The History of Colorful Sicilian Cooking
Sicilian cooking is undeniably the most complex and colorful in Italy. Like hues on a painter’s palette, the dishes on a Sicilian table represent the various cuisines of the many civilizations that have passed through the island. The longtime isolation of the island and the Sicilians’ innate attachment to tradition have allowed for the preservation and evolution of an elaborate cuisine. In Sicily, new and old and East and West thrive side by side, blending uniquely together like no other place in the world.
La Vucciria, Renato Guttuso, 1974. La Vucciria is an old market in Palermo. The name comes from the French “Boucherie” (“butcher shop”). Guttuso, a famous neo-
Early Greek colonizers settled on the seaside from 700 BC to 400 BC and founded most of the coastal cities we know today. For the Greeks, Sicily was a land of legend. The famous Greek poet Homer made Sicily the background for his mythological stories. Mount Etna was home to the god of the underworld, and the island of Vulcano was home to Aeolus, the god in the Odyssey who gifted Ulysses with a sack containing contrary winds.
The seminal moment for Sicilian cooking occurred, however, under Saracen domination. Conquered by the Arabs around 830 AD, Sicily became one of the most splendid Islamic provinces. Palermo, the island’s capital, was an Oriental metropolis, legendary for its luxurious gardens and buildings. The Arabs gave a new face to the gastronomy of the island. They brought in new produce such as peaches, apricots, melons, dates, rice, sugar cane, eggplant, raisins, pistachios, oranges, and lemons, as well as new spices like clove, cinnamon, and saffron.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti (Saint John’s of the Hermits), Palermo. The Church built in 1130 for the Benedictine Order is a fine example of Norman-Arab construction. It was built over a mosque in a particularly Arabic style, with five cupolas. The bell tower is distinctively Norman architecture. Were it not for the bell tower, Saint John’s could easily be mistaken for a mosque.
Under Arab tutelage, the local cuisine acquired the sophisticated flavors that still make it unique one thousand years later. Oriental taste is alive in the many sweet-and-sour dishes, and especially in the desserts, which are extremely sweet and full of honey, almonds, figs, nuts, and pistachios. Many Arabic words transferred to international gastronomic vocabulary, including sorbet, sugar, saffron, and couscous, to mention just a few. It is in Sicily that we have the first testimony of the manufacture of dry pasta, as well as marzipan and nougat. Almost all foods that we think of today as typically Sicilian are typically Saracen.
At the turn of the millennium, the Normans conquered Sicily for a short but illuminated reign that restored the authority of the Christian church while respecting Arab art and culture.
After a period of civil disorder, the French Angevins took power in a reign that proved a complete disaster. They were followed by the Spanish Aragonese who briefly ruled the island, inspiring Spanish eating habits and dishes.
Caponata, the use of wild fennel, ‘mpanate (empanadillas), and sponge cakes all date back to this period. Next came the Bourbons (with ties to both French and Spanish royalty),, who founded the Reign of Sicily that survived until 1860. Products from the new world appeared, including cocoa, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and potatoes. These quickly became part of “traditional” Sicilian cooking. The tables of the wealthy acquired a baroque taste.
In the early 1800s, when the island was under an English protectorate for about a decade, an Englishman by the name of John Woodhouse “invented” Marsala wine. He recognized that Sicilian climate and wines had similarities with those of Madeira and Port, which the English valued and enjoyed. He successfully produced, promoted, and made popular Marsala wine.
When the northern Italian leader Garibaldi landed in Marsala in 1860, Sicily was finally united with the rest of Italy. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, French, Spaniards, English, and Northern Italians all contributed to the palette.
The southern Mediterranean climate also shaped Sicilian cuisine. The climate favored the use of olive oil and fish over that of beef and pork fat. Religious ceremonies influenced culinary traditions, too. Pagan festivities merged with Christian holidays, and people continue to experience the occult significance of certain foods—mostly breads and sweets with ritual shapes.
Mount Etna during an eruption. Mount Etna near Catania on the East coast of Sicily is one of the most active volcanoes in Italy.
Sicilian desserts—colorful, precious, and extremely sweet—reflect history very well. They were first created by the Byzantines and then elaborated by the Arabs. Then, they were handed down in the monasteries and later enriched in the kitchens of barons and peasants. In the 1500s, Caterina de’ Medici took a Sicilian baker to France with her. In 1689, Procopio de’ Coltelli, a Sicilian baker, opened his Café Procope in front of the theater Comedie Francaise in Paris, giving European stature to Sicilian ice creams. It is to Sicilian cuisine that we owe our thanks for ice cream, candied fruit, nougat, marzipan, and desserts like cannoli and cassata
Although this island was punctuated by orange groves, inhabited by emirs, barons, philosophers, and poets, and made lavish and succulent by Arab alchemies, survival was never easy for the Sicilians. The people of Sicily responded to hardship with emigration by the hundreds of thousands to the new world. Yet, the smell of the zagara, the blooming orange flowers, has remained in their memory. Those who left took with them their proud, passionate culture and an attachment to their traditions, as well as their dishes and cooking habits.
Anna Maria Volpi