Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi
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Hardie Grant Books

Sicily is a unique and extraordinary tapestry – intricate, vibrant and brightly coloured in parts, shot through with exquisite strands of gold and silver; worn bare, faded and patched up in others. Look behind the fabric holding it together and you will see a complex tangle of thousands of threads that give it its outward appearance. Like all treasured possessions, it has passed through the hands of various owners, each leaving their mark.

From the 7th century BC, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs invaded Sicily, followed by the Normans, Spanish and more. When I started researching Sicilian food, I thought I could unpick these threads and follow them back to their source to see singular origins for particular dishes. I would be able to say with assurance, ‘This is an Arabic recipe from the west of the island, this is Greek from the east,’ and so on, but it is not as simple as that. Actually, the tapestry is very tightly woven; it is impossible to unravel. Sicily’s culture as well as its cuisine is the result of all of these threads knotted together. It is this exotic mixture of influences from the East and West that makes the Sicilian kitchen so different from the rest of Italy.

The cassata, a sweet ricotta-filled sponge cake covered in green icing (frosting) and decorated with jewels of candied fruit, is a perfect example of this; it is the history of a cake and an island. The name comes possibly from the Arabs, who used a domed dish called a qas’at, or from the Latin for cheese, caseum. The Greeks made ricotta-style cheese but the Arabs brought over sugar cane and sweetened it and flavoured it with citrus fruits, almonds and cinnamon. During the Norman period, marzipan came into vogue and the cassata’s pastry case was cast off in favour of the new almond paste. The Spanish introduced a light layer of sponge and added bitter chocolate to contrast with the sweet ricotta. The English coated the cake in icing, which made it last longer, and finally during the baroque period of the 18th century, bright candied fruit and intricate swirls of icing were added to top the whole creation.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and is the market of Italy. Nowhere else can boast the variety and quality of its natural produce, the best and freshest fish from clear blue waters, fruits of every kind ripened in the hot sun, sheep and goat cheeses from the mountains.

As Giancarlo and I drove up the winding road to Polizzi Generosa, towards central Sicily, we passed jujube trees, fig, walnut, apple and pear trees laden with their autumn harvest. With fish from the sea, game from the land and the ability to grow crops easily on the fertile soil, it is easy to see why people would want to settle there. It is a natural paradise yet over the years it has been ravaged not only by some of the cruellest invaders from the outside but also by the Mafia within. The problem now is the lack of work and you will pass derelict houses and even small villages that have been abandoned. My heart goes out to the region; you just want it to work, for the situation to improve and for the people to prosper. Most Sicilians welcome you with such generosity of spirit and are keen to share with you what they have.

The island has throughout the centuries suffered appalling poverty; between 1951 and 1975, for example, one million Sicilians were forced to emigrate to the US. Those who stayed learnt to use the free and readily available ingredients around them to flavour a diet of simple grains and vegetables. Wild fennel is everywhere and mint gets trodden underfoot. I looked at some old steps in Modica and realised that, in the corner of each one, a different herb was growing. We saw mint, fennel, angelica, borage, oregano, capers – all growing wild. No wonder Sicilian food has such vibrant flavours.

Depending on where you go in Sicily you could have vastly differing opinions of the island. Most tourists will only see the manicured towns of the baroque south-east or clean and tidy Taormina, while others plump for the wild, rugged and barren coastline of the west where tourism has hardly left a mark. Palermo is not like other cities in Italy; it still has a gritty, unkempt feel in 8 places, despite its tourist attractions. That’s not to say it isn’t likeable – it is, and there is plenty to do for a weekend. Just don’t expect the order of Rome or the wealth of Florence. You will have great food, buzzing markets, fascinating history to discover, stunning beaches, good-value accommodation and a real and unique experience unlike anywhere else.

Having tasted the strong flavours of Sicilian produce, how, we thought, are we going to find truly Sicilian recipes that will work back home in the UK with the paltry selection of fish and forced, polytunnel-grown vegetables on offer in our local supermarket? ‘E fresco?’ is the question you will hear your average Sicilian ask when buying fish, (bell) peppers, and, well, anything really. Sicilians are obsessed with the provenance of their food and with it being fresco, fresh. I just don’t hear people back home saying that. We know the fish in our local store wasn’t caught that morning.

The older generation still doesn’t like to eat out of season. The sheer idiocy of asking for strawberries in October made our friend Mimmo, who runs his restaurant Osteria Bacchus in Sant’Ambrogio, practically hysterical. He thought it was so funny that people would come to his restaurant in autumn and ask for a strawberry sorbet – he told them to come back in June! He chuckled for ages at the ridiculous notion. As we drove away from his restaurant one chilly January day, we realised that, in the days before, we had been served strawberries at each restaurant we’d visited, even at that time of year. ‘Come on Sicily,’ I thought, ‘stick to your roots. Don’t eat food out of season; it isn’t in your nature.’ Now the island is covered in polytunnels to extend the season and, to my mind, that should be the only reason, to extend the growing season, not to go completely against nature. None of the strawberries we tasted had much flavour – better to wait for June, as Mimmo said.

