The stigma of organised crime surrounding this region has done little to promote its image, yet this island, in the heart of the Mediterranean, has a great and illustrious past. No other region in the world has been influenced by such a variety of cultures, producing some of the most distinguished minds throughout history. The signs are visible in everything; landscape, architecture, art, literature, and most intriguingly in its cuisine. With flavours and tastes from the simplest to the most complex, and cooking techniques from elementary to labyrinthine, Sicily is the embodiment of culinary evolution; and in exploring its heritage, this multidimensional cuisine begins to come alive.
The Italic tribes of Sicaeans, Elymnians and Sicali were the first recorded settlers of Sicily; the Phoenicians soon followed, building new urban settlements in 1300 BC. However, it was the Greek colonisation in 800BC that shaped the island’s cultural identity. The Greeks trading with the local tribes, found little resistance integrating their primitive culture; gradually most of the island was incorporated into their way of life and Greek became the spoken language. Many cities were built, competing with each other for strength and prestige; new farming techniques were introduced; crops, such as vines, olives and durum wheat were planted, and the locals began producing wine and cheese. Syracuse slowly became one of the largest cities of the time, rivalling Athens; in 388 BC, Plato, upon visiting the city, considered Sicily the perfect setting for his Utopian society.
The Romans, having been influenced by the Etruscans and Greeks, were impressed by this advanced civilisation, and upon conquering Sicily in 227BC, became further influenced by the Grecian way of life, adopting many more aspects of their culture in the arts, sciences, literature, politics and religion. They made agricultural practices more efficient, clearing forests for the production of wheat; thus Sicily became the granary of the Roman Empire. In addition, they built new towns and made existing ones stronger. Latin was introduced in Sicily at this stage, creating a bilingual society. Yet in Rome, Greek was the language of the educated classes.
The fall of the Roman Empire saw a period of Vandal and Ostro-Goth rule; while the Western Roman Empire was in disarray, Byzantium was growing stronger, spreading both Roman-Greek heritage and Christian values. Sicily was eventually conquered by the Byzantines under Justinian I; however the island’s Greek heritage meant that the Byzantine conquest was welcomed by the people, its culture being similar to that of the Sicilians of the 6th century. Sicily was in turn influenced by Byzantine art and architecture, and its legacy can be found in many buildings and Churches of today.
The Food of Sicily
If one were to choose a group of people who represent a melange of Mediterranean and European ethnic groups, it would be the Sicilians, as so many have settled on the island over the years:
The Romans, who encouraged the settlement of Latin speaking peoples from the mainland.
The Vandals and Visigoths
The Arabs, who initiated immigration from North Africa
The Normans, bringing Longobards and other Northern Europeans, including an English queen
All have contributed to the Sicilian heritage, and three of these cultures have been fundamental in shaping the Sicilian cuisine:
First were the Greeks, who considered cooking as an art form and created the foundation of the Sicilian cuisine. They introduced many pulses including lentils, chick peas, broad beans and black eyes beans; vegetables including fennel, chicory, wild artichoke, and of course olive oil, and new methods for cooking them. Cheese-making was perfected, especially the production of pecorino, ricotta, and ricotta salata. They used olive oil with grilled meats and fish, eating sardines, swordfish and tuna for which Sicily has long been famous. Greek cuisine in Sicily influenced the Romans, who anecdotally reputed Sicilian chefs and their food.
After the Greeks, the Arabs were the next to play a major role in shaping Sicilian cuisine. A new diet evolved, which was to even influence international cuisine as a whole, in later years. Crops such as sugar cane, pistachio nuts, and rice were introduced; new fruits were grown including oranges, lemons, bananas, dates, mulberries and watermelons. Saffron, cinnamon, cloves and sesame were some of the spices used to enrich the cuisine; and flowering jasmine, roses and bergamot were used to flavour the drinks; Sharbat (sorbet) evolved from mixing flavoured drinks with the snow of Mt Etna and coffee was first used as a drink around this time. Couscous and dried pasta were also introduced. Cassata (traditional ricotta cake) is derived from qashatah, the Arabic dish in which this cake was made. Almond and sugar were combined to produce martaban (marzipan) and cubbaita (torrone with honey, sesame seeds and almonds) came from the Arab qubbayat.
Under the Spanish domination, Sicilian cuisine evolved more in form than substance. Aubergines, brought to Europe from India by the Arabs, became widely eaten by the general population in this period; tomatoes and peppers were introduced from the new world, although tomatoes were only used in cooking in the late 18th early 19th century. A new style of cuisine evolved in the rich and decadent households of the aristocracy, as French chefs were imported, who created extravagant, complex dishes, influencing the Sicilian pastry school in particular.
Exploring this cuisine, one is amazed, not only by the sheer variety of ingredients, different combinations and cooking techniques, but also the number of ingredients that go into some of the recipes. In Caponatina or Cuscus Trapanese, for example, it seems as if each ingredient represents a culture that touched this island and became part of its heritage, and in this way becomes an integral part of the dish. These ingredients with such contrasting flavours, like its peoples, are unimaginable together, yet this unlikely marriage of ingredients, blend together to create a harmonious, single taste.
