In Bitter Almonds, the biography of pasticerria owner Maria Grammatico that she wrote with Mary Taylor Simeti, there is a section of recipes at the back of the book. These are the ones practiced in the time warp convent where she lived and worked as a child and young woman just after World War 2. In a time a grinding poverty, and starvation, the convent acted as a kind of workhouse, offering a degree of physical, if not emotional, shelter for destitute and orphaned girls. In exchange they helped to make the pastries and sweets that the nuns then sold to supplement the convent’s dwindling income. It’s a strange and compelling book, a snapshot of something unique to Sicily, typically both troubling and beautiful. Some of the recipes laid out are familiar staples of Sicilian culture across the island; cannoli, cassata. Others are more esoteric, and with no pictures to guide you, these are recipes that you have to take on trust and run at with blind faith if you attempt them.
There is something other worldy about this book, in its recounting of a vanished existence slowly dying. A way of living that had outlived its purpose, becoming embittered and resentful in the process. The nuns may have disliked that Grammitico took her training and repurposed it for her own and her family’s benefit, but it is likely that without her steel, much of their knowledge, and with it, the pleasures given, would have vanished, along with the silverware of the closing churches and monasteries around them.
This recipe, for a liqueur called ‘Rosolio alle erbe’ has been on the ‘to do’ list for a while. It needed summer to come, to let me grow the herbs . It doffs caps to all those famous and monetised liqueurs from monasteries across Europe, from Benedictine to Buckfast. That they drink it (or something similar) in The Leopard reinforces its archaic mystery. Anything whose colour prompts a writer to summon the word ‘bilious’ is a thing of both awe and trepidation, and to my warped and curious imagination, demands I give it a go.
The steeping rapidly leaches all the vibrant chlorophyll green out of the herbs, staining the alcohol a deathbed jaundice. The smell when you come to add the sugar is equally challenging, ‘silage’ I think, might capture it
At this stage, I began to lose my faith. Both in the nuns and in Maria. Apparently, this cordial used to be served at weddings. My suspicion was that it was used to clear the room at the end of the night.
So like an unwanted raffle prize, it was shoved in a cupboard and almost forgotten, until two months on an adventurous friend demanded to try this oddity. Out came the little French, hand engraved glasses. If we we’re going to do this, we’re going full on Lampedusa. I’d taken the recipe at its word and added some artificial colouring to recapture that biliousness, creating a gothic scene of dainty glasses cupping a dangerous, arsenic shot of poison. It’s a drink so visually strident that it induces a simultaneous sense of theatre and malice. The two months of abandonment had also worked wonders. Silage was gone, to be replaced by a strange, sweet medicinal elixir – the whiff of fermented weeds had vanished to be replaced by something potent, romantic, that smelt and tasted like the inside of a cedar wardrobe from an EM Forster story.
1 lire 40% vodka
20 fresh bay leaves
25 leaves of lemon verbena
6 leaves of spearmint
a thumb sized strip of lemon rind
Mix all the herbs and vodka in an airtight jar and leave to infuse for two weeks in the dark.
Then strain out the herbs, and add a sugar syrup made by dissolving 1 kilo of caster sugar in one litre of water, and simmering for 10 mins, until it’s reduced to about 3/4 litre. Cool and then mix into the vodka.
If you like, you can add green food colouring, but it’s not essential.
Bottle, and store for at least two months before drinking, ideally in a frock coat, and sporting a handlebar moustache.