Cooking History of the Sicilian Provinces
The Roman proverb ”Siculus coquus et Sicula
mensa” literally translated means: Sicilian cook and Sicilian
provisions. In classical Rome, it was a status symbol for the upper class families, who already had the
advantage of well cooked and tasty foods, to employ a Sicilian
well as after the Romans’ rule, all those who lived in or governed Sicily appreciated the island’s cooking, and
they exported the food and cookery of Sicily to their own lands.
It is a fact that those who came to Sicily fell in
love with the land and brought their families to live there to become part of the melting pot that today makes
up the population of Sicily.
Phoenicians introduced the use of salt in preserving and curing fish and other foods. Sicilian cooks used salt to
conserve provisions and added honey to make food more palatable. The new salty-sweet sauce in addition to the other
popular sweet and sour sauce, made with sour wine and honey, made it possible to conserve food for long trips and
exporting to distant places.
Under the influence of the Carthaginians, the
Sicilians mastered grain farming. It is believed that in this period, a rudimental form of flat bread, like a
thick cracker, was made and later on transformed to sfincione.
The Greeks called Sicily
Megale’ Hellas (to the Romans, it was Magna Grecia) meaning Great Greece. They settled in this luscious and fertile land with a mild climate and founded many cities
and trading posts. They increased the production of wine and the cultivation of artichokes and introduced the
olive trees. For many years, long after the Greeks left Sicily, the island was the olive oil capital of the
The Greeks sponsored the rearing of
cattle to increase the manufacture of dairy products. Sicilian farmers generated many varieties of cheeses,
unique to the territories of production, each with a different taste due to the preparation and conservation
processes. More importantly, wealthy Greek families employed local people as workers in their kitchens to take
the place of the slaves, and a new craft was born, namely the cook.
The cooks made pickled vegetables for
their Greek employers. When they pickled cooked assorted vegetables and added capers, olives, spices, honey and
fried artichokes, an archaic version of caponatina was born.
The Romans did little to enhance
the eclectic Sicilian cuisine. They built beautiful villas for their vacations and infrastructures like
aqueducts, theaters and roads to make their life comfortable. They imposed heavy taxes on the population and
monopolized the commerce of wheat to provide for the Roman people and their
aristocracies used “Sicilian cook and Sicilian provisions” to celebrate their feasts. In Rome or in their vacation
retreats, expert Sicilian cooks prepared their banquets with Sicilian supplies, fruits, vegetables, games, honey
and wines. Rome dominated Sicily until the fourth century AC, when the Byzantines settled in Sicily in 525 AC until
The Byzantines were never accepted by the Sicilians. They imposed heavy taxes, established the
military draft and imposed the Christian religion on the
population. Their contribution to the Sicilian culinary art is minimal to non existent; in fact, it is
believed that they introduced the pastfeli a honey and sesame seed sweet later
called cubbarda or cubbaita.
The Arabs inhabited Sicily for
about 200 years, and during their rule, Sicily achieved a stage of welfare, order and prosperity. As a result of
this wealth and the introduction of new farming products coupled with exotic spices, different dishes were
created and new cooking techniques were devised.
One of the new products
manufactured during this period was pasta, the food that since then has influenced the eating habits of the
The first pasta factory in the
world was established in Trabia, a small town outside Palermo. It was selected for its slightly humid climate,
its mild temperature, the crystalline spring water without calcium or any other impurities and for the quality
of the local grain, the durum wheat; these are necessities in the making of good
Trabia, pasta is made on a smaller scale, but the system and art of making pasta from Trabia spread all over Italy.
Now Italy is the world’s biggest producer of pasta.
The Sicilians used their skills
combined with the expertise of the Arabs and the introduction of new ingredients to create novel procedures and
combinations with an influence that, after 1000 years, is unmistakably still present in today’s Sicilian
cooking. The tastes of sour, sweet and salty were paired or combined to create interesting dimensions in the
flavor of food. To accomplish this task, raisins, pine nuts, almonds and pistachios were extensively
The Sicilians combined the snow of
Etna with honey and enjoyed this cold treat in the summer; the Saracens improved this dessert by adding sugar
cane and fresh juices to the snow. They called it sharbat, or sorbet. A dessert like the
cassata, it was modified by adding marzipan, a mixture of almonds and sugar cane and decorated with
fresh fruits dipped in sugar syrup, candied to preserve and sweeten them. During this time, cookies and cakes
made with candied fruits, pistachios and cinnamon were baked. Sugar was added to the cubbarda, originally made
only with honey and sesame seeds.
The Normans introduced salted cod
(in Sicilian, baccala’), dry cod, stockfish (stoccafisso) and smoked herrings, elements often found on Sicilian
During the following five
centuries, many people touched our shores.
The Jewish peoples living on the
island could not cook on Saturday for religious reasons. Therefore, they were skilled in food preservation and
cooked the food in advance to be eaten for their Shabbats.
Using their ability combined
with the local expertise, they mastered their cooking, which was later popularized all over the Italian
peninsula as cucina
ebraica, Jewish cookery.
They introduced a line of baked and fried pastries in the shape of half moons and
stuffed with salty or sweet ingredients to make a brackish snack or tasty
In the thirteenth century, the
French were unwelcome guests who ruled Sicily until the uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers, which began in
Palermo in March 1282. Beatrix, the daughter of Raymond-Berenger IV, Count of Provence, married Charles I
d’Anjou, king of Sicily and Naples. When she lived in Palermo, she made an effort to Frenchify the court and to
teach the Sicilian cooks the Provencal way of cooking. The olive oil, garlic, olives and anchovies, basic staple
ingredients in the older and much more complex Sicilian cooking schools,
they became fundamental in
the Provencal style of
The Provencal style of cooking
appropriated the knowledge of the sauces and style of the local cooks, the pairing of different
tastes—sweet, sour, salty—and made Sicilian recipes their own but with fancy French
Effectively, the improvements were limited only to the appearance of a few dishes,
and the only noticeable influence was in the semantics. Oh, yes: they called the cooks Monzu’, a
contraction of Monsieur!
The Spaniards introduced
the empanada in Sicily called impanata, schiacciata, pastizzu or fuate, which are a turnover made of bread dough
and usually stuffed with vegetables, meat or fish. Their long occupation of the island contributed to and
increased the tendency of the Monzu’ and general population to experiment
with new dishes. This trait became especially prevalent when new products like cocoa, potatoes, peppers,
squash and tomatoes were introduced from America. Tomatoes were not fully appreciated and consumed as food
until the seventeenth century.
During this period, the taste of
bitter-salty-sweet was successfully experimented with when the impanata was served stuffed with bitter spinach, sweet raisins, regular and bitter almonds and
In the late eighteenth century, an
English trader named John Woodhouse discovered a wine made in the town of Marsala, aged in oak casks, with the
same characteristic of the fortified wines imported in England and produced in Spain and Portugal, the Madeira
and the Port. In 1796, John Woodhouse opened a winery for the production of Marsala wine in large quantities
which were successfully exported to England and all over the world.
In 1860, Garibaldi initiated the
military operations that successfully unified Italy.
At present, Sicily is an autonomous region divided into nine
provinces: Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Syracuse and