Sicilian fresh beauty: food
Apart from an immeasurable dose of chauvinism, there are some other features that distinct Sicilian cooking and food. The ingredients usually grow locally and excel in freshness. When you eat what you see, magic occurs. Drizzle olive oil over your salad in the shadow of an olive tree. Spoon a lemon sorbet when you can smell the fresh cut lemon in the background. Savour grilled sardines overlooking the sea. A culinary experience becomes lyrical. The landscape is majestic and leaves no one impassive. Don’t get me wrong here, Sicilian cooking is not necessary the transformation from fresh picked ingredients in a dish. But the idea is so overwhelmingly present it sure does look like it. Freshness, historically, is after all the result of not having the means to store and conserve many of the ingredients, leaving no other options than immediate consumption.
The ingredients are, in an ever shrinking world, on sale in supermarkets all over the globe. Lemons may be sold a piece instead of by the crate, aubergines may resemble and treated as a shiny shoe and to purchase artichokes you might have to reconsider your food budget. The ingredients are available all year around. This, alas, goes straight against the spirit of Sicilian food. Availability and seasonality are the main axis around which the whole kitchen turns. Sicilians would rather leave out or replace an ingredient than buy the second best at an exaggerated price.
The Sicilian compromise
There is a beautiful example with one of Palermo’s most emblematic dishes: pasta with sardines. The main ingredients are, yes you guessed right, sardines. When sardines are not all that fresh, too expensive or simply not available, something interesting happens. The same dish becomes ‘pasta with sardines still in the sea’ or ‘pasta with sardines alla Milanese’. Since there is no sea and thus no sardines in Milano. Adding, not substituting, an ingredient to a dish on the other hand, is risky business.
The Sicilian kitchen does differ from the Italian, and not just in unfettered conservatism. Political and geographical importance attracted many occupants, from the Greek to the Norman, from the Phoenician to the Spanish. The element of leisure did not escape to any of them. All left some of their culture behind, cuisine inclusive. This resulted in ‘synchronism’, where layer over layer of culture created a rich and wide and unique canvas. Instead of replacing, cooks continued to build on what they found.
Sicilian food examples
Let me explain with two emblematic dishes. First the arancine. This rice ball with a meaty filling is found and eaten all over the island, especially in the bigger cities where it is the queen of street food. Well, rice and saffron are typical Arab, while the filling is typical French (béchamel). Then there is the richest of all cakes, the renowned cassata Siciliana. Almonds, introduced by the Greek, transformed into marzipan by the Normans. The Arabs brought sugar refining and the Spanish introduced chocolate and sponge cake. Can it get any more Sicilian?
Today Sicilian kitchen navigates on two speeds. Traditional home cooking tends to repeat itself, murmuring that a winning team should not be changed. On the fast track there are changes coming through. Often based on rediscovering old customs, fuelled by a mainly youthful will for change. Whereas wine was not considered all that much, it recently boomed. Same grapes, same climate, but with new techniques and knowledge, very fine wine came forth. Much alike happens to cheese. Pasta making is still in the waiting room since the cost of staple food is rather delicate. And the pasta produced so far tends to be more expensive. So as you see, things do change, in Scilily it just takes a lot of time to happen.
Is Sicily in or out of Italy?
The Sicilian cuisine is probably harder to copy, since it is based on simplicity and balance. While the Italian cuisine lends itself to interpretation. Also because, in the culinary landscape Italy simply does not exist. Instead of a united state it is still made up of many regions, provinces, districts, zones and areas. Sicily would be a gigantic gem on an all but nice crown. Just read this list, and you will understand little can go wrong with having this on your fingertips. Citrus fruits, grapes, figs, persimmon, pomegranate, fennel, cauliflower, aubergines, peppers, artichokes, pistachio, almonds, and olive oil. There’s much more, but no need for overkill either.
Long history of Sicilian resistance
The very first cookbook ever written was by a Greek living in Sicily, called Mithaecus. He taught his fellow citizens about the abundance and refined Sicilian cooking. It was also that man who warned against mixing cheese with fish. Socrates and Plato did not like our man. Giving too much importance to food, they said, is the start of -physical-decline. However it may be, Mithaecus gathered recipes and preparations that somehow impressed him.
As explained, things do change in Sicily, it takes a long time but eventually they transform. Resistance to history and unchangeability imply that sudden alterations are not consented. It means that changes are slow, that it takes generations where elsewhere it happens overnight. One of the most common interpretations is the Sicilian passive resistance to the many occupying forces. Since one never knows who’s enemy and who’s friend, distance is kept. They waited until waters cleared before choosing sides. Pragmatism much more than opportunism. Suspicion and not knowing what tomorrow brings does lead people to withstand innovation.