Updated: Nov 10, 2020
The granita that you often eat during summer has nothing to do with the real Sicilian granita.
The real granita is only one: the Sicilian one.
It is not clear if the granita was brought to Sicily by the Arabs or the opposite. Traditionally the first hypothesis is assumed to be correct, but two factors seem to disavow it. The Romans already knew the granita (or better, the grattachecca, still widespread throughout Italy and in Rome mainly) and it appears that Nero particularly appreciated the one obtained from the Apennine ice. Moreover, the Arabs knew the sorbet (really similar to the granita, and with it, the ancestor of the ice cream) after the conquest of the Byzantine and Sasanian territories. The term “sherbet” itself derives from the Indo-European languages, and the Latin sorbere (to sip in English) has a root similar to the Greek and Persian expression.
The fact is that the Arabs began to use the Etna snow for granitas and sorbet in Sicily, and the function of the ice houses was soon clear. The snow was kept after being collected in these special ice houses ( the whole Italian territory is full of these structures used until the ‘900 and cut into the terrain of mountain areas).
Until 1500 the granita was similar to the Roman grattachecca: from the ice block, a part of it was scratched and then flavored with fruit syrups or flowers. From the 16th century onwards, snow was added with salt, thus obtaining a mixture (called in physics eutectic) which has its melting point at -21.3 ° C, and therefore allowed to freeze the preparations that came into indirect contact.
In other words, the snow became a cooler and no longer an ingredient: that’s how the “cockpit” was born.
The cockpit was a wooden vat with inside a zinc bucket. Between the wood and the zinc, there was a cavity filled with salt and snow (the eutectic mixture), which froze the contents of the bucket by removing heat. A shovel, operated by hand with a crank, helped the granita not to freeze too much.
The cockpit was replaced only in the twentieth century by the ice cream maker, and the granita thus obtained has replaced, at least in Sicily, the “rattata”, that is the Sicilian grattachecca.
But how do you eat a real Sicilian granita nowadays?
If preparing a granita is an art form, eating it must respect the care with which it was created.
Let’s clarify something immediately: the granita is not supposed to be drunk; it should be eaten. Second point: the adjective “Sicilian” should not be used with the word “granita,” as the granita is Sicilian. Unfortunately, however, in Italy, there are thousands of ice-cream parlors serving granitas, but generally, they have nothing to do with the original one and are more similar to the Roman grattachecca.
The area of Messina is particularly renowned for its granitas, but in general, the whole Sicily with variations for each territory offers high-quality granitas. They are always accompanied by the “brioscia co ‘tuppu,” that is the brioche with a bun (it’s called like this because of its shape that reminds chignon hairstyle). In some areas of the region, it is still possible to eat the oldest “pesciolino,” a tender flour bread with an elongated shape and sesame, instead of brioche.
The consistency of Sicilian granita is similar to that of sorbet but compared to it is even more creamy. Therefore it must not have big ice crystals inside.
The classic flavors are chocolate, almond, lemon, black mulberry, coffee and – in eastern Sicily – jasmine and cinnamon.
Inevitable is the cream. Sicilians love to dip the bun, maybe still hot, in the cream, and continue to eat brioche and granita in parallel.
Even the glass, in fact, is thought to soak bread/brioche/butter biscuits and is similar to those once used for water.
Granita and brioche represent the breakfast par excellence of Sicilians, and a people that can afford to start the day like this is a chosen people.