Sicily And Food: Beautiful Contamination Along Its Shores

Sicily And Food: Beautiful Contamination...



The historian Fernand Braudel affirms that the Mediterranean is a thousand things together. In contrast, the writer Gesualdo Bufalino declares, there are many Sicilies, I will never finish counting them. That seems the best cultural frame to set our trip among history, culture and food. During such travel, Sicily and the Mediterranean region seem to communicate in a suggestive game of mirrors that reverberates its reflexes within a space-time span, embracing our Marem Nostrum (Latin for Our Sea). Hence, Sicily is not a visionary island or an imaginary landing place. It is a territory of influential encounters, able to enchant and attract peoples and personalities who conquered, inhabited, exploited and enriched her, and left a trace that superimposed and integrated the previous ones. Mild weather, soil fertility, plant and animal biodiversity, and abundance of fish in the Mediterranean Sea have inspired an outstanding blend of local and imported ingredients. Cultural gastronomy was born. It collects the taces of peoples and cultures that came one after another throughout history. We can identify several Mediterranean presences: Sicanians, Sicels, Elymians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevin, Aragoneses, and Spanish.




In the Greek cities of Sicily, people ate in the streets or the thermopolium (a type of outdoor fry). All senses were seduced, walking amid the counters, by the penetrating perfumes of cooked food to nibble or take home. There were boiled vegetables, boiled or roasted entrails, fried fish. One of the forerunners of simple, genuine cuisine of these lands was Archestratus (Gela, III century B.C.): seduced by the mussels of Messina and a great admirer of the sea bass of Mileto and tuna fished near Solunto, he was against forced sophistry. For that reason, he loved the natural flavours of foods, savoured in their hidden and unmatchable goodness. His dishes did not require long preparations or greasy concoctions. His fish, roasted and boiled, needed just a side course of herbs that exalted its taste. Plato, too, a celebrated host in the land of Sicily, preferred sober food. In his polis, he established strict dietary criteria for all the inhabitants of the ideal city.

“It is clear that they will have salt, olives, cheese, onions and vegetables: food from the farmer. To complete the lunch, we will serve them figs, chickpeas and broad beans; we will roast myrtle berries and chestnuts on the grill, which they will munch on while drinking wine in moderation.”

But let us get to nowadays, with the compass pointing to Palermo and La Vucciria (the historic meat and food market) to shine a light on an unmissable typical street food delicacy: pani câ meusa. A sandwich with calf entrails (spleen, lung e trachea) boiled and cut into pieces, fried in lard, served between two slices of soft sesame bread, called vastella, seasoned with a sprinkle of lemon or bolstered with ricotta cheese or caciocavallo.




Humble Sicilian cuisine grew from popular recipes, perhaps less refined but each of them tasty, that positively responded to other more urgent necessities. They had game fish that fed the families of the small sea villages, well portrayed in their existence by Verga in his I Malavoglia.

They prepared frugal dishes: sardines, anchovies, mackerels and croakers, often cocked in soups with onion and garlic. Then, they dipped many large slices of durum wheat bread in these soups. Country cooking is even the food prepared in the quartare ceramic jars, filled with fava beans purè or vegetable soup and pasta. They ate it during the lunch break from their farm work. Those containers preserved the heat of the simple meal that needed to be ready for all, maybe simply seasoned with little oil. The facets are many, and the food of mineworkers belongs to this current. They were happy with bread with olives and onions or a few sardines cooked under a shovel of boiling sulfur. The people living in the fumarole area prepared a dish called u’pitirri (a type of polenta), made with durum wheat flour, wild fennel and several vegetables. Because of its ingredients, it acquired a yellowish colour with green stripes. Unsurprisingly, it recalls the yellow of the sulfur mines. As a simple soup, it refers to the tradition of spelt from the Mediterranean legacy, presumably imported from Africa during the Roman times.




Inside the multifaceted Sicilian society, cuisine shifts between popular sober essentiality and refined baroque preparation. At the end of the sixteenth century, the secretary of Lucrezia Gonzaga wrote to one of his friends. “I envy you, truly, because you will reach that rich island of Sicily and eat that macaroni” cooked with fat capons and fresh persimmons, seasoned with a “free and generous hand” of sugar and cinnamon.

