Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
November 27, 2022
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Mangia Bene

    Sicily was unique in many ways, regardless of its fortunes and the forces surrounding it. The island had an important role during the Roman era as a granary providing soft wheat. Later, during the Arab (827-1091) and Norman (1091-1194) eras Sicily was the bridge at the interstices of geography and history. As the great historian of science Charles Haskins said, “Nowhere else did Latin, Greek and Arabic civilizations live side by side in peace and toleration, and nowhere else was the spirit of the Renaissance more clearly expressed in the policy of the rulers,” than in Sicily.

    Sicily was certainly held in high regard even at the time. Placido Ragazzoni, a Venetian resident in Messina in 1570, said, “Sicily produces all things necessary for human life, so that she does not need to import anything.” But this was a deceptive comment for Sicily was at that time one of the poorest places in Italy. The reversal in Sicilian fortunes from rich to poor had its origin in the undoing of Arab agricultural successes in twelfth-century Sicily under the rapacious rule of Norman barons allied with the rule of William II. He was known as William the Good by the barons because he allowed them to rape the land. His father, William I, who kept things in check and enjoyed the pleasures of his semi-Muslim court where he could discuss literary and philosophical topics with learned Greeks and Muslims, was called William the Bad by the barons. The Norman barons allowed the ancient Roman and Byzantine latifunda, large and inefficient agricultural estates that had been dissolved centuries before during the Arab era, to re-form.

    The poorest Sicilians were those engaged in agriculture. In the fourteenth century, it is likely that the very poor of Sicily had no cuisine. Medieval Sicilian inventories for the most part mention the caldaria (a spit with a tripod), padella (a pan), or sartago (a fryer), but the rarity of the foculari (slow brasiers) and the number of tricfizarii (taxes), for instance on prepared foods (that is, already-cooked foods for take-out) like heads, stomachs, and feet rather than food for home consumption, suggests the absence or quasi-absence of a cuisine among the poorest. The presence of foculari in the homes of Sicilian peasants would indicate the presence of more sophisticated cooking while the other batteria da cucina--spits, fryers, and pans--would indicate the simplest of cooking methods. The fact that there were high taxes on prepared foods sold by vendors indicates that a majority of homes might not have had kitchens and, at the very least, that home cooking was not prevalent.

    Sicily was an early entrepot for vegetables and fruits never before grown in Europe. The Sicilian kitchen garden likely developed during the Kalbite era of Muslim Sicily (947- c. 1040) in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. The garden had evolved out of the rawdah of the royal gardens of the caliphs, who planted them with decorative vegetation and fruit trees. These gardens did not disappear when the Normans overthrew the Arabs in Sicily. In fact, the Norman overlords, if not the local barons, were thoroughly Arabized, wearing Arab clothing, holding Arab-style courts with harems, and eating Arab food, even if they didn’t accept the “Arab” religion. The kitchen gardens were maintained and grew, becoming more sophisticated and hosting a variety of new vegetables that were only much later introduced to Italy, as well as old vegetables such as the winged pea (Tetragonolobos purpureus Moench.) a food traditionally eaten by the Sicilian poor.

    In the fourteenth century and up until the beginning of the eighteenth century, animal fats such as butter, bacon, lard, mutton fat (perhaps a vestige of the Arab presence), and beef suet were the fats used in Sicilian cooking. In fact, the preferred cooking fat in fifteenth-century Sicily was butter. According to the stricfizarii (taxation records), these were the largest purchases. In Corleone, a mountain town of western Sicily, butter was sold in a quartara, a kind of narrow-necked earthenware vessel and was sometimes the only food to accompany the bread available to the agricultural workers who used it frequently in place of cheese.

    Although olive oil, the cooking fat most closely associated with Sicilian cooking today, has been produced continually throughout Sicilian history, it was rare and expensive until recently. Although butter was used more than olive oil in Sicily, and it was a primary cooking fat, its production and distribution was nevertheless limited. In the Middle Ages, only the Jews bought olive oil in quantity as pork fat was forbidden to them (the Muslim Sicilians having suffered their final expulsion in the 1230s). The Jewish cooks’ fondness for olive oil is partly behind this, but also most merchants dealing in Sicilian olive oil for export were Jews. Don’t let the abundant use of olive oil in contemporary Sicilian recipes fool you into thinking that olive oil was always abundant in Sicily. When olive oil, with its modest production, was used, it was used on bread or for seasoning dried vegetable soups.

 (Winged pea with flower, Derek Hall @ Dorling Kindersley)

   Cheese was of the utmost importance in Sicily, both economically and nutritionally. In fact, cheese was the second largest export after grain in fifteenth-century Sicily. The Sicilians greatly appreciated cheese and it was an important part of their diet especially fresh cheese and ricotta. Cheeses that were made of cow’s milk and that were salted were more expensive because of the expense of salt and the requirements of raising cows. Owing to the effects of the Black Death in Sicily in the fourteenth century, a reduced agricultural population meant a greater number of animals to be corralled or shepherded. Cows were common in Sicily in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, but by between 1430 and 1460, a cheese made from cow’s milk, called vaccino, was replaced by a sheep’s milk cheese called pecorino or caciocavallo (today made mostly with cow’s milk). This is indicative of the difficulty of raising cows in a typically arid and vegetatively barren Mediterranean island. More sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses were made, and many cheeses were made in the springtime, which also is the time of two important religious holidays, and these cheeses came to be associated with those holidays. Scaldato, a cheese like ricotta, was traditional for Easter; it was hardly cooked and cost as much as salted cheese for some reason. A goat’s milk ricotta was used to make a cake called cassata, a cake eaten by both Christian and Jewish Sicilians. Sicilian Jews, were not only consumers of ricotta and tuma, a mozzarella-like cheese, but cheese retailers too, and they usually made it for Passover.