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Review: Bitter Almonds: Recollections and recipes from a Sicilian girlhood, by Mary Taylor Simeti & Maria Grammatico

This book is the memoir of Maria Grammatico, owner of a famous pastry shop in Erice in Sicily where she uses recipes learned while living as an orphan in a convent in the town.

Simeti recorded her story, translated it and organised it for the book, which is the narrative of Grammatico's life, her 15 year stay with the nuns and a little of her impoverished childhood in the Sicilian countryside before that.The loss of her father threw the family into even deeper poverty, and her mother was forced to send her and one of her sisters to live with the nuns, who took in orphans, so she could could feed the rest of the family and ensure the two girls were well looked after.

What followed were years of hard work and deprivation, but also of opportunity. Grammatico learned to form and prepare the pastries the nuns sold to supplement the convent's income and, being a clever girl, she was able to learn the recipes - which the nuns guarded from the girls - by simply watching them being made. Her revenge for her ill-treatment by the nuns was to take the recipes and use them in her own pastry shop, which she opened after she left the convent (which incidentally closed soon after she left).

It's funny that I should have chosen this particular book as the follow-up to Daughters of the House, because the two contain a shared theme or thread, that of people's troubled relationships with the Catholic church. The title Bitter Almonds is apt. Not only can it be read as a reference to the bitterness Maria Grammatico harbours towards the church (but not to God: she seems to be deeply religious, but it's a private religion) after the indifference and casual cruelty she lived through in the convent, but also to the almonds that are used in so many of the pastry recipes she learned in the convent.

Her story, which Simeti says she has organised into a narrative but otherwise not embellished or added anything to, is simply told and gives one an impression of the life in the convent as she experienced it and compares it with the life she knew before. In-between Simeti tells the story of her acquaintance with Grammatico and how she came to write the book.

Last, but certainly not least, are the recipes, which take up a good half of the book. They are mostly ones Grammatico learned in the convent and uses in her pastry shop, and has generously shared with Simeti and the world. I have every intention of trying some of them, perhaps starting with one of the basic recipes that can be turned into more than one kind of pastry.

4 stars.

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