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E - 192: When Plants Migrate or How Southern Italy Got its Staple Foods

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

As I was preparing my next blog on food in Sicily, Calabria and Apulia I began wondering which of the cereals, vegetables and fruits were native and which were brought to Southern Italy by the various waves of immigration or colonization. Looking at Italy’s statistics on agriculture, farming accounts for just below 5% of GDP. The main products are olives, edible grapes or grapes for making wine, wheat and barley, oranges, lemons, citrons, artichokes, prickly pears, tomatoes, almonds and pistachio nuts. The livestock are mainly sheep and cattle. Which ones do you think are native?

Artichokes from Sicily


The amazing answer is – only the artichokes. Every other plant or animal has been brought over from various corners of the world. The Middle East dominates but Asia as well as Latin Amerika are also well represented. In a nutshell, they all reflect the various waves of settlement, immigration or colonization over the last three thousand years.


The first wave of plants such as barley, wheat, olives, grapes, almonds and pistachio must have arrived with the Phoenician around 1’500 BC. On their way to Southern Spain and Cornwall where they were looking for tin, the vital ingredient to make bronze, the most advanced weapons material at the time, they hopped from bay to bay. Ancient ships avoided sailing over the open sea. The trip from Tyros to Cadiz is about 2’800 miles long and took on average three months, a distance that far outstripped a ship’s food supply. As they followed the coast, they had to produce food locally and store it for ships passing-by the next season. Unfortunately, Phoenicians left only few written records, thus there is no firm evidence for my assumption. But how else could it have been done? What the Phoenicians brought along were - of course - their own staple food: barley, olives and wine.

Olives from Chantrou - October 2020


We know that the dissemination of these plants to Greece happened from the 6th or 5th millennium BC. Barley, olives, grapes, almonds and pistachio all originated in the fertile crescent – the arc spanning from northern Israel to Kurdistan and Persia). From there they spread over land to western Anatolia and Greece. But the Greek colonists ventured a bit later into the Mediterranean – around 800 BC - than the Phoenicians. Thus I assume the plants came with the Phoenicians. But who really knows?


The second wave came with the Romans. Southern Italy and Sicily became Roman in the 3rd century BC just before and after the first Punic war. For the next two hundred years not too much changed. Sicily became Rome’s granary and Rome was happy with that. But as Rome expanded further into the Middle East, Romans got introduced to a more exotic cuisine. Citrons were something that pleased their palate and were also used for medical purposes. What easier than planting these fruits closer to home rather than importing them for faraway? Long distance hauling in the summer heat – sailing in the Mediterranean was limited to the season from April to October - made them loose their juice and shrink. Growing them on the Italian peninsula was a much better idea. Citrus fruits are easy to transport and last easily a week after harvest. By the time they could be in Rome, they were still fresh and ready to consume.


The next wave of new plants came with the Arabs when they invaded and occupied Sicily in 802. They did not only bring Oranges but also sugarcane and cotton of which nothing is left today as production has moved to better suited climates. But sugar and cotton were big business during and after Muslim time in Sicily. The cotton industry spread quickly through Italy and by the 12th century BC there were large textile centers for cotton in most northern Italian towns. By the 15th century, Venice was a major trading center for cotton.

Orange trees spread quickly to the Americas - this photo is from Florida


The first oranges in Europe had their origin somewhere in the mountains of southern China or India and came to Europe via the large trade network that the Fatimid Empire maintained in the Indian Ocean. Europeans already valued Citrons and welcomed the new fruit. Oranges were not only cultivated in Sicily but also in Al-Andalus (Spain). The first oranges in Europe were the bitter orange though. Only in the beginning of the 16th century did Portuguese and Italian merchants introduce the sweet orange to Europe. By that time, the Portuguese had taken over the Muslim trade network in the Indian Ocean. The cannons on their barracks made short shrift with the lightly armed Muslim vessels.

Most of us have eaten prickly pears but few know that they are cultivated in Sicily & Calabria


Last but not least came the Spanish or more precisely the Kingdom of Aragon. Sicily belonged since 1298 to the Kingdom of Aragon and with the merger of Castile and Aragon in 1479 it became part of the world encompassing Spanish Empire. Tomatoes and prickly pears are the latest import from far away. Could not find out who brought these plants to Sicily but we all know the story of these new crops being presented to the Spanish Court by Columbus and that the Court dined on the potato leaves rather than on the lubbers. But lubbers did not make it to Southern Italy. The terrain is too arid for them.






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1 commentaire


jennya1027
26 janv. 2021

I meant to say artichoke so I won.

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