Many ancient civilisations believed that Sicily was the birthplace of gastronomy, the Sicilians mastery of with flavours without the need for excessive sauces, fats or condiments. Sicily itself is a island of contrasts, from sumptuousness and poverty, a cultural crossroads. In Sicily everything is carried out to excess, the island sunshine is often considered unbearable without dark glasses, well to foreigners anyway. Food is much more than a part of everyday life in Sicily, it features in the literature, music and art of the island. Appetising images of food appear in Guiseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa's book Il Gattopardo (the Leopard) and frequently, even today, food metaphors feature in songs and music. Food is also used to enrich religious festivals and traditions, which in Sicily is so wild and ritualistic it verges in paganism. Many people believe Halloween to be an American celebration, but a thousand years before the discovery of America, Sicilians were playing macabre tricks on each other and eating ossa dei morti, biscuits made from almond paste and sugar made in the shape of bones, on the eve of the 1st November, All Souls Day. St. Martins day, the 11th November, Sicilians make muffolette, fennel rolls with ricotta. Throughout the year Sicilians celebrate many religious festivals, everyone has a special dish associated with it.
As with most regions of Italy, Sicilian cuisine has been influenced heavily by the islands conquerors. The Romans brought geese to the island, which are still bred and enjoyed to this day, especially as part of festive celebrations. After the Romans it was the Byzantines, who brought with them the complicated stuffed and sweet and sour dishes that you can still enjoy today. The Arabs who inhabited the island from the ninth to eleventh century, revolutionised the islands food industry and everyday way of life. With these Arab conquerors came apricots, sugar, citrus fruits, melons, rice, saffron, sultanas, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, cinnamon, jasmine and figs, all mainstays to Sicilian cuisine as we know it. Conquerors from the north brought with them meat cookery, which combined with the spices of the Arabs led to some amazing dishes. The Spanish brought with them cocoa, corn, turkeys and tomatoes and the French brought onions. This French influence can still be seen today in the islands cafes and bars which have a distinct Parisian appearance to them.
Street food is very popular in Sicily due to its high quality, affordable prices, Speedy preparation and all day availability make it some of the greatest street food in the world. Polipari, boiled octopus sellers, panellari, soft bread and fried chickpea fritter (panelle) sellers and friggitorie, fried food sellers, can be found on every street corner all across the island. In Messina focaccerie, focaccia shops, are very popular. In Catania, stuffed flatbreads called schiacciate can be found on every corner. The most popular schiacciate fillings are cheese, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, black olives, tuna and many more. Friggitorie, especially around Catania, offer no frills service, fritters made of ricotta, sweet rolls with chocolate and cream, rice balls and veal offal such as liver, kidney, lungs, heart, trachia.
In Palermo street food is very popular, chickpea fritters called ciciri are fried in hot oil then placed between thin slices of bread, have a distinct Arabic flavour in the spicing used in the fritters. Sfincione, a spicy pizza, spread with anchovies, onions and black olives have a definite resemblance to the pissaldiere of southern France. Striggiole, intestine speared on a wooden stick and grilled and panino con la milzo, a sandwich filled with seasoned and fried spleen, are all popular delicacies served day or night on the streets of Palermo.
Religious influences can be seen throughout the cuisine of Sicily. Throughout the ages Sicily has been home to many religious orders and as a result an independent cuisine developed in the islands abbeys an monasteries, eventually finding their way into every day consumption. Nothing has ever equalled the lavishness of Benedictine monastery banquets. The Benedictine abbey of San Nicola in Catania for man years was the most important abbey outside Spain. The Benedictine monks cooked large timbales filled with macaroni, veal, prosciutto, chicken gizzards, vegetables and hard-boiled eggs were common everyday dishes. The Benedictine monks were also the first to make arancini, which are now eaten throughout the world. The monks also created stuffed cannelloni and baked pasta dishes which are now considered regional specialities.
Such culinary experimentation was believed to be a path to holiness and it was these devout seekers of enlightenment that created such wonders as Sicilian Cassata, filled with candied fruit, whipped ricotta and vanilla. Cassata first appeared in Palermo around the eleventh century, but it wasn't until the nineteenth century that cassata as we know it today appeared. In 1060 when the Normans invaded and conquered Sicily they brought with them Christianity and its many festivals. To mark Easter an unbelievably calorific dessert was tested and perfected by the Normans, using the Arab cassata as a base. It was made of almond paste, sheep's milk ricotta and candied fruit, but it was decorated with cannoli, colourful wafer florets and silver confetti, topped with sugar frosting and sugar trim. Cannoli had a life of there own for many years before the Normans used them on there cassata. Though cassata was created as a Easter dessert it was criticised by many Christians over the years due to its decedant and slightly erotic appearance. In the sixteenth century the Spanish brought chocolate and sponge cake to Sicily and in the nineteenth century it became fashionable to decorate cassata with candied fruit that had been soaked in a syrup, to mark the forty days of lent, giving the cassata a tinted jewel-studded appearance to offset the white whipped cream.
