Moor’s Head
La Margherita di Biga
Cathedral sunrise
A Monreale lunch
Regaleali Estate
Bird’s eye view of Pasta Monreale
Vigna vines
Sunrise
Fish meatballs
Snowy Etna
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Traditional cuisine is complemented by a dynamic wine scene

Sicily

There is little question that a visit to Sicily promises a profound experience. It is an island (together with smaller islands located in close or reasonably close proximity) that has captured the imagination of poets and writers from far-flung regions and Italian locales across centuries. The Godfather was shot here as well as, more recently, the critically acclaimed television series, The White Lotus. But it is also a lively, bustling, and colourful destination with much of life lived on the street or at the piazza: outdoor cafes for espresso and cannoli; or a slab of pizza with a glass of Aperol Spritz. City markets, in addition to splendid produce, offer street food snacks, including roasted artichoke, fried fish, bruschetta, and cups of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

Mount Etna

Sicily is a place of cultural, agricultural, architectural and geographical greatness—from the stunning mountain-sea axis, grand boulevards and elaborate gardens of the handsome capital city Palermo in the northwest, to the startling image of Mount Etna brooding over the charged city streets of Catania in the east, to visions of high-altitude vineyards, abandoned stone cottages, dottings of prickly pear, olive groves, and, everywhere, magnificent duomo (cathedrals).

Moor’s head

Sicily is a place where history and folklore are culturally palpable, perhaps no more so than in the representation of the Moor’s head. These heads are everywhere — as decorations in the windows of dress shops or on restaurant dining tables, as vases on cobbled alleys — and they’re for sale at street stalls selling fridge magnets. Legend has it that a visiting Moorish trader fell in love with a young Sicilian girl. But when he broke the news that he was returning home – to his wife and children – she saw green. She cut off his head and planted in it a basil plant, watering it with her tears. The plant grew luxuriantly, and her neighbours, intoxicated by its aromas, ordered ceramic vases with the same features as the Moor’s head so as to grow such a magnificent plant themselves. The moral of the tale laughs a manager at an upmarket restaurant in the chic seaside city Cefalu – home to a most remarkable duomo – is to never upset a Sicilian woman. But the story clearly runs deep, talking of forbidden love, and of the historic influence of Moorish culture in Sicily.

Sicilian cuisine

Evident in Sicilian cuisine is a long history of varied influences, asserts food writer and researcher Anna Tasca Lanza, such as the use of pinenuts and raisins, and the popularity of pasta reale (marzipan). The Zibibbo grape is one of the few plants that can grow on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, and its name is an Arab word. Anna thinks that isolation from modernity is also revealed in cooking traditions today, and that the incredible quality of ingredients has been a critical factor in the development of the rich and varied cuisine. We see rabbit cooked in a red wine reduction with green olives and balsamic; charred octopus served on a bed of potato mash; and risotto dense with dark squid ink.

Bread was a luxury and respected

Traditionally, bread has been treated with the greatest of respect and, in the past, the task of slicing a loaf was the prerogative of the head of the household. Bread was a luxury and, when food was scarce, reserved for the man of the house. So children and their mothers would forage for prickly pears, another emblematic foodstuff that features across literature and art. As Mary Taylor Simeti writes in Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food, such traditions help to explain the importance of breadcrumbs in Sicilian cooking. They might be used as a substitute for cheese to sprinkle on pasta or used to coat both meat and fish, often seasoned with oregano, salt and pepper, explains Anna. 

Sicily’s indigenous grapes

Perhaps the most exciting development is the growth of commitment to indigenous grapes. Giuseppe Barraco, export manager for Carlo Pellegrino, one of Sicily’s most prominent players, says that about eighty-five per cent of vineyards are planted with local grapes such as Grillo, Catarratto and Carricante (white); and Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola and Perricone (red).

While the marketing effort required to help consumers understand the wine styles delivered by these grapes is significant, Giuseppe says, “We believe in our grapes!”