An old Sicilian mantra says in Sicily there are only good or bad seasons. In a place of few subtleties, there is only the bountiful or frugal and little in between. Sicilians are born out of their land and are shaped by the seasons the landscape creates. A Siciliano will hibernate in winter and interact with the seasons appropriately as if participating in a series of well-rehearsed rituals. Islanders seek comfort, meaning and a sense of identity from their communities and environment. A Sicilian is forged by birth, habit and fidelity to their native land.
Ancient Trinacria is a world away from the rest of Italy, not only in a geographical, industrial or political sense but through its distinct culture and lifestyle. Sicilians retain elements of traditions in their everyday lives which are inherited from past generations, bombarded by a mixture of invading cultures from their history and an inbuilt connection to the natural environment.
There is a timeless quality in the everyday habits of Sicilians and indeed there are many areas that hold onto practices determined by the changing seasons, a relationship fostered by the practices of the ancient Greeks whose presence in Sicily had an immense influence on the island’s culture.
These habits are sustained by an internalised calendar, created and subsequently passed down by the ancient Greeks who made Sicily their colony from seven hundred and fifty B.C until two hundred and fourteen B.C, up until the first Punic war against the Romans, which then gradually drove them out of Sicily.
In the Greek colony of Sicily, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, was worshipped by the agrarian population. The favour of the goddess assured the success of the harvests, agriculture and fertility. In colonised Sicily the mythology of ancient Greece was dispersed through the island, retelling the story of how Hades, the god of the after-life, abducted Demeter’s daughter Persephone. 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 as his wife and claimed she could no longer return to earth as she had eaten food from the underworld.
Zeus decided Demeter’s daughter would spend three months of the year in the hereafter with her husband and the rest of the year on earth with her mother. During the absence of her daughter, Demeter created the winter, grieving for her daughter and when Persephone returned Demeter celebrated her return with a warm, fertile, spring and summer.
Playing out the story of Demeter and her daughter every year, the Sicilian Greeks created a seasonal calendar in which the gifts of the goddess 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 rich volcanic soil produces abundant vegetation including a mixture of edible plants which grow wild and other introduced delicacies which now form staples of Sicilian cuisine.
A hike in the Sicilian countryside during different periods of the year offers the aromas of wild herbs such as thyme, saffron, fennel, rosemary, oregano, mint and sage. Sicily’s endless fruits and vegetables liberally grace Siculo tables and dishes from persimmon, figs, mulberries, raspberries, blackberries, lemons, oranges, pears, plums, and cherries, walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, asparagus, wild mushrooms and various native plants with medicinal properties.