I have been very negligent of the blog as of late, but as work has been crazy and it’s been the holidays, those are my excuses. Plus, I was involved in an Andalusian dance and music project that was performed at a local barony’s Yule celebration. Al-Andalus and Muslim Sicily had many ties, so doing research for the project was very worthwhile.
Anyway, Christmastime means on Christmas Eve, I will be stuffing myself silly on the fish feast at my aunt’s house. In the true Sicilian/Italian way, she strives to have 12 fishes on the table. Even a little dish of anchovies counts.
My non-Italian mom, however, provides the desserts. This is due to the shocking fact that my Sicilian/Calabrian aunts, while amazing cooks, cannot bake worth a damn. And considering that Sicily is known for its pastries, gelati, and sweets, this is quite sad. My Sicilian grandmother would make what she called “sfinj,” little fried balls of dough that she would pile into pyramids on paper plates, pour honey syrup over, and dust with red and green sprinkles. My cousins reported that when hot and fresh, they were actually quite good, but by the time my sister and I saw them a week later, at family dinner, they were stale and totally stuck to each other and the plate. Yecchh.
Sicily’s sweet tooth was cultivated by the Arabs, who started the island’s sugar plantations. But before there was sugar, there was honey – gathered from the bees who swarmed the heathered plains around Mount Etna. Honey production in Sicily is very associated with the Hyblaean Mountains in southeastern Sicily. Here is the page of a honey producer in Sicily today, Apicoltura Iblea.
Here’s an interesting little article about the use of, and types of honey, in Sicily. Although Roberta Gangi is quite correct about the low use of honey in Sicilian desserts, there is a more concerted use of it on the “Greek” eastern half of the island, particularly the towns clustered on the slopes of Mount Etna. And there is one Sicilian sweet with an Arab name – cubbaita, or qubbayta, derived from the word qubbayt – that uses honey. Traditionally, it’s honey and sesame seeds and toasted almonds, a sort of nutty brittle. There are no egg whites in it, and traditionally no sugar, as in torrone.
In my paper on Sicilian food, I erroneously cite al Idrisi as mentioning the existence of qubbayta (he did mention the manufacture of pasta). I will be correcting this paper with new information and reloading it to the blog.
So, as to the origin of cubbaita/qubbayta on the island – there is a Greek honey and sesame seed candy called “pasteli,” which is for all intents and purposes the Sicilian cubbaita. This blogger attributes the introduction of what became to be called cubbaita to the Byzantines who held the island before the Arabs invaded. I think the blogger is a little off when he/she says the food contributions of the Byzantines/Greeks were minimal; I think they were just absorbed into the Arab cooking traditions, as the Arabs absorbed Persian food traditions.
After the Arabs invaded, there were a lot of half-hearted conversions by islanders; ibn Hawqal disparaged the rural populations for their base, mumbled Arabic, and intimated that Christian women who married Muslims were allowed to raise daughters as Christians. Before the Normans invaded, Christian=Byzantine Greek. And I think this is how a Greek candy came to be called “qubbayt” – as the Christian women of these “half-Muslims” continued to make this sweet as they always did, and passed the tradition on, in an area where honey was more available than sugar. As the area was also full of almond and pistachio trees, these things also went to cubbaita, though the most common is the sesame seed version.
I wanted to look up more Arab and medieval candy recipes, and some half-remembered thought caused me to go to Duke Cariadoc’s “Miscellany,” where he has a translated recipe from the “Mappae Clavicula.” The recipe is titled, “The recipe for sesame candy.” It’s made from honey and sesame seeds, but is pulled like a taffy.
Not familiar with the “Mappae Clavicula,” I went looking for some information about it and about this recipe. Fortunately, there was a discussion about sesame candy from the Known World Cook’s list that was captured in Stefan’s Florilegium, in which Cariadoc (David Friedman) explains that this recipe comes from is the 12th century edition of the “Mappae Clavicula.” I am curious if the origin of this particular recipe was Italian, but will have to find out more about the manuscript
As for the original, Arab qubbayt? I found a few citations in “The best divisions for the knowledge of the regions,” a 10th century geography book by Muhammad ibn Ahmad Muqqaddasi (translated by Basil Anthony Collins) that the city of Harran, now in modern-day Turkey, exported qubbayt, “preserves of locust-fruit and nuts.” We’re talking carob here, not bug parts. The author also cites qubbayt made in Palestine, and on page 184, says in al-Ramla, “They make from the locust tree a sweetmeat from the locust tree called qubbayt; that which they make from sugar they call natif.” Cariadoc has a translated recipe for natif, or what is known today as hulwa or halva, a nougat confection.
So, in Sicily, the name became applied to a previous Greek sweet. But carob is grown in Sicily, and has been for centuries. Here is a great blog post about the Sicilian carob harvest in eastern Sicily. I can find no signs of carob actually used in the ancient Harran, qubbayt way – though carob flour from the seeds is used today in certain cookies or cakes, and there is a modern-day carob candy.
I also found cubbaita is sometimes called giugiulena – which actually is Sicilian for sesame seeds, and derives from the Arabic word for sesame, juljulan. Giugiulena can also be sesame seed cookies, so I prefer to use “cubbaita” to describe the candy.