Another favourite sweet among Sicilians is marzipan. The art of shaping almond paste was brought to Sicily by the Arabs but the almond paste itself could have been invented elsewhere, but the Arabs did add orange flower water to make the paste more mouldable. The Benedictine nuns of Martorana were famous for their religious pastry making and began making small figurines and angels and other religious imagery using roses, saffron and pistachio to colour the paste. This tradition spread and reached its height during the baroque period and even today a Marzano moulding competition takes place in Palermo on the 20th January to mark St. Sebastian's day.
Another, but rather less holy, element of Sicilian cuisine comes from the influence of the mafia on the island. Even today the jury is still out as to who the Sicilian people respected more, nobility or the mafia. Throughout all Italy notability have always employed gifted chefs and dined of the finest foods, but so did the padrini (Godfathers). One of the mafias greatest chef Joe Cipolla, who was a cook for three generations of mafia bosses, wrote a cookbook called "The Mafia Cookbook" which features many traditional mafia favourites such as chicken Vallachi (named after Joseph Vallachi an early mafia informant), pigeons alla lupara (shot-gun style) and caponata Al Capone.
Sicilians, as you would expect of any island nation, love fish and seafood and are blessed with varying varieties of fish throughout the island. In the north sawfish, swordfish, white bream, a social breed of mackerel and albacore tuna are all fished and consumed. In the south, coast snapper, swordfish, brill, mullet and bass are fished, as to are tuna, but in a very different way. In the bay of Favignana, tuna is fished the normal way for most of the year, but once a year a very traditional, yet somewhat bloodthirsty method of catching tuna takes place. The mattanza (mass killing) takes place just off the coast of Syracuse, a series of nets are laid in the water each one getting gradually smaller leading the tuna to the "camera della morte" (chamber of death). The camera della morte is a large chamber in the nets with a net below it to prevent the tuna's escape. When the chamber is well stocked small fishing boats full of men row out to the chamber and take their places around the chambers open top. The mattanza leader, known as the rais, commands the men to begin lifting the net from the bottom of the camera della morte, bringing the tuna up to the surface where the men then harpoon, spear and club the tuna, some of which can grow to three meters long, and haul the tuna carcasses aboard their little boats. Many people believe the mattanza to be brutal but it's one of those pieces of history that many people want to keep alive. The Sicilian love of fish can also be seen in one of the regions most iconic delicacies, bottarga. Around Italy bottarga is made from the dried roe of different varieties of fish, sometimes grey mullet, but in Sicily it is made from tuna roe. The roe is dried and eaten in many different ways, sautéed with garlic and parsley, grated over pasta and their are even recipes for it baked in bread. Sicilians love tuna and eat every part of the fish, the much prized ventresca (belly), loin, the occhi rassi (eyes, preserved in salt with red pepper and dill), and lattume (testicles) a still enjoyed in the region but some with less popularity than they once had.
Ice cream is an authentic Sicilian speciality, it is believed that the Sicilians were the first people in Italy to hear about it, thanks to their Arab invaders. From Sicily ice cream made its way to Tuscany then throughout the world. When the Arabs invaded Sicily they noticed the mounds of snow that were left at the foot of mount Etna and began to flavour it with fruit juices. The Sicilians even found a way to preserve the snow through summer by storing it in the underground caves at the foot of mount Etna where they laid layers of snow between sheets of felt which stopped the snow melting to quickly and when cold prevented it from freezing into blocks of ice. The Sicilian love of ice cream, granitas and sorbet led to years of experimentation, ancient recipes exist for ice creams flavoured with honey, wine, wine must and Marsala. Now Italy is famous for its ice creams and derivatives throughout the world, and it all started in Sicily.
The Wines Of Sicily
Ever since classical times, Sicily has been well-known for it's agriculture, food and wine. Wild grape have grown on the island of Sicily for thousands of years, however it was the Phoenicians who first began to cultivate the vines to produce wine and brought well established grape varieties with them from the middle east to plant on the island. The Phoenicians were followed by the ancient Greeks, who brought with them grape crushing and wine making techniques and more well known grape varieties such as Greganico. The wines of Sicily are often quoted in Greek mythology, the cult surrounding Dionysus and his maenads (latterly called Bacchantes by the Romans) were spread by the poetess Sapho, who is said to have cultivated vines on the isle of Sicily after she was expelled from her native island of Lesbos. (click here to find out more about The Wines Of Sicily ).
Typical Dishes Of Sicily
Mustica - anchovies in oil.
Arancini - rice balls filled with cheese, ragu, peas, prosciutto, etc. Sometimes breadcrumbed.
Caponata - vegetables stewed in a pan mixed with olives, anchovies and capers.
Maccu - puréed fav beans with wild fennel.
Orange salad - segments of Sicilian orange with oil, salt and pepper.
Pasta e sparaconi - pasta with wild asparagus.
Cavatieddi - gnocchi with a pork sauce.
Caltaisetta - spaghetti with a sauce made from almonds, olives and raw tomatoes.
Pasta con le sarda - pasta with sardines.
Pasta con muddica - past with toasted breadcrumbs, anchovies, tomatoes, parsley and oil.
Pescestocco alla ghiotta messinese - pan cooked stock fish with tomatoes, olives and almonds.