In Bitter Almonds: Recollections and recipes from a Sicilian girlhood, Mary Taylor Simeti recounts the story of Maria Grammatico and her sister who were sent to the San Carlo, a secluded orphanage in Erice, an ancient hill top town in Sicily, by their poor mother who was unable to take care of them.
The first six chapters are dedicated to Maria’s experience at the orphanage. It was not an easy life for the girls at San Carlo. They rose before dawn to prepare the ovens for baking, ground almonds by hand, and beat sugar mixtures for hours at a time. During the day, the girls assisted the nuns in making handcrafted pastries and cookies that were sold to customers behind a grate in the convent wall.
She used this acquired knowledge to eventually open her own successful pasticceria in Erice where people from all over the world visit to buy her home-made cakes, biscotti, tarts, Cassata Siciliana, sugar covered Genovese and frutta di Martorana.
Maria shares 46 of her recipes for the first time in Bitter Almonds. The recipes are easy to read and each one is preceded by useful information. There are a couple of black and white photos of the nuns handcrafting the marzipan lambs which the girls would complete by putting on the wool made from paste.
Listed below are the chapters with sample recipes:
Pasta di Mandorla, Crema Pasticceria, Pan di Spagna
Frutta de Martorana, Belli e Brutti, Cuscinetti
Recipes using Pasta Frolla
Genovesi, Panzarotti, Crostata di Marmellata
Biscotti al Fico, Reginette, Mostaccioli di Erice
Jams and Preserves
Conserva di Cedro, Marmellata di Limone, Cotognata
Rosolio alle More, Rosolio alle Erbe, Rosolio agli Agrumi
Torta Paradiso, Cassata Siciliana, Polpette Dolci
Genovesi (Genova Cakes)
Background: Almond flavoured cookies, Foreground: Sugar-covered Genovesi
“These are perhaps the hottest-selling item in Maria’s shop: many locals pass by daily to get one still warm from the oven to eat on the spot”. Excerpt from Bitter Almonds, page 152)
I was unable to obtain permission from the publisher to include the Genovese recipe, however, they are made using Pasta Frolla and Crema Pasticceria.
This video demonstrates how the Genovesi are made at Maria Grammatico Pasticceria.
Meeting Maria Grammatico
In 2004 I went on a group tour of Italy (including Sicily). I researched the cities listed in our itinerary prior to leaving for the tour, and while I was researching Erice I discovered the Bitter Almonds book. I read the book and found the story so moving, I made it my quest to visit the Maria Grammatico Pasticceria and taste some of the pastries listed in the book.
Once in Erice, a group of us walked through the cobble stone streets in the pouring rain to find the pasticceria. Upon entering, we were surrounded with the sweet aroma of freshly baked pastries.
We had the pleasure to meet Maria, a shy woman with a warm smile. She autographed my copy of Bitter Almonds and the Italian version, Mandorle Amare I purchased for my Sicilian mother. We all left content with bags filled with biscotti and pastries and the pleasant experience of having met Maria Grammatico.
Maria Grammatico’s story is bittersweet. She had the strength and courage to overcome the hardships she went through at the orphanage to become the owner of a world renown pasticceria in Erice. If you plan to visit Erice, make a visit Maria Grammatico pasticceria a priority in your itinerary for the best Sicilian pastries. You might even have the opportunity to meet Maria.
The Maria Grammatico pasticceria received the 2018 Massimo Alberini award from the Accademia della Cucina. This award is given to the commercial traders who have consistently offered quality handcrafted food products.
Bitter Almonds: Recollections and recipes from a Sicilian girlhood
Authors: Mary Taylor Simeti & Maria Grammatico
Softcover: 240 pages
The Bitter Almonds book review was written by Liliana Tommasini, author of the aptly name blog, My Cookbook Addiction. Her Italian roots are in Sicily and Molise where her mother and father were born. She lives in Quebec, Canada with her husband, golden retriever and has recently taken on the cherished role of Nonna. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.