Marsala the taste of Sicily

Marsala blog

The city of Marsala is the home and namesake of one of Sicily’s most ancient and popular wines. The town’s unique location on the western coast and its dry environment is part of the reason behind the deep flavour of Marsala. The coastal city’s sea breeze and pleasant weather throughout the year assures the health of the vineyards and gives this wine its unique taste. A sip of Marsala is a taste of Sicily.

A little way off the coast from the city are the Aegadian Islands of Favignana, Levanzo Marettino, Formica, Maraone and Motzia an ancient Phoenician stronghold filled with nature reserves, museums and archaeological sites. It was the Phoenician’s who brought with them the grapes and wine making techniques from the Middle East which gave birth to viticulture in Italy.

Side by side with the history the environment of the surrounding area which contributes to the character of the local wines. The nearby salt flats at Trapani with their farms and characteristic windmills were the focus of a prolific salt industry during ancient times. Today the old farms are a part of a natural reserve which protects a unique landscape that plays host to annual migrating birds from Africa including heron and flamingo.

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It is within this idealistic setting in 1796 that British businessman John Woodhouse established the first commercial winery in the area. The tradesman from Liverpool exported Marsala to England after tasting it and realising its unique flavour would easily be appreciated by an English market who were already hungrily consuming fortified wines like Port and Sherry.

In 1812 a competing firm was founded at Marsala by Benjamin Ingham, followed by a third company run by Calabrian, Vincenzo Florio in 1832. Eventually, the Florio family bought and merged the Woodhouse and Ingham holdings with their own production. Today the Florio cellars have become a part of the Saronno group and continue to manufacture Marsala together with other Sicilian varieties of wine such as Corvo and Duca di Salapurata.

The Florio family were one of the most wealthy families of 19th century Italy, their empire included businesses in the areas of banking, pharmaceuticals, art collection and car racing. Their luxurious parties from the beginning of last century became symbolic of excessive wealth and decadence.

The family was originally from the southern Italian region of Calabria and moved to Sicily after the earthquake of 1783, taking advantage of the stability under the reign of the Borbon king Ferdinand in the kingdom of the two Sicilies. Brothers Paolo and Ignazio opened a pharmacy in Palermo which sold spices and various remedies for common illnesses including malaria. After the success of their first business, the family branched out into winemaking at Marsala as well as exporting, sulfur mining, tuna fishing and canning.

For a century and a half, the Florio dynasty contributed to the wealth and development of Sicily. They were a symbol of the ‘bel Epoque’ of Sicilian history when the island first enjoyed the benefits of entrepreneurial wealth, refined taste and lifestyle. Today a visit to the Florio wineries gives you a taste of more than 180 years of Sicilian history which has produced the most distinguished fortified wines in all of Italy.

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In the 1950’s Marsala found itself relegated to being considered a simple cooking wine as cheaper and less well made overseas varieties flooded the Italian market. In 1986 the Italian government introduced the D.O classification (denomination of origin) laws which protected the traditional producers and regulated the industry and Marsala slowly became a popular dessert and aperitif wine.

Marsala owes its unique flavour to Western Sicily’s warm, dry and windy climate. The three basic types oro (golden), ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby) are a result of a complex series of grape variety blending and a particular way of ageing the wine which lasts from one to six years.

In the process of making Marsala, Grillo, Catarratto and Damischino white grapes are mixed together to create golden and amber dry and semi-sweet types. Mosto cotto or grape must syrup is added to dry Marsala to give the amber variety a golden colour. Mosto cotto, vino cotto or saba is a thick syrup made by cooking the grape juice in the first step of winemaking. The grape seeds, skins and stems of the entire fruit are used to create a unique ingredient which is also used to add flavour to savoury dishes and desserts.

A mixture of Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d’avola and Nerello Mescalese red grape varieties are mixed to create the sweeter types. Sweet Marsala has a fruity profile while drier Marsala leaves subtle tobacco and liquorice notes, created by the oak barrels it is stored and mixed in an ageing technique known as the solera process.

