The Greek philosopher Plato was reputedly disgusted by so-called Sicilian gluttony, though ancient manuscripts suggest this was fake news. He apparently loved the cuisine and admired Sicilian cooks – so much so that Syracuse, in southeast Sicily, fulfilled his personal vision of Utopia. I'm absolutely with Plato on this.
Each time I visit Syracuse and neighbouring island Ortigia, I fizz with excitement at the markets, the cooks and the food. Mount Etna broods to the north, occasionally spewing volcanic dust that makes the soil so fertile, which, in turn, produces fruit and vegetables with outstanding flavour. The same goes for seafood. With nearly a thousand miles of coastline, spanking fresh fish are a daily given in the markets. You'll find monster tuna and swordfish alongside plump red mullet and silvery sardines, plus octopus, squid and all manner of intriguing shellfish.
Given Sicily's geographic position – south of Italy, west of Greece and on the same latitude as Morocco – it's not surprising that a motley mix of nationalities once occupied the island. Arabs, Spanish, North Africans and Greeks all made their culinary mark, and it is this that makes Sicilian cuisine so different from mainland Italy.
The Arabs brought exotic spices, sugar, raisins and citrus fruit – juicy lemons, bergamots, oranges and mandarins which play a major role in the modern Sicilian menu. The Spanish brought maize, peppers and tomatoes from the New World, and North Africans introduced couscous. The Greeks were behind the characteristic simplicity of the cuisine – fresh vegetables, salads, herbs, olives, cheese, figs, honey and nuts were the order of the day, and still are.
This glorious abundance of produce is put to good use in a delicious cornucopia of dishes. One of my favourites is Caponata, a classic Sicilian starter based on lightly fried aubergines, celery and peppers in a sweet/sour tomato sauce that simply explodes with flavour. There are endless versions – every village, street or household claim their recipe is the best.
The perfect partner to Caponata is Sicilian Sesame Bread – the dense texture is ideal for mopping up tasty juices or olive oil. It's made with semola rimacinata (twice milled semolina flour) that comes from the same hard durum wheat used for pasta. The bread is typically embedded with sesame seeds – the Arab influence again. It's impossible to overestimate the importance of bread to the Sicilians. It's served with every meal, and you'll find thriving bakeries even in the remotest village.
Equally important is pasta. It shows up at least once a day at the Sicilian table, dressed with a variety of punchy sauces. Pasta Con Le Sarde is a classic combination of Arabic/Sicilian ingredients: sardines, saffron, raisins, pine nuts and wild fennel. Sicilians wouldn't dream of serving cheese with fish so instead of the usual Parmesan the dish is topped with pangrattato, crunchy fennel breadcrumbs fried until dark golden, rather than golden. They make a delicious contrast to the pasta, and, equally important, demonstrate the commendable Sicilian habit of not wasting a single crumb of bread.
Fennel shows up in numerous Sicilian dishes. The main variety is Mountain Fennel Foeniculum vulgare, which grows wild all over the island and is valued for its strongly flavoured seeds and fronds. Cooks also use the domesticated variety – Florence Fennel Foeniculum vulgare azoricum, which has a large white bulb at the base. The bulb is sliced and grilled as a side dish, or eaten raw as in Fennel, Orange, Olive and Red Onion Salad, a superb combination of contrasting flavours and colours.
Dolci (desserts) are as significant as bread. Sicilians excel at them, producing magnificent cakes, crisp biscuits, cream-filled pastries, fritters, macaroons, ice creams and sorbets of every imaginable flavour. The quality is as much due to culinary expertise as to the superior fruit and other ingredients with which desserts are made. Oranges, lemons, figs, sugar-coated almonds, pistachio cream, marzipan, honey, sweet spices and herbs are all put to good use in the most imaginative way.
© Christine McFadden, June 2019