Britain has long had a fascination with Italy. Arguably, this reached its peak in the expeditions of the Victorian and Edwardian travellers, writers and artists, among them John Ruskin, George Gissing, the Brownings, Norman Douglas and Edward Lear, as they set sail in pursuit of culture and civilisation. As John Pemble’s book The Mediterranean Passion – a remarkable and scholarly tour de force which beautifully captures this moment – makes clear, this fascination extended well beyond the now familiar terrain of ‘Chiantishire’, and ventured further south, to Sicily.
Now, the British are rediscovering some of the wonders of this island of five million inhabitants, which has been overlooked for too long and when it does get mentioned, is often reduced to romanticised accounts of its Mafia – the Cosa Nostra. Recent BBC television series including Sicily Unpacked and the dramatization of Inspector Montalbano from Andrea Camilleri’s detective novels have helped revive interest in the island. The birthplace of some Italy’s greatest literary figures, Sicily derives some its rich cultural traditions from the legacies of the many different conquests and occupying powers over centuries.
It is food which best captures the essence of Sicilian identity. The conquests of Sicily by Greek, Romans, Normans, Saracens, French and Spanish among them, have left behind an extraordinary variety of influences and ingredients, made richer by the warmer climate. If you wake up on the east coast in Catania, there is the prospect of fresh granite with brioche for breakfast; in other parts of the island, the many agriturismi will offer a whole range of local produce.
The daily reality of extreme poverty has also left its mark in the range of ancient, cheap and delicious street food, such as panelle – chick pea fritters – which still thrives in Palermo, for example. An island disposed to insularity, fatalism and prejudice from the north – represented today by Italy’s Northern League – has shown a remarkable resilience in preserving its identity.
This was evident during a visit by Radio 4’s BBC Food Programme in 2011, which toured many different parts of the island. Arriving at the port of Trapani, on the west coast, we found ourselves walking through back streets more reminiscent of North Africa than Western Europe. At the Cantina Siciliana, run by Pino Maggioni, an engaging, impassioned host who some years ago devoted his life to creating this traditional and convivial gem, in the heart of the old town, couscous was on the menu, indicative of the Arabic influence. Yet we were told that this couscous, served with fish or pork, differed from the couscous in Marsala, only a few kilometres away, where the tradition was to serve a larger grain couscous, and served with snails. ‘Local food’ takes on a whole new dimension in Sicily.
More Arabic influences were to be found in the Vucciria market in Palermo; wild fennel, crucial to the delicious but complex dishpasta con le sarde; and aubergines, crucial for caponata, one of Sicily’s best known dishes, and one of the examples of the sweet and sour combination in Sicilian cuisine. Sicily is rightly renowned for the richness of its pastries and desserts like Cannoli andCassata, and these also owe much to the Arabic influence which brought sugar cane in the ninth century.
The Spanish influence is evident in the chocolate shops of Modica, a baroque town in the south of the island. Modica has become synonymous with the quality and quantity of its chocolate producers, which have expanded dramatically in recent years. At the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, the town’s oldest chocolate producer, and wondered if the revival and recognition of traditional methods of making chocolate, based on the Aztec tradition, offered another version of globalisation.
If it true that you cannot explain Sicily – and above all its food – without understanding the way the mafia has controlled food production and distribution with markets like the Vucciria, controlled for many years by mafia extortion rackets, then here too, there are signs of a renaissance with the passion and commitment of a new generation of anti-mafia activists. Food has been central to this revival. Foremost has been the associationAddio Pizzo which plastered the centre of Palermo with stickers calling on people of Palermo to preserve their dignity and refuse the pizzo (protection money) and Libera Terra, an association which promotes the use of land confiscated by the mafia for the production of wine and olive oil.
Sicily Unpacked found interesting links between art and food, with Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon educating each other on their respective pleasures. There are also very interesting connections between literature and food. The complex nature of Sicilian identity is central in the work of some of its greatest writers, notably Leonardo Sciascia, Luigi Pirandello and often food seems to reflect wider cultural and political questions. There is a famous scene in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, where the pleasure of eating Sicilian food survived the attempted imposition of a ‘national’ diet in the moment of unification.
For Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian detective, Inspector Montalbano – food is also crucial. His loyalty to the Trattoria Calogero, his uncompromising lunch rituals and knowledge of the tastes and flavours of his island, notably in the province of Agrigento and the shadow of the Valley of the Temples, is crucial to the way he lives and works.
Sicilian food has not only survived but is now beginning to prosper in the era of globalisation, which is normally characterised by the imposition of drab standardised fare. Together with the unique values of Sicilian hospitality and friendship, it will be crucial to the revival of the economy and the future of the island. Its extraordinarily rich history, encompassing such a variety of wonderful flavours, seems to have found its moment.