When I arrived in Sicily it was at Messina. Ulysses and his men rowed a boat through the Straits and Hercules swam across it, but I got there in a train. On the ferry.
The frecciarossa waited for 30 minutes in Messina Centrale and while passengers got on and off, carriages were coupled and uncoupled, I made a beeline to a stall at the end of the station selling unfamiliar hot stuff and pointed at what I thought were little doughnuts. I found out later these were pignolata.
I returned to Messina, some weeks later, looking for Crusaders. Nothing looked like the scenes from Kingdom of Heaven, but this was the major port of departure for European knights on their way to the Crusades. Richard Lionheart and Phillip II of France didn’t just rest and recuperate here, they sacked the place first to make sure the residents knew who was in charge. So where are the Crusaders?
I found some. At least, I found the church of S.Maria degli Alemanni, Holy Mary of the Germans, a resting place and hospital for the Teutonic Knights.
It’s not a church anymore. Deconsecrated, it stands in isolation a few blocks from the train station, but I could easily imagine the pretentious kings and arrogant knights who clattered past on this ancient street.
The Gothic splendour still shines in arches, pillars and pilasters.
But just a few streets away, down Via Garibaldi (yet another via Garibaldi) is the exquisite chiesa SS. Annunziata dei Catalani with much of the original 13th century building lovingly cared for. What a beauty!
The church, once spiritual home to a congregation of Catalan traders, was built on a much earlier temple to the Greek God of the Sea, the truly dysfunctional Poisedon. The places of worship don’t change, it’s just the the gods who change.
Poisedon hasn’t gone away, he’s called Neptune in Italian and there’s a lurid fountain nearby, guaranteed to frighten small children. He’s certainly frightened the two ladies who flank his statue and I didn’t find him a friendly chap at all.
There are more lovely places in Messina, saved for another day, right now it’s time for a snack.
These are sweets for festive occasions, little balls of fried dough drenched in honey. You serve them hot, dusted with icing sugar, decorated with any combination you like of sugared almonds, hundreds and thousands, tiny sprinkles, mixed peel, crushed nuts etc. I’ve seen them with chocolate icing in Palermo but that’s a little too much even for my sweet tooth.
They can be called pignoccatta too but my neighbour, Maria Assunta, is originally from Naples and she swears these little honey balls are struffoli. Whatever they’re called, I found them first in Messina.
After decorating, a platter of pignolata on the Christmas table