Let’s talk about the heritage and flavours that made the Great Sicilian cuisine what it is today…
Our culinary heritage 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.
Little history of Sicilian food
It all started with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians during the Bronze Age, who introduced lots of leguminous plants, such as lentils and chickpeas and perhaps pomegranates.
Then came the Greeks who introduced olive trees, wheat, Vines, thus 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 they introduced the famous ricotta cheese.
This is when Syracuse, Gela and Agrigento became renowned for their cuisine.
Legumes, meats, fish, and vegetables were all enjoyed seasoned with plenty of extra-virgin olive oil and wild herbs such as thyme and oregano, all accompanied by strong red wine.
They also started making desserts and cakes crafted using ground nuts and ricotta cheese, honey and flour.
An early dessert was a ricotta-based custard called Tyropatinum.
Baskets of fruit and sweet wine made from white grapes of the Malvasia variety original to the eastern Peloponnese region would accompany these dishes.
Following the Punic wars, the Romans improved the agricultural system with the scope of producing wheat, which was then sent to Rome and Sicily started to be called: “Il granaio d’Italia”.
The renaissance of Sicilian cuisine & agriculture really started when, in the IX century A.D., the Arabs conquered Sicily.
Their colonization lasted about 200 years and during that period Sicilian agriculture and cuisine underwent a remarkable, revolutionizing process of revival.
The Arabs made better use of the available water by building modern systems of irrigation that made rice cultivation possible, this system is still in use and called: ‘Saja’.
They also introduced oranges, lemons, bergamots, citrons, peaches, apricots, dates, pistachios, aubergines and sugar cane.
Mulberry trees were also introduced, planted in great numbers and used 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 on the East side of the island.
Cakes and desserts were becoming more sophisticated which can still be observed in modern-day Sicilian patisserie.
The famous Cassata, a rich and sweet ricotta-based cake 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 (called Brioche cu tuppu).
It is said that the “Cannolo” was originally created by women living in the Harems in Caltanissetta, perhaps as a vague phoney homage to their men.
With the end of the Arab ruling in Sicily, the harems disappeared, and it is said that they then converted to the Christian faith and took some recipes into the monasteries, so this could be one of the those handed down by Muslim women to the Christian sisters.
After their conquest, the Normans quickly realized the outstanding contribution that the Greek and the Arab legacies had left to crafts, science, architecture and cuisine in Sicily.
This is why they adopted a true cosmopolitan attitude and preserved the wisdom of the past mixing it with the Norman heritage.
They hired Sicilian and Arab chefs and introduced typical Norman foods such as salted fish, and created the today called Pesci Stoccu and Baccala.
When the Spanish arrived, they introduced plants from the New World such as the prickly pear cacti, squashes, potatoes, capsicums and tomatoes.
Spanish chefs introduced Catalonian foods like our Caponata, a dish made with aubergines, capers, tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, and raisins, which is now a renowned, classic Sicilian dish.
Sfinci and Tavola Calda, Sicilian Street Food, 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 centre 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.
Sicily became independent after the end of World War II.
Although politically, Sicily is a part of Italy, most Sicilians consider themselves, Sicilians rather than Italians, and we are fiercely proud of our traditional cuisine!
These days Sicilians are gladly and fully enjoying the rich legacy of their culinary heritage which we are happy to share with visitors.
The wonderful flavours, 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 unique energy and quality into all Sicilian produce.
While all of these factors have contributed to turning Sicily into a food and wine paradise 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 before.”