Sicily’s Rich Culinary History
Are you like me? When on vacation, I like to bend the rules a bit, especially when it comes to food. For example, on my last day in Sicily, my breakfast at a tony resort outside Siracusa consisted of freshly squeeze orange juice, a ripe plum, cappuccino and a cannolo. Yes, a cannolo which is the singular form for cannoli which is what we call this quintessential Sicilian dessert in America. After all, I had read that in Sicily eating brioche filled with almond or lemon sorbet is considered normal breakfast fare. So, a cannolo in the morning should be acceptable, right?
Besides, I had the opportunity to stuff the cannolo myself! There on the buffet table, like little toy soldiers ready for action, was a stack of freshly-made, tube-shaped shells. Next to them was a bowl of fluffy ricotta flavored with candied orange rind and chocolate bits. To avoid breaking the fragile shell, I delicately spooned in the mixture on both sides then dipped each end into crushed pistachios. It dawned on me as I was devouring this unusual breakfast that I was eating a piece of Sicily’s food history.
As mentioned in my two previous posts, Sicily’s past is all about its kaleidoscope of successive invaders. From the early Greeks to the Roman, Saracens, Normans, Austrians, French, Bourbons (aka Spanish) and finally, the Italians, each conqueror left a culinary legacy. Munching on my cannolo, I was reminded that the Greeks had introduced ricotta and honey during their stay. The filling also incorporated citrus and pistachio nuts which the Saracens (sometimes referred to as the Arabs) introduced in the 9th century. The chocolate bits were part of what the Spanish contributed to Sicily in the 16th cenury, something they had learned from the Aztecs when they conquered Mexico.
During our week’s visit, I made a conscious effort to tick off all the boxes for the most typical dishes and local ingredients. Here is a brief recount of where my curiosity and mouth took me.
Olives and Olive oils: While the region of Apulia may be credited with the largest number of olive trees in Italy, Sicily can’t be far behind. The Greeks brought this crop to Sicily around 734 BC. Today, there are many small family-owned olive groves growing a range of different varieties of olives for both eating and for producing oil. Some sell their olives to cooperatives while others pride themselves in putting their family name— and reputation— on the label. Using modern, quality-driven methods of organic growing and cold pressing to produce extra virgin olive oil is making headways throughout the island. This is especially true around Mt. Edna where the soil and climate offers some of the best growing conditions in the region. (Check out my recipe at www.tartetatintales.com/dessert/2018/10/31/sicilian-caponata to see how olives and olive oil are used in the iconic Sicilian dish, Caponata.)
Fish and Seafood: Given Sicily is an island, it should come as no surprise that fresh seafood is a local specialty. Go to any restaurant and you will see Tonno (tuna), Sarde (sardines), Polpo (octopus), Calamari (squid), Gamberi rossi (red prawns), among other local fish specialties on the menu. One of Sicily’s best known fish dishes is Pasta con le sarde made with bucatini pasta tossed with a sauce comprised of sardines, fennel, pine nuts, raisins and anchovies, topped with mollica or spiced, toasted breadcrumbs. This dish—as well as in Caponata—exemplifies the island’s love of agrodolce, or sweet-sour flavoring.
Pistachios and Almonds: While pistachios were probably introduced to Sicily by the Phoenicians predating the early Greek colonizers, it was the Saracens who encouraged increased production by radically pruning the trees every two years. Pistachios found their way into many of the sweet confections still made today, another tribute to the Arab era, albeit it a short 200 years.
Almonds are much easier to grow than pistachios and are found everywhere on the island. One of their most popular uses is in almond paste necessary for creating marzipan. This is the key ingredient in Frutta martorana, Sicily’s unbelievably realistic, hand-painted miniature fruits as well as Cassata, the island’s most iconic dessert.
Granita and Gelato: The Arabs were credited with figuring out how to take snow cut from the top of Mt. Edna and mix it with sugar (which they introduced) along with exotic flavors— such as jasmine, bergamot and rose from their gardens—to create ices or sharbat.
On our cycling trip we discovered some outrageously delicious gelato in Sicily. We learned there are two basic differences between our ice cream and theirs. First, by law in Italy, gelato has far less butterfat, about 4 to 8 percent compared to our 14 percent. The low-fat content means that gelato is normally served a bit warmer and tends to melt in your mouth faster. Secondly, our ice cream often has air and water added to increase volume and weight, but this also makes it less flavorful. Gelato, on the other hand, has a much higher density and a more intense flavor.
Modica Chocolate: Since the early 16th century, the town of Modica has been the Nexis for producing the best chocolate in the world. Back then, a group of wealthy Spanish families shared their knowledge for making chocolate. Modica chocolate has an interior with grains of sugar still intact. This surprising effect results from a unique cold processing rather than the typical conching or tempering method normally used to create a smooth, even texture. Even for me, a non-chocolate lover, Modica Chocolate is in a class by itself. I even brought home some chocolate bars in my suitcase, a first for me.
Durum wheat: While cycling around the island and seeing all the wheat fields, it was easy to understand why the Romans in 200 BC referred to Sicily as the “Granary of Rome.” Durum wheat is the secret for making flavorful breads, pastas and of course, pizza. Every town in Sicily, even the smallest village, has una pizzeria or a panifico producing pizza as well as focacce, thin baked layers of bread filled with sausage, tomatoes and an assortment of green vegetables.
Cheeses: There is a wide range of local cheeses for visitors to discover such as young and aged Pecorino, Caciocavalo, Ragusano and the deep yellow sheep’s milk cheese flavored with saffron from central Sicily called Piacentinu. Perhaps the best known, however is Ricotta. Made with either cow or sheep’s milk, Ricotta can be found fresh, baked or salted and aged, known as Ricotta Salata.
Even with a concerted effort to sample and write about everything, there were still a few local specialties on my hit list which I missed. For example, I completely neglected the topics of citrus, vegetables, capers, salt and the influence of French chefs, called Monzù, in the early 1800’s. I guess that should be reason enough for yet another visit and a continued exploration of this historically exotic and “delicious” part of Italy? Stay tuned!