I just returned from another fabulous trip to my favorite region of Italy – Sicily. Spring had arrived. The fruit trees cast a pink and white mantel over the hills, the borage flowers bloomed as blue as the sky above, masses of acacia and mimosa veiled the roadsides with sprays of yellow flowers and the countryside rolled green with a new crop of wheat. Situated just 3 miles off the Italian mainland, Sicily is the largest of the Mediterranean islands. It is predominantly mountainous country, with a wealth of coastal beaches. Sicily seems like another country, full of contradictions and extremes. There is nothing subtle about Sicily. It is a place of intense light and extreme darkness, seductive yet shocking. There’s the most stunning scenery of hills lush with vineyards, ancient olive trees and wheat fields, golden groves of citrus fruit, the most beautiful of Greek temples, Roman mosaics and a stream of architectural treasures including amongst others, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Catalan-Gothic and Baroque styles. And then there are eyesores of illegal and ugly new buildings, brutally sited power stations, incomplete highways and forgotten Baroque masterpieces.
But perhaps the greatest contrast of all is between the deliciously innovative cucina povera of the ordinary people to the baroque cuisine of the aristocracy. La cucina Baronale was established in noble kitchens from medieval times to that of the arrival of Spanish aristocracy on the island. Later in the 18th century the aristocratic families adopted an even more sophisticated cuisine when they hired French trained chefs who now incorporated butter, cream and brandy and introduced complex timbales and galatines making for rich, lavish and elaborate dishes.
La cucina povera, the cuisine of the common people could not have been more different. This is the food of the Sicilian housewife who had to improvise a little something out of a lot of nothing. These enviable dishes are straightforward, fresh and seasonal with flavors that seem more powerful, hotter, spicier and sweeter. Their simplicity is elevated by the sheer quality of the seafood from the bountiful surrounding seas and the natural produce that thrives under the strong Sicilian sun.
Sicilian food is living history, a heritage of thousands of years of invading armies from diverse foreign lands. The Greeks came bearing gifts of honey, wine, ricotta and olives and were followed by the rapacious Roman cultivators of wheat, grains and legumes. The Arabs introduced sugar cane, citrus fruits, eggplant, rice, couscous, spices, methods for fishing tuna and swordfish, the ingenious system of irrigation, the unique palate of sweet and sour and the idea for making ices and sorbets. The pasta industry is said to have been started by the Arabs near Palermo in the 12th century, using grain from fields planted earlier by the Romans. Although it’s rare to find people eating in the streets in mainland Italy, Sicilians love for street food, cucina di strada, also reflects the almost 250 years of Arab conquest.
The Normans left a legacy of dried fish (baccala) and the Angevins/French brought sweet shortcrust pastry, onions and stuffed meat rolls. The Spanish invasion brought products from the New World such as tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash, chocolate as well as the love of florid decoration in food presentation. They also introduced the prickly pear, a favorite Sicilian fruit.
The modern Sicilian diet relies on grains, vegetables, herbs and spices, olives and olive oil, fruit, nuts, seafood and cheese. Meats and game are more prominent in the central hills and used in very special dishes, not everyday ones. Sicilians supposedly invented meatballs, polpetti or polpettoni, which are eaten as a main course, though they often appear here with spaghetti as a caricature of Italo-American cuisine. Pasta, usually made from durum wheat, takes many forms, ranging from spaghetti and maccheroni (maccaruna in dialect) to busiati and gnocchi. Most celebrated is pasta con le sarde, with sardines and wild fennel. Other famous pasta dishes include pesto Trapanese with a delicious sauce made of almonds, basil, and tomatoes and Catania’s pasta alla Norma, a rich combination of tomatoes, eggplant and ricotta salata cheese.
Seafood, led by swordfish, tuna, sardines and anchovies are often marinated in oil and herbs, and grilled, roasted, or baked as involtini. Vegetables are so intensely flavored that they are usually served as simply as possible and often constitute a main meal. But in contrast, it is not unusual to find Sicilian cooking at times so vigorous and expressive with the use of anchovies, hot pepper, mint, basil, oregano, citrus, almonds and pistachios as well as classic combinations of capers and green olives, currents and pine nuts, and vinegar and honey.
Sicilian olive oil is prized and now winning international competitions; Sicilian sea salt is often called white gold. Cheeses are most often made from sheep’s milk and can be found in many stages of aging from fresh ricotta to Pecorino Siciliano, whose pungent flavor is often sharpened when laced with peppercorns. Cows milk cheese can be found in the form of Ragusano, mellow and delicate when young, though it may also be aged hard and sharp for grating. Caciocavallo and provola are also popular.
Sicilian wine has now come of age and can compete most favorably on the world market. After years of producing mediocre wines and sweet, sickly Marsala, it has now become a producer of elegant top-class dry, sweet and fortified wines. Some of the leading producers available in our market include Planeta, Regaleali, Donnafugata, Cusumano, Morgante, Palari, and Tenuta delle Terrenere. And if you think all Marsala tastes like the one you cook with, I suggest you indulge in one made by deBartoli.
When it comes to the dessert course, the Sicilians excel themselves. Sicilians have an extreme sweet tooth and most of their pastries are tied to a religious, mystical or historic significance. The queen of desserts is the cassata, a sponge cake, flavored with liquor, layered with ricotta and apricot jam, coated on all sides with marzipan and elaborately decorated with candied fruit. True Sicilian cannoli will make your knees weak. Any decent pastry shop will have a dazzling array of marzipan, almond paste sculpted in the form of fruits or whatever takes the creator’s fancy. The gelato and other frozen desserts are the best in the world.
This article is meant to be a mere introduction to the food of one of the world’s most exciting islands. Sicily is a sensory bombardment, a magical island. The extraordinary cuisine is a mere match to the most exquisite architecture and the traditional graciousness and warm hospitality of the people. I hope that you will have an opportunity to visit this island – you’ll be amazed at what you find there.