The Feast Day of Santa Rosalia
Santa Rosalia is the patron Saint of Palermo, Sicily and her feast day on July 15th, known for centuries as Il Festino, was once on of the most elaborate events in all of Europe, stretching out sometimes to eight days of grand Baroque celebration with gloriously decorated guilt chariots, fireworks, and a passeggiata of nobility that made the throngs of spectators crazy with excitement. There was no better place to witness this extravaganza than in Palermo itself.
Il Festino, although not as lavish as it once was, is still quite the occasion, lasting two full days, beginning on July13th. The centerpiece of the feast of Santa Rosalia has always been a huge, ornate chariot shaped like a ship and decorated with golden seashells. A modern and scaled down model of the original chariot, first unveiled in 1701, is still pulled down Palermo’s main streets by six horses and filled with a forty piece orchestra dressed in pink and purple velvet, all in honor of the Saint the Sicilians have nicknamed La Santuzza, the little saint, the women who in 1624 appeared to a hunter in a vision, after not being seen since 1159, to save Palermo from a devastating plague.
Sicily’s unusual assortment of street food is what occupies the spectators while they wait for the golden chariot of Santa Rosalia to pass by and then the grand finale fireworks show. Small painted carts, some drawn by donkeys, are loaded with roasted fava beans and chick peas, carob pods, salty lupini beans, roasted hazelnuts, fried rice balls known as arancine, anchovies, octopus, and babbaluci, tiny garlic and parsley flavored snails that everyone digs out of their shells with toothpicks.
Sicily’s famous ice cream and sorbetti is also very much a presence at this feast, offered in traditional flavors such as lemon, jasmine, cinnamon, mandarin, orange flower water, watermelon and cantaloupe. You can also sample Palermo’s famous gelo di melone, a classic cold watermelon gelatin decorated with chocolate, pistachios, almond paste, and candied fruits, a perfect example of the Sicilian’s love of elaborate sweets. I was once served this in a restaurant and it came presented in a pastry shell and decorated with fresh jasmine flowers. Watermelon sorbetto, also flavored with cinnamon, chocolate, and pistachios, and sometimes jasmine water, is a lot easier to make than the gelatin version. Here’s my version. It’s exotic and amazingly refreshing, the perfect way to celebrate the feast of Santa Rosalia, and to help you get through a hot July day. Choose a dark pink, locally grown watermelon for best flavor and color.
Watermelon Sorbetto with Bittersweet Chocolate
(This recipe is from my book The Flavors of Southern Italy, published by John Wiley & Sons)
2/3 cup sugar
½ cup water
1 5 pound piece of ripe watermelon, peeled and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
1 egg white, whisked until foamy
A handful of unsalted, shelled pistachios
½ cup bittersweet chocolate chips
Fresh mint sprigs for garnish
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and the water. Bring it to a boil and let it bubble for about 2 minutes, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let this cool completely.
Add the watermelon chunks to a food processor a handful at a time, pulsing them to a fairly smooth puree (don’t worry about the seeds). Strain the juice through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl (help it along by whisking it). Continue until you’ve used up all the watermelon. You should have about 4 ½ cups of juice. Add the sugar syrup, vanilla, cinnamon, lemon zest, and egg white, mixing everything well. Chill the watermelon mixture for several hours, or until very cold.
Now pour it into an ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions until halfway frozen. Add the pistachios and the chocolate and continue freezing until firm. Garnish each serving with a few mint sprigs (or fresh jasmine flowers if you happen to have any).
Dining with the Saints is a monthly feature written by the chef and food writer Erica De Mane. Check out her blog at http://www.ericademane.com