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Enchantment of Christmas in Sicily

Posted by Suzanne on 13 Dec 2013

Thinking of the late, night time silence of Christmas in the narrow, lit streets of Polizzi when the perfume of burning wood fires is in the misty air and the snow on the Madonie mountains is fresh I remember the enchantment of Christmases away in Sicily: a wreath made from the evergreen plants of the wintery, Sicilian mountains; nativity scenes, the gift of a decorated mountain fir tree; the taste of Sicilian Christmas fig biscuits; the burning of a candle; the smell of freshly peeled clementines and oranges.


A Sicilian Christmas wreath

The winter “botanical garden” of the forested Madonie Mountains and the slopes of Mount Etna herald evergreen treasures centuries old: holly, holm and cork, beech, laurel and fir and evergreen shrubs: oleaster, carob and lentisk, seed pods and berry fruits. The colours of red, dark green and sage collected from the wintery landscape, decorated with a drop of clementines form a wreath. A reminder of the Christmas landscape in the Sicilian mountains.


The Nativity

This beautiful mosaic is in the church of La Martorana, Palermo; the nativity is seen in the homes and churches of Sicily during Christmas.


The gift of a decorated fir tree

It was only days before Christmas 2008 when I pulled up in front of Palazzo Notar Nicchi, in Polizzi. We had come to celebrate Christmas in Sicily. It was nearly dark; the lights of the entry were seen through the shutters and a fir tree from the mountains of Polizzi stood in the entry of Palazzo Notar Nicchi.

The tree was draped in tinsel, and was hung with baubles and dozens of tiny pieces of white cotton wool. This decorated Christmas tree was a gift from, Gaetano and Giuseppe, the builders, who, with the dedication of artisans, were working on Palazzo Notar Nicchi. It was an unforgettable surprise.


The scent of a candle

Candles like Diptyque’s Feu de Bois candle and the perfume of rare woods of the Northern Hemisphere lingering in a Sicilian house in the Madonie Mountains are a constant.


The Sicilian Christmas biscuit

Le cudduredde, buccellati in Italian, are the Sicilian Christmas  biscuit. They can be 'baroque' in form or just simple often dusted with icing sugar and they mark the coming of a Sicilian Christmas.  Dried figs and fresh orange are minced, nuts are chopped, mixed with ground cloves, cinnamon and honey and wrapped in a sweet pastry. Huge trays are baked and offered to visitors throughout the season of Christmas.

I made buccellato for the first time yesterday in my kitchen in Brisbane Australia. I followed Maria Grammatico’s recipe from her book, " Bitter Almonds" co authored with Mary Taylor Simeti. As I baked, the smell and taste took me back to the cold Christmases in Polizzi where buccellati are served by friends and sold in many pastry shops from Pasticceria Il Castello in Piazza Castello to Caffe Vinci in Via Garibaldi.

When in Polizzi preparing for a cold Christmas make buccellati using sulla honey from the Madonie Mountains, figs picked and dried in October from the abundant gardens (i giardini) of Polizzi, and the sweet hazelnuts grown on the slopes of the mountains.


Winter fruits: clementines, oranges and manadarins

The vibrant orange of these sweet winter fruits served throughout the colder months and Christmas is enduring. Bowls stand in kitchens and once on the table and eaten, piles of peels decorate the cloth.


I have celebrated Christmas a few times in Polizzi and it is the joy of remembering these simple, local things, which makes me want to return for another cold Christmas in the Sicilian mountains.





Edited 2015: The Nativity paragraph and the words "botanical garden" to describe the Madonie is from Francesco Alaimo's 'The Madonie Park'.



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