Connoisseur’s GUIDE to Sicily
*From the Connoisseur Archives first published 2009 To be renovated and improved soon
What is surprising about Sicily is that so many culturally historic monuments have survived after 2,500 years of earthquakes and conquests, for in other ancient Greek territories this number is remarkably smaller. Your trip will be made unforgettable not only by the grand Agrigento, Selinunte’s and Segesta’s temples but also by other cities like Morgantina, Monte Jata that have a noticeable ancient Greek presence.
Tourists should remember that the most opportune time to set out for Sicily is May, when the weather is not yet boiling hot but is warm enough to enjoy everything the island has to offer, including swimming.
The easiest way to reach the island is by air as there are international airports in Palermo and Catalonia. Sicily’s cuisine is very interesting, vast and varied where not only the west and the east differ but also the cooking traditions in the region’s neighbouring cities are very different. The west is infl uenced by North Africa, in its turn the east – by the Mediterranean sea.
There are also common dishes but their cooking traditions vary. For example, fried sardines, which in the west are made with farina, in the east – with bread. In Sicily there is no point asking people for a good restaurant recommendation because in a moment you will be sent to the one that is owned by the uncle. Also, the restaurant menus are different almost every day depending on the season and on what is available in the market. Sicilians do not have specific eating habits except for never knowing what will be served at the next meal. Therefore when shopping, islanders do not make shopping lists but decide on the spot what, exactly, they will be feasting on that evening.
Admittedly the diversity of dishes is indeed very vast: different aperitifs, octopus in a wine dressing with carrots, onions, celery served cold; octopus in a red wine dressing served warm; sweet sardines with pieces of bread, nuts, parsley served as small fish cakes; roasted mullet; roasted crisp swordfish; lobster. There are more than three pasta dishes with swordfish, fennel, prawns, walnuts, artichokes, prawn sauces and different fruits. Sicilian spices make the flavour of the dishes different every time. You can eat the same fish dish various times but the flavour will differ every time. Other foods that make the meal richer are tomatoes, basil, onions, spaghetti and celery.
Even though the recipes seem simple enough, outside of Sicily they cannot be made as good.
A classic Mediterranean sea region’s diet is based more on fish and vegetable dishes than meat dishes. The natives do not consider meat as a part of their culture because Sicily is a poor island, but meat dishes are usually associated with wealthy people (especially in the past). For this reason in Sicily they usually prepare meat dishes with bread or stuffed meat. Even nowadays very few restaurant menus offer steak; mostly it is minced meat and meat carved in very thin slices.
Extensively used are also products that are acquired from the ground: wild plants, vegetables, fennel seeds that are used preparing meals all year long. A very popular Sicilian summer dish is soup which is made using pumpkins straight from the garden.
The conception that Sicily’s cuisine is very simple with peasant foods is misleading. Its cuisine traditions began 2,000 years ago when the Siarcusa was the gastronomic capital of the Mediterranean region. Arabian, Norman, Spanish and French conquerors have all left their imprint on Sicilian cuisine.
However the most notable infl uence has come from the Arabs who imported sugar, almonds, and sweets to the island and started to make a lot of the now well recognised Sicilian desserts and pastries.
The French chefs who arrived to the island in the 18th century are responsible for the exquisite, baroque like side of Sicilian cuisine. At that time aristocrats had personal chefs who made unimaginable delicacies, many of which are still served today. The most luxurious Sicilian food is pasticceri (pastry dishes), the choice of which in stores is surprisingly extensive. Even if you are not a major gourmand you must certainly taste them. The making of this dish started with a simple ricotta dessert and honey. In the course of time Arabs added sugar, Normans – marzipan and Spaniards – biscuit. Other most popular pastry dishes are cake with ice cream and pieces of fruit and the traditional marzipan with fruits, Frutta di Martorana.
Report and photography compiled by Axel Ritenis