SHORT HISTORY OF SICILIAN GASTRONOMY

The cuisine of Palermo (and Sicily) is the backbone of the Mediterranean Diet, inscribed in 2008 by UNESCO in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Its street food occupies the first Italian and European place in the world ranking of street food written by the international community Virtualtourist and published by the prestigious magazine Forbes. This is evidence of the importance of culinary culture in Palermo and Sicily, always a crossroad of people who have expressed and represented themselves also through food.

Before the Hellenic colonization, Sicily was inhabited by Sicans, Elymians and Sicels, peoples whose origin still questions researchers. In terms of food, we know that the Sicans, skilled fishermen, ate mostly roasted and salt baked fish. The Elymians, who settled in Trapani around the XIII century BC, dedicated to pastoralism and agriculture, already produced wine, ricotta, cheese and used honey to sweeten. The Siculi, also farmers and shepherds, mainly cultivated cereals, but also practiced hunting.
Around the VIII century BC the Phoenicians arrived in Sicily and founded several colonies, including Mothya, Solunto and Palermo. Crops of pomegranate, citron, Nubia red garlic, saffron are attributable to their presence. The Phoenicians contributed to the spreading of viticulture and made several kitchen utensils working with obsidian. They extracted salt and knew effective techniques of fishing (the tuna trap system) and conservation of raw materials (salting).
During the Greek era Sicily was a culturally advanced society according to an enogastronomical point of view, as shown by the poem Hedypatheia by Archestratus of Gela initiator of the gastronomic culture, and the tales of Athenaeus of Naucratis, the Deipnosophistae, which means The dinner-table philosophers. The Greeks had a lot of expertise in wine: they introduced, for example, the technique of drying grapes on mats to increase their sugar level. They grafted the rooted of two vines still present today, Grecanico and Albanello, onto the common Sicilian grapevine. Wine was also used in cooking, in dishes with rabbit, for example. They consumed a lot of fish, ennobled in elaborate recipes such as sea bream with vinegar and marinated or roasted tuna with oregano and garlic. Other spices used were basil and cumin. Between the IX and VII century BC, according to Diodorus Siculo, was also introduced by Greece the olive tree, that will characterize the Sicilian environment up to the present day.
After the First Punic War the Roman domination began in Sicily, whose culinary culture is documented by many literary works, including the De re coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius, the first cookbook we have historical knowledge. The Romans acquired the culture of food, of banquet and convivium from the Greeks. They were large consumers of garum, a sauce obtained from the maceration of fish guts in brine. They ate copious amounts of chickpeas and pork, introduced in Sicily by them, used to make the blood sausage. Among the most popular dishes, eel (bred by them), moray eel in broth, stuffed squid and fava beans puree (macco di fave). They brought from the farthest provinces new fruits and spices: poppy seed, cinnamon, clove, ginger and pepper, used to preserve meat. The plums were introduced in 150 B.C., the cherries were instead brought by the aristocrat Lucullis from a Roman province on the Black Sea. The Roman period coincided with the arrival of the Jews in Sicily, whose stay will last until the end of the XV century, when they were expelled from the kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabella. Kosher cuisine left an indelible mark in Sicilian gastronomy. For example, the scaccia and the vota-vota, prepared with unleavened dough and stuffed with vegetables, descend directly from unleavened bread, ritual Easter food. The mullet with saffron – still typical in Sicily – was a dish of the Jewish New Year. Jews also introduced garlic sautéed in olive oil as a dressing for vegetables. They were especially skilled in cooking the offal. Pani ca meusa, quarume, frittula, stigghiole, mussu, masciddaru and carcagnola have in fact Jewish origin. Also the birth of street food dates back to the Roman era, meant to feed the spectators of theaters and amphitheaters after the shows: they organized tabernae to sold fritters, fried or toasted chickpeas, fried fish and express food.
Vandals and Goths made no significant changes in Sicilian gastronomy. Theirs was a simple cooking based on roasted meats and beer.
The Byzantines arrived in Sicily in 535 AD and remained there until 827 AD, when the Arabs came and inherited the Hellenistic and Roman culinary tradition. Unlike the Romans, they tasted beer and watered wine, sweetened with honey and spices. They introduced new flavors and created oriental-inspired dishes, such as the frascatula, flour soup cooked in water of vegetables or legumes. The lords ate poultry meat (pheasants, peacocks), the servants mostly offal, usually braised, and the commoners pork and lamb. The fish was consumed in all population groups, thanks to its abundance and the fishing organization: innovative was the introduction of swordfish fishery with techniques still used in the Strait of Messina.
