Afternoons filled with the chirping of cicadas, drawn blinders, and a room in half-light. Jasmine flowers are getting ready to explode and fill the night with their fragrance, as it has always happened since the Arabs introduced the fragrant Jasmin Grandflorum, or Arabian Jasmin, to Sicily.
Like Proust’ madeleine, the memory of blancmange makes its space in my mind. White pudding, set in terracotta molds when it is still hot, unmolded when cooled, laid on a lemon leaf and decorated with a jasmine flower to give an extra touch of exotic fragrance, sometimes sprinkled with minced almonds or pistachios. Flowers, eagles, hearts, little lambs, acanthus leaves tell stories on the surface of blancmange, a dessert which is part of our history since the Middle Ages and that the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forest Policies has added to the list of Traditional Italian Agrifood Products (P.A.T.).
Oddly, unlike other dishes which are tied to regional traditions, blancmange is typical of three regions far from one another: Aosta Valley, Sardinia, and Sicily. In the first, known with the French term blanc manger, is prepared with almond milk or cow milk; in the second, with the originally Catalan name menjar blanc, becomes a filled pie; in the third, like in the first, it is found in the two versions with almond milk or cow milk flavored with cinnamon and lemon and set in terracotta molds.
Originally, blancmange was a preparation born out of the assumed properties of the color white, symbol of purity and asceticism. Intended for the higher classes, it got its name from the color of its ingredients: chicken, milk, almonds, rice, sugar, lard, white ginger, and it could be a savory or sweet recipe depending on who prepared it.
Its true origin is unknown but it is thought it resulted from the introduction in Europe of rice and almonds by the Arabs at the beginning of the Middle Ages and it spread in Italy around the 11th century so much so that it was served at the banquet organized by Matilda of Canossa to pacify Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV , and at the banquet for the wedding of Henry IV of France with Mary de Medici.
It is told that a Persian cook presented himself to Muhalla b. Abi Safra, a VII century Arabian general, to be put to the test and prepared a dish called Muhallabiyya with chicken, rice, milk, and sugar of which we find the earliest recipe in the X century in Baghdad by Sayyar al-Warraq.
The original recipe had milk or almond milk, sugar, chicken or fish, rose water, rice flour, and sometimes it was flavored with saffron or cinnamon while chicken could be substituted with quails or partridges.
Blancmange spread to Europe and it is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and in various cookbooks since the XIV century onward: Richard III’s cooks recipes book, the XIV century Liber de Coquina, an anonymous treaty written in Naples between 1285 and 1309 at Charles of Anjou’s court, the end of XIII century French Enseignements, later re-written and known as Le Viandier de Guillaume Tirel de Taillevent which inspired the later 1393 Menagier de Paris ( both speak of blancmange as a recipe for the sick), 1400 Mastro Martino’s recipe book and then in the recipe books Cristoforo Messisbugo, Scappi and, in the XVII century, Stefani, when this preparation is transformed in a meatless dessert with creams, eggs, and later gelatine.
In 1691, Francois Massialot publishes Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois with two blanc manger recipes: both made with almond milk: one, to be served between courses, as hors d’oeuvre, or as entrée, has a calf foot as an ingredient to ensure sufficient gelatine and is flavored with lemon rind, orange blossoms water, and cinnamon; the other is made with the addition of a deer horn to ensure the right amount of gelatine and it is flavored with orange water or lemon juice depending on the occasion and it is served cold.
In the first half of the XIX century, when Antonin Carême talks about blancmange, the dish is only a dessert and the broth has disappeared, the almond milk is prepared with filtered water sweetened with granulated sugar, thickened with isinglass and served cold. He suggests flavoring with rum, maraschino cherry liqueur, lemon, vanilla, coffee, chocolate, pistachios, hazelnuts, strawberries, or cream. The Larousse Gastronomique quotes Carême about blancmange: “These delicious desserts are highly appreciated by gastronomes but to be best enjoyed they must be white and smooth. Thanks to these two characteristics, seldom found together, blancmange will always be favored to creams and jellos because almond milk is very nourishing and has balsamic properties which are just so sweet as to decrease the bitterness of humours”.
A century after Carême, Auguste Escoffier, distinguishing a French and an English version of blancmange, adds various fruit coulis, and in Italy Pellegrino Artusi adds this dish to his book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. In his recipe, Artusi prepares blancmange with heavy cream or milk cream, isinglass, sugar, almonds, and orange blossoms water. A recipe which we find in the Aosta Valley tradition, very similar to panna cotta.
The Sardinian version, instead, as a thickener uses wheat or rice starch dissolved in goat or sheep milk with sugar and lemon rind. This preparation however differs from the Sicilian and the Aosta Valley preparations because this cream is enclosed in a dough made with flour and lard – pasta violada – which is then baked like the medieval pie.
Writer Giuseppe Pitrè writes of this ancient dessert of Persian origin in his book La vita in Palermo cento e più anni fa (Life in Palermo a hundred and more years ago) and tells this was one of the almond-based desserts that were prepared by the cloistered nuns of the Saint Catherine convent. Tomasi di Lampedusa mentions blancmange in The Leopard when don Fabrizio sits at the table to chat and enjoy a dessert: “While he enjoyed the refined mix of blancmange, pistachio and cinnamon enclosed in the desserts he had chosen, don Fabrizio chatted with Pallavicino”.
An element which distinguishes Sicilian blancmange from the others is the use of enameled terracotta molds, also used for cotognata, quince jelly. Actually, jelly is the official translation but it is not correct because cotognata is actually hardened jam that can be cut with a knife and is served at the end of the meal. We have the first mention of these terracotta molds in 1779, a time in which they were part of each family kitchen equipment and are still produced today. To make a mold, a plaster cast is made and once the mould is ready it is enameled. The designs are various and, apart the large molds with the Easter lamb or Saints, the molds are usually small with subtle reliefs: the hunter, the spinner, flowers, fruits, coats of arms, city emblems, religious orders crests, first names or well wishing words like: Health, I love you, and Love.