This article is Part Three in a series on Sicilian foods, wines, and culture. Part One of this series was a focus on Sicily as “The new darling of wine culture.” Part Two of this series was a focus on the young, dominating wine industry of the Etna DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) on east coast of Sicily, on and around Mount Etna.
To fully experience the foods and wines of Sicily one might spend some time reflecting on the Mediterranean island’s history, its place on the World Map – at the point of three seas and various trade routes – or its harsh geography, and the fact it has been colonized by various civilizations for millennia who introduced and cultivated unfamiliar foods and traditions.
Or, we could do what the Sicilian population does: enjoy it!
Sicily has been a crossroad of cultures since Antiquity. Its foods confirm the influence of Arabia, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe.
Consider that as far back as the 5th century BCE, Greek and Punic colonies were battling for sovereignty of the island which had likely by then been introduced to the olive and a rare wild vine that could be cultivated to make wine.
Over the course of the next several centuries, Sicily was ruled by Romans who introduced grains to the island; Arabs who disseminated spices and nuts and citrus fruits; and Spaniards who brought tomatoes from The New World.
During any given repast, an abundance of flavors can end up on the same table. From grilled swordfish and rolls of fennel and sausage-stuffed eggplant, to roasted meats, rare and intriguing offal salamis, marinated and stuffed vegetables, cheeses, breads, nuts, citrus fruits, icy deserts, and (let’s not forget) wines that complement any potential course, a Sicilian meal can deliver a veritable tour around the world.
One thing that makes eating and drinking in Sicily such an event is the undeniable freshness of the food. Whether rich or poor, all Sicilians have easy access to some of the best foods in the world because many of the world’s best foods and wines have been introduced to and grow well on the sun-drenched island. Neighborhood markets – some of them traveling markets – offer the freshest selection of seasonal vegetables, the daily catch of fish, artisanal cheeses, breads, fruits and sweets, with the regularity of a sunrise.
Food is purchased based on need, typically for one large meal around midday (prior to a long nap during the hottest part of the afternoon). There is rarely a canned-foods aisle in a neighborhood market, for instance. Most everything is available, unsullied from a local producer, every day, until it is sold out.
Restaurants and private homes operate on a similar model, rotating the menu based on what is only the freshest of ingredients. If for example the tuna were biting that morning there might be several such recipes on the bill of fare that evening.
The keystone of Italy’s reputation for culinary delights is largely the result of a very basic cultural imperative to enjoy what is best about life. Food is an irrefutable necessity. Why not make every meal the best meal it can be? It is not a profound concept, nor is it a fatalistic, Life-is-Short mentality. It is truly making every part of life as rich as possible – one day, one meal, one ingredient at a time.
That being said, though there is a general intercontinental flexibility in what a typical Sicilian meal might consist of, there is a certain firmness Sicilian’s hold to when it comes to wine – why serve incredible food and bad wine after all?
Throughout its history, wines from Sicily have known varying levels of acclaim. Because of its demanding terrain and warm, dry temperatures, it is an ideal climate for wine grapes to ripen fully every year.
Barring the phylloxera infestation in the late 1800s during which an estimated ninety percent of all European vineyards were decimated and the post World War II urgency to produce as much wine as was possible in order to subvert the widespread poverty of the island, Sicilian wine producers have consistently been able to make good, if not excellent, wines.
Strong, sweet wines such as Marsala, from the southwest, and Malvasia from the islands of Lipari to the north, have especially been known to attract the attention of European royalty and the Christian papacy for centuries.
Today, it is Sicily’s extraordinary production of international wine varieties which has turned a lot of heads in this direction. As a result, more and more attention is being paid to Sicily’s native varieties including Catarratto, Inzolia, Carricante, Zibbibo, Nerello Mascalese, and Nero d’Avola.
Vineyards that once produced rustic characterless quaffers are being refocused and repurposed along side a developing international gastronomic palate. The concept that specific wines and particular foods / flavors can enhance the experience of a meal is catching on.
With such an international array of foods and high quality wines to choose from, a gastronomic amateur might find choosing exactly what to eat while in Sicily a bit intimidating, but novices are difficult to find in Sicily. Food and wine are in the blood. They are a part of everyday life. The good life.