L’Isola del Sole, the sun-kissed island of Sicily, is a land of sparkling seas, arid deserts, and towering volcanoes, a land whose only constant in time remains these natural features. Sicily is a land whose history is as colorful as the landscape itself, punctuated by influxes of civilizations passing through its strategic Mediterranean ports; a land whose dialects, buildings, and traditions are road maps of these invasions. Volumes have been written depicting the forceful takeovers, detailing episode after episode of influential changes. However, there is nothing that demonstrates the soul of Sicily’s past like the quintessential Sicilian activity: sharing a meal. In fact, it is by examining the key dishes which constitute Sicilian cuisine that one can extract the story of the Island of the Sun.
Sicily’s cuisine reflects centuries of invaders
We’ll begin in the only way appropriate for a true Sicilian meal, with the antipasto. Among the many dishes on the table are olive fritte, reminiscent of the first settlers on the island, the Greeks. During the 8th century BC Greeks landed on the east coast and founded the colony of Siracusa, followed by the colonies of Gela, Akragas (modern-day Agrigento, which to this day boasts some of the most well preserved Greek temples in the world) Himera, Kamarina, and Messene (modern-day Messina). With them the settlers brought olives, walnuts, figs, goats and sheep, native bees for honey, and grapes, the arrival of which began the long and glorious history of Sicilian wine. The period’s sweet wine was made from dried grapes whose notes still resound in the sweet passiti wines of Pantelleria and Marsala.
As the plates are cleared and the table prepared for the primo, we pour a wine whose roots trace back to the times of the Roman Republic when the Mamertini people (named for the fertility god Mamers, later adopted by the Romans as Mars) made their way to northwestern Sicily from Calabria. The group introduced a winemaking style that was praised by the likes of Pliny the Elder and Julius Caesar, and which boasts DOC status today. Tonight’s Mamertino di Milazzo DOC is the white version, a blend of Grillo and Inzolia grapes that goes well with the quintessential Sicilian pasta dish, pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines).
Although many history books credit Marco Polo for pasta’s arrival in Italy, there are in fact many accounts of Sicilians having pasta-like dishes long before Marco Polo’s adventures in China. In fact, the island’s perfect growing conditions for grain and cereal earned it the title of “Rome’s granary” during ancient Roman times. The first course of this particular meal recalls that tradition, as well as reflecting a component of another civilization that left its mark on Sicilian cuisine and language: the Arabs.
In the early 800’s, the Arab population conquered the west side of the island, eventually moving the capital to Palermo and introducing sugar cane, lemon, bitter orange, dates, pistachios, apricots, couscous, and vermicelli-like noodles. Reminiscent of the fruit and meat mixtures popular in the tagines of Morocco, pasta con le sarde is a dish in which long noodles are tossed in an olive oil-based sauce of salty sardines, sweet raisins, pine nuts, silky saffron, and fennel.
The second course brings us to the period of the Normans and the Gallic footprint on Sicilian cuisine. In the 12th century under Frederick II, Sicilian cuisine began to split into high baronial dishes and lowly peasant dishes. It is the baronial dishes that absorbed the French tradition of the roule – rolled, stuffed pieces of meat – in farsumagru. It has been suggested that the dish, a roll of beef or veal filled with meats, eggs, cheeses, and vegetables, comes from the French farce maigre, meaning “lean stuffing,” and hints at a lack of meat in the original filing. Its prestige has endured, and farsumagru, one of the only prominent meat dishes on this island of fish-eaters, fills the plates of diners who sip on wine made from one of the island’s indigenous black grapes, Nero d’Avola.
Nero d’Avola’s naturally high tannins marry well with the decisive flavors of the contorno to follow: Sicilian caponata. A mixture of eggplant, capers, olives, olive oil (all a result of Greek/Roman influences), tomatoes (from the Spaniard’s conquest in the New World) that is tossed with vinegar and sugar to create the renowned agrodolce (sweet and sour) flavors that the Arabs had perfected over the centuries. The dish is left to sit and marinate, marrying the diverse flavors into one distinct and much-loved vegetable-based roadmap of Sicily’s past.
Spanish rule in the 1500’s brought products from the New World, including squash, tomatoes, and cactus fruit (called fichi d’India, or “Indian figs,” for the false belief that Columbus had discovered the far east in his travels), but most precious of all the products introduced to Sicily during this time was chocolate. The dinner table is sprinkled with luscious candies from the southeastern town of Modica. Heavily populated with aristocrats under Spanish rule, Modica became the center of production for this expensive delicacy and remains so today. The real star of the dessert course, however, is Sicilian cassata – derived from the Arab word for large baking pan, qas’at – a sponge cake featuring ricotta, pasta reale (almond paste), and candied fruits. An intensely-sweet explosion of flavors in the mouth, cassata finds an ideal accompaniment in the dried fruit and honey taste of the Greek-inspired wine of Pantelleria.
As the meal winds down and belts are loosened, no one makes a move to leave, immersed in heated debates on the true way to make eggplant parmesan, stories of days past, and animated scherzi (jokes) poking fun at fellow diners. It is in these moments that it all comes together: the weighted cultural history of the dishes is brought to life in the people, the ambience, and the time shared. Ecco…here is the real heart of Sicilian cuisine!