In the Sicilian city of Palermo, you’ll find pastry shops stocked with apples, tomatoes, peaches, and other produce. But aside from their fruit-like facade, there’s nothing healthy about them. These are frutta martorana, hyper-realistic, hand-crafted marzipan sweets transformed into fruits, vegetables, and even the occasional spleen sandwich. Though they appear sinfully sweet, frutta martorana have pious origins. Legend has it that the nuns of La Martorana, a convent in Palermo, were looking to impress a visiting archbishop in the 12th century. To liven up the church grounds, they carefully crafted various fruits out of marzipan and hung them from the bare branches. The archbishop was pleased, so the nuns continued making them, sometimes even selling them to parishioners. Eventually, local bakeries caught on and began crafting their own.
Making frutta martorana requires time, patience, and decent painting chops. Confectioners most first knead the marzipan until smooth, the place it in a wooden or plaster mold. The mold is typically one-sided, so makers must shape the other half on their own. They then carefully paint the fruit using a mix of powdered food colorings that can be blended together like watercolors and painted on in layers. Each layer must dry before it can be painted over, so each piece of “fruit” often takes at least an hour, and sometimes more than a day. If you look closely, you’ll likely find one apple is different from the next, with the painter taking great care to include blemishes or other small imperfections one might find on authentic produce.
Sculpting and painting frutta martorana, however, is a dying art. While you may have encountered fruit-shaped marzipan candy before, you’ve likely met only its smaller, mass-produced descendants. With a few exceptions, it’s difficult to track down these sweets outside of Sicily. But if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on true frutta martorana, know that you’re not only holding a piece of candy, but also a piece of art.
Need to Know
Like the fruits and vegetables they mimic, frutta martorana are best enjoyed fresh. (But, unlike true produce, they can keep for a very, very long time once they've been glazed.)