Goethe got it right in many ways: “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily, is not to have seen Italy at all.” This is certainly true of Sicily’s food scene which is an exotic mélange reflecting its varied group of conquerors, its abundant produce from volcanic soil, unprecedented hours of sunshine, and bountiful seas.
The Greeks founded colonies in Sicily’s far eastern shore in the 8th century B.C. With them they brought wine grapes and olives, two of the hallmarks of the island’s current cuisine. Roman invaders arrived during the 2nd century BC. Their armies brought pasta, another modern staple. But, it was the Arabs who the greatest influence on Sicily foods---more than the Greeks and the Romans combined.
Arabs sailed to Sicilian shores in the 8th century AD. With them they transported their almonds, citrus, pine nuts, eggplant, saffron and sugar (it was Sicily that introduced the remainder of Europe to sugar in the 9th century). But, this wasn’t all the Arabs brought. They also introduced melons, rice, raisins, nutmeg, cloves, pepper and cinnamon, along with gelato (the Arabs, who had never seen snow, made sorbet from the snow of Mt. Etna mixing it with their rosewater). All of these ingredients (and gelato) have a profound influence in Sicily’s contemporary food scene.
The Arabs remained until the 12th century when Sicily was invaded by the Normans, descendants of the Vikings. These sea-faring folks taught the Sicilians the skill of fish-curing. To this day, Sicily remains one of the world’s largest producers of sardines and anchovies.
Next came the Spaniards in the late 1400’s. With them they carried the tomatoes, peppers, chocolate and prickly pears that Spanish explorers had brought back from the Southern American continent. All of these items remain an important part in Sicilian diet in the 21st century.
Another influence on Sicily’s foodways occurred when the French arrived in the 1800’s. French-trained chefs became a status symbol with Sicilian aristocrats. Monzu (Sicilian dialect for chef) is derived from the French word monsieur. Chefs from France added vast amounts of butter and cream to local recipes and even introduced foie gras. In addition to the island’s glorious sunshine and warm seas, this may have been another reason in the last part of the 20th century that Sicily became a favorite winter resort for European royalty. While some butter and cream is used today, olive oil is the island's main fat.