A history of almonds, sugar and prayers

Do you know the origins of the Sicilian confectionary tradition? It was born in the kitchens of monasteries by the skilful hands of the nuns, jealous guardians of the most ancient recipes. One of these places is the Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1299 in Agrigento by the Chiaramonte family.

You can get here after a pleasant walk through the steep alleys and the staircases of the historical centre. The sweet you want to buy are put on a wheel placed under a window grates at the entrance of the monastery. Amongst the nuns’ specialties, visitors can choose the sweet couscous, whose recipe dates back to 1300: it looks like the classic semolina couscous, but instead it is made of local pistachios, almonds and chocolate drops.

This particular dish is the result of the merger between the Tunisian and the Sicilian cultures. Sister Maria Gabriella, the youngest amongst the nuns, tells that in the past some Tunisian women worked in the monastery.

They helped the nuns in the hardest works. Those were other times: many nuns lived in the monastery (today they are just six) growing vineyards and olive groves. These women used to prepare couscous, the typical Tunisian dish. Thus this revised sweet version of  the dish was born and it is still served in Tunisia at weddings.

Another typical dessert is a shell-shaped marzipan sweet (called conchiglia) stuffed with candied pumpkin, almonds and pistachio and decorated with a pink and green coloured glaze symbolizing fertility and life. Other typical Convent cookies include amaretti (bitter almond-flavoured macaroons), biscotti ricci (curly biscuits) made with almonds or pistachios, and the paste nuove (pastries) with candied pumpkin and pistachio.

Enjoying these delicacies is a heavenly experience for those who love sweet and intense tastes. Natural ingredients, secret recipes jealously guarded by the nuns: every day, in silence, after praying, meditating or singing Gregorian chants, they dedicate their time to knead, shape, and create sweet delicacies: real masterpieces of authenticity.

The profits on cookies and sweets  sales are then used for the nuns’ livelihood. Before leaving, you cannot miss a visit to the wonderful Church annexed to the monastery which houses the famous stuccos of Giacomo Serpotta. If you are planning to stay here a few days, you can choose the B&B placed next to the magnificent gothic portal of the Church and that is run by the same nuns.

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