Sicily hasn’t always been part of Italy – it only became part of the Italian Republic in 1860. The previous three thousand years saw a wide variety of foreign powers fighting to own it. First to occupy the island – around 1000 BC – were the Phoenicians. After this, came the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Swabians, French and Spaniards. Each occupying force brought its own agricultural methods as well as particular produce. The result across the centuries is that Sicily enjoys a rich and multi-layered culinary heritage, and today Sicilian cuisine is arguably the most interesting of all the Italian regions.

Sicily hasn’t always been part of Italy – it only became part of the Italian Republic in 1860. The previous three thousand years saw a wide variety of foreign powers fighting to own it. First to occupy the island – around 1000 BC – were the Phoenicians. After this, came the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Swabians, French and Spaniards. Each occupying force brought its own agricultural methods as well as particular produce. The result across the centuries is that Sicily enjoys a rich and multi-layered culinary heritage, and today Sicilian cuisine is arguably the most interesting of all the Italian regions.

Simple yet sumptuous

Another factor in Sicilian cuisine is the contrast between rich and poor. Although there has always been great wealth in Sicily, much of this was traditionally held by a relatively small section of society, with many more people living in great poverty. Sicilian cuisine reflects these extremes – with food that is both simple and yet elaborate; exotic and even, at times, sumptuous – but also humble. The Italian phrase “la cucina povera” (cooking of the poor) is apt in many ways, describing peasant cooking based on making the most of what is available, using the basic produce of the land.

Intense flavours

As you will see when you come to Sicily, fresh produce is in abundance. Not only do crops enjoy rich volcanic soil and strong sunshine, the irrigation system introduced by the Arabs means that a wonderful variety of crops can be grown, all with a pure, intense flavour. Very little fruit and vegetables are imported and local markets show off an incredible array of produce, always according to the season.

Sicilian staples

One of the main Sicilian crops is durum wheat, a crop which is particularly suited to Sicily’s warm dry climate and soil. It is a hard-grained wheat with a high gluten content and is used for making high quality pasta. When milled, the grain produces fine, silky, golden flour – semola – which, in turn, makes wonderful golden-coloured bread.

Pasta

Pasta was first produced, arguably invented, in Trabia, on the north coast of Sicily, under the Arabs. From here it was exported to, first, Genoa, and then the rest of Italy. However it was only around 150 years ago that pasta became an everyday food, and not something only the rich could afford. Up until then, the poor were lucky if they ate it more than once a year – typically New Year’s Eve – when they would celebrate with huge platefuls of bought pasta in the hope that this would bring more of the same in the year ahead. In the main then, bread was the mainstay of the Sicilian peasant’s diet, and of course bread – or breadcrumbs – still plays an important role in many Sicilian dishes.

Citrus fruits

You’ll find citrus fruits growing in abundance, with zesty aromas wafting from its groves and it’s brightly coloured fruits adorning the landscape. Around 60% of Italy’s citrus farms are in Siciily and as well as being an important part of the Sicilian economy, citrus fruits are featured in a lot of traditional Sicilian recipes.  Citron (“Cedro”) and lemons where brought to the islands by the Greeks, whilst oranges native to Vietnam/China were introduced by the Arabs.  Mandarins were not introduced to Europe until the 1950’s but production has taken off in Sicily.  Today there are many varieties of oranges, including the Sanguinella blood orange and the Tarroco (found only in Sicily), which are mostly used for juicing.  Sicilian oranges are the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.  Whilst visiting Sicily for the first time I was given a glass of freshly squeezed juice and I seriously thought a teaspoon of sugar had been added to the the glass.  In almost all the bars and cafés you’ll be able to get freshly squeezed orange juice but make sure you ask for a ‘spremuta d’arancia’ (squeezed juice) or you’ll be given the bottled variety instead!

Olives and Olive oil

If you love olives, then you will love Sicily. Olives were first brought here by the Greeks between 400 – 700 BC, and Sicily has been producing olives and olive oil ever since – although production was reduced under Arab rule, with oil imported from the Magreb instead and olive groves uprooted to make way for citrus and irrigated crops. Production was later restored under the Normans and the Spaniards. Today, there are seven main varieties of olive that are cultivated in Sicily: Nocellara del Belice (Trapani), Cerasuola (Agrigento), Tonda Iblea (Ragusa), Moresca (Ragusa), Nocellara Messinese (Messina), Nocellara Etnea (Catania) and Biancolilla.

