Sicily: A rummage through God’s larder
Written for the Circle Update, Circle of Wine Writers
Some people call Sicily ‘God’s kitchen’ and its not hard to see why. A bountiful coast filled with sea creatures coming from the Mediterranean Sea and coast of Africa; an agriculturally rich land with sunny climes with cool coastal areas as well as sub tropical heat; and a history of immigration and culinary influences from Greece, Africa and the Arab world… Sicily is bound to have good food.
During our week on the island we gained an insight into Sicilian cuisine, as well as a few extra pounds around the belly… Maybe it’s easiest to sum up our foodie experiences by breaking it down into courses, and there were many. Typical in Italy, any dining experience kicks off with antipasti and with such a splendid array of food it can be quite a challenge to remember to leave room for the other three courses. Abundant in Sicily is fresh produce so as expected we found a range of marinated, infused, stuffed, roasted, grilled, toasted, carpaccio-ed and simply sliced vegetables like aubergine, mushrooms, olives, peppers, tomatoes, and artichokes. Caponata is a traditional Sicilian preparation of tomatoes and aubergine which was splendid splodged all over homemade bread. An exemplary dish that showed the heavenly quality of Sicily’s produce is the simple Fennel and Orange salad: fresh fennel finely sliced with juicy orange segments and a splash of olive oil. This can be executed to perfection on the island, but requires the fresh, just-from-Nonna’s-tree oranges which are so sweet and fragrant that no doubt Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have found diamonds in them.
Among the antipasti we often found more street food style dishes, like the crispy rice balls known as Arancini which are stuffed with a ragu, meat or cheese. Another fried typicality is Panelle, a chickpea fritter, which is simply a soft warm morsel which helps you swig down some more Carricante. Probably the favorite antipasti for everyone was the fresh cheese though… Homemade ricotta that was so creamy and fine I would have smeared it on my face without hesitation; fresh buffalo mozzarella that oozed delicious buffalo milk; and hard cheeses ripe with salty maturity.
Key to survival in Sicily is not overindulging in the antipasti though… because the courses get bigger. Primo piatto was often pasta: always cooked to a perfect ‘al dente’ it came with simple sauces which proved why less is more. Whether fresh tomato sauce graced with a blushing leaf of Basil, or the deep earthy flavour of sea urchin, it’s tough to resist either way.
Then, when you feel your belly button is about to shoot across the table, out comes the main course. We had home reared lamb (great with a rich Nero d’Avola); baked fish with juicy baby tomatoes; and pistachio and marzipan stuffed squid among other delights. The fertile island can pretty much give you most ingredients but the key to Sicilian cooking is simplicity.
Finally it was onto dessert. Famed for bringing the Cannoli into the world, Sicily is abound with this typical sweet dessert: a cylinder of fried pastry (sometimes sprinkled with almonds) stuffed with fresh ricotta cream and often topped with chocolate or pistachios on the ends. It’s not possible to just eat one.
Another sweet treat native to the island is Granata. Believed to have originated from Etna snow being flavoured with lemon, this sorbet style frozen dessert is wonderfully refreshing and best served alongside some of the abundant stone fruit and cherries.
Follow it all up with a dense and intense espresso, and you will understand why they say God would pick Sicily for his kitchen. It’s just dripping with sapidity.
Photos: (top to bottom) Delicious fruit and vegetable selection; Fennel and Orange Salad; Antipasti galore; Pasta and homemade Ricotta; Oh-so-hard-to-resist Cannoli; Sicilian stores; Me eating way too many desserts and cherries.