Solera is a blending system which transfers the wine into different oak barrels over many years, blending various vintages together while perpetually adding flavour. It is used for ageing things like wine, beer, balsamic vinegar, brandy, sherry, madeira, lillet, port, mavrodafni, muscat, rum and whisky. The process is originally from the Iberian peninsula, hence the Spanish and Portuguese origins of its name.

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Marsala is surprisingly versatile and can be used in many cocktail recipes or simply as an aperitif. Mostly used in traditional Italian dishes such as veal scaloppini and to make beautifully caramelised sauces to accompany many white meats and wild game dishes. It is also used in desserts like tiramisù, zabaglione or sabayon, a custard dessert often described as a French version of zabaglione.

Dry Marsala pairs well with blue cheese such as gorgonzola, roquefort, stilton or hard robust cheeses like pecorino and grana padano. It also enhances the aromas of medium mature cheeses like piacentinu Ennese and Fontana of Caciotta. It is excellent with smoked fish or tuna, toasted almonds, pistachios and couscous. It goes well with a range of Sicilian cuisine and ingredients which are usually difficult to pair with: such as asparagus, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, artichokes and chocolate.

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Over the last few years smaller producers have added a new dimension to Marsala production by returning to the traditional methods of Marsala making. Marco De Bartoli started building his winery more than 40 years ago with the dream of reviving the original soul of this fortified wine. Today his children Giuseppina, Renato and Sebastiano continue his life’s work.

The De Bartoli siblings are continuing their father’s artisain approach to viticulture which includes the use of the traditional Grillo variety of grapes, in small low yield harvests, rigorously collected by hand with a focus on biological techniques, natural indigenous yeasts for fermentation, no artificial additives and a longer aging period as required by ancient wine making techniques.

The De Bartoli’s attention to small fundamental elements is used to obtain high quality and natural wines, which in turn reflect the beauty of Marsala and the landscape of Western Sicily.

 

Smoky roasted Artichokes

SicilianArtichokes

The Sicilian spring is moody as the weather fluctuates between rain and days of glorious sun. The Sciroccio wind whips itself up from the African desert and pushes the seasons along.

White blossoms in the fruit trees blend with shadowy greys. The spring is an armistice which allows the winter to gradually surrender itself and begin the cycle again.

Artichokes

Sicilian artichokes are as prickly as the late winter weather, but after their external spikes are removed the internal fleshy flower is a delicate balm for the cold. 

The artichoke is a thistle and comes from the same family as the sunflower. This edible flower is a native of the Mediterranean and dates back to ancient Greek times when they were cultivated in Italy and Sicily.

Greek mythology tells how Zeus created the artichoke from a beautiful mortal woman. While visiting his brother Poseidon, Zeus spied a beautiful young woman, he was so pleased with the girl named Cynara, that  he decided to make her a goddess. Cynara agreed, however she grew homesick and snuck back home to visit her family. Zeus discovered this and became angry, throwing Cynara back to earth and transforming her into a plant.

Un fiore Siciliano

Cynar is an Italian liqueur which gets its name from the artichoke and the mythological origins of this plant. This bitter alcoholic drink is made from thirteen different plants including the artichoke. It is generally drunk straight as an after dinner digestive or as a cocktail mixing it with soda water, tonic water and lemon, lime or orange juice.

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It is always a joy to prepare artichokes as part of the Sicilian table every year. They may seem difficult but they are versatile, easily stuffed and the tender internal leaves can be prepared separately as a pasta condiment. The discarded stalks can also be blanched in hot water, then blended together to make a creamy pesto like mixture.

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The best way to prepare the first tender artichokes of the season is to stuff them with a combination of fresh spring aromas like pancetta, parsley, spring onions, garlic, finely sliced celery, a pinch of hot chilli pepper, all soaked in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and then cooking them slowly over hot coals, or ‘a braci’ as they say in the local dialect. 

