NEW: February 2021 series announced!
The Armchair Traveller is the title of our occasional online lecture series with talks themed around the places we visit. The talks take place in an informal online setting and are intended to amplify your understanding of the landscapes we travel through. To subscribe to the lectures sign up using the form below.
Our current series ends on Tuesday 19th Jan. with a talk on Iran. A new series will begin in February and registrations are now open.
February 2021: EATING SICILY
Ancient Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish…every one of the great powers who have ruled Sicily left their mark. Not just on art and architecture, but on the island’s landscape and its eclectic, vibrant – and extremely delicious — cuisine.
|Tue 2nd February||Cheese-making giants, and the Gardens of Alcinous|
|Tue 9th February||The Ancient Greek Man from Michelin|
|Tue 16th February||Saffron, citrus and waterwheels – the arrival of the Arabs|
|Tue 23rd February||Stone soup and hot chocolate|
|Tue 2nd March||Marzipan lambs and black pigs|
|Speaker for all lectures: |
Ros Belford, journalist and Author of the Rough Guide to Sicily
For full details on the lectures, see the full programme below.
- Lectures will be at 4:30pm UK time (note new time).
- Lectures will be delivered online via Zoom to view in the comfort of your own home.
- Each lecture will last about 45 minutes and there will time to ask questions at the end of each.
- Attendance of the lectures is via subscription, the cost of which is a one-off fee of £25 payable in advance, either by bank transfer or debit card. (There is a £5 transaction fee if you are outside Europe and prefer to pay by credit card)
- On sign up you will receive an electronic invoice by return to enable to pay your subscription.
- Once you have signed up and paid your subscription you can attend as many or as few of the lectures you like.
- Subscribers will be sent a joining code on the day before each lecture allowing them to sign in and attend.
- To sign up, please complete the form below (only one submission per household is necessary – no need to submit for each viewer!):
February lectures – full programme:
Week 1: Cheese-making giants, and the Gardens of Alcinous
What did the Greeks find when they arrived in Sicily? There are clues about what prehistoric Sicilians ate in the Odyssey, in Copper Age winemaking equipment, Paleolithic rubbish dumps and wired into the DNA of modern grapes and grains. We’ll look at foraging and how to make ricotta and pecorino in the same way that Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant of the Odyssey, made cheese in his cave on Mount Etna.
Week 2: The Ancient Greek Man from Michelin
Sicilian cooks and the elaborate cuisine they developed for the Greek ruling class became famous throughout the Classical world. A cooking school was founded in Siracusa, a Sicilian wrote Europe’s first cookery book, and great cities like Siracusa and Agrigento (Akragas) became synonymous with excess, wealth and over-indulgence. The Romans continued where the Greeks left off, covering the island with vast estates — manned by slaves — dedicated to growing the immense quantities of wheat needed to feed the Roman empire and its army. Tuna was a major export, just as it is today. Another fishy export was garum, the famously umami fish sauce of ancient Rome. It is still made and for adventurous cooks who want to try and make it at home, I’ll tell you how.
Week 3: Saffron, citrus and waterwheels – the arrival of the Arabs
The story goes that when an ‘Arab’ army (actually from Tunisia) first landed at Mazara del Vallo in 827, they found sardines at the port, wild fennel and pine-nuts on the hillsides, saffron-crocuses in the woods, currants drying on vines. They put them altogether and created what is now Sicily’s national dish – pasta con le sarde. The story is unclear on where they got their pasta – but many believe it was the Arabs who showed the Sicilians how to make pasta!
Perhaps the most obvious impact on Sicilian cuisine was the introduction of citrus trees. There are still more varieties of orange growing here than anywhere else in Europe. Orange blossom remains a popular flavouring, as do jasmine flower and rose petal – all distinctively Mahgreb in origin. Almond milk too, had its origin in the exotic cusine of the Muslim world, and has been a popular Sicilian summer drink and ingredient in ices and desserts long before veganism was even dreamed of. The Arabs introduced – and cultivated – sugar cane, and taught the Sicilians to make ice cream. As a result, ice became an essential – and expensive — commodity, collected from mountains in winter and stored in underground pits until the summer. In 1777 an ice shortage caused street riots in Siracusa, so desperate were the inhabitants for ice cream.
Week 4: Stone soup and hot chocolate
From the 13th century, Sicily became politically marginal, but it continued to export the chefs, exotic ingredients and cooking techniques it had amassed from all over the Mediterranean — and beyond — to the new power centres of Northern Europe. Wheat continued to be the main crop, and forests were cleared and pastureland destroyed. With the decline of forests and pastures, the supply of domestic and wild meat decreased too, and for most Sicilians meat became a rare luxury. To make matters worse, the 16th century saw a series of plagues and famines. On the island of Salina, where I lived, there is still a recipe for stone soup, made by boiling sea pebbles in water.
In the light of such poverty, supplying bread became crucial, and cities such as Palermo declared a municipal monopoly on the production and sale of bread. Country folk attempted to make bread from wild radishes, acorns, turnips. Even today, bread continues to hold an almost sacred role in Sicilian life. I was eating lunch with a fisherman one day and his wife asked him why he was finishing off the bread rather than finishing off the fish he had caught. I paid money for the bread, he said.
Spanish trade with the New World brought new ingredients to Sicily. Most notably the tomato and cacao bean. We’ll look at the role of the tomato in Sicilian cuisine, and talk about how to make ‘strattu (sundried tomato paste) and salsa (bottled tomato sauce). I’ll show you how the Sicilians of Modica learned to make hot chocolate according to an ancient technique used by the Aztecs, sipped by ladies attending mass to stop them fainting before breakfast.
Week 5: Marzipan lambs and black pigs
From the elaborate bread altars created for the feast of St Joseph, to nacatuli, Christmas biscuits so intricately worked they resemble embroidery, Sicily has an astonishingly rich and eclectic range of foods with which it celebrates the numerous religious festivals that punctuate the year. Still today there are convents where nuns sell traditional almond biscuits and marzipan sweetmeats, including, Easter lambs made of marzipan.
I’ll also talk about the long and venerable tradition of Sicilian streetfood and readymeals. Cooking fuel was a luxury, and cheap streetfood became a mainstay. You can still buy ready boiled potatoes, beans and artichokes, and chargrilled peppers, onions and aubergines at many markets. I’ll cover other popular streetfoods too, like bread with spleen and ricotta, chickpea flour fritters, and scacce, which are like Cornish pasties, with bread dough instead of pastry.
Bringing the story up to date, I’ll tell you about the 21st century renaissance in traditional produce, ranging from artisan cheeses and beers to the prized black pigs of the Nebrodi mountains. Finally we’ll look at how Michelin starred chefs and inspired young wine-makers are revisiting and reinventing ancient traditions.
Reviews of our previous lectures:
You can also view some of our past lectures on Youtube: