What could be a more typical Sicilian dish than a nice plate of pasta alla norma? Some penne pasta topped with a tomato and aubergine sauce and finished off with some grated baked ricotta. One imagines it to be a recipe so old it could have been described by Al-Idrisi – Roger II’s Arab geographer and documenter who lived in the first half of the twelfth century.
But in fact this is not at all the case. Pasta alla norma – named, incidentally, after Bellini’s opera of the same name – could not have existed before the 17th century.
What we have come to know of today as “Sicilian cuisine” is something that has taken centuries to evolve. With each successive generation, ingredients have been assembled and adopted into the cook’s pantheon to arrive at what we have today.
Interestingly, whereas many of the great cuisines of the world increased their repertory by expansion of an empire, in Sicily the story was quite the opposite – as each successive wave of rulers took over the domination of the island, the local cuisine adopted perhaps one or two new ingredients. Maybe this goes part way to explaining Sicilian cuisine as one of composition rather than synthesis. Flavours, rather than being combined into a single effect, are more often juxtaposed, often in quite daring combinations, to give Sicilian cuisine its originality and dash.
Sitting down to eat a meal in Sicily, is therefore rather like reading a history book on the island. Every meal tells a story, every ingredient brings its own biography to the table. And I like to think it makes an interesting exercise to untangle the history of some of these ingredients.
In the Bronze Age (thirteen to eight centuries before Christ), there would have been grains – spelt, barley, wheat. And of course, there would also have been an abundance of leaves and berries. And possibly, simple legumes such as lentils and chick peas. There would also have been ruminants – sheep, goats, cattle. And these would have provided meat, milk and cheese. Although they maybe didn’t understand the chemistry of what they were doing, shepherds of the ancient mediterranean had long been using enzymes from the stomachs of animals to curdle milk to produce cheese. Leaving the remaining whey to ferment a little (for perhaps a day) before heating it in a pot, precipitates it into a fine curd, which can then be passed through a fine mesh fabric to produce ricotta. The process sounds complex but it is one that ancient shepherds would have understood well.
So it is fairly safe to conclude that the ricotta (re-cooked and baked in an oven to make it hard) flavouring our pasta alla norma has been known in Sicily since at least a thousand years before Christ.
And of course, there would have always been the fish in the sea – probably much the same as the ones we know today and Bronze Age people would certainly have been adept at bringing this rich resource to their table.
Then, with their arrival towards the end of the eighth century BC, the Greeks would have brought a few important ingredients that have come to be recognised as Mediterranean staples today. Most notable of these are the olive and the grape. The olive, of course, was used for producing oil, and the grape for wine. (We have written separately about wine in Sicily, so will leave that for the time being. And will also leave the subject of olive oil for a later article.)
The use of olive oil in cooking brought new flavours and textures to the table. But olive oil could also be used for preserving. By submerging fish and vegetables in oil and thus cutting off their contact with oxygen, it is possible to keep them for longer.
Despite this, it is safe to assume that most Greeks had a very simple, almost vegetarian diet comprising mostly of cereals, greens and dairy products and they would probably have eaten very little meat. Part of the ritual act of worship in Greek culture was the sacrifice of an animal on the alter of a temple. This could have been a chicken or a small goat in thanks for the healing of a sick family member, or it could have been a sheep or even a cow for larger public rituals. The meat was then roasted on a barbecue, with the smoke ascending into heaven to appease the Gods, while the cooked meat was shared among the mortals. For many Greeks, this might have been the only meat they ate.
There was one other product that Sicily contributed to the ancient table: honey. Honey from the bees of the Iblean mountains (the area just to the West of Siracusa) was famous throughout all of the Greek world.
Contemporary to the Greeks, were the Phoenicians who inhabited the west of the island. As great traders, they would have been familiar with ingredients from all over the world. However, undoubtedly their most important contribution to the Sicilian table, and the one we remember today, is salt and the salt pans of Trapani go back to these times. Salt, as well as being an essential mineral in our diet, is also used for preserving meats and fish during transport.
The Romans arrived in Sicily in the middle of the third century BC and the important change that occurred was the clearing of the forests, partly for timber to build their navy, but partly also to make clearance for the vast latifundia that sprang up in these times. These were huge feudal estates, worked by slaves, which existed, principally for the production of cereals, and in particular, wheat that was to be sent to Rome. The hard durum wheat (durum in Latin means “hard”), grown in Sicily was more resistant to the moulds it might have encountered in the bilge of a ship whilst on its journey to Rome.
It is tempting to think that this would have been the genesis of pasta making. Numerous theses have been produced on where pasta was first produced, with many cultures claiming the prize at various times. Peter Robb, however, in his book “Midnight in Sicily”, makes the claim that pasta was first produced in Sicily. After all, “pasta” just means “paste” – and pasta was a way of preserving the grain – the grain would be milled into flour before mixing it with water to create a paste, before rolling it out, cutting it and drying it in the hot Sicilian sun.
Other commentators, speculate that pasta was brought to Sicily by the Arabs. But whichever thesis you buy, it seems quite plausible that pasta-making did indeed begin in Sicily. And certainly they were eating it on the island before Marco Polo returned from China in the thirteenth century.