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Covering the richly flavoured artichokes with hot smoking embers and letting the stuffing’s taste gradually imbue itself into the artichoke is the best. The tough external leaves are crusty and burnt but act as a protective shell until the internal tender parts are fully cooked. The fat of the bacon melts and amalgamates with the sweetness of the vegetable in an irresistible smoky flavour. 

I love preparing them for my Birthday in late February every year. The only flowers I ever truly enjoy are a bouquet of carciofi.

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Vedi qua il post anche in Italiano: Carciofi affumicati e arrostiti

Springtime Asparagus

Wild Asparagus

As the weather begins to warm the first fruits of spring literally ‘spring’ up from the new foliage. A favourite has to be wild asparagus which grows randomly and abundant throughout Italy.

Asparagus is a member of the Lily family and is sought after for its tender, succulent, edible shoots. This plant has been cultivated for more than two thousand years in the eastern Mediterranean. Roman emperors loved it so much they kept special boats for the purpose of fetching it and named them the Asparagus fleet.

Asparagus

Wild asparagus shoots up between thorny blackberry plants, in cool damp gullies or secluded places where they are hidden and keep themselves tender and ripe for those who search for them every year. The spontaneous uncultivated variety has a sweeter taste than the domesticated type and is a sort after ingredient during the early days of spring.

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There are two types of wild asparagus, a slim, tall, sweet variety dispersed in every area and then a short, dark, slightly spindly and bitter asparagus which grows later on in the season. The sweeter variety is the most popular while the bitter type is an acquired taste and often needs to be blanched in hot water to take away a little of the bitterness.

The asparagus hunt can be as popular as mushroom or truffle hunting in the Italian autumn months. The hunt for asparagus can turn into a war. Often it’s a race to get to the best spots first and it can be quite vicious. Like mushrooms, asparagus are a delicacy that bring out the competitive nature of people. 

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The asparagus hunter has an intense satisfaction and can relish the preparation of this sweet vegetable which can be cleaned and fried with olive oil to make an omelette, or wrapped in thinly sliced cheese and prosciutto cotto ham and baked in the oven.

Personally when I see a batch of freshly picked asparagus I feel like a quiche is coming on. The culinary possibilities really are endless. Dishes like these are an elixir to the wintertime, like the warmth of spring they assure me the cold is coming to an end. 

 

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Per la versione in Italiano clicca qui: Asparagi di primavera

Sicilian Impressions: Maschere

Carnival time in Italy is filled with endless fried desserts, parades, tricks and masquerade.

The masks can be beautiful like the ones at Venice’s world famous Carnevale or terribly ugly like these.

When you see one do not be afraid, they are harmless they only want to be offered a glass of wine or mime something funny or rude to make you laugh.

They don’t talk, they are only strange spritely manifestations of the Carnival spirit.

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Sicilian Impressions: Belvedere

Stopping at a ‘belvedere’ or lookout on the side of a Sicilian mountain road will give you a spectacular surprise and a sense of the expansive nature of Sicily.

On a clear day you will feel like you are in the heavens looking out onto a new world.

The closest belvedere to me looks out at the Ponte di Naso road down to the coast between Brolo and Capo d’orlando in the province of Messina.

When the weather permits you can see, part of the Messina-Palermo autostrada and beyond to the Aeolian Islands of Stromboli and Vulcano.

Sicilian view from a belvedere looking at Aeolian Islands

Belvedere, Castell'Umberto looking at Aeolian Islands

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Sicilian Impressions: By road

I cannot reiterate enough the joys of exploring Sicily by car, it is easy to zig zag the island through mountains and valleys, weaving your way through endless small towns.

Sicily by road means effortlessly experiencing the ins and outs of the islands landscape and stopping at a local roadside Trattoria or family run restaurant will give you the most memorable literal taste of Sicily.

