A taste of Sicily
Italy is known for fresh food and delicious flavours and here Gillian Price, author of Walking in Sicily, suggests some essentials to taste after a pleasant Sicilian stroll.
One legacy of Sicily’s colourful history is the unique combination of ingredients, spices and herbs that have been grafted onto the simple fare of the peasant people. The Arabs are credited with the majority of imports, from couscous to pasta, and from fish preservation techniques to sorbets and confectionery. The fertile land and hard-working inhabitants mean a vast range of fruit and vegetables is grown on Sicily, with a large measure of success.
‘Che cosa avete oggi?’ (What’s on today?)
To familiarise themselves with the raw materials, visitors can do no better than wander around a fresh-produce market. The strictly regional nature of Sicilian food, and its relative lack of sophistication compared to what is usually expected of Italian cuisine, means delicious surprises can be expected by adventurous eaters. The snack front is dominated by the arancino, a luscious ball of moist rice around an inner core of meat and tomato sauce (ragù), crumbed, fried and eaten warm. Those served on board the ferries that cross the Strait of Messina are legendary! Another snack found prevalently around Palermo is panelle, squares of chick pea pastry, battered and fried and served on its own or as a roll filling, preferably accompanied by fried eggplant. Schiacciata and focaccia, types of pizza-like bread, are good lunch fare and found in all bakeries. A modest restaurant or trattoria may not always have a menu, however by asking ‘Che cosa avete oggi?’ (What’s on today?) or ‘Quale sono le vostre specialità?’ (What are your specialities?) something unfailingly interesting is guaranteed.
Antipasti (starters) are usually in a mouth-watering display to be served at room temperature, and could easily constitute a meal on their own. You may find sarde alla beccaficco, fresh sardines stuffed with capers and breadcrumbs and lightly fried (the name alludes to the serving manner, as the fish is arranged to resemble a prized game bird, the garden warbler). The eggplant (melanzana) is omnipresent, mostly the light mauve bulbous type. Lightly salted and left so the bitter juices drain away, it has a deep, rich taste enhanced by light frying, before serving with a splash of tomato purée and oregano. In combination with celery and capers it also features in the rich caponata stew. Alla parmigiana sees it layered with tomato and melted parmesan cheese. Mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and an infinity of olives are usually on offer as well.
Primo piatto or first course inevitably means pasta, thought to have been invented in Sicily, if not brought in by the Arabs. In any case, a 12th-century account of the island by the geographer al-Idrisi made mention of busy pasta factories near Palermo where vermicelli and macaroni were produced for exportation to both Muslim provinces and Christian countries. Noteworthy present-day dishes include pasta alla Norma (a reference to the opera by Vincenzo Bellini, who hailed from Catania), the sauce a delicious combination of stewed eggplant and tomato. In the Trapani area you’ll come across pasta with pesto trapanese, a fragrant cold sauce of fresh tomatoes with crushed garlic, almonds, parmesan cheese and basil, or pasta con le sarde, topped with fresh sardines combined with tangy wild fennel and pine nuts, not to mention cuscus, the dish of north African origin of steamed semolina served with a spicy fish-based sauce. In contrast the Nebrodi mountain villages specialise in fresh maccheroni, long hollow tubes smothered in a rich meat sauce (sugo), while the Monti Iblei district offers home-made ravioli di ricotta flavoured with a pungent tomato and pork sauce and cavatelle, generous fresh pasta coils.
A main course (secondo piatto) in the hills around Siracusa will include the excellent aromatic braised rabbit, alias coniglio alla stimpirata, alongside myriad choice grilled meats flavoured with oregano, garlic and lemon. Menus with seafood (pesce or frutti di mare) will feature pesce spada (swordfish) prepared al cartoccio, ‘wrapped’ to guarantee its moistness while baked, otherwise it is popular grilled on skewers (spiedini). Fortunately tonno (tuna) is easily found in summer: grilled, baked, sautéed or stewed in onions and vinegar, it is unfailingly luscious. The Sicilians leave the flesh under running cold water until the blood has completely drained away, making for a much lighter meal in both the colour and digestive sense. Calamari or similar totani ripieni (stuffed) can be a treat, likewise fresh alici or masculini (anchovies), while any recently caught fish is worth sampling if delicately poached in acqua di mare, seawater. Delectable ricci di mare or sea urchins, sliced open to show off their bright orange and crimson flesh, are consumed raw with abundant lemon juice or tossed with pasta and garlic.
Last but by no means least are the dolci, pastries, ice creams and sweets in general. This class, an art form, encompasses generous mouth-watering cakes made of melt-in-the-mouth pasta di mandorla, a lighter version of marzipan, as well as the famous cannoli, tubes of fried flaky pastry stuffed with a rich mixture of ricotta cheese and candied fruits, virtually a meal in itself. In a similar vein is cassata, often an ice cream concoction, then there’s the superb torrone, alias nougat, which comes in mindboggling variations based on honey, almond and pistachio. Gelato (ices) assumes a new meaning and dimension in Sicily. The creamy types can be unforgettable and the lighter fruit flavours are usually sorbetto, said to have been invented by the Arabs who used snow from Etna combined with the juice of locally grown citrus fruit. The granita on the other hand is a marvellous thirst-quenching invention for the hot summertime – a finely shaved ice mixture flavoured with sweetened lemon juice (al limone), pureed strawberries (alla fragola) or whatever takes the maker’s fancy, even al caffè, coffee, popular breakfast fare. Rumour has it that al gelso, or mulberry, is the best and most loved of all. Thick cream is an optional but favourite topping. One special icy treat prepared in Palermo for Saint Rosalia’s feast day (September 4th) is gelo al mellone, made with watermelon and scented with jasmine flowers. Lastly, try latte di mandorla, a sweet almond-based drink.
Gillian Price has trekked throughout Asia and the Himalayas, but now lives in Venice and is exploring the mountains and flatter bits of Italy. Starting in the Italian Dolomites, Gillian has written outstanding Cicerone guides to walking all over Italy as well as Corsica and Corfu. An adamant promoter of public transport to minimise environmental impact, Gillian belongs to Mountain Wilderness and is an active member of the Venice branch of CAI, the Italian Alpine Club.View Articles and Books by Gillian Price