Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
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Mangia Bene

The Arabs had introduced sugar to Sicily by the tenth century and established sugar mills. Although it may be true that the initial Arab invaders brought sugar to the islands of the Mediterranean in the eighth or ninth century, that claim is not based in fact; rather, it seems that Arab agriculturalists cultivated sugar long after the initial invasions. There are few references to the cultivation of sugar cane in Sicily, probably because the island was under Muslim rule for a relatively short period (827 to 1091). By the tenth century the sugar plant seems to have been grown around Palermo and perhaps elsewhere in large enough quantity to be exported to North Africa. An anecdote that has come down to us gives some insight into the export of Sicilian sugar in the tenth century. Abū al-Fadl, a celebrated orthodox jurist in the capital of Qairouan in North Africa (in today‚Äôs Tunisia) refused to eat a cake made with sugar which came from Sicily because Sicily was then ruled by the Fatamids, a Muslim dynasty originally from Egypt, who he considered apostates.

When the island was captured by the Normans in the late eleventh century the sugar industry still existed but its fortunes began to fluctuate. The Norman chronicler Hugo Falcandus (fl. late 12th century) makes several references to sugar production in Sicily and describes not only the sugarcane plantations, but also molasses cooking and sugar refining. Important innovations in sugar production were found in Sicily, such as the introduction of a new sugar press called the trappeto, which is known to have been in use in 1449 in Ficarazzi, Sicily. There were sugar cane mills in the twelfth century, and in the thirteenth century King Frederick II restored sugar refineries in Palermo, after having to send for experts in Lebanon, indicating that expertise had disappeared and the mills must have been in ruin. The cane and sugar industry flourished in Sicily until the late fifteenth century when, with the discovery of the New World, sugar plantations moved across the Atlantic.  The Sicilian sugar industry responded to foreign competition through technological innovation and survived until the late seventeenth century.