Rich heritage in Sicilian cuisine

Giuseppina Salibra with a big bowl of Pasta alla Norma. Photo: Charmian Smith
Giuseppina Salibra with a big bowl of Pasta alla Norma. Photo: Charmian Smith
Halfway between east and west, Europe and North Africa, Sicily is described as the crossroads of the Mediterranean, so it’s not surprising that numerous peoples have washed up on its shores. Almost all have left their stamp not only on the land and the language, but also on its food, each adding to the complexity and fascination of its cuisine, as Charmian Smith discovered on a recent trip.

Over the millennia, Sicily's bountiful seas and once-forested interiors attracted many peoples, most of them intent on trading, colonisation or conquest.

In the 4th and 5th centuries BC, the ancient Greeks built major cities in the east and south, such as Syracuse and Agrigento with its remarkable Valley of the Temples.

Phoenicians, who had already established Carthage in nearby North Africa, colonised the west of the island with cities such as Motya and Palermo.

Like the earlier peoples before them, they exploited the wealth of the seas, as well as fruits - figs and pomegranates, almonds, pulses, olives and grapes. Hillsides were terraced for wheat, shepherds produced cheese, and the Hyblaean Highlands were famed for their honey. Capers still grow wild on the limestone rocks, and the rich volcanic soils on the slopes of Mt Etna have produced fine wine for millennia.

When the Romans conquered the island about 210 BC, they turned it into the empire's granary, deforesting and establishing large estates worked by slaves in the rolling hills in the centre of the island.

Wheat is still the staple in Sicily as Giuseppina Salibra, who runs cooking classes near Syracuse, explained.

''We cannot live without bread. We eat bread with everything. We don't ever throw away bread even if it is too stale to eat,'' she said.

Stale bread is used in soup or with legumes, or turned into breadcrumbs for stuffing vegetables, fish or meat, or to crumb them for frying, or simply toasted and sprinkled on pasta instead of the more expensive cheese.

''Often bread is the real meal: hot, seasoned with olive oil, salt, oregano and red pepper, or eaten with olives, tomato or cheese,'' she said.

Durum wheat is also used to make pasta, the island's other staple.

Pasta and couscous, also made with wheat, were introduced by the Muslims who colonised the island in the 9th century. In 1150, an Arab geographer mentioned that vermicelli was produced commercially there, and these days pasta in many shapes is served at almost every meal.

The Muslims brought a wealth of other new foods - eggplants, oranges, pistachios, sugar cane, spices such as cinnamon and saffron, rosewater, as well as a love for sweets.

In the 11th century, Normans arrived, building huge castles and cathedrals resplendent with gold mosaics. Theirs was a golden age. The kingdom of Sicily became one of the wealthiest states in Europe with Arabs, Jews, Greeks and others living in harmony with immigrant Europeans.

However, the Papacy did not approve of Islam being practised in a Christian kingdom. Later rulers persecuted Jews and Arabs. In 1492, they were expelled or forced to convert.

However, from their American colonies the Spanish brought vegetables now essential to Sicilian cuisine: tomatoes, capsicums, chillies and potatoes, as well as maize, prickly pears, chocolate and vanilla.

The Spanish also introduced a flamboyant style of baroque architecture noted for its curves, flourishes, grinning masks and putti, that crowd the historic centres of most towns, many of them rebuilt after various earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.

Some of that baroque exuberance can be seen on the decorations of many of the cakes and sweets found in the island's pasticcerias, such as the colourful cassata, a cake filled with sweetened ricotta and decorated with candied fruit, citrus peel, and crushed green pistachios.

In the 19th century, French cooking began to infiltrate Sicily as the nobles imported French chefs, known locally as ''monzu'', a corruption of ''monsieur''.

The latest colonisers were the Italians under Garibaldi, who unified the various Italian states in the 1860s and reorganised the landholdings of the nobility and the Church. However, corruption was rife, peasants remained incredibly poor until after World War 2 and many of them emigrated.

In the Hyblaean Highlands, inland from Syracuse, we visited Ornella and Salvio Lucifora's family farm, where she milks 90 cows, makes cheese and takes fresh ricotta into town in time for the bakers to use it in their pastries. Ricotta is made from whey, a by-product of cheesemaking.

A favourite dessert snack is cannoli, a rich, spiced, deep-fried, crunchy pasta tube filled with sweetened ricotta and candied orange peel or crumbled pistachio nuts.

Ornella also makes salami and sausage from her sister-in-law's pigs, grows vegetables, preserves olives, vegetables and fruit, and cooks for visitors to her ''agritourismo''.

Around the coast, fish is still abundant - octopus, swordfish, anchovies, sardines, mullet, tiny clams and mussels - are found in markets. They are often served with pasta, or in the more Arab-influenced west of the island, with couscous.

Vegetables are an important part of every meal. Contorni (vegetable dishes) are served as antipasti, as a course by themselves or you can choose several dishes, along with bread, cheese and wine to make a meal.

Some of our favourites were caponata, an eggplant salad, sliced and grilled vegetables dressed with the local olive oil that appears on every restaurant table, greens with garlic in olive oil, and tomatoes, zucchini, artichokes, fennel. They are often dressed with a sweet-sour agrodolce sauce, soured with vinegar or lemon juice and sweetened with raisins or a little of sugar, one of many Arab culinary legacies.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Giuseppina's tomato sauce

Used for pasta, vegetables or flavouring meat loaf, this is an all-purpose tomato sauce.

1kg ripe, well-flavoured tomatoes, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Chop the tomatoes and onion and put them in a pan on low heat to cook slowly for about 20 minutes or until very soft. Giuseppina prefers not to use olive oil at this stage, but says you can use a little if you think it might burn.

Put the soft tomatoes and onion through a sieve or mouli to remove skins and seeds.

Cook the garlic in a little olive oil then stir into the tomato sauce and cook until thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To make Pasta alla Norma, cook chunks of eggplant in olive oil. Cook pasta until al dente.

Top the hot pasta with the tomato sauce, eggplant chunks, a few leaves of basil and finely grated salted, baked ricotta (or you can substitute parmesan).

Caponata (sweet and sour eggplant salad)

2-3 medium eggplants
olive oil
1 onion, sliced
3-4 celery stalks, chopped
4-5 fresh tomatoes, chopped, or a 450ml can of crushed tomatoes in juice
handful of green olives, pitted and cut into halves or quarters
1 Tbsp capers, rinsed
4 Tbsp wine vinegar or to taste
1 Tbsp sugar or to taste
salt and pepper to taste

To garnish (optional)
roasted and slivered almonds and chopped parsley

Cut the eggplants into 2cm chunks. Cook in olive oil until soft.

Cook the onion in a little olive oil until golden, add the tomatoes and celery and simmer until the consistency of a sauce. Add the capers and olives, vinegar and sugar and simmer till absorbed.

Season carefully as the capers and olives are already salty.

Add the cooked eggplant and simmer again.

Leave to stand for about 30 minutes before serving as an antipasto, or as a side dish, or on its own with bread, cheese and some good olive oil.

Garnish with roasted slivered almonds, and parsley if you like.

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