One of our managers, Marianna, from our restaurant Caffè Caldesi, is Sicilian and I asked her what she was going to enjoy eating as soon as she was home for Christmas (secretly hoping for a completely original addition to my collection of Sicilian recipes). ‘Ah,’ she said, with a teary eye, ‘fresh fish.’ ‘Really?’ I asked. ‘How will your mother cook it?’ (I was still holding out hope for a secret sauce recipe passed down a long line of maternal grandmothers.) ‘Simply,’ she answered. ‘On the outside grill, just simple; a little oil and salt, but the freshness, Katie, aah.’

Oh for goodness’ sake, I wanted to cry out, they are obsessed. However, it did show me the passion for ingredients that even the young hold dear.

Seeing over the years how the Italians shop and cook, Marianna’s delight at the thought of fresh fish and Mimmo’s laughter at October strawberries makes me realise how important it is to get the best produce. That might mean growing what you can, choosing to shop at farmers’ markets or travelling to our remaining fishmongers or independent butchers for the best and freshest ingredients. Then you keep the preparation simple; you do little to your food, but sit back and enjoy the outcome for supper. This is weekday food and the recipes we have included in our ‘use three ways’, which are scattered throughout the book, make the most of seasonal produce.

The exceptions to this are the complex, Arab-inspired dishes such as the sweet and sour aubergine caponata, pasta with sardines, pine nuts, currants and wild fennel, or couscous. These recipes are more elaborate, contain a hotchpotch of ingredients and are wonderful, but cannot be ‘knocked up’ in two minutes. This is our weekend way of eating, dishes that take a little longer to make but are the showstoppers.

In this series of books about the Italian regions, I have always summed up the primary ingredients in my introductions: in Amalfiit was first catch your fish, in Venice grind your spices in your pestle and mortar, in Rome it was grow your chilli and rosemary, and now in Sicily my advice would be to find lemons and oranges with leaves on to ensure their freshness.

Who brought what, and when?

For those who want to know a little more…

There are too many invasions spanning 4,000 years of Sicilian civilisation to mention here. Suffice to say that the genetic history of your average Sicilian must be fascinating to follow. You will find Sicilians of Norman descent with red hair, Greek green eyes and stature, and those from dark-skinned and dark-haired Moorish ancestry.

This is our abbreviated guide to who introduced which foodstuff to the island. It is an incredible list of diverse cultures and helps us understand why Sicilian food is so wonderfully eclectic and unlike the rest of Italy and indeed the rest of the world. Perhaps it is the first real fusion food in a land where East meets West. Eat your way around the island, sampling the dishes along the way, and you will have a lesson in its history as well as its cuisine.

Perhaps we should start with Sicily’s volcano Etna, 500,000 years old, still growing and active today. She is said to be ‘the mother that creates and destroys’. In this case she created differing microclimates around the Etna zone. When the lava flowed from the various eruptions it affected the soil – one side is perfect for pistachios and another has apples and peaches and bitter oranges. The mineral content of the soil gives the character to the produce, such as the grapes for Etna Rosso, the famous red wine from the area. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and has continued to produce a variety of minor eruptions and lava flows over the last decade.

The Greeks arrived at Naxos in 650 BC and lived among the Siculi and Sicani and Elymi, the first recorded inhabitants. They built temples, many of which, like those at Agrigento and Selinunte, still exist today.

The Phoenicians, who were earlier settlers, knew how to extract a valuable purple dye by hand from the murex shellfish caught around Sicily, and built a lucrative trade across the Mediterranean. Tyrian purple was a rare and expensive dye used only for royalty.

Syracuse was founded by Greeks from Corinth and the east is still known as the Greek side. They built gardens called horti, where they grew grapes, olives for oil, figs, hazelnuts, walnuts and pomegranates. They used honey, made sweet wine from Malvasia grapes and ricotta from sheep and goat’s milk. Seeds from carob trees were used for weighing gold. The pods were used, and still are, for cattle feed.

By the 5th century BC Syracuse had become the gastronomic capital of the classical world. It was where the first school for chefs was established, and where Mithaecus wrote the first cookbook in the West, the Lost Art of Cooking.

Around 350 BC, Archestratus, a famed Sicilian-Greek gourmet often seen as the father of gastronomy, published one of the earliest cookbooks under the title Hedypatheia, which can be translated as ‘life of luxury’. He is believed to have lived in either Gela or Syracuse.

