Sunny climate, ancient ruins…and delicious cuisine on Italy’s largest island
By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author
Savvy travelers have long known that Sicily is a part of Italy well worth seeing. But in recent years this largest island in the Mediterranean has suddenly become a popular tourist mecca, attracting visitors from all over the world. They come for Sicily’s sunny climate and rugged scenery, its ancient archeological sites, sleepy villages, historic cities and colorful markets, and to see nature’s own spectacle, Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest volcano, spouting steam from its fumaroles and sometimes spewing lava down its slopes.
Tourists come to taste Sicily, too—whether on short day trips from cruise ships docked near its shores, or on longer culinary tours (often with cooking classes included) that focus in depth on the history and variety of Sicilian cuisine.
Located only two miles from the Italian mainland, Sicily has long been a magnet for invaders, colonizers, and rulers—from the early Phoenicians in 800 BC to the Germans, French, Spanish, Austrians and British at various times over the past one thousand years. But it was the ancient Greeks, Byzantines and Arabs who had the greatest influence on Sicilian cuisine.
The Greeks (800-200 BC) brought advanced agricultural methods and introduced new vegetables, fruits and fowl. They cultivated barley, wheat and millet, planted olive groves and vineyards, kept bees (for honey) and improved the breeding of livestock, especially sheep, which were important for cheese production. Even today, Sicily is famous for its ricotta and pecorino cheeses made from sheep’s milk.
The Romans (200-400 BC) focused on growing wheat on large landed estates, turning Sicily into a granary of the Mediterranean. But the influence of the earlier Greeks remained strong. When the Byzantines annexed Sicily to the Eastern Roman Empire (550-900 AD), Sicily was again immersed in Greek traditions and customs, including the kinds of foods favored on Sicilian tables.
During the relatively short time that Arab Muslims controlled Sicily (900-1100 AD), Sicily became one of the wealthiest and most progressive cultures of medieval Europe. The Arabs also had an important impact on the local cuisine. In addition to upgrading traditional agricultural practices, such as irrigation technology, they added a variety of new crops, including rice and sugar cane. They planted orchards of lemons, oranges, almonds and pistachios, and imported spices from Asia and the Middle East.
During this time the Sicilians developed their famous “sweet tooth.” Today Sicily is still renowned for its magnificent marzipan confections (crafted from sugar and almond paste); frozen-fruit treats (ice creams, sorbets and granitas); and cannoli dessert, deep-fried tubes of thin pastry made with Sicilian Marsala wine, stuffed with sweetened ricotta cheese combined with candied orange peel, chopped pistachios and chopped chocolate. All these seductive sweets have their roots in medieval Arab cuisine (except the New World chocolate, of course).
Even after the Norman French conquered Sicily at the end of the 11th century—and other Europeans came to rule over Sicily after that—local Arab culinary traditions remained strong on the island. When many Arab Muslims were forced out of Sicily by the Christian conquerors, the arts of Arab confectionery fortunately were not lost. As in Spain, with the later expulsion of Muslims from that country, the recipes were secretly and safely stowed away in Catholic convents, where the nuns made these sinfully sweet treats to give away as presents and later to sell to support their convents. Today these marzipan candies, chewy nougats and sugary pastries are among the most important culinary legacies of the Arabs in Sicily.
FEASTS & FESTIVALS
Holidays are often the best times for travelers to taste the special dishes of any country. Like the rest of Italy, Sicily celebrates many religious holidays every year, from small festivals honoring a local saint to national holidays observed throughout all of Italy. Festival foods range from ritual breads for Christmas and New Year, to cannoli during the spring Carnival season just before Lent, to little marzipan confections shaped like lambs for Easter.
For St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), Sicilians build ornate altars adorned with bread-dough decorations and fresh flowers in their homes, and each community prepares a special ritual meal, often with at least a hundred different dishes, to honor the good saint. Since St. Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry cooks, many of the festive dishes are sweet, including the traditional deep-fried, custard-filled “St. Joseph’s pastries.”
Easter is the time for highly decorated candy eggs, sweet breads and fancy cakes, especially Sicily’s cassata, a multilayered baroque concoction of sponge cake, marzipan, pistachio paste and sweetened ricotta cheese, glazed with white icing and ornately decorated with crystallized orange and pear wedges, curving ribbons of candied squash and grated chocolate.
In Palermo, the Feast of Saint Rosalia (July 13-15) features street foods sold from carts colorfully painted like old Sicilian farm carts: salted and sugar-coated nuts, toasted pumpkin seeds, roasted fava beans and pink-white-green-striped nougat candy. The traditional dessert eaten during this festival is gelato di campagna—not ice cream, as its name implies, but an elaborate confection-cake constructed of multicolored fondants. This rich confection looks like an ice cream cake with four layers: white (almond paste), brown (hazelnut paste), green (pistachio paste) and pink (strawberry paste)—all assembled in a cake mold and studded with pistachios and candied fruits.
For All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days at the beginning of November, Sicilian children receive special gifts supposedly from their deceased ancestors: pupi di cena, candy dolls shaped like knights, ballerinas, clowns and even contemporary figures like Batman, all made of melted sugar poured into molds and then painted in bright colors. Other traditional foods include colored marzipan shaped like fruits and vegetables; fava beans, a symbol of death, since this is a holiday honoring the dead; fave dei morti, little cookies shaped like fava beans; and ossi di morto (“bones of the dead”), cookies shaped like leg bones or skeletons, made of ground almonds, egg whites and sugar.
Roasted turkey and roasted chestnuts are traditional for St. Martin’s Day on November 11. Other typical Sicilian treats for this holiday include biscotti di San Martino, little hard, thrice-baked cookies flavored with anise, cinnamon or orange; and sfinci, fried beignets made of mashed potatoes and flour, sometimes filled with custard cream, and usually drizzled with honey.
On Saint Lucy’s Day (December 13), Sicilians eat arancine, potato-and-rice croquettes the size and shape of an orange, filled with meat or cheese and fried until golden. (These are also popular year-round in Sicily, a savory treat not to be missed!) Christmas Eve (December 24) is celebrated with eel or salted swordfish, followed by a large Christmas Day feast that includes nuts (symbols of fertility) and honey (so the coming year will be sweet). And Christmas in Sicily wouldn’t be complete without sweet almond torrone (nougat) and rich buccellato, a special wreath-shaped bread spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, filled with figs, raisins, almonds, walnuts and apricot jam, and decorated with candied fruits on top—a legacy of the culinary influence of those Greeks and Arabs who ruled Sicily so long ago.
For more information about the foods of Sicily see:
Eat Smart in Sicily, by Joan Peterson and Marcella Croce (Ginkgo Press, 2008), the best portable guidebook to Sicilian food, with a summary of Sicilian culinary history and a very good menu translator. You’ll definitely want to take this little book with you when you travel to Sicily.
Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food, by Mary Taylor Simeti (Knopf, 1989), probably the best single book you can read about the history of Sicilian food (republished in 2009 as Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle).
Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood, by Mary Taylor Simeti and Mari Grammatico (Bantam Books, 2003).
Sweet Sicily: The Story of an Island and Her Pastries, by Victoria Granof (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2001).
Celebrating Italy, by Carol Field (William Morrow, 1990), which covers other regions of Italy, too, but includes much information about the festival foods of Sicily.
For more books about Sicilian cuisine, search “Sicily cooking” on Amazon.com.