In Sicily, they eat this:
It looks like baskets of fruit, but it is all made from martorana, which Sicilians will rush to tell you is nothing to do with marzipan. Martorana is made from ground almonds, sugar and a little water, nothing else. Since Sicilians refuse to use anything except the freshest organic almonds, harvested in September, it really is tasty in a way marzipan never is. Most people use icing sugar, but I have been told the best is made with brown sugar. It is important not to use too much – this is a sweet that should not be too sweet.
Many friends of mine make it in late October. They press it into their vast collection of fruit moulds, or else sculpt it by hand if they are very skillful. Then they leave it to dry for a couple of days – it stays moist and soft on the inside – and then carefully paint it using natural food dyes. Traditionally they would use natural substances like beetroot juice for pink or red, cuttlefish ink for black, and carrot juice for orange, but nowadays they buy the colours ready made.
Whilst martorana is named martorana in Palermo, after the Martorana Church where it was made by the resident nuns, it is known in other parts of Sicily as pasta reale or frutta reale. Reale in Italian means royal and also real. Nobody knows whether this stuff is real paste, real fruit or royal fruit.
Whilst we English and Americans are cavorting around at Hallowe’en parties, the Sicilians are preparing to go and visit their deceased loved ones. November 1st is all Saints Day and November 2nd is All Souls. For All Saints there is a church service to remember the dead saints. For All Souls, there is something very different.
Sicilians often prepare a picnic, with wine, packed food and plenty of martorana fruits, and spend the whole day on November 2nd at the cemetery remembering their badly missed ancestors and feeling close to them. Sicilian graveyards are an experience in themselves, as the tombs look like miniature old-fashioned houses. Nowadays the whole picnic experience seems to be falling out of fashion and fewer people do it, but when my husband was a boy he spent every November 2nd at the graveyard with the rest of his family, living and dead.
Before leaving, they would leave plenty of martorana, some other food, and a nice glass of wine at each tomb for their ancestors to enjoy.
This graveside picnic tradition comes straight from the ancient Romans, who did exactly the same thing as part of their pagan religion, but don’t mention that to a Catholic Sicilian! They don’t really like to hear it!
The main reason this exclusively Sicilian tradition is dying out is the invasion of Hallowe’en, a foreign holiday which has invaded Italy within the last ten years in a very commercialised way. Last year, I was highly cheesed off by the fact that various people here criticised Hallowe’en in ways that showed they did not understand it at all. I heard two priests saying that attending a Hallowe’en party was tantamount to devil worship.
This year I see it differently. The draw of this commercialised money-spinner, which is fast turning global, has started to eradicate a Sicilian tradition that existed for almost 2,000 years. Sicily’s more sensible critics of Hallowe’en say that they have nothing against it, it’s just that it’s not THEIR tradition.
This year, instead of arranging a Hallowe’en party for my son, I think I shall take him to have a picnic with his great-grandmother instead. She passed away when he was two – it’s about time they caught up. And anyway, if he wants some Hallowe’en spookiness, you can’t exactly get more morbid than that, can you?
I do know there are a few other places where people have graveyard picnics to remember their dead. I suspect many other cultures have other ways of remembering their lost loved ones.
What do they do where you come from? I would love to learn more.
If you have written about it or published photos on your blog, please post a link in the comments section.
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