In the heart of the Val di Noto there is a beautiful Baroque town that nestles perfectly within the gorge it rests. Modica lies in the dramatic landscape of the Hyblaean Mountain range, and was devastated during the catastrophic earthquake of 1693. Like many neighbouring towns, Modica was entirely rebuilt in the lavish Baroque style favoured by the island’s Spanish conquerors. The impressive buildings, seemingly stacked one on top of the other, appear to rise upward from the valley below in a wonderful display of theatrical conformity – the spectacular result of an entire town created in harmony with itself.
As you wander through the town, exploring hidden alleyways and admiring the luxurious architecture, you will notice the similarities that Modica shares with her equally discerning neighbours. The swirling motifs adorning church facades are a feast for the eyes and seem the perfect backdrop for a town that doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. Modica’s elegant tree lined streets are designed to entice, and a series of vertiginous marble stairways draw the eye upward towards an endless display of lush gardens and grandiose buildings.
In a town as culturally rich and lavishly decorated as Modica it can be no surprise to discover an equally decadent food culture, and there is one ingredient that shines above all others – chocolate. In recent years Modica’s reputation as Sicily’s capital of chocolate has spread far and wide. However, in a town designed to bask in its theatrical glory, the tradition of chocolate making in Modica is surprisingly humble and unique in the industrial world of chocolate. In the sixteenth century, during the Spanish occupation, the island’s rulers travelled to Mesoamerica (Central America) and brought back exotic ingredients such as cocoa beans. These new flavours were enthusiastically embraced by the Sicilian aristocracy.
The processing method of the cocoa beans in Sicily was fundamentally similar to those inherited from the Mesoamerican peoples. But the chocolate makers of Sicily and Europe added their own important variations which revolutionised chocolate making – the adding of sugar and the heating of the cocoa seeds. The chocolate produced was very simple and was made from two culturally significant ingredients: cocoa beans – first introduced to Sicily by the Spanish, and sugar – a sweet legacy inherited in the tenth century when the Arabs ruled Sicily and sugar cane flourished on the island. The temperature of the chocolate was heated to no more than 45 degrees Celsius, preventing the sugar crystals from completely melting and giving the chocolate a special crunchy consistency that is grainy in the mouth and sapid to the taste. The cold-processing method retains the original properties of the cocoa seeds and leaves a longer lasting taste in the mouth.
This ancient technique sets Modican chocolate apart from the rest of the world. Many of the local chocolate laboratories, which are still in production since the 1800’s, use the same methods introduced by the Spanish. Originally flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon, the chocolate of Modica is now infused with quintessentially Sicilian ingredients such as citrus, mint, pistachio, and chili.
Before these subtle yet groundbreaking changes in production occurred, the chocolate in Sicily was consumed in much the same way as it had been for thousands of years in Mesoamerica, simply and without sugar. At the height of its popularity chocolate was thought of as a staple, and the ground cocoa seeds – known as cocoa mass – were commonly used to make a form of hot chocolate, or sprinkled over fresh ricotta. Chocolate was also incorporated into savoury dishes such as Coniglio al Cioccolato – rabbit baked in a mouth-watering sauce of pine nuts, bay leaves, fennel, red wine, currents, and dark chocolate. The Coniglio al Cioccolato was a truly wonderful dish developed from the Catalan recipe of Conejo al Chocolate with the addition of quintessentially Sicilian-Arabic influences that perfectly showcases the Sicilian’s love for agrodolce, or sweet and sour.
Modica is a town best enjoyed by those with an adventurous spirit and a large appetite. The town’s famous chocolate will give you all the energy you need to explore every inch of this fascinating Sicilian jewel.
There is a myriad of wonderful ways to incorporate chocolate into everyday cooking, however, my favourite way to pair the decadent qualities of Modica’s chocolate are to combine it with toasted nuts and plenty of zingy orange zest. I wanted to share a recipe that brings all the flavours of Modica together with the essence of Sicily: dolce! I have a deep affection for buttery pastry and bake tarts and biscuits whenever I can, and I will use any excuse to stuff my face with clouds of soft floury dough. I’m never one to worry too much about the technicalities of eating traditional fare for a particular festivity (shh, don’t tell Ciro!). For this recipe, I’m using the fairly flimsy excuse of an Aussie expat living abroad with no real sense of time or season to share these very Christmassy biscuits at a very non-Christmassy time of year. As with many traditional Sicilian dishes, recipes vary slightly between regions and the result depends entirely upon availability of ingredients, climate, and of course, the whims of the individual cook.
I have combined traditional ‘Nucatoli and Buccelatti biscuit recipes to create my own little hybrid cookie that satiates my greedy senses. These fluffy pillows of buttery pastry are stuffed like a festive hen with everything that I love about Sicily – dark chocolate, sticky dried figs, toasted nuts, marsala wine, raisins, orange zest, and cinnamon, all bound together with lashings of wildflower honey.
As always, I urge you to get creative using whatever ingredients are available to you. If you haven’t got any walnuts, simply use pecans or pistachios. And if you don’t like chocolate… yes, that’s right… I know there are some of you out there, hiding in plain sight… you CAN omit the chocolate. So, here in my little London flat, while the ever-present rain falls gently on my geranium filled window box, I sit munching away on my little biscuity slice of Sicilian heaven, and I invite you to come to Sicily too. Even if it’s only in biscuit form… for now.
Click the link below to try my ‘Hybrid-Non-Christmassy-But-Really-Very-Christmassy-Biscuits’. The recipe is much more simple than the name suggests, I swear!