Trinacria is a world away from the rest of Italy. In a geographical, industrial or political sense and through its distinct culture and lifestyle.
Sicilians retain elements of traditions in their everyday lives, which have been inherited from past generations. Sicily has been bombarded by a mixture of invading cultures throughout its history, and Sicilians inbuilt connection to their land and environment has helped them overcome many invasions.
There is a timeless quality in the everyday habits of Sicilians. Indeed many areas hold onto practices determined by the changing seasons.
An age-old relationship fostered by the methods of the ancient Greeks whose presence in Sicily had an immense influence on the island’s culture. The Greeks made Sicily their colony from seven hundred and fifty B.C until the first Punic war against the Romans, which gradually drove them out of the island.
In the Greek province of Sicily, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, was worshipped by the rural population. The favour of the goddess assured the strong yields from agriculture.
In colonised Sicily, the mythology of Greece was dispersed through the island, the story of how Hades, the god of the after-life, abducted Demeter’s daughter Persephone is acted out every year. The anger of the nature goddess cast the world into a barren and desolate winter. Zeus, seeing the suffering of the earth, sought Persephone’s return. However, Hades wanted Persephone for his wife and claimed she could no longer return to the world as she had eaten food from the underworld.
Zeus decided Demeter’s daughter would spend three months in the hereafter with her husband and the rest of the year on earth with her mother. During her daughter’s absence, Demeter creates winter and autumn grieving for her daughter, and when Persephone returns, Demeter celebrates the warmer, bountiful seasons.
Sicilian Greeks created a seasonal calendar where the goddess’s gifts are gathered and used for sustenance during the year. Their understanding of natural products gave birth to a cuisine rich in traditions, formulated by the knowledge and expertise of past generations.
Sicily has always been a fertile place. Its volcanic soil produces abundant vegetation, including a mixture of wild edible plants and other introduced delicacies that have become Sicilian cuisine staples.
During the year, a hike in the Sicilian countryside offers up the aromas of wild herbs such as thyme, saffron, fennel, rosemary, oregano, mint, and sage. Sicily’s endless fruits and vegetables liberally grace Siculu tables with a menu made up of everything from persimmon, figs, mulberries, raspberries, blackberries, lemons, oranges, pears, plums, cherries, walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, asparagus, wild mushrooms and various native plants with medicinal properties.
The crumbling mountains in the province of Messina, where I have made my home, represent the typical agricultural habits of the island. The inland section is near the coastline’s hills, which looks towards the Aeolian Islands of Volcano, Lipari, Salina, Alicudi, Filicudi, Stromboli and Panarea.
This lush area makes up part of the Nebrodi regional park. It provides us with many examples of how Sicily’s seasonal traditions are acted out throughout the year. Like most of Sicily’s once productive agricultural areas, the countryside is filled with abandoned stone cottages and villas. Each old building is being suffocated by wild berry bushes that invade the soil with thorny tendrils wrapping around everything in their grasp.
Despite the mostly neglected large-scale agriculture, there are still remnants from the past agrarian-based society, kept alive by peoples innate understanding of the planting season and preparation of seasonal products. Nature’s timetable has been absorbed into Sicilian culture and is still observed through time.
People here have their plots of land for vegetable gardens. They know precisely when to plant tomatoes, aubergines, beans, zucchini for the summer, or potatoes, pumpkins, broccoli and broad beans for the winter. It is an ingrained habit transported around the world through Sicilian migrants. They have the instinct to create their own patch of orto from the rooftop gardens of the most developed metropolis, to the small backyards of the suburbs.
Sicilians, like other Italians, have a particular dedication to food. They enjoy seasonal products and demand the preparation of favourite traditional dishes from local gastronomy. This attention to a specific type of food is part habit, part cultural practice.
Still, it stems from the personal satisfaction acquired by enjoying fresh food, which gathers its flavour from the season it grows in. The devotion to cuisine in Italy is an act of religious faith. Every Italian has a complete fidelity to eating well and enjoying the moment.