You have to admit that the above look like breasts on a plate! No, its not me having vulgar thoughts, they are actually called Le Minne di Vergini (virgins breasts). A tray of these is always on the counter of the Sicilian Pasticceria which I pass by, on my way to Italian class in the morning. They are quite delicious for breakfast, a soft slightly sweet bun with a filling of ricotta mixed with tiny chocolate chips. So why virgins breasts? The convents in Sicily have a long history of making sweets and the Convent of Virgins in Palermo created these buns which became known as Le Minne di Virgini. Fidz tells me that the word ‘minne’ is slang for I guess, what we in English would call ‘tits’. No wonder, I couldn’t find the word in the dictionary!
Last Tuesday Feb 5th, was the feast of Sant’Agata and what did I find but there are also Le Minne di Sant’Agata. Catania, which reveres Sant’Agata as its patron saint, took Le Minne di Vergini, created a more festive version, and called them Le Minne di Sant’Agata. These are small cakes sometimes soaked in liquor, filled with a layer of ricotta and covered with white icing topped with a red cherry. I didn’t have my camera with me on the day of the feast and they weren’t in the Pasticceria the next day so I didn’t get a photo, but here’s a fine one taken by Teresa De Masi who has great photos of food on her site.
So what’s with St Agata and these cakes? Well in a nutshell, St. Agata was an early Christian martyr who came from a rich family in Catania when it was under Roman rule. Having embraced Christianity and protective of her virginity as a mark of her faith, she supposedly rejected the advances of the Roman proconsul Quintiano. Outraged by her rejection, he had her tortured in various ways, first by sending her to a brothel and then by having her breasts cut off. She was put to death on Feb 5th, 3rd cent. AD by being rolled on hot coals.
I’m sure the story is apocryphal but there is no lack of images in various churches depicting Sant’Agata carrying her breasts on a plate or even worse, actually having her breasts pulled off by a giant pair of tongs. Now how’s that for sexual sadomasochistic imagery actually displayed in a church! This painting by Sebastiano del Piombo is in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. You can’t deny that those tongs look vicious and take a look at that knife. Yet she looks almost estatic. And as for the cakes: in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa novel ‘The Leopard’, the protagonist Don Fabrizzio says of the Minne di Sant’Agata “Why ever didn’t the Holy Office forbid these cakes when it had the chance? Sant’Agata’s sliced off breasts, sold by convents, devoured at dances”. Indeed!