Sicily and the sanctity of the breakfast ice cream

Food & drink

Sicily and the sanctity of the breakfast ice cream

What’s the making of a good holiday? Fresh from a near-religious awakening Madévi Dailly thinks she’s found the answer

Madevi Dailly

BY Madevi Dailly31 August 2022

I once caught a glimpse of the perfect travelling companion. It was 10am and she stood on the platform at Whitechapel station, eating an ice cream in minus three of your finest Celsius degrees. Her head was tilted just so, to stop her freshly shucked Magnum from dripping onto her thick woollen gloves.

You would never have a holiday fight with this person. She would never say irrational things like ‘I don’t really feel like an ice cream right now’ or ‘How about a nice granola bowl’. Never would she ask, with a barely concealed rictus of judgement, ‘Ice cream? At this time?’

Had the Greeks worshipped a Goddess of Holidays they would have made frescos in her image, her noble profile silhouetted against the stark lights of the Overground, iced treat held aloft like a beacon for all that is true and right in the world. Because if you’re not having ice cream for breakfast, you’re doing holidays wrong. I’m sorry, I don’t make the holiday rules.

But the Greeks also do holidays wrong. Stay on any paradisiacal Greek island and you’ll wake up to a rustic wooden table laden with flaky pastries, thick yogurt, and little pots of local thyme-scented honey – all very well, but unfortunately unacceptable. Again, I don’t make the rules.

Gelato in Sicily | Mr & Mrs Smith

As I write this I am on a train hurtling towards Edinburgh, and doing holidays wrong like the croissant-crumbed coward I am. Edinburgh does not do holidays wrong. Edinburgh knows that even the dreichest of days deserves a breakfast ice cream, even those days when the rain is horizontal, even those days when the snow seeps under your waxed jacket’s upturned collar to create a moist, ice-cold layer between your skin and cashmere like a wetsuit gone feral.

Edinburgh does not do holidays wrong. And that is why people queue – seal-like and rapturous – at Mary’s Milk Bar from 11am, a perfectly respectable time for a Scottish breakfast. I don’t make the rules.

No, to find the holiday rules we must travel west to Sicily. A land so baked with sun, so scorched, that you might feel moved to carry snow down from Mount Etna, flavour it with lemon and sugar, and accidentally invent granita.

But we are not here for thirst-quenching ices, though the granita has undoubtedly earned its place in the pantheon of human refreshments. We are here for breakfast. And breakfast in Sicily is gelato.

Gelato. See how the word rolls off the tongue. In Sicily gelato is a vocation, a way of life, a commitment, a ceremony. In gelaterie, Sicilians will lasciviously ask you if you want to taste their pistachio, which is as filthy as questions come if you get the tone right.

‘I have the best pistachio in Sicily,’ they will say. They will almost certainly be lying. But they will hand you a little tasting spoon that you will find hard to resist. You might as well be licking it off their finger, so charged is the moment with anticipation and pleasure.

In Sicily, the classic breakfast is a generous scoop or three of home-churned gelato stuffed in a brioche. The brioche is round and sturdy, like a Sicilian nonna, sweet and ever so salty – like a Sicilian nonna – and designed to embrace the gelato in its doughy bosom.

This brioche will not fail you. It will not disintegrate before you have finished eating it. It will not go soggy, or weaken at the seams. It will wait for you to fully open your eyes to the Baroque palaces casting their blissful shadows on your breakfast spot, to slowly wipe the first bead of sweat on your already too-hot forehead. It will prepare you physically, mentally, and spiritually for the long day ahead: a day of gawping at Rococo churches, or hunting down the best arancine, or dipping in and out of aquamarine waters, as the spirit moves you.

Gelato in Sicily | Mr & Mrs Smith

A few cold hard facts about Sicilian gelato:

— There are only two acceptable flavours of breakfast gelato and that is 1) coffee and 2) pistachio. There is no Sicilian edict supporting this, but it is gospel based on careful empirical research. Stray only at your own risk.

— The best gelato you will eat is the very first scoop, anywhere, any time. Mine was melon flavoured from MastroKutó. You will never forget this first scoop.

— The kiosk in the gardens of Palermo’s Norman Palace can conjure up a good brioche con gelato, made better perhaps by the shade of a giant ficus tree, a light mist sprayed to cool the plants, and the low thrum of opera echoing among the winding paths.

— The best pistachio gelato on the island is not at the elegant Caffè Adamo in Modica, nor at the popular Cappadonia Gelati in Palermo, nor even at the aptly named Gelati Divini, a tumble from the sun-bleached steps of Ragusa’s Duomo. The best pistachio gelato in Sicily can be found in Ortigia. Farrow & Ball should name a paint shade after it, so elegant its subtly salted swirl, so toothsome the crunch of its Bronte nuts. I will not tell you exactly where to find it. Your task, if you can bear to tackle it, will be to try every single one and make up your own mind.

All of this to say: a simple scoop of ice cream could be the making of your holiday. Choose wisely.

Need somewhere to stay between gelato tastings? We have Sicily hotels of all flavours