Rice

Think of rice and Italy and you might well think of risotto – but although it is heavily consumed in northern Italy, it is less popular in Sicily and the Aeolian Islands. This is despite the crop first being introduced to Europe through Arab-occupied lands such as Sicily, as well as Spain. So skilled were they in irrigation methods, the Arabs created paddy fields south of Catani, rice continued to be grown here until the 18th century. Today, the main use in Sicily for rice is in making arancini – stuffed and deep fried rice balls.

Cheese

The hilly and mountainous terrain and sparse vegetation mean that sheep and goats are the ideal and logical animals to breed. However, EU subsidies mean there are a huge amount of cattle being farmed in Sicily. Thanks to all the wild herbs on which they feed, the enormous amounts of milk produced are used to create some truly wonderful varieties of cheeses. These include Pecorino, a full-fat sheep’s cheese with different regional variations, and classifications according to it age; Ricotta – which literally means “cooked again” – and which is made by reboiling the whey left behind when curds have been taken in making other cheeses; and Caciocavallo, a cow’s cheese which can be eaten fresh, matured or when smoked. All are best appreciated with a fine Sicilian wine!

Pork

Pigs are generally farmed, although prized by the locals are the delicious meats and salamis made from the Nebrodi black swine (suino nero) which roam free over the Nebrodi mountains of Messina, foraging and grazing through wild and wooded areas which is thought to influence the intense flavours of its meats. Meat is mainly prepared very simply, either grilled or roasted, but then there’s also an amazing variety of sausages, cured meats and salamis too, all flavoured with local herbs and spices.

Fish

Understandably, with the sea so close, fish dishes dominate cuisine for coastal parts of Sicily and throughout the Aeolian Islands. Depending on the season and location, there is a wide range of different delicacies to enjoy. Tuna is mostly fished off the north-west coast of Sicily, whereas swordfish and amberjack (or ricciola, “the queen of the sea”) are found in the straights of Messina. Vast shoals of sardines and anchovies are fished between March and September, as well as abundant amounts of squid, cuttlefish and octopus, as well as mussels, clams, prawns, crabs, sea urchins and more.

Dolci

The introduction by the Arabs of sugarcane to Sicily was to revolutionise European confectionary, which had previously centred on honey. Whereas honey has a strong flavour, sugarcane offers a more neutral yet overpoweringly sweet taste, one still much beloved by Sicilians today. This together with the phenomenal quantity of nuts produced in the region: pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, and pine nuts, mean there is a vast array of tempting confectionary. Almonds are ground down to produce the famous ‘pasta di mandorla’, or, with the addition of water and icing sugar, are turned into marzipan. This is, in turn, used to create the famous ‘Martorana’ marzipan fruits and figures, which feature prominently in the various annual feast-days.

Chocolate

Solid, sweet chocolate only became part of the confectioner’s tool-box in the 1830s once the Dutch had discovered how to press out the cocoa butter from the ground cocoa bean. Bitter chocolate however has a long tradition of use in Sicily, and was used as a spice to flavour savoury dishes during the Baroque period. Chocolate from Modica, first produced in 1880, maintains an international reputation for its high quality. Flavoured with cinnamon, vanilla and peppercorns, it is still made without the addition of cocoa butter.

Granite and sorbetti

Sicily is famous for its ‘granite’ and ‘sorbetti’, delicious sorbets of ground fruit or nuts, which were introduced to the island by the Arabs.  They were originally made by using handfuls of snow brought from Mount Etna then mixed with sugar and jasmine essence, creating the earliest versions of what we enjoy today.  A couple of centuries later dairy was added to make the italian style ice cream gelato.  In the bars and cafés of Sicily you’ll often see the locals enjoying a granita, topped with whipped cream and served with a brioche bun for breakfast or later in the day, gelato stuffed into a brioche bun to make an enormous ice cream sandwich.