Centuries later, in the writings of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, food is the prominent element that refers to nourishing by chance. And yet, it imposes itself with its symbolic load. We can recall the “towering pasta timbale” served at Donnafugata. The evening when Angelica gets introduced to the Salina family, the shell of the golden pasta enclosing a rich filling appears as the triumph of twenty-five centuries of Sicilian gastronomy creations. If the entrance of Angelica is an example of strength and splendour, the timbale represents the symbolic richness of the decaying nobility at the dawn of a new era.




Every Sicilian pastry is a real sensory kaleidoscope that refers to a dense interweaving of Mediterranean references. Sicilian confectionery art shares many elements with the Eastern one. For example, pistachio (fastuca in Sicilian, from the Arabic fustaqīya), an ingredient in a nougat called sabunīya and fustaqīya, similar to cubaita.

Almond, flour, starch, sugar, rice, oriental spices such as saffron, cumin or coriander define the flavours and aromas that mark the great holidays of the year. The cose dolci (cosaruci, sweets) are the highlight of the perfect party. Frutta Martorana, in particular, characterizes the Day of the Dead. According to tradition, the Crusaders imported those extraordinaire sweets (called marzipan or almond paste, too) from the Holy Land. Another sweet is the Pupi di Zucchero (sugar puppets), still made in Palermo. We find the same tradition in Tunis, more precisely, in Nabeul, the ancient Neapolis. Parents offered it (on New Year’s Eve) as a gift to their children to celebrate the new year in remembrance of the escape of Mohammed to Medina. One of these ancient Mediterranean, or preferably Arab, flavours come from the tradition of almond paste, or rather marzipan. Their roots are found in the Middle Ages when different peoples lived together in Sicily, and the Arabs unfurled the pleasantness of the sweet taste of sugar. Sicilian marzipan spread during the Arab dominion since, before their arrival, they did not use sugar in Europe. The term marzipan also derives from the Arabic word manthàban, indicating the container where they stored the cake. The same term meant both the coin, thanks to which they could purchase it, and the measure of capacity employed to calculate the quantity of sugar and almonds.




For Petros Markaris, a Greek detective story writer, Mediterranean Noir has two characteristics: the cities and the food. Cuisine is a fundamental component of all crime stodries of the Mediterarranenan area, from Andrea Camilleri to Jean Claude Izzo, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán up to the aforementioned Petros Markaris. But if we can evoke food as a unifying element, it does not have the same value for everyone. Police commissioner Salvo Montalbano by Andrea Camilleri is firmly anchored to the cornerstone of Sicilian cuisine, declined with passion and absolute devotion. Adelina or Calogero’s delicacies are the best of Sicilian food at the table. Pepe Carvalho is the private detective protagonist of several novels by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, a writer from Catalunia. Carvalho is gastronomically eclectic. His primary tastes come from traditional humble, imaginative Spanish cuisine, combined with the celebrity chef cuisine working in different Spanish restaurants or recipes from foreign gastronomies. Kostas Charitos, the literary son of Petros Markaris, is a police commissioner in Athens. He is married to Adriana, a first-rate cook who eases family contrasts through recipes of the Greek tradition. For Kostas Charitos, the route to food offers, first of all, the measure of the acute economic and social crisis. Sitting at the table, we learn how the Greeks have lost their culture of poverty, which helped them resist all adversities. The cuisine of the Charitos becomes thus a privileged social laboratory to deeply understand what is happening to the country. Lastly, it is around the Vieux Port in Marseille, the district where mariners and immigrants mix and merge, where Fabio Montale carries out his investigations. He is an ex-policeman turned into a police detective through whom Jean Claude Izzo has re-written, also gastronomically, the local history. In the Marseillaise cuisine narrated by Izzo, we discover the many roots of the city, Italian, Greek, Arab and Jewish, whose recipes entwine inextricably. For Fabio Montale, eating is a deep delight and an act of resistance against the menace represented by the increase of racism. The love for food guides us towards the claim of a plural identity, made of fragments that integrate reciprocally and, for this reason, cannot do without one another.


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