While we talk about wheat, of course we cannot ignore the importance of bread in the Sicilian diet. Like many other places in the mediterranean, bread is sacrosanct to the table in Sicily, but will make up the subject of a separate article later.
Although, it is likely that the Phoenicians and Greeks also had knowledge of tuna finishing before them, archaeological evidence of Roman tuna factories around Sicily are a testament to the the nascence of a fishing industry on the island.
After the Romans, Sicily was conquered by Visigoths and Ostrogoths before once again becoming “Byzantine” (or Greek) though it is safe to assume that neither of these peoples brought anything to the Sicilian kitchen.
The great change in Sicilian cuisine, however, and one that is still felt very much today, was with the arrival of the Arabs in 827AD. Coming from North Africa, they brought many new foodstuffs and ingredients which we today think of as typical in Sicily.
Almost more important though, was their knowledge of irrigation and land management. Under Arab rule, the latifundia were broken up and farming became an individual enterprise – and this encouraging a much larger variety of produce to be grown.
Most iconically, the Arabs, brought citrus fruits with them: the oranges, lemons, and other citrus fruits which we have come to think of as emblematic of Sicily. They also brought vegetables such as the aubergine and the artichoke and fruits and nuts such as the almond, pistachio, carob, pomegranate, mulberry and apricot.
The other formative import to Sicily at the time was rice, which the Arabs cultivated in the large flat lands around Lentini. Anyone who has enjoyed the Sicilian arancini, will appreciate this important arrival.
The other great gift to the Sicilian kitchen from the Arabs was, without a doubt, the introduction of sugar cane. Sugar produced from cane can be mixed with cream to make confectioner’s cream – giving rise to the sweets (dolci), that we find all around Sicily today and account for the Sicilian’s famous sweet tooth. (Just as an aside, the cane one sees growing all around the island is of a different variety and should not be mistaken for sugar cane).
The Romans had collected ice and snow from Etna to keep their food products cool, but it was the Arabs who extended this and flavoured it with lemon, almond or mulberry to make sherbets (sorbet, syrup are both words that derive from the Arabic word sharāb: a drink or beverage), which have come to be known in Sicily as granita.
Then after the Arabs, Sicily was ruled by the Normans, but beyond perhaps a healthy appetite, we have no documentary evidence of Norman influence on Sicilian cuisine.
The next great influence obviously arrived with the Spanish and all the more after they discovered the New World at the end of the fifteenth century. It was they who brought tomatoes, potatoes – and also chocolate. Although chocolate is something of a local speciality, the grainy and sugary chocolate of Modica is famous throughout the island.
Potatoes are not a huge staple of the Sicilian diet – for the main reason that bread and pasta outshine them, but also perhaps, because the Sicilian climate and soil is not best suited to them.
Nevertheless, of course, the tomato has come to be the other iconic ingredient of Sicilian cuisine. I’m inclined to always think as much for its colour as the tomatoes grown here in Sicily have a vibrancy that can match almost no other. Nowadays, thanks to the hothouses in the south of the island, tomatoes can be bought year round in Sicily, but in the past, the season for making the tomato sauce at the end of the summer, was famous throughout the world.
There is one other unlikely contributor to the Sicilian kitchen, even though they did not conquer the island. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, French cuisine became fashionable in Sicily, particularly among the aristocratic classes where is was popular to have a “monsieur” cook. Hence the vogue for this type of cuisine became “monzù” as it is known in Sicily today.
There are a few ingredients it seems we have omitted in our brief overview that some readers may be surprised at.
We have not, for example, mentioned chilli peppers – though they have the same blood-red colour as the tomatoes. However they are not really a staple of Sicilian cuisine in the way they are in say, Calabria and the rest of Southern Italy, and Sicilians are somehow suspicious of them. And after all, the flavours of Sicilian cooking are strong enough to stand on their own without being masked by something else.
Many people ask about coffee. Coffee is originally from Ethiopia and was brought to Europe by the Turks. I suspect it found its way into Sicily via mainland Italy rather than directly from Turkey, but where the Sicilian habit came from of drinking tiny thimblefuls, alas, I know not.
What then of more recent imports of foodstuffs to Sicily? We mentioned at the beginning of this article that Sicilian cuisine has been very much a process of absorption of ingredients brought by their conquerors. And in a sense, the same still remains true today. However, although it is now possible to buy just about any ingredient in a Sicilian supermarket – from curries, to popadoms, to hotdogs – very few of them have actually made a great impression on the Sicilian diet.
I think the main reason for this is that Sicilians like to grow or cultivate the ingredients of their kitchen themselves – as if they have a suspicion for anything they can’t. And that, of course, if the essence of the very high quality of Sicilian cuisine.
But let us return to our pasta alla norma and retrace the origin of the ingredients: we have ricotta, which goes back in origins to at least the Bronze age, pasta from the Romans (or possibly Arabs), aubergines from the Arabs and tomatoes from the Spanish.
The simple pasta alla norma therefore, despite its humble pretensions, turns out to be an emblematic representation of Sicily’s rich and varied history.