Sicily is one of the world’s largest producers of almonds, with orchards dating to ancient times. Almonds form the basis for many typical Sicilian dishes, especially desserts, from almond cake (torta alla mandorla) to almond nougat (torrone or torroncino), to almond biscotti, granita, and gelato. Across Sicily, pastry shops overflow with sweet treats made from the island’s almond bounty.
Of all the island’s sweet almond treats, Martorana fruits, or frutte Martorane, take la dolce vita to a new level. Martorana fruits are not fruits at all, but masterpieces of “royal pastry” (pasta reale), a special type of marzipan. In these realistic-looking confections the artistic talents of Sicilian pastry artists truly shine.
Whether it’s the spiky stem of an eggplant, the waxy peel of a banana, or the plush skin of a peach, the tiny details of Martorana fruits are designed to trick the eye and delight the senses. It’s difficult to believe that they are made with little more than ground almonds, sugar, and a little food coloring.
A legendary beginning
According to a story passed down over hundreds of years, these fruity-looking treats originated inside the Benedictine convent of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo. The convent was commonly called La Martorana in honor of one of its twelfth-century superiors, Eloisa Martorana. Though the convent no longer exists, the beautiful church, still known as La Martorana, is one of the highlights of a visit to Palermo, with its stunning Arab-Norman architecture and mosaics.
According to the story, the nuns decorated their bare fruit trees with a bounty of realistic-looking painted fruits made of marzipan in order to impress an archbishop during his winter visit. (Many famous Italian pastries were born in convents, often the result of secret recipes passed down over generations.) The tradition eventually transcended the walls surrounding the convent orchard. During the Baroque period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people sought to create imitations of luxury items and everyday objects, and Martorana fruits found a wide audience.
Eventually, Martorana fruits came to be associated with All Soul’s Day on November 2. On that day, many Italian children still wake up to find these delectable treats at their bedsides, allegedly delivered overnight by their loving ancestors. Today, hand-decorated marzipan is closely tied to local traditions and feasts from All Soul’s Day through Easter, when pastry chefs fashion tiny lambs and eggs from pasta reale.
How Martorana fruits are made
Martorana fruits begin with “royal pastry,” a deceptively simple mixture of ground almonds and sugar that’s been the star of Sicilian tables since the Middle Ages. Royal pastry has a higher sugar content than regular almond paste, which makes it more pliable and easy to roll out into dough, and also malleable enough to form into infinite shapes. Some chefs include additional ingredients such as lemon, vanilla, or cinnamon, closely held as family recipes.
While some pastry artists sculpt pieces by hand, others utilize wooden or metal molds that were cast from actual fruits and vegetables. That’s how they are able to create intricate details including strawberry seeds and the puckered skin of an orange, or the rounded and cleaved form of an apricot. Typical Martorana fruits include pears, lemons, strawberries, kiwis, oranges, bananas, ears of corn, and more, but the end product is limited only by the pastry chef’s imagination. The shapes are then dried on a rack, usually overnight.
Each frutta Martorana is then hand-painted using an artist’s paintbrush with powdered food coloring mixed to the consistency of watercolor. The colors are often layered over the course of hours or sometimes days, letting each coat dry before applying the next. Many chefs finish their work with a final glaze made of gum arabic or benzoin, an edible resin that gives the confections a shiny coating.
The fun of Martorana fruits is all in the detail. Take a close look, and you’ll see everything from leaves and stems made of paper, to real watermelon seeds, papery-looking heads of garlic, and peach fuzz made of spun sugar. Let’s be honest: Some Martorana fruits look too beautiful to eat, and although they are entirely edible, they keep for a long time if you want to display them instead.
Where to sample Sicily’s best Martorana fruits
On the first Sunday in February, Agrigento hosts the Festa del Fiore del Mandorlo, when the almond blossoms first flower in the orchards. This festival celebrates the blooming of these highly valued almond trees, accompanied by song, dance, traditional costumes, and fireworks, not to mention many sweet treats made with almonds.
Traditionally, Martorana fruits make their appearance in September, when the almonds are harvested, and again in November, when they become part of the All Souls’ Day celebrations. However, today you can find Martorana fruits in many pastry shops across Sicily most of the year. In order to make sure you get a high-quality, homemade treat rather than pre-packaged version, look for the words pasticceria artigianale or produzione nostra on pastry shop windows.