Without the luxury of a twelve-month gourmet tour, I’d like to offer you a brief appetizer of my own little piece of Italy, Sicily whose cuisine shows off its history and location at the centre of the Mediterranean.
The most important thing to remember is that all Italians take food very seriously and sustenance is officially the, not so secret pagan religion of Italy. To make a mess of your cooking here is blasphemous. If you overcook the pasta you could end up in jail (or worse still be ostracized forever, branded as a bad cook) it’s al dente or niente my friends.
I’ve heard Italians who take holidays overseas to everywhere from the Maldives to Ibiza and return to complain about not finding a decent plate of pasta to eat the whole time and therefore remaining morte di fame, literally dying of hunger, a sin punishable in Dante’s Inferno. By the way who goes to the Maldives to eat pasta anyway?
Italians are fussy as they really have it good at home. As usually is the case Sicily is the microcosm for the rest of Italy, the perfection of Italian cuisine comes from the island.
In Sicily, food is local, fresh and strictly seasonal which means the best ingredients cooked in traditional recipes during the appropriate time of year. The only imported fruit you will find here are bananas and pineapples for obvious reasons.
Fresh seafood is readily available in the towns along the coastline while mountain villages are famous for their traditional farming products such as cheeses, salami cold cut meats, fresh pork sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, aubergines and other fruits and vegetables. A menu for a wedding or other special occasion is dedicated entirely to the delicacies of the land terra or seafood pesce.
A trip to the local food markets at any time of the year will give you a sense of what kind of product you will be tasting in the local restaurants or if you are lucky enough to have relatives, what they will be making you for lunch and dinner.
Wintertime is filled with decadent grapes, many different varieties of citrus from unique blood oranges, navels, mandarins, grapefruit and the sweetest lemons you will ever taste. The cold will give you an appetite so it’s easy to stuff your face with arancine (rice balls filled with meat or ham and mozzarella) or the many kinds of panini (bread rolls). For the insatiable sweet tooths there are the hyper sugar coated cassate and cannoli (made with ricotta cheese) and marzipan sweets deliciously displayed in all patisserie pastry shops. For a typical Sicilian treat, most good restaurants offer the delicious semifreddo di mandorle or pistacchi (almonds or pistachio parfait ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce.) Sicily is famous for its ice creams, granita ice drinks and endless variety of desserts so be careful not to end up in a sugar-induced diabetic coma.
Spring is filled with refreshing fruits such as medlars (nespole) a little orange fruit originally from Japan, strawberries followed, towards the end of May by apricots, then cherries and tiny, sweet pears. The countryside is full of wild fennel, asparagus and artichokes. This is the best time to try the pasta con le sarde long fat spaghetti pasta known as bucatini with fresh sardines, wild fennel and pine nuts or local tuna (tonno) and swordfish (pesce spada).
Summertime gives you a plateful of different tastes from plums, peaches, apricots, cantaloupe, watermelon and figs, towards the end of August.
Autumn is the time for olive harvest, prickly pears (fichi d’india) and roasted chestnuts are sold in little kiosks in many towns. Specialties such as caponata a vegetarian dish with aubergines, celery, olives and tomatoes and peperonata (with peppers).
Throughout the year you can delve into the variegated palate of Sicilian wines and liquors which offer undeniably exquisite experiences. Sicily has twenty-three nominated DOC wines including Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Eloro, Erice and Etna amongst many others.
Sicilian reds to die for include the eternally blissful Nero D’Avola which is one of the oldest indigenous grapes. One particularly delightful red is Etna Rosso which is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Mantellato and is produced on the fertile volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.
For lovers of whites, there is plenty to taste in Sicily including the Bianco D’Alcamo which is an excellent white is found all over Sicily, exclusively produced in the area between Alcamo and Trapani. While Kue is a white with the sweet perfumes of peach, apricot which is a perfect accompaniment to wonderful Sicilian seafood.
The sugar content of the grapes and the Sicilian sunshine means Sicily lends itself well to the production of dessert wines. The best known of these are Marsala, the famous fortified wine first produced by the Englishman John Woodhouse in the eighteenth century. The Passito di Panetelleria is made from Zibbibo grapes which have been dried in the sun to increase the sugar concentration, pure heaven from Sicily’s southernmost island. For the sweetest of the sweet, there is also Malvasia di Lipari and Passito di Noto both harmonious wines with a honey aftertaste.
For those who can handle stronger fortified wines, the Grappas made in Sicily are particularly intense and sweetened by the Panetelleria and Zibibbo varieties with an increased level of alcohol thanks to a complex distillation process.
For lovers of fine cheeses, Sicily has a thing or two for you to taste too.
Some like the provola di Nebrodi, caciocavallo Ragusano and fresh ricotta are perfect on their own or as part of an antipasto, main course or even as a dessert accompanied by an array of Sicilian honey and jams.
For meat eaters, Sicily has a wonderful selection of cured meats and salami’s to relish. The most famous is the Salame of San’t Angelo di Brolo, deep in the province of Messina is made from the sort after suino nero dei Nebrodi and other typical products such as locally produced pork, coppa, lard, prosciutto and fresh barbecue sausage seasoned with wild fennel and chilli pepper. For the more adventurous carnivores, Sicilian’s are really big on eating horse meat which is prepared as a delicacy by most butchers on request.