With the Arabs Sicily enjoyed a period of cultural vitality, also gastronomic. They brought from Asia citrus, pistachio, rice, sugar cane, jasmine and mulberry tree and also introduced a variety of crops including anise, spinach, eggplant, sesame, carob, millet, melon, onion, shallot, artichoke, asparagus, peach and apricot. They carried out a diversification that replaced the monoculture of cereals of Romans and Byzantines. The Arabs introduced alcohol distillation in Sicily in addition to various agricultural and hydraulic technologies, but unlike in Arabia, in Sicily sugar, spices and fruit were added to the distillate, creating rosolio (liqueur). The cultivation of sugar cane, that started to spread around 945 especially in the Conca d’Oro, caused a revolution in the culinary field. It made possible making candied fruit, marmalades, jams, nougat (including the typical cubaita), glazes and syrups. The Sicilian pastry, as we know it today, began to take shape: ricotta, honey, pistachios, almonds were already the basic ingredients, and the first cannoli and cassate appeared. Sorbet and ice-cream are also of Arabic origin: the scursunera was a jasmine ice-cream, the first ever made though with healing aims. The art of drying pasta and preparing cous-cous were also Arab. In the early X century AD was created in Trabia a system for the production of triyah, from the Arabic itrija, a preparation based of flour in wire form: the first spaghetti in Italy. Pasta was often seasoned with sardines, just like today for one of the most characteristic first courses of the cuisine of Palermo. The batters and the sfincia, fried dough, were also introduced by the Arabs, also known for their preference for minced meat, often used as filling or in pies and timbales. The Arab tradition of selling ready-to-eat foods on the street was in continuity with the practice introduced by the Romans, giving strength to a trend that still survives and characterizes especially Palermo, in the form of the much celebrated street food.
It was a period of coexistence between Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Sicilian-Arabic “food bilingualism” passed by the native population to the Normans and assimilated and translated by them because they recognized its charm and cultural greatness. And thus new combinations of ingredients and flavours were proposed. Northern peoples introduced both dried and salted cod (baccalà) and air-dried cod (stockfish), as well as herring: products that over time will be essential in traditional preparations, such as the baccalà a sfincione or the stoccafisso alla ghiotta. Eating a large quantities of meat, Normans and Swabians introduced in the island cuisine skewers for roasting and knives and forks to skewer. The pig breeding was reintroduced and the methods of salting and drying of meat were refined. This is how the art of pork butchery was born. There was a weel-defined and hierarchical distribution of roles in the kitchens: in the Sicilian royal courts existed the figure of the chef, usually of Iberian origin; this would explain the presence of Valencian and Catalan influences in southern cooking. The convent of La Martorana dates back to Norman period, where Greek nuns skilled in processing of almond were housed. Here the famous Martoran fruit was born: colorful sculptures of marzipan, rich in details, still made today during the popular festival dedicated to the deceased on November 2.
Under King Charles of Anjou Sicily experienced an unhappy time because of the high French taxation and the loss of autonomy of the Sicilian Parliament, ended with the revolt of Vespers in 1282. Angevin domination will last a few years but will leave important traces in the island cuisine. The French practiced a more elaborate cuisine than the Swabians and introduced new dishes, which over time became Sicilian specialties: the falsomagro, the fricassee, the gateau and the croquettes (at the time both made with the ricotta, as there were still no potato), the matalotta and the blancmange; preparations that could be tasted in the court baron and monasteries, unknown for centuries to the people. The Angevins also introduced a new way of cooking meat, in a pan on a low heat, with a tasty onion sauce: the famous agglassato.
After the expulsion of the Angevins, the Sicilian Parliament offered the throne to King Peter of Aragon, husband of Constance of Sicily, Queen of Aragon. A period marked by wars, famine and conflicts between the great Barons of Sicily. In 1412 the Council of the Crown of Aragon appointed Ferdinand of Castile as King of Sicily. There was a weel-defined and hierarchical distribution of roles in the kitchens: in the Sicilian royal courts existed the figure of the chef, usually of Iberian origin; this would explain the presence of Valencian and Catalan influences in southern cooking. In private homes cooking was practiced by women, while on the street the cooks were men, called coquinarii and pastillarii, specialized in tripe, offal and re-use of rotten meat, among other things. In the homes of the aristocrats there were specialized chefs, called maestri.
