A few months ago, my late husband, Allan, and I visited Siracusa, the oldest Jewish town in Sicily to survive since ancient times. We stayed at a hotel called Alla Giudecca (The Jewish Quarter) in the reconstructed Jewish section of the city on the island of Ortygia. In the basement of this hotel, we walked down 58 steps to what was the largest mikvah in Europe in antiquity—with five pools. It is the oldest mikvah to survive in Europe and shows by its many pools the importance of the area’s large Jewish community, which had come from Greece. The mikvah was used until 1493, when the Jews were expelled from Sicily by the Spanish.
The hotel was developed by Amalia Daniele di Bagni, a Catholic woman who knew nothing about Judaism, who discovered the stunning mikvah, filled all the way up with rubble. Today, her staff gives tours of the Jewish baths every half hour throughout the day. The hotel also offers guests a sumptuous breakfast with a bittersweet reminder of the Jews’ long history in Sicily: a slightly bitter Sicilian orange marmalade, made by di Bagni in the late winter. I adapted the recipe with help from my friend David Tanis, a cookbook writer who has spent a lot of time in Sicily. It is delicious and a palatable memory for me of the caring of this woman who took the time to find out about the ancient Jewish presence in Siracusa.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.