Roadside Maniace

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Sicilian Impressions: Beaches

In the middle of the winter I always get nostalgic about summer and the beach. I have always had a difficult time with Sicilian beaches and their rocky nature, I miss sandy Australian beaches.

I like the sparse rustic nature of the coastline which gives me the sense the beach belongs to me.

I also have an extensive collection of lava rocks and stones.

Sicilian beaches

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Sicilian Impressions: Cannoli

Sicilian desserts are world famous but the most decadent has to be deep fried cannoli tubes which are filled with ricotta or fresh custard cream.

They are a special treat and are often given as gifts for Christmas and Easter.

The empty golden shells are tiny works of art ready to be filled with sweetness.

Sicilian Cannoli

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How to peel a fico d’india

Sicilian Prickly Pears

The exotic prickly pear (fico d’india) is a delicacy in Sicily and thrives around the entire island. Known also as the Barbary fig (opuntia ficus-indica) it is a species of cactus cultivated throughout the world in arid and semiarid areas and is thought to be native to Mexico.

It is best to taste them after the first rains as the plant soaks up the water immediately which fattens the fruit beneath a tough prickly exterior.

But how do you get to the fruit? Good question.

Up to the prickly pears

First you climb up here.

Detail of those prickly pears

Then you pick one of those oval-shaped spiky balls with a special contraption which is a steel cup fastened to a broom handle. You put the fruit in the cup and snap them off at their base. And with some good gloves try your hand at peeling them.

Warning peeling these little beasts is not for the faint hearted if you get a splinter they hurt like hell and are real buggers to get out.

With your prickly pear fastened into the end of a fork the challenge awaits …

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On a flat surface with the fork firmly holding the fruit you cut almost all the way through on the ends.

Peeling Ficho d'india

Making a slit down the middle beside where you have the fork you can push the skin back with the knife and fork.

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They are best served fresh so allow them to cool in the fridge.

Their taste? They are filled with hard little pips but the soft flesh is quite refreshing and sweet like a melon. There are many varieties the red ones are the most vibrant but there are also orange, green and so-called ‘white’ ones which are a golden colour.

Red fichi

I’ve seen fico d’india ice cream, sorbet and even liquor so the fruit seems quite versatile. The taste is pleasant but I’d really love if someone could take out the pips for me please! Sicilian’s don’t seem to be bothered by them swallowing them without a second thought.

Also don’t go eating too many of them as they have the sneaky habit of making people painfully constipated. My husband is always telling me about the time my father in law (bless his soul) ate ten fichi d’india and ended up in hospital. So go easy on those fichi!

Buon Appetito

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Fall in Sicily

Autumn in Sicily

The beginning of Autumn in Sicily can be abrupt. The gradual changes from one season to the next are now a thing of the past, there are no more slightly shortening days or time for the leaves to go from greens, yellows, warm rusty reds or browns, now the fall begins with heavy rains and cool nights, whenever the gods decide.

One day you are sunbathing on the beach and the next you are pulling on your cardigan and sheltering under an umbrella. The first rains are capricious, sometimes drizzling, then pelting, blurring the mountains and threatening with ash coloured clouds and distant thunder drones, initially succumbing to the afternoon sun and the Scirocco.

The heavy breath of the Scirocco is a lethargic exhale held in cupped hands, a stifling African wind which saps energy, tickling the skin without any relief or pleasure.

This corrupted zephyr, fed by ancient Aeolus the keeper of the winds, ravages the land and utters its curse without any mercy. In the summer it whips up the thermometer, in September it teases as it ushers in the rains, in the winter it tries to deceive people into shedding their skins too soon. First, there is the flotsam and jetsam of the winds and then the storm begins.

 

Autumn

October in Sicily means many things to the Sicilian’s table from fruits like fichi d’india, hazelnuts, mushrooms and grapes. Late ripening in this years season also means a tardy gathering of tomatoes, eggplants (aubergines), capsicums, chilli peppers and other summer fairs.

