Arancina or arancino? Doesn’t matter, let’s make it for St. Lucia’s Day
The debate between the term arancino and arancina continues to this day, it is true, but everyone agrees that no matter what you want to call it, it is still the undisputed King or Queen of Sicilian street food!
And it is so important to Sicilians that on December 13, on the St. Lucy’s Day, arancine are prepared and enjoyed everywhere, at home and on the street. But why is this holiday so heartfelt in Sicily? And, most importantly, why does the gastronomic tradition for the Feast of Saint Lucy include the custom of eating arancine or cuccìa?
Well, let’s find out together!
Arancina or arancino: when is it born?
On Saint Lucia, no bread and pasta. On December 13, only arancine and cuccìa are eaten!
To understand when the arancina was born we have to go to Sicily in the 4th and 11th centuries, during Arab rule. Like all rice dishes in southern Italy, arancina can be traced to the time of the Arabs in Sicily. In fact, the Arabs had the habit of pelleting some rice with saffron in the palm of their hands and then seasoning it with the addition of lamb.
They also used to name their “rice balls” after a fruit that resembled in shape and size. And clearly, arancine were inspired by the very fruit the island was and still is rich in today. But let’s face it, that was not the arancina we know today.
The Sicilian arancina, as we know it, appeared much later in “official” cookbooks, around the 19th century. This is why some people doubt a real connection with Arab cuisine. But is this really the case?
The term “arancinu” first appears in Giuseppe Biundi’s 1857 Sicilian-Italian dictionary. The term “arancino” seems to have originated before “arancina.” Too bad, however, that the definition of arancino was: “sweet rice delicacy made in the shape of melarancia“. It was in fact a sweet not a savory dish, which instead first appears in Antonino Trina’s New Sicilian-Italian Vocabulary of 1868.
A gastronomic variant that is very reminiscent of rice croquettes, but despite this we are still far from the street food version. In fact, there was no provision for a meat or tomato-based condiment.
However, the Arab origin of the arancina would seem to be the most credited, as also claimed by Palermo historian Gaetano Basile, who in his book “Gioie e misteri dello street food palermitano” (Joys and mysteries of Palermo street food) tells of eating rice with meat and spices in a Bedouin tent in Tunisia. The Arabs used to bale the rice in the palm of their hands and then season it with lamb meat. The greatest discovery was that leftover rice was fried.
We are very close to the Sicilian arancina recipe, aren’t we?
A small orange (from Arabic nāranj). The feminine version, arancina, still has a prevalence in written usage, while a greater prevalence of the masculine is found in the spoken regional varieties. “Arancina has also been recorded by Italian lexicography: by ZINGARELLI in 1917, who glosses it as “pasticcio di riso e carne minata, in Sicilia,” and by Panzini in the 1927 edition; after that, however, there is no trace of it” (Accademia della Crusca).
Returning to the gastronomic recipe, we can say that only in the 18th century, in the former Dominican convent of Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, did the arancina become a real specialty. Then, with the arrival of tomato and meat sauce, the arancina turned into the symbol of Sicilian street food that we all know. The arancina ‘accarne‘ was finally born.”
The arancina for Saint Lucia
To find out why we eat cuccìa and arancine on Santa Lucia, we need to start from the beginning. There are two versions about the birth of the arancina, or rather two different narratives: one Greek and one Latin.
We know the aristocratic origins of the young Lucia precisely thanks to the Greeks and, more specifically, from the writings of Ampelius Crema, who states that: “The first and fundamental testimony to the existence of Lucy is given to us by a Greek inscription discovered in June 1894 by Professor Paolo Orsi in the Catacomb of St. John, the most important in Syracuse: it shows us that, as early as the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the fifth, a Syracusan – as can be deduced from the epigraph to his wife Euschia – nurtured a strong and tender devotion to “his” Saint Lucy, whose anniversary was already commemorated by a liturgical feast.”
This testimony is engraved on a square-shaped marble stone on an early tomb found in Syracuse, just near a church restored in the seventeenth century. The two sides of the stone had been covered with lime: this indicates that the tomb had been violated.
Here is what the inscription reads: “Euschia, blameless, lived good and pure for about 25 years, died on the feast of my Saint Lucy, for whom there is no praise as befits. Christian, faithful, perfect, grateful to her husband with lively gratitude.”
