Sunday, January 13, 2013

Modica: a baroque masterpiece in the heart of Sicily

“The village was a theatre, a proscenium of pink stone, a feast of wonders. It is like the scent of jasmine at dusk. I can never cease to talk about it, to return to it to view myself in such a tender, distant mirage.."

Gesualdo Bufalino

Modica is located in deep canyons carved out of the rock by the rivers which traverse the valley. Until the early part of the 20th Century the "Modicano" river flowed through the valley and in the 18th and 19th Centuries the river powered 20 water mills in the area. During this period 17 bridges were constructed and for this reason the area is often referred to as the Venice of the South. Another typical feature of Modica is the position of many of the houses in the old part of the city, constructed one on top of the other. Many of these houses are extensions of ancient grottoes inhabited since pre-historic times. There are around 700 grottoes that have been used or lived in or used at some time or another. Some are still on open view and others have been incorporated into new buildings. Of significant historical importance is the Necropolis of Quartiriccio in the Vignazza district of the historic centre. The necropolis contains several dozen tombs carved out of the rocks dating back to 2200 B.C. and remains in excellent condition. The urban fabric which clings to the two sides of the valley and to the hillside of Pizzo is a mass of small houses, tiny streets and long stairways. Here churches are not usually located in squares but face onto imposing and magnificent flights of steps. The predominant style of the architecture of the monuments in the city is what is commonly referred to as late Baroque. The presence of numerous churches, aristocratic residences and monuments of historic importance led to the classification of the city as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Of particular significance are the Duomo di San Giorgio, the undisputed symbol of Sicilian Baroque, the Duomo di San Pietro, the Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista, the Castello dei Conti di Modica, a fortified garrison, military base and prison which for centuries represented the seat of political and administrative power for the Counts of Modica and subsqeuently for the Governor of the city, the Palazzo della cultura, a former Benedictine monastery, the Palazzo degli Studi and the Teatro Garibaldi. Today Modica has become an elite tourist destination and many artists and architects, both Italian and foreign, have decided to move their base to the city attracted by its charm and by its hidden caverns. Modica has numerous top class hotels and restaurants which feature in some of the best guide books. The city is also famous for its chocolate which has been produced here since the Arab occupation and whose recipe remains, in part, a secret. Every year for the past few years a festival dedicated to this precious commodity, Eurochocolate, takes place between April and May.

Modican chocolate. Delicacy from another time!

"Remaining on the topic of delicacies, the flavor of Modica's chocolate is reminiscent of that of Alicante (and I don't know of whitch other Spanish towns): tow types of dark chocolate  - with vanilla or with cinnamon - to be eaten by the square or to melt into a beverage: unparalleled flavor such that be' who tasted it feels that he has discovered the archetype, the absolute". With these words the author Leonardo Sciascia (the Count of Modica, 1983) pays homage to one of the signature delicacies of his Sicily: Modican Chocolate. Modican chocolate's origins reach far back in history. In fact it is still made according to the same methods used by the Aztecs during the time of the Spanish conquistadors. It was the Spaniards themselves who brought the 'xocoàtl' to Modica, a product which the inhabitants of Mexico extracted from cocoa beans by grinding it on a stone called metate, so as to release the cocoa butter and obtain a granular paste.

What differentiates Modican chocolate is the fact that it is made from a unique 'cold' process: the cocoa is processed at 40° C with the addition of caster sugar. Unable to melt or blend, the sugar gives Modican chocolate its characteristic 'rough' appearance and its granular consistency. Modican chocolate is sold in a unique bar form, rectangular with beveled edges and three grooves on the surface. It is a nonuniform brown color and has the aroma of toasted cocoa with slightly sour undertones. It is traditionally flavored with either vanilla or cinnamon, but is also commonly found with chili pepper carob, coffee, or citrus.

The Consortium for the Safeguard of Modican Chocolate was born in 2003 for the purpose of protecting the history, the memory, and the recipe of Modica's chocolate. It is a collective of twenty of the city's producers working along side the Ragusa Chamber of Commerce in order to establish production regulations, obtain PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) acknowledgment, and preserve, evaluate, and promote this prestigious and 'antique' product.

Ingredients: 250 g of orange Modican chocolate (or other flavor of choice) 210 g of 00 flour 110 g of sugar, 55 g of butter, 2 eggs, 1/2 tsp of baking powder, pinch of salt, confectioners sugar. Melt chocolate in a double boiler then add butter. Sift flour, add a pinch of saltnand baking powder and mix together. In the bowl of an electric mixer beat eggs and sugar for at least fifteen minutes. Very delicately combine the chocolate and egg mixtures, stirring from the bottom up. Slowly add the flour mixture. Put the batter in the refrigerator and let sit for an hour.

When the time is up separate the batter into balls the size of walnuts and roll in confectioners sugar. Lay the sugared balls on a cookie sheet with ample distance between each and bake at 170° C for 10 minutes, making sure they do not dry out. When finished baking, allow the cookies to cool on a wire rack and dust with confectioners sugar.