The insanity of August is easily washed away as Sicily gets back into its daily routine, children go back to school, freshly bronzed public servants are well and truly lazing in their offices and the everyday grind begins.

A new season is always a new beginning, it changes the sensations and assures as we are moving forward despite our want to stand still.

Autumn is like sipping a fine Nero d’Avola, smooth and deeply satisfying with a warm and fruity aftertaste that makes you wish more.

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A Sicilian Summer with Brian Johnston

Photo by Tomas Anton Escobar on Unsplash
I’ve always been a lover of the travel writing genre, ever since my mother gave me a paperback of Bill Bryson’s ‘Neither here nor there’ which took me backpacking through Europe before I left high school. Since then I have made my way through many travel writing classics. I’ve discovered many great writers have also been great travellers.

While doing research for my own attempt at this genre after a decade of living in Sicily, I came across the work of Brian Johnston who has become one of my favourite writers in this genre, a real inspiration. His book Sicilian Summer is a beautiful read and captures the spirit of this enigmatic Mediterranean island while guiding us through its cuisine, history and culture.

It also turns out Johnston is a professional, down to earth and approachable guy who graciously accepted to do a ‘virtual’ interview via email and I was thrilled to talk with him.

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How would you describe your books to someone who has never read your work?

My books are travel books on a simple level, inviting the reader to discover a destination, but I also like to infuse them with some of my personality – after all, it’s a place seen through my own very particular eyes. And I hope they are thoughtful, thought-provoking and amusing as well. I don’t think anyone should take themselves too seriously.

 

Do you have a certain method when you are working on a travel writing piece? For example how did something like Sicilian Summer come about?

Sicilian Summer just started with being inspired and jotting down notes of my experiences and thoughts wherever I went. Then trying to make some semblance of order and sense out of them, and a whole lot of extra research when I returned. I suppose even short articles work more or less the same way in miniature. Good note taking at source is certainly the basis of any good travel piece.

 

Montalto is the fictionalized town in Sicilian Summer, what is the real small Sicilian town near Messina it was inspired by? Why did you feel the need to disguise the name in your book?

There would be no point in disguising the name if I was going to tell you where it really is! I just felt that, given I was writing about the personal lives of so many people in that village, that I should protect their privacy. You know, writers always dream of having bestsellers. I had visions of queues of fans knocking on villagers doors… I don’t think they would have wanted that.

 

Have you visited Sicily since writing Sicilian Summer and what else have you discovered about this intriguing island?

Actually, I haven’t been back to Sicily. Sometimes I’m a bit wary about returning to places where I’ve been really happy. They’re never the same the second time around. Sometimes they’re best left in the mind…

 

Sicilian Summer is very much a love letter to Sicilian cuisine. What is your ultimate Sicilian meal from appetizers to dessert and why?

I might start with some pasta puttanesca, fiery with chilli and garlic, and some grilled fish to follow the lemon and capers. The dessert is a hard one, too many temptations. A cassata perhaps.

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Please tell us about your other travel books …

My first book was Boxing with Shadows, an account of the two-and-a-half years I spent living and travelling in China. Humorous encounters with a TV crew, a snake, a drunken shoe salesman and China’s most famous rock star are interwoven with more serious observations on political campaigns and ethnic minorities and balanced with personal reflections.

My second travel book, Into the Never-Never, is about me and my sister Nicola’s adventures across Australia. Sicilian Summer was my third and alas so far my last, apart from contributions to anthologies. Too busy earning money as a journalist!

 

You also have a travel blog The Thoughtful Travel Writer how are you enjoying the world of blogging? Do you think all writers should have a blog or are there simply too many bad blogs out there?

There are a million travel blogs out there. Some may be bad, but most have their market, even if it’s only the 10 people in the blogger’s family. Nothing wrong with that. But I’m not convinced all writers should have a blog. It’s incredibly time-consuming for little or no monetary return. You just have to do it for the joy of it, and hope some readers get pleasure out of it too.

 

Have you come across any other wonderful travel blogs that we should be reading?

