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A History of Sicilian Cuisine

Sicilian Food
Sicilian Food Today
Sicilian Pantry
Typical Sicilian Dishes

Sicilian Food II; History - Tom Musco

Click here for a Gourmet's Historical Timeline of Sicily

The Greek colony of Siracusa, on the southeast coast of Sicily, was founded in 734 B.C. by a group of Corinthians. To these rich but largely uncultivated lands, the colonists introduced grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat, walnuts, and hazelnuts. They planted olive trees and vineyards, building a considerable reputation for Sicilian wines. Native bees were making honey that the Greeks used as offerings to their goddess Aphrodite. The rich pastures supported sheep and goats whose milk was made into the cheese we know today as ricotta.
Writings from this period document sweets called dulcis in fundo, made of honey, nuts, milk, and flour, served with baskets of fresh fruit and sweet wine at the end of a meal. The Greeks made a very sweet wine called Malvasia using dried and fresh grapes crushed together. The Greeks in Sicily also made custard of ricotta; honey and eggs called tyropatinum, a sweet version of the modern Greek cheese pie known as tyropita.

The colonies continued to grow and prosper, particularly Siracusa, which eventually extended its domain over the whole southeastern corner of Sicily. Throughout the island, the settlers constructed horti: vegetable gardens fenced in with stone walls that were the predecessor of the present day kitchen gardens called orti.

Under the control of the Roman Republic Sicily lost much of the prosperity it had enjoyed. Then, under the Roman Empire, Sicily settled into a period of peaceful prosperity. The Romans planted hard durham wheat, turning the island into the Empire’s granary. Hard durham wheat is the secret of superior pastas. They also planted fava beans, and grapes to make Mamertino wine. Pliny the Elder wrote that Ceres taught milling and breadmaking in Sicily, and that is why she was considered a goddess.

Augustus and Hadrian encouraged the development of agriculture. The Roman general Lucullus imported cherries, plums, and citrons from Asia Minor to accompany the cardamon, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice in use by the Romans.

In 827 A.D. ten thousand Saracen troops landed in Sicily’s west coast and established a foothold on the island. By 878 they had conquered Palermo, Messina, Enna and Siracusa. They moved the capital from Siracusa to Palermo, where it remains today. Even now, the western part of Sicily is casually referred to as "the Arab side," while the east is thought of as "the Greek side."

The Arabs introduced new cash crops, including cotton, linen, rice, and sugarcane. Land was divided into small plots, and new irrigation channels aided intensive farming.

Lush gardens of lemons, bitter orange, bananas, date palms, pistachios, mulberries, watermelon, apricots, and tangerines flourished in the horti left by the Greeks. Flowering jasmine, roses, and bergamot provided the flavoring for the exotic beverages the Arabs enjoyed, which they discovered could be mixed with the snow of Mount Etna to create ices, or sharbat (known as sherbet today). The two most famous desserts of Sicily, cannoli and cassata, trace their roots back to the period of the Saracen occupation. Saffron, cinnamon, cloves, sesame and other exotic spices brought new tastes into the island’s kitchens. The Arabs started the tuna hunts, introduced couscous and marzapane (marzipan), and may have brought coffee to Sicily at this time. Arabic became the official language, and today many famous Sicilian dishes have Arabic names: the ricotta cake Cassata takes its name from the quas’ta, a big round pan in which it is made, and Cubbaita, the torrone made with honey, sesame seeds and almonds, comes from the Arabic qubbayt. The Arab geographer Idrisi noted that vermicelli were being made here as early as A.D. 1154 – a century before the birth of Marco Polo.

Although many traditional Sicilian dishes are termed Arab legacies, it is more accurate to say that they were born in Sicily and incorporate both Sicilian and Arab traditions. The Pasticcio di Pollo of the Emir of Catania is a good example, since it contains olives, capers, and other ingredients introduced prior to the Arab conquest but reflects the Arabic penchant for stuffed foods as well as the use of pistachio nuts.

The Arabs also influenced meal structure. Although most Italians insist on a first course of pasta or rice followed by a meat or fish dish, under the Arabs, Sicilians acquired a repertory of one-dish meals such as Riso al Forno or baked rice casserole.

The Norman Conquest began in 1060, led by brothers Roger and Robert Hauteville. These meat-and-potato men left the austerity of the north for a southern land bathed in sunshine and all the virtues and vices of the east. The many remnants of Arab culture in Sicily owe much to the Normans, who embraced their adopted culture while making few additions of their own.

His son Roger II succeeded Roger in 1112. His court was multilingual, speaking French, Greek and Arabic. He hired Arab chefs to prepare Arab food and retained Arab artisans to work alongside Norman architects and Byzantine mosaicists to create the dazzling Royal Palace in Palermo. In one hundred years the Normans were responsible for establishing a singular culture of immense splendor.
In the twelfth century the court of Frederick II became a bastion of high culture (the scuola siciliana of poetry greatly influenced Dante), and this was a time when class distinctions became entrenched. Even today two separate traditions of high and low cuisine persist. During the thirteenth century, Sicily and Naples were joined by arrangement of the pope under the French house of Anjou, and high cuisine took on some decidedly Gallic touches. Farsumagru, stuffed beef rolls, Sicily’s undisputed premier meat dish was first called rollo, derived from the French roule.

In the Middle Ages, strict secrecy was employed by cooks, physicians, and alchemists regarding potentially lucrative formulas. Few, if any, recorded recipes survive from that time.

Sugar fortunes were made during the 1400s by the Jews, who managed its cultivation and exportation through the spice route from Damascus to Venice, through the Straits of Messina. The Spanish Inquisition of 1493 ended the sugar industry when the Jews were expelled from Sicily.

The influx of Spanish nobility under the House of Aragon expanded the ranks of Sicilian aristocracy. They developed a taste for the showy and ostentatious embellishments of the Baroque period and, to a large extent with the Sicily of modern times.

By the early 1500s, cucina baronale had taken hold in the kitchens of the aristocracy. This is when the tomato and chocolate found their way into the Sicilian pantry. The town of Modica in the southeast corner of Sicily became the center of chocolate production because it was populated by aristocrats who could afford the ancient and very expensive chocolate-making methods, which have remained unchanged to this day.

Ships from the New World brought squash and cactus. Cactus fruit, called prickly pear in America, is known as fichi d’India, or Indian figs, in Sicily, and is a favorite for eating raw after a meal.

Maria Carolina, the wife of Ferdinand I and the sister of Marie Antoinette imported French chefs to the royal court in Palermo in 1805. These chefs became known as monzu, a corruption of the word monsieur. Gradually the Sicilians and Neapolitans who had apprenticed under the French monzu took over the kitchens and continued to bear the prestigious title.

Probably more than anywhere else, the wealthy convents and monasteries of Palermo and Catania have been responsible for preserving the traditions of Sicilian pastry making.

Spanish rule ended in 1860 when Garibaldi’s "thousand Redshirts" entered Sicily to lead a populist overthrow of the corrupt Bourbon government. Naples fell five months later, and the unification of Italy was achieved.

Part III: Sicilian Food Today.

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