The tastes of Sicily are as bold as the colours of Sicily – the fiery reds of the shades of tomato or the peperocini, the hot red pepper that the Sicilians prefer to black peppercorns. Memories of the Moors still live on in the air redolent of golden sultanas, and pine nuts, actually a seed harvested from the large cones. The yellows are the bright saffron brought from Ancient Greece, the acidic lemons that dance on your tongue, and molten honey an ancient Roman sweetener. The colours and fragrances of Italy overwhelm the senses yet the Italians are masters at culinary simplicity.
Each wave of conquest by the Romans has shaped the Italian table The culinary traditions of Italy began with the Etruscan, and was later developed by the Greeks and Saracens or the non Arab muslims who settled in the South and Sicily, they treasured rice, the citrus fruits and used dried fruit such as figs and dates to stuff pastries and they brought the aubergine to Italy. Both history climate and geography has shaped the region, Northern Italy so close to the Austro Hungarian empire has completely different tastes than the South. Northern Italy boasts the nation’s richest diet, in variety. The vast plains grow grain,rice, corn, and they support the livestock which give the dairy products.
Whether North or south all Italians love pasta, sometimes served with a simple home made cheese and fresh tomato sauce served with fresh herbs, basil or wild marjoram or oregano. In Piedmont the pasta sauces are richer creamier and loaded with butter and cheese. Sicily is renowned for its olive groves, citrus trees and vineyards. Sicily has been ravages by unemployment, foreign rule, corruption, immense feudal estates, piracy and the casa nostra. The Greeks came with their olives, ricotta, wine and honey. Its land was later colonised by the Romans who needed the vast tracts of land for wheat, grains and pulses. The monasteries developed tangy biscuits and also sharp cheeses.
Ancient Rome gave western civilizations the fundamentals of sophisticated elegant cuisine, that would take centuries to be known as fine dining. The Roman empire brought new products and recipes back to Rome.
Other Mediterranean peoples including the Etruscans already knew the skills of milling they made flour and transformed that into fresh bread. They crushed olives to extract the precious olive oil the liquid gold of ancient Italy, they used the grapes to make wine and vinegar and transformed the creamy full fat milk into fresh cheeses.
Olive oil is fundamental to the Italians but the symbol of southern cooking, curiously enough, came from four hundred years of Aragonese rule in Sicily, the Spanish conquestadores brought tomatoes potatoes and peppers and chocolate. The pomodoro found a promised land alongside the eggplant or aubergine, the melanzane that distinguishes the “parmigiana” classics of the Campania.
Sicilian food is a tutti fruiti all of its own, in fact it should be totally overwhelmed, but it is vigorous and robust the staple tastes of the Mediterranean the tomatoes, pasta, fish, fruit, bread and oil fired by peppers, basil, almonds and pistachios, pine nuts, vinegar and golden raisins. Even the names of the dishes are over the top in Sicily Pasta chi sardi a ‘mmari, which translates as pasta served with fish still in the sea. More prosaically they have lasagna cacati, or faeces lasagna a broad wavy pasta with minced meat often served at the New Year.
Whatever your choice of region there is a recipe that is sublime and even the most jaded palette will appreciate Italian recipes.