I have no time to read travel blogs, unfortunately. Too busy writing! And I spend too much time on the computer as it is.

 

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to get into the travel writing business?

The great Victorian writer John Ruskin observed ‘I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.’The world is full of travel-writer wannabes, but only hard work and unflagging professionalism will take them from part-timers to professionals.

 

As a freelance writer, how important is it to get great photos for your own articles?  Please tell us what camera do you use and perhaps a little advice on how to get a decent photo.

Few freelancers can get by these days without supplying photos, so it’s very important. I recognize that I’m a better writer than a photographer, so often provide a mix of my own photos and those supplied by tourism offices. I use a Canon EOS. I’ll leave the advice to others better qualified!

 

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Books can take us places without leaving home, do you have a favourite travel book which you think best describes a particular place or the art of travel in a particular way for those who are unable to travel.

When it comes to the art of travel and what travel means, I’m a big fan of Australian author Bruce Chatwin. Try his Songlines or What Am I Doing Here.

 

Do you think travel writing has become fashionable? If so is this a good or a bad thing?

I think travel writing has come and gone in literary fashion over the decades and even centuries. I’m not sure as a literary genre that it’s that fashionable at the moment – difficult to name a truly well-known travel author since Bill Bryson’s heyday a decade ago. Online travel blogging is another creature; there has certainly been an explosion of interest in that. Surely it must be good that people take such an interest and enjoyment in travel.

 

What are you working on right now?

An article on Bordeaux for a newspaper travel section, and several articles for various magazine on everything from Singapore to Sydney and New Zealand.

 

Is there any part of the world you are dying to visit or write about if so where and why?

People always think I’ve been everywhere, but that’s far from the case. I’d love to see East Africa, a place I’ve fantasized about since seeing the movie Out of Africa as a teenager. Seeing those vast animal migrations would be awesome.

 

Do you think travel writing is about luck or good planning? Why?

There’s no luck involved in travel writing. To be successful in anything takes a lot of hard work and hustle. Outsiders see only the glamorous side, but to make a full-time living as a travel writer takes a lot of exhausting travel, work and marketing.

 

If you could spend one week in any major city of the planet, where would it be and how would you spend the time?

I know it’s a cliché, but I’d choose Paris to while away a week. It has so many good museums, and the streets are just made for walking. There is beauty all around.

 

Where is Brian Johnston heading off to next?

Off to Romania and Hungary shortly. Should be interesting!

 

Thanks so much to Brian Johnston for finding a moment in his busy schedule to talk.

 

For more information about Sicilian Summer be sure to see my book review on Times of Sicily.

 

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Squeezing those grapes

We’re well and truly into the swing of Autumn/Fall here in Sicily even if it seems the weather has forgotten what time of year it is and the Sirocco wind is wreaking havoc withering everything it touches.

For those unfamiliar with the term Sirocco here’s a definition from our friends at Wikipedia:

Sirocco, scirocco, /sɪˈrɒkoʊ/, jugo or, rarely, siroc (Catalan: Xaloc, Greek: Σορόκος) is a Mediterranean wind that comes from the Sahara and reaches hurricane speeds in North Africa and Southern Europe. It is derived from the North African Arabic word for south qibli (قبلي) etymologically derived from the word “qibla”.

Pesky winds aside the harvest of grapes has begun and I thought I’d share a little side line dish/treat that Sicilian’s make this time of year.

My grandparents would boil up the fresh grape juice, thicken it with flour and dry it out to make a chewy like candy treat sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts. They called it the ‘mustarda’. Looking around for it on the net I’ve come up with other boiled varieties of grape juice like ‘mosto cotto, saba, and mostarda’ which are more like preserves.

Here’s what the latest batch looks like as prepared by my talented sister in law, Antonella:

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It’s very sweet and once it cools down looks a lot like candy.

To be honest I’m not a fan of myself but I remember for my Sicilian grandparents it was considered a wonderful treat.

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