Sicily is known for its simple cooking and good street food. Some say the national dish is pasta with sardines (“Pasta con le Sarde.”)
It is also known for its desserts, particularly its frozen desserts, made possible earlier than in most of the rest of Europe by the Arab introduction of sugar cane rather than honey. The Arabic influence is also visible in the mix sweet and sour still being used in Sicilian cooking: you may find raisins in your meatballs. And, a couscous festival is held every year in the village of San Vito Lo Capo.
Popular vegetables are artichokes, broadbeans, cauliflower, fennel and onions. New World ingredients brought to Sicily include more varieties of beans, corn (maize), peppers (sweet and hot), potatoes, tomatoes, and turkey.
Meat is usually lamb or goat. Whenever beef is used, it’s usually found ground up in something like meatballs to make it go further. Veal, in fact, is more common than beef. The most popular cheese in Sicily is Ricotta.
Seafood such as sardines, swordfish, and tuna is abundant, but tuna is the most prized fish. In the spring, bluefin tuna return to the Mediterranean. Sicilians have a spring tuna fishing festival called the “mattanza del tonno” when the bluefin return.
Sicily produces 15% of the olive oil in Italy: only Apulia and Calabria produce more. Olive oil used almost exclusively for cooking, though in Palermo butter is preferred.
Sicily, home of Mount Etna, is sunny and mild during the winter. Most businesses still close for 3 hours in the afternoon, from 1 to 4 pm.
The Eolian Islands, part of Sicily, have slightly different cooking traditions from the rest of Sicily.
In America, Sicilian cooking to some extent got subsumed into Neapolitan cooking, as they were the first wave of immigrants.
– © Iain Sinclair
While saint’s days have become for the most part just a curiosity in the rest of the Christian world, in Sicily they are still celebrated consciously. Every village has its own patron saint.
Two important saints are St Lucia, who brought wheat during a famine, and St Joseph, who brought rain during a time of drought and famine in Sicily.
St Josephs’ Day is 19 March. private homes. If you have prayed to St Joseph and he has granted your favour, you may promise in return to hold a St Joseph’s Table (“Tavola di San Giuseppe”) for him on this day. For instance, during the Second World War, many Sicilian mothers promised to hold one every year of their lives in their sons returned home safely. .
A table can be mounted at clubs, churches or in homes. The table is often in stepped tiers, and many are truly huge. A table will groan with pictures and / or statues of the saint, votive and stick candles, flowers, and food offerings such as breads, cooked dishes, desserts, etc. — though nothing with meat in it, as it’s during Lent.
Three people are chosen to play Mary, Joseph and Jesus as a young boy. They get to sit at a table laid out with the family’s best dishes, then they are served from the display. Then all the guests invited to view the table get to eat. The priest is often invited to the home to bless the food and the display.
Today large extents of Sicily are dry, nearly treeless, meagre, hardscrabble land. Thousands of years ago, it was heavily forested, but land-clearing by the Romans for wheat growing and to provide timber as building material led to surface erosion.
Sicily was Greek for 500 years, Roman for 600 years, Arab for 200 years, Spanish for 400 years, then Italian for 150 years (and counting).
Palermo was founded in the 700s BC by Phoenicians from Carthage. The Greeks established many city states such as Agrigento, Messina, Naxos and Syracuse from 750 BC onwards, and planted olives and grapes. In Greek times, they already had apples, broad beans, capers, currants, fennel, figs, grapes, olives, pears and pomegranates, and thyme, and artichokes were present before 250 BC.
Around 250 BC, Sicily became Roman, after having been Greek for around 500 years. The Romans established vast agricultural estates called “Latifundia”, which experienced many slave revolts, all mercilessly crushed. The Romans grew durum wheat in Sicily. During Roman times, legumes such as broadbeans, lentils and chickpeas were an important part of daily diets.
Sicily was occupied by Arabs from approximately 830 to 1070 AD, around 200 years. Some say the Muslims introduced citrus fruit. Because there appears to be evidence that to some extent citrus was already grown there under the Romans, it may be safer to that the Muslims introduced new, distinct varieties that had emerged since the disappearance of Rome. The Arabs introduced irrigation for increased cultivation of vegetables and fruit. They also introduced cotton, eggplant, rice, sugarcane and couscous. Olive tree cultivation, however, declined under the Arabs. Some food writers assert that the Arabs introduced pasta, but given that the Romans made pasta, that’s clearly wrong.
In 1070 AD, French Normans took the island. It remained in their hands until it became Spanish in 1302 under the Aragon dynasty, and stayed under Spanish rule for 400 years. After a brief period of then being Austrian, it was ruled by Naples from 1734 onwards. In 1861, Sicily became part of the unified Italy.
– © Iain Sinclair
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Muslims, the Muslims continued on into the Balkans, conquering Albania. As the Muslims began forced conversions of the population to Islam, roughly 1/4 of the population fled the country, resettling in areas such as the Dalmatian coast, and in southern Italy, Calabria and Sicily. In Sicily, they settled in towns such as Piana degli Albanesi (“Albanesi” meaning “Albanians”). They remained Orthodox Christians, as opposed to Roman Catholic, and the town has bilingual road signs, in Italian and in Albanian. In January, they celebrate the Epiphany by giving out blessed oranges; on Easter Sunday, they hold a parade and give out hard-boiled eggs that have been painted red, wrapped in cellophane and then blessed.
Literature & Lore
In Roman times, the food in Sicily was considered very good. Consequently, a Roman saying for good food was: “siculus coquus et sicula mensa” (“a Sicilian cook and a Sicilian table”).
The Sicilian language is very different from Italian. For instance, there isn’t even a proper future tense in it. And instead of egli, ella and esso (he, she and it), Sicilians say “iddu”, “idda” and “chiddu”. There are even various dialects of Sicilian within Sicily: for instance, Sicilian in Agrigento is different from that of Messina. There is no standard written form of Sicilian.