Olive oil is a standard ingredient in the Sicilian kitchen and the quality of Sicilian oil is phenomenal, even if this year’s production (2014) has been reduced thanks to unseasonal weather this golden treasure is a magical product. Sicily boasts several DOP areas whose products are protected by this special classification these include the olive producing areas in the Iblei mountains near Syracuse, Ragusa, Catania and Nocellara del Belice.
Sicily is regarded as the lost garden of Eden, simply because of its abundant fertility, an image which is reinforced by the wide range of fruits and vegetables grown here. The provinces of Agrigento, Catania and Palermo are dominated by market gardens with a rich harvest ranging from different varieties of eggplant (aubergines), artichokes, fennel, broccoli, tomatoes, peaches, pears, apricots, giant meaty Tarocco oranges (grown also in the provinces of Messina and Siracusa) while Agrigento and Caltanisetta produce the best table grapes on the island.
One of the most famous fruits of Sicily is the pistachio of Bronte, a small town at the feet of Etna produces the best quality pistachio together with the other provinces of Caltanissetta and Agrigento. Not to mention an extensive production of almonds and hazelnuts which are used together with pistachios in dozens of Sicilian desserts and ice creams.
Being an island in the middle of the Mediterranean the sea offers a notable selection of seafood luxuriously prepared lovingly all around the island from swordfish, tuna, sardines which are prepared with simple natural ingredients like olive oil and garlic.
Having consumed the main dishes of the Sicilian table then a Sicilian dessert is in order, which is a baroque triumph of colours, flavours and pungent sweetness. You may be stuffed but you simply need to taste a spoonful of the typical dolci Siciliane, which are like heaven.
Every town has their own particular selection of cakes, biscuits and desserts which are prepared to celebrate various occasions throughout the year from Easter, Christmas and other religious festivals. Ironically enough many of the most decadent creations were created by Nun’s in convents who invented sweets to go with each particular religious celebration using products introduced to the island during the Arab period in the middle ages like honey, pistachio, cinnamon, citrus, sultanas and dried fruits.
The selection of treats is endless from the Sicilian cassata a sponge cake filled with ricotta cream cheese and covered in a thick layer of icing decorated with dried fruit which is typical of Palermo or Cannoli fried tube-shaped shells filled with sweetened ricotta or custard cream and enriched with pieces of dark chocolate or pistachios, almonds and dried fruits or the Giuggiulena which are a caramelized honey nougat candy mixed with sesame seeds used around Christmas time and is a speciality of the cities of Ragusa, Siracusa and Catania.The Impantiglie from Modica are sweet ravioli pockets filled with chocolate, almonds, cinnamon and orange peel and the hand make chocolate of Modica is said to derive from an original Aztec recipe which is unlike other chocolate you have ever tasted.
Wherever you go in Sicily there is an endless choice of fine fresh fare whether it be simply going to a daily fresh fruit market, street food is everywhere in most major cities and during the year each town likes to show off their best produce with local sagras or food festivals which give you a chance to taste everything on offer for a few euro’s.
The most well known markets on the island are the Vuccuria and Ballero at Palermo, Catania has La Fiera di Catania in Piazza Carlo Alberto and La Pescheria which are its two main fresh food markets. There are hundreds of ‘sagras’ throughout the year, some which have caught my eye include the ones dedicated to Granita at Acireale (June), Sagra del Mandorle (Almonds) at Agrigento in February, the Ricotta Festival at Vizzini (April) and the Couscous Festival at San Vito Lo Capo usually held in September.
Even eating out in Sicily is easy, the best food and wine will be found in locally family run restaurants or ‘trattorie’ which offer one hundred percent local produce for only a fraction of the cost of any flashy restaurant around. Even going to eat in a simple Tavola calda or basic diner will give you the chance of a hot meal and a grand selection of mains to choose from.
The most fascinating aspect of Sicilian cuisine apart from it’s impressive range and abundance is the rich history behind each dish. Sicily has been invaded by many peoples who have enriched the elaborate tapestry of local cuisine.
Greeks brought grapes and olives and introduced Sicilians to winemaking, the Romans introduced fava broad beans, chickpeas, lentils and some forms of pasta, Arabs or more accurately North Africans brought almonds, aniseed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, watermelon and rice.
African’s influence is still seen in the use of sweet and sour tastes together which are now considered typically Sicilian, for example the combination of raisins and pine-nuts with vegetables and fish that form the basis of several common dishes or the use of oranges with bitter vegetable and onions to make a fresh tasting winter salad.
Normans brought some of their northern European innovations including the rotating skewer for cooking meat and salting of fish.The Americas provided chilli and sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, prickly pear fruit and maize and all of these were incorporated into existing recipes and would now be unimaginable without them.
The world of Sicilian food is an expansive one and I must recommend more as I’m sure your appetite has been stimulated. There is no way I can do justice to this island’s cuisine so please seek out these two excellent books which have done Sicilian food so much better than I can possibly do in a single article.
Mary Taylor Simeti is an expert in Sicilian food and has adopted Sicily as her home for many decades, her book Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle is a must and is available on Amazon.
While Australian travel writer Brian Johnston stumbled onto the island thanks to the invitation of a friend and he wrote an extensive love letter to the wonderful food he discovered in one Sicilian Summer.
I am gradually tasting my way through Sicilian seasonal fare and occasionally share my experiences through my Sicula Cuisine articles.