Fiona Beckett visits Sicily and is hooked by the quality and variety of its cuisine.
It was 5pm and a crowd of 70-odd people was milling around on the quay in the fishing port of Sciacca. It looked at the very least as if a passenger ferry full of relatives was about to arrive – and more like a visiting dignitary – but all they were waiting for was a particular boat to bring in its catch. All around there were makeshift stalls piled with fish, much of it unidentifiable. My new-found friend, Pino, pounced, gesturing to the fishermen to empty their boxes into his carrier bags. In went long flat scabbard fish, bright-eyed sardines, squid and red and grey mullet. We staggered back to the car with what seemed like a ton and was probably at least 7 or 8kg of fish. ’What will you do with it all?’ I asked. ‘Barbecue the sardines, make a fish soup…’ he shrugs. In fact, his girlfriend came round to make a fish couscous – or ‘cuscus’ as it’s spelled in Sicily. Word spread rapidly and a winemaker neighbour and his family invited themselves round to join the party. People take their fish seriously here.
In order to enjoy Sicilian food to the full you need to forget the way you normally eat. There’s no point in asking people to suggest a good restaurant because they’ll recommend one belonging to their uncle, or requesting a menu because it depends what’s in season and what’s available at the market that day. You just say fatte voi – ‘you choose for us’ – explained my friend Eleanor, who has lived in Sicily for 15 years. Sicilians would never dream of writing a shopping list. They go to the shops, see what there is, then decide what they’re having for dinner. In spring, for example, people eat artichokes until they come out of their ears but they’re prepared in a multitude of different ways. Eleanor and Pino took me to a trattoria in one of the side streets in Sciaccia. It wasn’t in any of the guidebooks but it was packed with local families. Plates of appetisers which illustrated exactly what Eleanor was talking about started to arrive: octopus, served cold in a white wine marinade flavoured with carrot, onion and celery, and hot with a dark rich red wine sauce; tiny sweet sardines (sarde a beccafico), split and sandwiched together with breadcrumbs flavoured with pine nuts and parsley, and made into delicious little fishcakes; simply fried red mullet; crispy deep fried scabbard fish; lobster claws… it went on and on, amounting to about 10 dishes in all. Then there were three different types of pasta, with swordfish and fennel, prawn and walnut, and artichoke and prawn sauces, all the fruits of that morning’s shopping expedition. It was one of the best meals I had in Sicily and it cost just £10 a head, including the simple local jug wine. The quality of Sicilian ingredients makes you see food in a different way. You can eat the same dish two or three days running and never get bored, because the produce is so good and so fresh. For example, I was twice given the Sicilians’ favourite summer soup, ‘minestra di tennerumi’, which relies for its flavour on the leaves of a summer squash called zucca, picked straight from the garden. The other ingredients are tomatoes, onions, celery, basil and broken spaghetti and this combination is so full of flavour that there’s no need for stock. Though the recipe is incredibly straightforward, you just couldn’t reproduce it outside Sicily – the taste still lingers with me now.
This is the classic Mediterranean diet based on fish and vegetables rather than meat. ‘Every time we have to serve meat we panic a bit because it’s not part of our culture,’ laughs Francesca Planeta of one of Sicily’s most progressive wineries, Planeta, as we sit down to lunch. Essentially we’re a poor country and meat has always been for the rich – especially in the past. This is why we have so many dishes for stuffed meat or recipes that use breadcrumbs, like meatballs.’ Bread was traditionally used to give volume and stretch out an expensive ingredient and, in fact, it’s still fairly rare to find steak on a menu, and dishes are typically made with mince or meat that’s sliced very thinly. There is also still a strong emphasis on what you can get off the land. Wild herbs and greens are a great feature of spring cooking, with dried wild fennel seeds flavouring dishes year round – these are completely addictive and I use the ones I brought back with me all the time.
Tomatoes, the essence of summer dishes, are carefully preserved for winter. At Anna Tasca Lanza’s cookery school on the Regaleali estate I saw them laid out to dry on huge racks, in a brilliant blaze of scarlet. She also makes her own passata and rich, concentrated estratto di pomodoro (sundried tomato paste), plus, of course, her own olive oil and wine. Sicilian olive oil, by the way, is a revelation and a serious rival to Tuscan.
If all this gives the impression that Sicily has a simple, peasant cuisine, that would be misleading. Its cooking dates back 2,000 years and for a time the city of Syracuse was considered the gastronomic capital of the Mediterranean, with Sicilian cooks a status symbol for wealthy Roman families.
Successive waves of invaders – the Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French – all left their culinary mark, but it is the Arabs who made the most impact. They introduced sugar and almonds, the foundation of so many Sicilian desserts and pastries, and passed on their fondness for sweet-sour combinations such as pasta con le sarde – pasta with sardines, fennel, pine nuts, currants and saffron – which is the closest thing to a Sicilian national dish.
The French cooks that arrived at the noble households in the 18th century were responsible for the more elaborate, almost baroque, side of Sicilian cooking. Aristocratic families had a personal chef or monzu (a corruption of monsieur) and at the Regaleali estate I saw family albums full of pictures of banquets that their monzu, Mario, had prepared for guests such as Prince Charles: fabulously decorative dishes such as pollo in gelatina (chicken in aspic) and timbales of stuffed pasta straight from Larousse.
The most ornate food you’re likely to come across if you visit Sicily is at the pasticceri or pastry shops, where the selection of cakes and ice creams can be awesome. At Pasticceria Palazzo in the small town of Cinisi, about half an hour west of Palermo, I tasted my first real cassata, which is not an ice cream but a cake topped with crystallised fruits. It’s Sicilian culinary history in a nutshell. It started as a simple dessert of ricotta (generally used instead of cream in Sicily) and honey. The Arabs added sugar, the Normans marzipan and the Spanish sponge cake, which is still referred to as pan di Spagna. Even the word cassata is derived from the Arabic – qas’ah, after the steep-sided terracotta bowl in which the cake was baked. They also sell the traditional marzipan fruits called frutta di Martorana which were developed by either nuns or aristocratic ladies who made them for local orphans, depending on whose story you believe. Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth you must try them.
Sicily is such a huge island that the food differs quite markedly from east to west. I was told that the west was more influenced by North Africa and the east by the eastern Mediterranean, but you’ll find even simple dishes like fried sardines prepared differently – in the west with semolina flour, in the east with breadcrumbs. Even within a region there can be differences from one town to another. ‘I remember when I was first married my husband came home and said “I see you’ve been to Marsala’s”,’ remarks Eleanor. ‘He could tell from the bread I’d bought.’
There is so much to discover in Sicily and after four days I’d only begun to scratch the surface, but I left overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of the people I’d stayed with. How come Sicilians are so hospitable? I asked Eleanor. ‘They’re very proud of their food and their country and want people to share it,’ she said simply. And so they should be.
Fiona Beckett is a contributing editor to Decanter
Written by FIONA BECKETT