Granita drink is a typical cold dessert of Sicilian cuisine; a semi-frozen liquid compound prepared with water, sugar and fruit juice or other ingredients such as almond, pistachio, coffee… In fact, people consider the most refreshing flavours are lemon granita, strawberry granita, almond granita and coffee granita.
Granita drink differs from the sorbet for his consistency that varies from area to area in Sicily.
Traditionally it was accompanied by fresh and crunchy bread, which has been replaced over time by the typical Sicilian brioscia, a soft and sweet bread prepared with egg yeast dough and with a hemispherical shape topped by a ball (called tuppu or coppola or even nose).
The Sicilian brioche has been around for less time compared to the granita drink, in fact, our grandparents used to soak the zuccarata in lemon granita, that’s a biscuit (usually in the shape of a donut) that has no sugar, but it’s covered with sesame seeds. Brioscia has a particular requirement: it must have the tuppo. In Sicily, this term is used to describe the typical hairstyle of Sicilian women, corresponding to the chignon. In fact, the shape of Sicilian brioches derives from it.
Sicilians use to have “granita câ brioscia” as a typical breakfast of the summer season.
Granita drink: evolution from “sherbet” until now
The granita drink dates back to the Arab domination in Sicily (827-1091). Arabs brought the “sherbet”, an iced drink flavored with fruit or rose water, which appears to be the ancestor of the granita drink.
The granita drink was initially known as “grattata” (in Sicilian rattata), due to the process with which it was prepared. The main ingredient was the snow, which was collected by nivaroli in mountains and then stored in snow houses for when summer would come.
In Catania and in the rest of Sicily, people used the snow that in winter was collected on Mt. Etna, on the Peloritani, Iblei or Nebrodi mountains and stored during the year in the nivieri, special stone buildings erected above natural or artificial caves.
In summer the formed ice was taken to be scratched and covered with fruit or flower syrups. The wealthiest families bought ice from the nivaroli and kept them in private nivieri. The ice was scratched (hence the name rattata) and then used to prepare ice creams and sorbets; lemon and honey were added to give them taste.
Later new flavors were created such as strawberry, coffee, almond, mulberry…
In the 16th century, a notable improvement was made to the sherbet recipe: people combined snow with sea salt, used as an expedient to refrigerate. The snow became a coolant and no longer an ingredient.
The first well was born, that is a wooden vat with a zinc bucket inside, which could be turned with a crank. The space between the wood and the well was filled with the mixture of salt and snow, which froze the contents inside. The rotating movement of some paddles inside the well guaranteed a unique consistency.
The granita drink thus prepared has supplanted the rattata over the centuries.
In the 20th century, snow was replaced by water, honey was replaced by sugar and the manual well was replaced by the ice cream maker. The most traditional flavors of granita drink were those with lemon, almond, chocolate and coffee, and in eastern Sicily cinnamon and jasmine.
Typical flavors of Sicilian cities
The city of granita coffee (with or without cream) is considered Catania, rich in artisanal granita drink producers.
The term “half with cream” (mezza con panna) is known and used to refer exclusively to granita coffee, because until the 1950s – 60s, when the granita drink was accompanied with long and thin crispy bread, the glass of granita was of greater capacity, then, people who preferred a smaller quantity of it, just asked for “half”. Thus the granita drink began to be served in the common glass of water.
Today asking for “a granita coffee with cream” or “a half with cream” is the same thing.
In Catania there are also pistachio granita (originally from Bronte), almond granita and other fruit flavors, such as peach, black mulberry, mandarin, pineapple or strawberry. A peculiarity of Catania is the so-called “chocolate granita”, which is actually prepared with low-fat cocoa.
In Messina and in Aeolian Islands there are the same flavors of Catania (mainly lemon, strawberry, coffee and peach), but the composition is different: the granita drink produced in Messina is slightly sweeter, instead of the Catania-Syracusan one that tends to be harsh.
In Messina it’s customary to add cream, especially in granita coffee and strawberry granita.
In Syracuse granita drinks have traditionally been with the flavour of lemon, coffee and almond. Today it’s common to find countless flavors. In the province of Ragusa, in particular in Modica, the toasted almond granita is particular. Jasmine and black mulberry granitas are typical of Trapani cuisine. In Trapani and in San Vito area jasmine granita, obtained from the extraction of the essence of the flower, black mulberry granita and lemon granita are traditional flavors.
In Acireale, since 2012, the Nivarata festival has been held, dedicated to “the rite of Sicilian granita drink“. The festival takes its name from the Nivaroli, who made this typical Sicilian dessert possible.
It would be a nice experience to visit the nivieri still present in Sicily (for example the Etna caves) or come and taste the delicious granita drink during a walking tour in Messina and especially trying one of the various exquisite flavors of granita drinks, accompanied by a brioscia, that represent the perfect combo!