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Friday, August 14, 2020

Sicily: An Exotic Foodies’ Paradise

           Ingredients in Sicily's signature cannoli were brought by the Greeks, Arabs & Spaniards

The Mediterranean’s largest island….and perhaps the most beautiful….is a mecca for food lovers.  The original fusion cuisine, Sicily’s food is an interesting tapestry reflecting its diverse conquerors.  Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Normans and Spaniards have all left their culinary footprint and created one of the world’s most fascinating cuisines.  Many of the foods classically associated with Italy such as pasta, ricotta, mozzarella, gelato and even wine grapes are thought to have been brought to Italy via Sicily.

                          Sicily's Greek temples are some of the best preserved in the world

The Greeks first arrived in Italy 750 BC on the island of Sicily.  They founded the city of Syracuse, a city-state that became one of the most powerful in the entire Mediterranean.  Food items were brought by the Greeks such as wheat, figs, pomegranates, capers and olives---unknown to the island at the time, these foods remain an important part of Sicily’s profile today.  The Greeks also brought the know-how for turning goat and sheep milk into a cheese that closely resembles modern ricotta.  Last, but not least, the Greek explorers introduced grapes and developed a considerable reputation for Sicilian wines in the centuries leading up to the birth of Christ.

                        The Arabs brought many food items but also the concept of antipasto

Fast forward nearly 1,500 years and the Arabs arrive Sicilian shores.  The Arabs left a profound imprint on the island’s gastronomy.   Water buffalo was introduced to Italy first by the Arabs in Sicily----this buffalo milk is still required in making Italy’s authentic mozzarella.  Arabs also brought rice and sugar cane, both of which became cash crops for Sicily and remain staples in any Sicilian kitchen.   Gelato also owes its origin to the Arabs, as does possibly pasta.  Many food historians believe that Arabs, who had acquired the method of pasta-making from the Chinese, created the first pasta in Sicily.

Most importantly, however, the Arabs brought with them advanced irrigation techniques that turned a dry island into a fertile garden of Eden.  Orange and lemon orchards (what would Italy be without Limoncello?) that are seen throughout Sicily today owe their heritage to the does Sicily’s ubiquitous eggplant, melon, pistachio and pine nut.

Citrus, brought by the Arabs, grows throughout the island in rich volcanic soil

While the Arabs introduced a plethora of new foods to Sicily which then worked their way up through Italy, some of the greatest Arabic gifts to Sicily’s culinary scene are spices.  Saffron, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg were all introduced first to Italy via Sicily.   Some of Sicily's most decadent pastas feature saffron.   The island's most epoch desserts are laced with cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg.

Next, the Normans discovered Sicily in the 11th century.  Their genius of preserving fish transformed Sicily's sardine industry.  Five hundred years later the Spaniards arrived with tomatoes, peppers and chocolate brought back from their discoveries in the New World.  All of these three remain a fundamental part of Sicily’s culinary fabric.

                                 Spaniards brought tomatoes from the New World

Modern Sicily has a different gastronomic profile from mainland Italy.  Out of all of its many past invaders, the Arabs have exerted the most dramatic influence on Sicilian cuisine.  This island is a treasure trove for foodies seeking an exotic epicurean adventure.  If you’re coming with Wine-Knows this autumn to Sicily, you are in for a serious culinary treat.

Buon appetito !

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