Arab influences are strong in Sicily, from the architecture to the sweets, from the underground Arab aqueducts of Palermo to the granulated-ice dessert, la granita. The Arabs brought their sherbert to Sicily, an iced drink flavored with fruit juices or rosewater. In the Middle Ages, the nevaroli (meaning ice- but lit. snow-gatherers) had the important task of harvesting the snow of Mt. Etna and other mountain ranges in stone grottoes. The nobility bought the mounds of ice during the sizzling summer months, mixing in the juice of the island’s lemons to make a perfect thirst-quencher.
Later, juices of different fruits were added and even edible flowers. Palermo is still today best known for its granita di limone, while the granita di caffé and strawberry granita reign in the Messina area. Bronte – not far from Mount Etna – area is famed for its granita di pistacchio. Catania lays claim to the minnulata or the toasted almond granita (where some bitter almonds are an essential ingredient), topped with a splash of espresso – but le granite of Avola, Siracusa and Agrigento, all almond areas, are not to underestimated.
Nowadays, the array of granite reflects the myriad flavors of Sicily: tangerine, mint, pomegranate, prickly pear, peach, tiny wild strawberries, watermelon, hazelnut, dark chocolate, pistachio and jasmine. But hold on: at a café at San Vito Lo Capo, on Sicily’s western coast, I tried una granita di gelso nero (black mulberry) for the first time last year. Buonissima!
When visiting Pino’s family in Palermo, we often make the 1-1/2 hour drive from Palermo to San Vito just to swim off that spectacular stretch of coast. I’d make the drive again just for the granita di gelso.