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D - 48: Sicily - Culinary Melting Pot

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Today’s blog is about Sicily’s Cuisine. As we have seen in previous blogs, the island was settled by Greek and Phoenicians about three thousand years ago, then became Roman for almost a thousand years, was run by Arabs for two and a half centuries, then conquered by Norman mercenaries and governed by Spanish Monarchs for another 400 years before it became Italian in 1861.

It is difficult to imagine a place that has seen more cultures in its history than Sicily. All of them left their marks – sometimes visible as the Spanish coastal fortifications or the Greek vineyards, sometimes more subtle. Add to this the island’s fertile soil and good climate where almost every plant ever imported grows somewhere - be it on the rolling hills, the flanks of Aetna or the coastal regions. The Sicilian cuisine is thus full of references to its past. Am going to pick the few dishes which represent history best.

Sicily with its mountains to the north-east, the rolling hills in the center and the almost flat coastal planes to the south.

Let’s start with Pasta! The origin of the word tells us that Pasta (Italian for pastry from dough) must have some Italian roots. Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced pasta from China where noodles were made for thousands of years. The story widely circulates in the US. Following this lead, pasta was introduced to Europe by 1295 AD when Marco Polo returned. Whilst I kind of love the story, it is too good to be true. Pasta made its appearance much earlier. We know from the poet Horace (65 – 27 BC) that Romans had a dish called Lagana, a predecessor to Lasagna, prepared with thin sheets of Durum dough alternating with layers of meat and vegetables. In Roman Palestine, Lagana morphed into Itrium, dough boiled in water. Arabs rolled the dough into small strings, dried them and called them Itriyya. As we know from a map drawn for the Norman King Roger II, by 1154 AD Itriyya was produced in large quantities in Sicily. Genoese and Pisan merchants loved the new dish – easily storable on their ships - and sold it to other parts of Italy. By the 13th century, macaroni, ravioli, gnocchi, vermicelli are mentioned everywhere. We owe our pasta to Sicily!

Making pasta – 15th century translation of the Arab book Taqwim al-sihha

But let’s go back to a typical Sicilian pasta: According to Wikipedia, Pasta con le Sarde (Sardines), Spaghetti ai Ricci (with sea urchins) and Pasta alla Norma (macaroni with fried eggplants and tomato) are most popular. The last one is a perfect illustration of Sicily as a culinary melting pot. Pasta from the Arabs, eggplants from India and tomato brought over by Spaniards from the Americas. The dish could not be more global!

Pasta alla Norma

The next dish I want to talk about are Arancini, filled rice balls, which come in an amazing variety depending on which part of Sicily you are in. Rice came from the far east and was brought to Europe in the Middle Ages. Today, Risotto is so familiar that we hardly think about its Asian origin. But back to the Arancini: On Sicily’s west coast where Spanish influence was strongest, they are flavored with saffron. In the central hills they are filled with chicken liver. In the south with Ragu or Peas. In Syracuse with tomato and mozzarella. We will have plenty of Arancini to taste!

Arancini from the BBC book book

Another typical dish from Sicily is Caponata, a sweet and sour eggplant dish or Aubergines as we call them in Europe based on their Arab name Badinjan. Eggplants are originally from India. Given Sicily’s perfect climate, the plant quickly became part of the local cuisine. In the early days, eggplants were often associated with madness since people ate the poisonous flowers and leaves. I think we know the problem from the introduction of potato to Europe! Eggplants are not the most nutritious food - they consist to 92% of water, 6% carbs and 1% protein - but they taste good! For Caponata, there are about a dozen different recipes. My favorite is preparing Caponata for Bruschetta. The slowly cooked eggplants and tomatoes are delicious on toasted bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil.

Caponata with Pine Kernels and Basil

The last dish I want to mention is another pasta: Pasta con pesto alla Trapanese. It blends Ligurian (Genoa) with Sicilian Cuisine. Not surprising given that so many merchants from Genoa stopped in Sicily on their way to Africa, the Levant or the Crimea. Whilst in Ligurian pesto the basil dominates, in Sicilian pesto it is the almonds. But equally good!

Pasta con il pesto alla Trapanese (from Trapani where we end our sailing!)

Tomorrow we are going to talk about the Genovese galleys which linked these cultures through trade and how they were built. They will also take us to the Ligurian Coast, the last Cuisine I am going to describe for this blog

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May 25, 2020

I have never been to Sicily but the dishes are making me want to go there NOW in particular because pasta is my favourite dish, like ever! Sea urchin is also one of my favourite things to eat. Where I come from in Mauritius, we eat them mostly raw, although sometimes we also do put it in pasta. Whenever I am there, we get one of the local fishermen to take us out and he takes them out of the sea and we eat them then and there. Delicious! Here are some pictures from a trip when we did just that - the fisherman opening up the sea urchin, Barnaby (my husband) tasting the live sea urchins for the …

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