The Wines of Sicily
Sicily today is the source of some truly delicious red and white wines. In its 3000 year winemaking history which has had the contribution of 20 different civilisations, it is ironic that only in the last 30 years is its wine industry finding a new purpose.
There are 3 forces driving this change:
- The remodernisation of historic established wineries by the younger generation of owners.
- Production of artisan wines by small independent producers who often do not have any wine making background.
- Outside investment from established producers keen to take advantage of the region’s potential.
In a recent wine seminar, three leading winemakers from the reputable estates of Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Querciabella were asked where they would invest, and all without hesitation chose Sicily.
What makes Sicily such a great place for winemaking is its consistently warm climate, with pockets of microclimate where the temperature drops considerably at night. For example, at high altitude in Mount Etna, harvest occurs late in mid-October, when even in Germany wines have already been fermenting for weeks.
In the last 30 years, there has been much experimentation with indigenous as well as international grape varieties, a number of which are worth searching for:
Nero D’Avola is without doubt the most representative red wine of Sicily. It can produce simple, easy to drink and enjoyable as well as rich, complex and structured wines. The appeal is in its distinctive fruit of prune and black cherry, as well as the balance between fruit, acidity and tannin structure, making it by far the most popular of the Sicilian reds. The historic house of Regaleali makes arguably the best example of Nero D’Avola with great ageing potential called Rosso del Conte.
Nerello Mascalese is mostly found on Mount Etna where it is thought to have originated, and where it gives its best results. Only in the last 20 years has it gained a reputation internationally, thanks to the work of Dr Giuseppe Benanti who has kept alive the tradition of vine growing on the difficult terraces of Mount Etna, saving century-old vines from neglect. Many of these vines have survived phylloxera, thanks to the volcanic ash in which their roots are deeply embedded. Working conditions are hazardous as the vineyards are perched on small terraces and all the work in the vineyard can only be done by hand. Under these conditions, Nerello Mascalese produces elegant, refined wines with suave, intense fruit; what makes them great is the combination of power and finesse found only in finest Barolos and Burgundies. Now a number of newcomers are making excellent wines with this grape, such as Tenuta Terre Nere and Passo Pisciaro.
Other indigenous grape varieties found on their own or in blends are:
Frappato producing soft reds such as Cerasuolo di Vittoria
Perricone found near Palermo and Trapani
Nerello Cappuccino found near Messina
International grape varieties are still a work in progress; good results are being achieved with Cabernet and Syrah.
A greater number of white wines are now being produced, often sold under the name of their grape varieties. The appeal lies in their ripe fruit which is supported by a core of minerals and low acidity.
Most commonly found indigenous varities are:
Catarratto from around Trapani
Grecanico and Grillo also main grapes used to make Marsala
Caricante is found exclusively on Mount Etna. Here at 800-1000m it produces some remarkable mineral-driven Chablis-like wines. Pietramarina from Benanti is a good example
International Grape Varieties
Chardonnay has had a fair amount of success in Sicily largely due to the Estate of Planeta Established in 1995 by 3 cousins, the estate acquired international prominence with its Chardonnay, a rich, buttery and creamy wine with vanilla aromas in the Burgundian style. Today this is still an iconic wine with an international following, and although many have tried to emulate it, few have succeeded .
Viognier and Sauvignon: trials with these grape varieties are ongoing with varying degrees of success
Sicily has a long tradition of sweet wines, made from drying of the grapes, a technique probably introduced by its first Greek settlers.
Worth seeking out are:
Passito di Pantelleria: the most well-known sweet wine produced on the island between Sicily and Tunisia. It is made from Moscato d’Alessandria locally known by the Arabic name of Zibibbo. Pellegrino produces a reliable, easy to drink example. A number of well-crafted, artisan examples with extraordinary complexity are produced, such as Kamma by Salvatore Murano
Malvasia delle Lipari from the volcanic island of Lipari
Moscato di Noto and Moscato di Siracusa
Marsala - similar to sherry, can be drunk as an aperitive or after dinner. It was first made by John Woodhouse, a Madeira merchant in 1773. Forced to land on the island due to storms, he realised the potential of the local wine, soon setting up business on the island and shipping the wine to England with great success. Florio bought him out in 1833 and became the first Italian producer of Marsala. New regulations introduced in 1963 have raised the standards of production of this wine. Today it can be found in a number of styles at differing qualities: dry, semi dry, sweet or fortified. When unfortified it is “vergine”. Premium Marsala is aged for a number of years, which are usually stated on the bottle. De Bartoli produces extraordinary Marsalas, some of which are aged with the Solera system.
Sicily Recipe - Fritedda
300g Fresh peas (shelled from the pods)
300g Fresh broad beans (shelled from the pods)
5 Medium young articholes
4 Large spring onions chopped
1 lemon (juice)
5 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
freshly grated nutmeg
1 sprig marjoram (optional)
Monday - Thursday, Lunch 12.00 - 14.30, Dinner 18.30 - 22.30
Friday & Saturday, Lunch 12.00 - 14.30, Dinner 18.30 - 23.00