The Romans won control of Sicily from the Carthaginians of North Africa in the Punic Wars of the 2nd century BC, and the island – the first Roman province outside of the Italian Peninsula – became known as the empire’s granary, providing it with huge amounts of hard durum wheat and barley. The Emperor Caligula liked to hunt here on holiday from Rome. He would have enjoyed food flavoured with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. Salt from the salt pans of Trapani was available in Roman and Phoenician times. Cherry, plum and citron trees were imported from Asia, and 4th century AD mosaics in the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina depict vine cultivation hunting, fishing and feasting.

In 535 AD Sicily became part of the Byzantine Empire following the break-up of the Roman Empire.

In 827 AD, the Saracens from North Africa invaded and took the west coast, which is still known as the Arab side. Arab culture is evident to this day in the language, architecture and food. In 1154 AD the Arab geographer al-Idrisi wrote a document for the Norman king of Sicily, Roger II, which mentions itriyya – a type of pasta introduced into Sicily from Palestine by the Arabs and produced and exported in huge quantities from Norman Sicily. There are documents dating from 1371 that reveal that the prices of macaroni and lasagne in Palermo were triple those of bread. It was a food enjoyed mostly by the aristocracy and by the Jewish population, because pasta came to be taxed in the 15th century. Pasta strands were originally eaten with the hands but the addition of sauces led to the widespread use of the table fork. Couscous, another food brought to Sicily by the Arabs, is still found along the west coast.

In 807 AD, the North African Arabs introduced the mattanza, the tuna cull, using a sophisticated system of nets. It became embedded in Sicilian culture. The Arabs brought new methods of agriculture, including terracing and aqueducts for irrigation. Sicily grew into a major exporter and trading centre. Muslim, Christian and Jewish traders crowded the markets of Palermo.

The first Jews came to Sicily with the Greeks, and by the time of the Middle Ages they had become a rich elite. The second influx was of Jews escaping from the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th century, but then many had to flee again when the Inquisition reached Sicily, although a large number stayed behind and converted to Christianity. The Jews did not eat certain parts of the animal, so they gave these scraps to the poor Christians. The Catholics of Palermo used these scraps to create street food, which they relish to this day, made exclusively of offal, such as milza (spleen) and stigghiole, the intestines of a young cow, lamb or goat.

In 902 AD, the Arabs began to plant almonds, sugarcane, citrus, rice, bananas, mulberries, aubergines, date palms, pistachios, watermelons and apricots. Pine nuts, garlic and saffron were often included in dishes for their flavour but they were also thought to possess antibacterial properties. Sesame seeds were added to bread.

Snow and fruit was mixed to make sherbets, an early type of sorbet flavoured with rose and jasmine, still popular flavours today. You can see the modern version of this in the popular granite served in a bun for breakfast.

The Arabs combined sugar, ricotta, nuts and fruits to make sweets, a mixture that still fills the ubiquitous cannoli and cassata found all over the island. The Christians later absorbed this knowledge and patisserie produced in the convents and monasteries was given religious significance.

Arab meals comprised one course, unlike the Roman fashion for several. Substantial one-plate meals such as the couscous on page 163 and baked rice dishes like the timballo on page 158 were introduced.

The Norman conquest began in 1060, led by the brothers Robert and Roger Hauteville. They were descendants of the Vikings from Scandinavia and they were ruthless warriors, certainly not men known for their erudition. E. Joranson, in his book about the Norman conquests of Southern Italy, described what the brothers might have found: ‘Lemons, almonds, pickled nuts, fine vestments and iron instruments chased with gold; and thus they tempted them to come to this land that flows with milk and honey and with so many beautiful things.’

The Pope offered Robert the dukedoms of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, where the Byzantines were trying to re-establish their rule over the Arabs. By 1091 the Normans had the whole of Sicily and the Calabrian peninsula under their control. Although the brothers overthrew the Arabs, Roger as Great Count of Sicily embraced much of their culture in setting up his Arab- Norman empire. The Arab influence probably brought little to the culinary landscape other than their salt cod, known as baccalà, but most importantly, they didn’t destroy it either. Valentina, our guide around historic Palermo, told us that generally the Sicilians don’t like to destroy; instead, they prefer to add to what is already there. You can see this in the architecture as well as the food. Roger’s son ruled as Roger II from 1101 and left a legacy of acceptance of other cultures. He spoke Arabic, French, Latin and Greek, created the spectacular Palatine Chapel and hired Arab chefs to cook for his court. The court of King Roger has been described by one historian as ‘by far the most brilliant of twelfth-century Europe’.

