Feasts and Traditions

Marzipan Fruit

Sicilian pastry is known worldwide for its sweet creativity but it is in autumn that its true masterpieces, Frutta di Martorana, make their appearance!  An authentic work of art in Sicilian pastry, Frutta di Martorana is a delight both for the eyes and for the palate. They are bite sized marzipan sweets expertly moulded and decorated to perfectly imitate a wide variety of fruit in miniature: mandarins, lemons, figs, oranges, pomegranates and much more.  A sweet and colorful banquet!

Why are they called Frutta di Martorana?

These delicious sweets were invented by the Benedictine nuns of the convent of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, in Palermo. Both the convent and the nearby Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, today better known as the Church of Martorana, were named in honor of Eloisa Martorana, a noblewoman who had commissioned their construction in 1194. It seems that Frederick II was so fond of this sublime sweet that since then in Sicily marzipan is often referred to as “royal paste”.

 What is the story behind them?

At the time, the Martorana convent was famous for the lush citrus gardens cultivated in the cloister.  On the occasion of a visit by the Archbishop to the convent in autumn when the trees were bare, not wishing to disappoint the high expectations of their honored guest, the nuns decided to embellish the trees with fruit made of ground almonds and honey.  The almond paste was moulded and decorated by the nuns with great precision and the citrus grove was soon adorned with sweet and colorful fruit!  The invention was so successful that over the centuries it has become one of the most loved, widespread and famous sweets of Sicilian tradition.

In the autumn months the shop windows of Sicilian pastry shops are filled with these colorful delicacies to celebrate the Feast of the Dead, a family custom linked to respect and love for deceased family members which recurs on November 2nd. On the eve of the Feast of the Dead, while everyone is asleep, the dead bring their gifts to their (grand)children: baskets full of presents, sugar puppets, biscuits and marzipan fruits.  In the morning when the children wake up a joyful treasure hunt for the presents starts: everybody knows that grandparents love to play with their grandchildren and even when dead they enjoy hiding their gifts on high cabinets and under the beds.  This ancient family tradition has been handed down in Sicilian families over the centuries and is a very sweet and simple ritual that maintains the bond between generations strong and affectionate.

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