The food of Italy—what more temptation do we need to lure us to this enchanting destination? Even if Italy didn’t have such lovely landscapes, rich history, and abundance of classical art, we’d probably still go just for the food. But something that often surprises first time visitors to Italy is that the term “Italian food” is somewhat of a misnomer. When talking about cooking traditions in Italy, it is much more accurate to discuss regional dishes. Indeed, there are many so-called Italian specialties found in the U.S. and U.K. that simply don’t exist in Italy. For the traveler, this is actually great news because you will get a chance to discover these authentic cuisines for the very first time—and your idea of “Italian food” will never be the same.
So what are the “best” regions for local specialties? Well, ask an Italian and they’ll say that the best food in Italy comes from their own hometown—or more specifically, from their own mother’s kitchen. Fair enough. But if you surveyed the entire country and asked the honest question, “which region outside of your own has the best cuisine?” then Sicily is most everyone’s answer. And for good reason. Over the centuries, Sicilian cuisine has adopted the best food traditions from every other culture that invaded its shores and conquered its people. Then once the occupiers left or were driven out, the food stayed behind.
Growing up in America, I often heard of my country referred to as “The Great Melting Pot.” Indeed, my own DNA is a mixture of various European genes, including Italian. However, the island of Sicily had been blending things together long before America was even discovered by European explorers. The people, the language, the architecture, and yes, the food—Sicily is a Mediterranean stew comprised of the highest quality ingredients.
So take a trip with me down to that sunny island and let’s see what’s cooking. But first we should start with a glass of wine…
“Bonu vinu fa bonu sangu.” – “Good wine makes good blood.”
The Greek god Dionysus introduced both ecstasy and madness to mankind—and wine to Sicily. When the Greeks began settling the island in the 8th century B.C., they brought with them that mythical vine which produced the precious fruit needed to create their favorite beverage, “oinos,” or what Sicilians now call “vinu.” The nectar of the gods.
The vines cultivated in Sicily today are the ancestors of those original root stocks brought by the ancient Greeks. Take a drink of the famous Nero D’Avola wine and you’re experiencing time travel in a glass. Although modern techniques have greatly increased the quality and longevity of these fine wines, the grapes themselves have remained unchanged for over 2,700 years. Through the alchemy of viticulture, you are sharing something very important and elemental with the likes of Archimedes, Aeschylus, and Sappho—all of whom lived in Sicily (called Magna Grecia or “Greater Greece” by the Romans) at some point in their lives.
When we think of Italy we think of pasta, right? Well, if you’re in Sicily, don’t be surprised to find couscous on your plate instead. Another invader of Sicily (or settler, depending on your perspective) was the Arabs between 827 and 1073 A.D. Like other foreign powers, they brought with them some of their favorite recipes from their homelands of Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. However, the Sicilian take on this dish is usually made with fish instead of meat, and is not as spicy as the North African version.
Couscous is a coarse grain product made from semola of durum wheat—also used to make pasta. But pasta is made from the flour (farina), which is produced by grinding the wheat into a fine powder. Couscous, instead, comes from the granular pieces remaining after most of the grain has been milled, so it has a grittier texture.
Every year, in the ancient Sicilian fishing village of San Vito Lo Capo, there is a sagra, or festival, of couscous. The festival takes place at the end of September and it features the best couscous chefs from Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Algeria, Tunisia, and of course Italy to determine the king of the Mediterranean. I wouldn’t mind being a judge at next year’s event.
This may surprise some people because we don’t normally associate chocolate specifically with Sicily. However, in the charming Baroque town of Modica, there is a tradition of chocolate production that has its roots with the Aztec Indians of Mexico. Huh?
Yes, this time it’s the Spanish whom we can thank for their contribution. When the conquistadors returned from the New World, they brought back with them many strange ingredients from those exotic lands including xocolatl, obtained from grinding cacao seeds.
Then as the Spanish began their dominion over Sicily during the 15th and 16th centuries, they imported the raw ingredients to the island, as well as the methods of producing the final product. Even today, this recipe remains the same in both Modica and Mexico. Traditionally, the raw cocoa powder was combined with such ingredients as vanilla, cinnamon, or hot pepper. These days there are many different flavors made by incorporating local ingredients such as orange zest and pistachios.
Are you hungry yet?
Fortunately, you won’t have to endure centuries of foreign occupations to enjoy the very best of Sicily’s culinary traditions. If you are ready for an authentic Sicilian experience, consider taking a Flavours cooking holiday for a number of reasons. First of all, they do all the planning so that you can relax and focus on the food. And it’s not just cooking; you’ll also be visiting the local markets as well as artisan food producers. All of this while staying in a beautifully appointed villa with breath taking views of the surrounding landscapes.
So what are you waiting for? If you want to learn about Sicily, there’s no better way to get acquainted than through the food traditions. And there’s no better way to experience these traditions than with a Flavours cooking holiday.
Rick Zullo is an American expat living in Rome with his Sicilian wife. Born in Chicago and raised in Florida, he came to the Caput Mundi in 2010 and forgot to go back. When he’s not exploring the riches of his adoptive home or writing for his blog, he spends his time teaching the world English, one Roman at a time. Visit him at: http://rickzullo.com/