After my parents divorced, my sister and I would meet my dad for dinner a few times a week. My dad does not/will not/cannot cook and so eating out was our best (and favourite) option. Eating out had always been a massive treat in our family. Before the divorce we always had family meals at home in the evening. Dinner was cooked by our nanny usually, and was standard 1980s/1990s South African cooking: meat of some kind, rice or potatoes, veggies. On Friday evenings we were usually allowed take-aways and to choose a video. (Who remembers choosing videos?!) As we grew up, restaurant visits on the weekend became more commonplace but these were still rare when my parents split up. Being invited to meet my father in restaurants was a small joy in an otherwise challenging time.
We had a few select places we would go and, after it opened in the Hyde Park shopping centre, we often used to meet at Fratelli. Fratelli is an Italian pizza/pasta chain that my family has been going to for years. We started frequenting the Blairgowrie Fratelli when I was still in primary school – a family friendly place where we had dinner with family friends. Sometimes we were allowed to sit at a different table to the adults. There was a deck at the front, or you could sit inside near the brick pizza oven. I remember going there to celebrate finishing primary school. Italian kisses for dessert were the best thing. The decor of Fratelli was green and white check tablecloths, wine bottles as vases, and photographs in black and white on the walls. The pizza was good, and the baked pastas even better, and so we kept going back. My father loved to order their baked lasagne, which would arrive piping hot from the oven, too hot to touch or even think about eating. A lot of blowing was needed before taking the first spoonful, and at all times you risked burning the roof of your mouth on hot cheese.
I don’t really remember much about the detail of those dinners, what types of pizza or pasta we ate, what we talked about, or how we felt. I do remember that my father often ordered something called ‘cassata’ for dessert. This came as a frozen ice cream dessert. It was bombe shaped (although friends I checked with swear it was a loaf-type slice), layers of different flavoured ice cream, and filled with dried fruit pieces (glacé cherries, candied peel, maybe boozy raisins) and nuts. My father ordered it regularly, despite his intense dislike of dried fruit, and he would carefully extract the offensive fruit and place it on the side of his plate with a spoon. I can still remember watching him move the raisin around in his mouth, sucking away all the delicious ice cream, before carefully spitting it out onto his spoon and placing it to the side. My father now claims amnesia of this act and the dessert but I remember it vividly. [In researching this blog, I read the Fratelli menu again and it was like a welcome hug, a wave from my childhood. But the cassata was absent and trawling the internet did not provide any concrete answers.]
In Sicily in July, in my first Italian cooking lesson, chef Michael explained that we were going to make ‘cassata’. ‘Oh yum,’ I thought, picturing the ice cream bombe in my head almost immediately upon hearing the word ‘cassata’. I wondered how we were going to get a multi-layered ice cream dessert set before lunch.
It turns out that Sicilian cassata is not in any way related to the cassata of my South African youth. Sicilian cassata is a dessert whose origins may lie with the Romans (from ‘caseata’, a Roman pie made with ricotta, flour, and honey), and which despite being made with sugar nowadays (brought to Sicily by the Arabs), retains it’s rural and thus ancient ricotta centre.
I watched as the chef created a green marzipan collar and lined the based of the cassata tin with strips of Genoese sponge. This was sprinkled with a little limoncello (or you could use a lemon syrup if the alcohol is a problem). Then a large amount of ricotta (whisked smooth with sugar) was spooned into the shell. Then more sponge and limoncello. Finally a lemon icing was poured over the top. Before the icing set the chef decorated the cassata with glacé fruit. The whole dessert was placed in the fridge to set and cool. The result is a glamorous, pretty, colourful dessert that glistens with sugar. We ate it in slices, cold, after dinner. My mouth embraced the tart lemon, rich, smooth ricotta sandwiched between cake slices, sophisticated in subtle flavours.
Cassata is a feast-day dish, a dessert of wealth. While ricotta has been available cheaply in Sicily for a long time, candied fruit and sugar remained high in price, and so it was only eaten by certain people in the past. Nowadays, it can be brought from any decent pastry shop, although the decoration will vary depending on preferences.
For me, the dish was new, rich and decadent. A welcome to a place I already knew I loved. The delight at discovering that cassata in Sicily was entirely different to the one I knew was wonderful, if disconcerting. It made me wonder about the way words are transferred, how people bring foods with them but then those foods and dishes are adapted, formed by local availability and ingredients. Did that happen to the cassata that was brought with Sicilians to South Africa? Or is there another story entirely?
Tarantino, M., and Terziani, S. (2010). A Journey into the Imaginary of Sicilian Pastry. Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 10 (30, pp. 45-51).