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The culinary heritage of a region has always played a role of paramount importance in creating a special sense of identity and regional pride. It is also apparent that a rich cultural and historical matrix inevitably nourishes and gives rise to a unique and fruitful culinary tradition.
In this light, it would seems unsurprising that the manifold succession of civilizations witnessed on the Sicilian territory over thousands of years may have been instrumental in creating a complex cultural milieu and a rich and varied culinary tradition that has sets Sicily markedly a part from the rest of Italy.
First influences of the BRONZE AGE
It is known that the Phoenicians first and Carthaginians may have been responsible for the introduction of leguminous plants, such as lentils and chickpeas and perhaps of pomegranates.
The GREEK agricultural and culinary influence, The Golden Dawn of the Sicilian cuisine
The Greeks introduced olive trees, wheat, the cultivation of Vines, and the production of wine, artichokes, fruiting trees like figs and pomegranates and nut trees like walnut and hazelnut trees. And thanks to the farming of sheep and goats, introduced the ricotta cheese. Syracuse, Gela and Agrigento became renowned for their cuisine.
Legumes, barbecued or baked, meats, fish, and vegetables were all enjoyed seasoned with plenty of extra-virgin olive oil and wild herbs such asthyme and oregano and accompanied with strong red wine. Desserts and cakes were crafted using various types of nuts, which were ground and mixed with ricotta cheese, honey and flour. Ricotta, honey and eggs were used to produce ricotta-based custard called Tyropatinum. Desserts and cakes were served accompanied by baskets of fruit and sweet wine made from white grapes of the Malvasia variety original of the eastern Peloponnese region.
The ROMAN & Byzantine period
Following the Punic wars the Romans did improve some aspects of agriculture in Sicily although they did so with the scope of exploiting the production of wheat, which was then sent to Rome.
The ARABS in Sicily - The renaissance of Sicilian cuisine & agriculture
During the IX century A.D., the Arabs conquered Sicily and established the Emirate of Sicily. During the Arab colonization, which lasted about 200 years, Sicilian agriculture and cuisine underwent a remarkable, revolutionizing process of revival. The Arabs ameliorated the cultivation of the land making better use of the available water by building modern systems of irrigation that rendered possible the cultivation of rice.
They introduced oranges, lemons, bergamots, citrons, peaches, apricots, dates, pistachios, aubergines and sugar cane. Mulberry trees were also introduced, planted in great numbers and utilized for their berries, their bark and as nesting-plants for silkworms. Pasta (called Itriyya by the Arabs) as well as the process of pasta making was also introduced by the Arabs and, the first pasta factory was built in Trabia near Palermo approximately in 1154 A.D. The famous Arancini/e were also created during this period.
Cakes and dessert preparations also became sophisticated and the legacy of such sophistication can still be observed in modern day Sicilian patisserie. The famous Cassata, a rich and sweet ricotta-based takes its name from the word quas’ta, which indicates a big round pan in which it was made. The Sicilian Torrone (nougat) made with almonds, honey and sesame seeds was an Arab creation called Qubbayt. Finally, bergamot, roses and jasmine extracts, mixed together with ground pistachio, almonds or mulberries, were utilized by the Arabs as ingredients to be mixed together with snow from Mount Etna to create Ice cream and Granita which is today consumed avidly during the summer period together with very soft and fragrant brioches.
It is said that the "Cannolo" was originally created by the ladies living in the Harems in Caltanissetta. In this place, the concubines created it first, perhaps as a vague phony homage to their men. With the end of the Arab rule in Sicily the harems disappeared, and it is possible that some of the ladies, converted to the Christian faith, took some recipes into the monasteries, so this could be one of the Sicilian recipes handed down by Muslim women to the Christian sisters.
The NORMAN colonization , A period of integration & stability
After their conquest the Normans quickly realized the outstanding contribution that the Greek and the Arab legacies had had on crafts, science, architecture and cuisine. For that reason, they adopted a true cosmopolitan attitude and endeavored to preserve and integrate the wisdom of the past with the Norman heritage. They hired Sicilian and Arab chefs and introduced typical Norman foods such as salted fish, which included, salted and smoked herrings, and salted cod (today called Pesci Stoccu and Baccalà by Sicilians).
The SPANISH in Sicily, A time of revival and aristocratic lavishness
In Sicily, they introduced plants from the New World such as the prickly pear cactus, squashes, potatoes, capsicums and tomatoes. Spanish chefs introduced Catalonian foods like our Caponata, which is a dish made with aubergines, capers, tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, raisins is now a renowned, classic dish of Sicilian cuisine.
Sfinci and Tavola Calda, originally bread dough patties stuffed with vegetables, meat, fish and/or cheese, shaped like half-moons and then baked or fried can now be found in most Sicilian Bars. Cocoa and chocolate, were also brought to Sicily by the Spaniards that used the town of Modica as a center for the creation of chocolate, driven by the wealth of the numerous Spanish aristocrats living there, who could afford the ancient and very expensive chocolate-making methods, which have remained unchanged to this day.
Modern days and a free Sicily, A legacy to be enjoyed
Sicily became independent after the end of World War II. Although politically, Sicily is a part of Italy, most Sicilians regard themselves, as well, Sicilians rather than Italians, and they are fiercely proud of their traditional cuisine too! These days Sicilians are gladly enjoying the rich legacy of their culinary heritage.
The wonderful flavors, fragrances and taste of these Sicilian foods however, are not only due to the outstanding culinary heritage of Sicily. The volcanic soils on which all plants grow are constantly being fertilized by the mineral-rich volcanic ashes spewed out in the sky by the frequent eruptions of Mount Etna.
Moreover, the sub-tropical climatic conditions and the nourishing sunshine of Sicily infuse a unique energy and quality into all Sicilian produce. And, while all of these factors have contributed to turn Sicily into a food paradise and Sicilian cuisine undoubtedly delicious, it is nevertheless worth, noticing that just because of these reasons it is easy to be carried away so,
if you have to start a diet it may be a good idea to go to Sicily first.
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