the food of the eolian islands and sicily

At first glance, eolian cooking may not
seem to be terribly different from that
of mainland Messina Province, but
because of their isolation, the island's
cuisine has followed its own estimable

Traveling beyond the islands through
the other regions of Sicily, it becomes
clear that cucina siciliana encompasses
an awesome variety of styles,
ingredients and influences that can be
explained by a quick study of Sicilian
history. It is also evident that Sicilian
cooking varies from the eastern to the
central and western parts of the island.

Sicilian cuisine has developed over the
course of two thousand years,
influenced by many foreign colonizers
beginning with the arrival of the Greeks
before the first millennium. Before their
arrival on Sicily, the
Sicel (Siculi) culture
thrived on the coast along the Ionian
Sea, while the
Sikan  and Elymi cultures
lived in communities on the Tyrennean
coast for a couple thousand years. They
built and developed their own simple
culinary techniques. The Greeks
introduced them to art of wine making
and new agricultural techniques and
revolutionized the use of existing
products such as olives and grains. They
may have introduced fish soup to the
region as well.

Roman occupation of the island
undoubtedly had an influence on the
classic Sicilian diet. It is a fact that the
Roman diet included chickpeas, fava
beans and lentils, as well as various
types of cereals, and even some forms
of pasta. The Romans might have
maccu, a puree of dried fava
beans to the Sicilians.

However, it was not until much later
with the arrival of Arab
colonists during the ninth century, that
we begin to see a unique transformation
and development of Sicilian cuisine. The
Arabs introduced new farming and
irrigation techniques that are still  in use

Arab culture brought a long list of foods
to the island such as almonds, anise
seed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon,
oranges, pistachio, pomegranates,
saffron, sesame seeds, spinach,
sugarcane and watermelon. They
certainly left a legacy of culinary
techniques as well, from candied fruits,
skewered meats, and stuffed foods,
especially noticeable in the combination
of nuts and currents or raisins.
The cassata, a molded cake made with
ricotta, marzipan and citrus, may have
derived its name from the Arab
which is the name of the deep
terra-cotta bowl that was used to form
this extraordinary cake. Then again, it
may have come from caseus, the Latin
name for ricotta.Legend has it that the
cannoli is was invented by the women of
a harem in Caltanissetta, and got its
name from the Arab,
Kalt el Nissa,
meaning city of women.

The Normans replaced the Arabs as
rulers and a new era of Sicilian history
began, and in 1130, Roger II became
Sicily's ruler. Though famous for their
monumental architecture and
magnificent cathedrals, the Normans
brought some culinary innovations of
their own, such as air-dried salt cod, or
stokfisk, as the Normans called it. The
contemporary Italian term for this
method of curing codfish is
piscistaccu or baccalà  by southern
Italians. During the reign of Frederick II,
who was something of a gourmet, the
Normans contributed the rotating
skewer to cook game and meat over a
spit, a predecessor to rotisserie foods.

A very brief occupation by the French
Angevin in the second half of the
thirteenth century, ended with the
arrival of the Spanish Bourbons just after
the turn of the century. French culinary
influences never took hold, but would
eventually trickle down later through the
aristocracy and their chefs.

Spanish rule lasted four hundred years,
and left Sicilians with
pan di spagna, a
type of sponge cake, which found its way
into the delicious
cassata siciliana we
know today. Then there are the many
different types of biscotti and the
impanata, a stuffed pastry often filled
with either savory meats, fish and pasta,
which are baked or fried. During this
period, many new ingredients were
imported from the New World and
introduced to the Sicilian diet; chili
peppers, bell peppers, tomatoes,
potatoes, beans, maize and even turkey.
All of these ingredients found their way
into new recipes or incorporated into
existing recipes. The cultivation of
oranges and lemons did not begin in
earnest until the arrival of the Spaniards.

The food of Sicily continues to evolve,
from the finest restaurants to the
smallest of household kitchens, la cucina
siciliana has managed to retain its
individuality and integrity.
Another ingredient introduced by the
aracens was rice. In fact, it's likely that
they introduced a type of
(saffron rice) sometime
between the eigth and eleventh

Arancini, fried  rice balls, flavored with
saffron, typically stuffed with a savory
meat ragù, is an extremely popular
snack, and is one of the most wonderful
fast foods, though not exactly  fast to

The Arabs acquainted Sicilians with
sweet and sour recipes, as well as a
multitude of confectionery deserts,
including ice cream and sherbet. They
left the city of Trapani with
cuscusu), which typically is prepared
with seafood. They made bread filled
with spleen, a version of today's guastelli
or guasteddi, a calf spleen sandwich
(panino alla meusa), that is still popular
today in Palermo's street markets,
which have the distinct atmosphere of a
North African souk. The Arabs also set
up alembics and distilleries for making
grappa and other alcoholic beverages.
copyright © la cucina eoliana e siciliana 2000 - 2012

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