner on a blistering hot Sicilian day but then again, no one makes an espresso like the Sicilians – or therefore una granita di café con panna.
Best granite this trip? La granita di mandorla at the Bar Sabrina on the island of Ustica was a winner: I had one every day after lunch.
At a café at San Vito Lo Capo, on Sicily’s western coast, I tried una granita di gelso nero (black mulberry) for the first time. Buonissima!
We often make the 1-1/2 hour drive from Palermo to San Vito just to swim off that spectacular stretch of coast.
I’d make the drive again just for that granita di gelso nero.
Click here to read more about Sicily’s culinary traditions
Click here to read about the island of Ustica (including its food specialties!)
Click here to read about an Ustica treasure
Click here to read about a Mt. Etna trip (and the pistachio area of Sicily – recipe, too!)