Sweet life in Sicily extracted from bitter beginnings
The orphan who turned misfortune into a marzipan-flavoured goldmine
‘ ‘ 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.
Maria Grammatico developed a lifelong love of creating sweet treats while in an orphanage
Grammatico’s marzipan fruits are works of art