The story of Saint Lucy
Christian tradition describes Lucy as a fatherless woman from a wealthy family in Syracuse. Despite her aristocratic origins, the family’s fate in the 3rd century AD was marked by misfortune. His mother Eutychia, in fact, had been ill for years and had spent large sums of money on treatment, but without results.
Only a miracle could heal her. Young Lucia, together with her mother, went every day to the tomb of St. Agatha to pray. It was during prayer that, one day, Lucia fell asleep and had a dream in which the Saint asked her why she asked St. Agatha for something she could do.
In that dream, the Saint foretold Lucia’s patronage over the city of Syracuse. Once Lucia’s mother returned to the city, she was healed, and because of this, Lucia decided to consecrate herself exclusively to Christ.
At that time, Lucy was betrothed to a pagan man, who, suspicious of seeing her sell all her possessions to do works of charity, denounced her as a Christian. At that time, acts of persecution against Christians were in force, wanted by Emperor Diocletian. Lucy was tried before the Archon Pascasius.
Lucy did not deny her Christianity: “The body defiles only if the soul consents.” The story goes that at one point the proconsul ordered that the woman be forcibly forced to be exposed among prostitutes, but she became so heavy that dozens of men could not move her. The Archon also subjected Lucia to torments, but nothing could shake her faith. Until, one day, she was made to kneel and beheaded.
Before she died, Lucy announced the dismissal of Diocletian and peace for the Christian church. Also according to legend, before she was beheaded, Lucy was martyred and deprived of her eyes, which by a miracle immediately recurred. According to another legend, she died by a sword blow to the throat.
The cult and devotion to the saint spread quickly and December 13 was chosen because it was considered the shortest and darkest day of the year. The perfect day to celebrate her, since the name Lucia means “promise of light“.
Curiosities about the saint today
Is Lucia’s body still in Syracuse? No. In 1039 the Byzantine general George Maniace momentarily took eastern Sicily from the Arabs and transported Lucia’s body to Constantinople. Then, in 1204, during one of the many battles to recapture Jerusalem, the Crusaders managed to get their hands on the relics and Doge Enrico Dandolo ordered that the saint’s body be taken to Venice as spoils of war.
It is there that the saint’s body still lies today. However, these events did not diminish the Syracusan and Sicilian cult for Saint Lucy. To this day, in fact, we celebrate the saint both on December 13 and in May (an all-Sicilian holiday) to fulfill a vow made in 1646 during a severe famine, which had to hit Syracuse itself. Linked to this famine and the vow made to the saint is the tradition of consuming wheat without first making flour from it.
The cult of St. Lucy and the birth of the cuccìa
St. Lucy is believed to be the creator of numerous miracles, the patron saint of Syracuse and the patron saint of eyes and the blind, ophthalmologists and electricians.
The authorship of the cuccìa recipe is attributed to Syracuse.
Indeed, tradition has it that, during Spanish rule, the city of Syracuse was hit by a terrible famine. But in that very atmosphere of despair and resignation, a miracle occurred. A ship loaded with grain arrived at the city’s port. Thus it was that the wheat was consumed directly boiled and made into cuccìa.
In Palermo and Syracuse, the most common recipe is the sweet one. The wheat, first boiled, is then topped with ricotta or white milk cream, to which zuccata, cinnamon, orange peel or chocolate are added.
The arancina and arancino in Palermo and Catania
From rice and Sicilian culinary tradition came the “arancine“, “females” and spherical shaped in Palermo, and the “arancini,” “males” and conical shaped in Catania.
The traditional and best-known recipes for Palermo’s arancina are “accarne” (with meat sauce) and “abburro” (with butter, mozzarella and cooked ham). Needless to say, however, countless versions of the arancina have sprung up over the years, such as one with spinach, with porcini mushrooms, with squid ink. There are even arancine with sardine and fennel toppings and sweet ones, garnished with ricotta and chocolate!
The arancina, or arancino, is still the undisputed symbol of Sicilian street food, but it is also a source of inspiration for all those chefs who have transformed it over the years into a gourmet dish, ready to prepare delicious condiments to surprise every palate.
What about you, did you already know the story of Santa Lucia and the birth of arancine?