In 1469, with the marriage of Isabella I of Castile to Ferdinand II of Aragon and the unification of the two kingdoms, Sicily became a Spanish domain. The consolidation of the aristocratic, baronial and episcopal cuisine started by the Normans, continued by the Aragonese, was completed under the domination of the Viceroys. Castles, convents and monasteries became places of preservation and development of a refined cuisine, aimed at the noble classes and the higher clergy, where prevailed red and white meat, game, big fishes. After the discovery of America many new crops arrived in Sicily: tomato, cocoa, corn, potato, pepper, chili, bean, butternut squash. There was a second foodie revolution, after the Arab one, thanks to the introduction of new ingredients that will become the cornerstones of Sicilian cuisine, first of all the tomato. Also the aubergine, that was already eaten but in modest quantities, started to be central in various preparations. Cocoa was used in the preparation of savory and sweet dishes, as well as chocolate: it was cold-worked, using the technique that the Spanish had learnt from the Aztec and that is still used in Modica. The wealth of knowledge and skills allowed professionals to reach high forms of creativity and innovation thanks to the use of new ingredients and techniques. The evolution of the cassata was emblematic, a dessert already present on the Roman and Arabic tables, which was completed with the addition of a base of sponge cake to hold the weight of ricotta and sugar. The pastry experienced a flourishing period and in the monasteries were created true confectionery masterpieces. The Sicilian cuisine of this period underwent a process of internationalization with the acquisition of French, German and northern European influences, but above all it became known beyond its borders. Speaking of which, a little-known event has marked the island’s gastronomic history: the “expulsion of lovers” from Malta. In 1581 the then Grand Master of the Order of Malta, the Frenchman Jean l’Evêque de la Cassière, in accordance with Inquisitor and Bishop, decided to put an end to the laxness of the young knights, cadet sons of the noble families of Europe who lived there, sending away their lovers and also the cooks. Many banquets, in fact, were held on the island and the Maltese Food Carnival had been instituted. Some of the expelled courtesans settled in Agrigento and married Sicilian noblemen from different cities, bringing in dowry their recipes and preparations of European origin; others returned to Europe, exporting the flavors of Sicilian cuisine. During the Spanish domination the gap between the cuisine of the courts and of the rich aristocratic families and that of the popular classes became wider.
Under the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 Sicily became a Savoy domain. In 1720, after a brief return of the Spanish, it was ceded to the Austrian Habsburgs and Charles VI becomes King of Sicily. During these dominations taxation and the depredation of valuable resources were strong and there were no relevant legacies in Sicilian gastronomy. Some attribute the preparation of the cutlet to the Austrians, but the origins of the dish are controversial.
Under the Bourbons, Sicilian gastronomy reached its peak thanks above all to the activity of Monsù, chefs of French origin who worked for the noble families of the Kingdom. It was Queen Marie-Caroline the Bourbon-Sicile, wife of Charles Ferdinand, who introduced these professional figures, symbol of elegance and wealth, within the Bourbon court and from there in all the aristocratic houses. The Monsù, in fact, between the XVIII and XIX centuries, consolidated the great baronial cuisine. They also played a crucial role in spreading of cooking techniques: they used to hire vulgar Sicilian ‘paglietta cooks’, instructing them and thus giving rise to a real cooking school. The influence of the cuisine of Monsù on popular cuisine was very strong. The double recipes, noble and popular, reported by tradition are numerous. In the popular version the expensive ingredients were replaced with cheaper counterparts, but she complexity of the noble dish was not affected. It is an elaborate cooking: pies stuffed with meat and cheese, chickens stuffed with rice, game stuffed with their own offal, meat rolls, ragù, pate, rice or anelletti timbales, but also many vegetables and fish, in some cases presented raw or marinated. The Monsù enhanced what Sicily offered, renewing its food tradition. If in official lunches and in the great convivial meetings the Sicilian lords preferred delicate French flavours, in daily life they asked the Monsù to make robust dishes with stronger flavours. Preparations such as agglassato, gateau, falsomagro, croquettes of Angevin memory, were recovered and improved according to the new taste and were also known by the less well-off classes. The reinvention of sweet and sour caponata is also attributed to the Monsù.
In 1860, the annexation of Sicily to the Reign of Italy causes discontent, especially for the centralization of power in northern hands. The 1866 law on the regulation of rice paddies deeply affected the ancient and traditional Sicilian rice cultivation, making it disappear completely (the central presence of rice in many traditional Sicilian preparations – eg. the arancina – testifies to its importance in our culinary culture). The extension of the Siccardi law, which concerned the sale of ecclesiastical goods, led to the closure of many convents and the confectionery, until then in the hands of the nuns, changed things. Some of them, once at home, shared confectionery secrets with their families: not surprisingly in the family tree of many Sicilian pastry shops there is a nun as an ancestor. In the late XIX century, some confectioner families moved from Switzerland to Sicily (Caflish and Rageth & Koch to Palermo, Caviezel-Greuter to Catania), marking a new phase of the island’s history of confectionery where tradition was combined with European knowledge (e.g. the use of cream and creams). During the Belle Époque upscale restaurants and tea and coffee rooms were spread in Palermo, even women-only, sign of a entrepreneurial upper middle class that carried out its elegant city’s living room. Over the XX century, the dishes of traditional popular cuisine continued to be offered, almost unchanged and still today many of them can be enjoyed in the typical places in food markets in Palermo and not only: fried food shops, focaccerie, stalls of purpari or of stigghiolari, greengrocers, butchers, taverns. Places where, through food, past and present are inextricably linked. The diversity and wealth of Sicilian cuisine and its cultural relevance, have also been recognized by UNESCO, that, as stated above, added the Mediterranean diet in the Intangible Cultural Heritage List of Humanity in 2008.