Sweet life in Si­cily extracted from bit­ter be­gin­nings

The or­phan who turned mis­for­tune into a marzi­pan-flavoured gold­mine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - LOUISE EVANS

‘ ‘ EAT, eat,’’ in­sists the el­derly Si­cil­ian woman hold­ing out a plate of beau­ti­ful, fruit-shaped marzi­pan, al­mond pas­tries and can­noli.

Maria Gram­matico’s gen­eros­ity is as leg­endary as her hand­made del­i­ca­cies and her de­prived child­hood, which re­sulted in this pioneer es­tab­lish­ing a now-fa­mous pas­try shop in the me­dieval Si­cil­ian vil­lage of Erice, high on a moun­tain above the city of Tra­pani.

Lo­cated on one of the wind­ing al­leys that snake around the vil­lage, La Pas­tic­ce­ria di Gram­matico Maria is an Aladdin’s cave of ed­i­ble trea­sures.

Ev­ery­where you look there are trays and glass cab­i­nets piled high with in­tri­cate works of art that are even more pleas­ing on the palate than on the eye. Gram­matico’s marzi­pan fruits, al­mond pas­tries and tra­di­tional Ital­ian sweets and bis­cuits are sought af­ter across Italy and by the tourist hordes that reg­u­larly in­vade her small but charm­ing shop.

Even though I have had a big break­fast, I de­vour the tast­ing plate Gram­matico of­fers when we stop by mid-morn­ing. Like a de­voted mother who de­lights in her chil­dren eat­ing all their greens, she coos her ap­proval and reloads the plate. The vi­brantly coloured marzi­pan fruits are nei­ther ar­ti­fi­cial-tast­ing nor sickly sweet.

With the help of a trans­la­tor, Gram­matico ex­plains that all the in­gre­di­ents are nat­u­ral and fresh and that ev­ery­thing on the premises is made by hand.

As Ger­man tourists jos­tle for po­si­tion at the counter to ad­mire, in­quire and sam­ple the wares, two el­derly lo­cals per­form what seems to be a morn­ing rit­ual — they’ve taken up res­i­dence at a rick­ety ta­ble at the back of the long, nar­row shop and in si­lence are tuck­ing into creamy cus­tard pas­tries and cof­fee. Gram­matico fol­lows my gaze to the old men and lets out a hearty laugh be­fore hur­ry­ing back to her kitchen to keep the sup­plies steady.

Gram­matico learned her trade as a child slave at a con­vent or­phan­age in Erice, where she and her younger sis­ter were sent af­ter their fa­ther died of a heart at­tack farm­ing his land in 1952. Bit­ter Al­monds, Mary Tay­lor’s book de­tail­ing Gram­matico’s rags-toriches story, ex­plains how the chil­dren’s dirt-poor fam­ily be­lieved they would be bet­ter fed and cared for at the Isti­tuto San Carlo.

In­stead, Gram­matico, then 11, and her sis­ter An­gela, 6, en­dured a cruel, Dick­en­sian ex­is­tence, work­ing 18-hour days pro­duc­ing tra­di­tional pas­tries and al­mond sweets to be sold to the public by the nuns, a trade crit­i­cal to the sur­vival of the in­sti­tute.

There would be no more school for Gram­matico, who had con­tracted po­lio at the age of two: just an end­less ros­ter of cook­ing, clean­ing, prayer and pun­ish­ments.

The young­ster spent her time shelling, skin­ning and grind­ing al­monds to make a del­i­cate paste that she then in­cor­po­rated into beau­ti­ful hand­made con­fec­tions, along­side cin­na­mon and aniseed bis­cuits, can­died squash, cakes, jam, quince and cream tarts.

There was no free time to play or read dur­ing Gram­matico’s years at the or­phan­age, nor any plea­sures, and the ex­pe­ri­ence has left her un­will­ing to at­tend church. Yet in the midst of this de­prived back­ground, Gram­matico de­vel­oped a life­long love of cre­at­ing sweets and pas­tries. While toil­ing in the or­phan­age, she dili­gently mem­o­rised all the recipes, some dat­ing back cen­turies, as well as the meth­ods, tra­di­tions and tricks of the trade.

When she fi­nally left the in­sti­tu­tion in 1962, aged 21, she re­solved to get her re­venge on the nuns, and opened her own pas­try shop two years later.

Gram­matico started from scratch, rent­ing a room, hir­ing a car­pen­ter to build a work­bench and a ma­son to con­struct a wood­burn­ing oven, be­fore set­ting to work in her fledg­ling busi­ness.

Suc­cess favours the brave and Gram­matico’s rep­u­ta­tion, and sales, grew. She opened a big­ger shop, on via Vit­to­rio Emanuele, in 1975, where she re­mains to this day.

Now 72 and wid­owed, Gram­matico still works 18-hour days, but now it’s by choice and she reaps the re­wards and the joy of her labours, with a reg­u­lar flow of vis­i­tors to her warm and wel­com­ing shop. The lit­tle girl who grew up in hell has cre­ated her own slice of heaven. Louise Evans is The Aus­tralian’s com­mer­cial ed­i­tor.

maria­gram­matico.it

LOUISE EVANS

Maria Gram­matico de­vel­oped a life­long love of cre­at­ing sweet treats while in an or­phan­age

ALAMY

Gram­matico’s marzi­pan fruits are works of art

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