The famous Sicilian painted carts originated in the time of Emperor Frederick II, grandson of Roger II, who became King of Sicily in 1197 following the end of the Norman dynasty. (He was King of Sicily from 1197 to 1250, crowned King of Germany in 1212 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1217.) The highly coloured carts, used to transport oranges and lemons, were decorated with religious scenes but also Arabic patterns for festivals, a tradition that continued until the 1970s when motor vehicles took over. During this period, the school of Sicilian poetry was formed. French influences in cooking could be seen at this time. Rolled meat such as the Rotolo di Farsumagru on page 175 was invented after the French roulé.

1492: When the Jews were expelled from Sicily by the Inquisition, they fled to Rome and elsewhere around the world, taking their traditions with them. Among these was the art, learnt from the Arabs, of frying small pieces of cheap food to sell as street food to the Romans. The Jews introduced the use of currants and pine nuts and aubergines (eggplants) to Rome. The Romans named the weird purple vegetable the mela insana, ‘mad apple’. The modern word is melanzane. The sugar industry in Sicily was run mainly by the Jews, who made vast fortunes from trading through the spice routes using their connections from Damascus to Venice – until their expulsion brought this to an abrupt end.

In 1302, the Spanish nobles arrived and brought pumpkins, tomatoes and peppers. Today the area of Pachino still grows tons of tomatoes. They are sold as they are or dried in the sun or reduced and concentrated to make estrattu, the extract of tomato which is sold by weight at markets from a pile of dark red paste. The prickly pear cactus, known as Indian figs or fiche d’India, was brought from Mexico to Sicily by ship. They are still popular today, brightly coloured fruits that are sold whole or ready peeled.

Cocoa beans and the Aztec method of making them into chocolate were brought to Modica by the Spanish. A specifically Sicilian form of chocolate is still produced there in the same way today.

1535: Pastry making took hold in the convents and monasteries.

After the 1600s, agriculture yields and exports plummeted and Sicily fell into a decline.

Cooking in the aristocratic houses of the Spanish nobility from the early 1500s, often referred to as cucina baronale, baronial cooking, flourished up until the middle of the 20th century. It signalled the beginning of the huge divide between the rich and poor with almost nothing in between. Many of the Sicilian dishes we know today were originally made to copy what the wealthy were eating during this time. Instead of a dish of meat slow-cooked in wine, the Sicilian poor would eat Romanesco cauliflower in wine, and caponata was a sweet and sour sauce originally for fish but the poor made it with aubergine instead. The cooking of the poor was known as cucina povera.

1713: The Duke of Savoy took over Sicily under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the European-wide War of the Spanish Succession, subsequently ceding the kingdom to the Austrians a few years later.

1734: The Bourbon Charles III took the throne for Spain. Ferdinand I, son of Charles III, inherited the throne of Sicily in 1767 and ruled from Naples.

In 1773, John Woodhouse, an Englishman with experience of the fortified wines of Spain and Portugal, invented marsala, the fortified wine made principally from the local grillo, inzolia or catarratto grapes to which grape spirit or brandy is added. Marsala is used for savoury and sweet dishes. The revictualling of Admiral Nelson’s fleet off Syracuse in 1798, prior to his victory over the French in the battle of the Nile, helped to spread the popularity of the wine.

1789, Palermo: Goethe declared, ‘Italy without Sicily cannot be conceived; here is the key to everything.’ In his Italian Journey he said, ‘To have seen Italy without seeing Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.’

In 1805, the Royal Court relocated to Palermo under King Ferdinand IV. His wife was Maria Carolina, sister of Marie Antoinette. Maria brought her French chef to the court in 1805. Others followed and became known as the monzù, from the word monsieur. The term was used only to describe French chefs but was later extended to the local Sicilians and Neapolitans who had worked under them. They made more delicate arancine, more like canapés. The desserts developed during this time were influenced by the cooking of northern Italy and France and based on chocolate, pastry, cream and butter.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was set at this time and describes grand feasts and the delights cooked by the monzù, including rum jelly and macaroni pie.

1816: The kingdoms of Sicily and Naples were united to form the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

In 1860 Garibaldi and his ‘redshirts’ began their campaign for the unification of Italy in Sicily and oust the Spanish. The Sicilians voted almost unanimously for this new government of all Italy, thereby bringing to an end the rule of the Bourbons. Naples followed suit five months later and in 1861 the whole of Italy became unified.

In the 1880s the growth of the Mafia across much of rural Sicily was greatly assisted by the development of the lemon trade, which became of strategic importance to the Sicilian economy. The high profits from this industry were targeted by the Mafia in return for ‘protection’.

In 1943, American forces (under General Patton in the west of Sicily) and British forces (under General Montgomery in the east) forces invaded and threw out the remaining Fascists and Germans with the help of the Mafia.

1999: The television series Montalbano, filmed in Modica, helped to revive the tourist industry of the southeast of the island.

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