Monday, 2 January 2012

Sicilian Food, its Diversity and New Zealand

In my view Sicilian/Italian food evolution provided the basis for the foundation of European cookery. Dating as far before the Roman Empire Sicily and then Italy’s achievements in creative cooking ideas existed long before that of France. I can’t take anything away from French cuisine because it is world renowned and rightly so. It has taken on its own characteristic style and did grow to some degree from Sicilian/Italian influence.

As one can point out the French style of cooking relates more to the northern part of Italy than it does to the southern peninsular. The south of Italy has for the past few hundred years been seen as the poor part of Italy. People there live on seasonal foods that are gathered fresh and are extremely natural. It was once the food garden for Italy and Europe.

Sicily is a largest island in the Mediterranean and has varied climates across it. There are subtropical areas growing prickly pears in abundance. Every form of citrus is grown in Sicily, lemons, oranges, blood oranges. And then there is the great Mount Etna, a highly active volcano that both destroys whatever is in the path of its lava eruptions and it also fertilises the soil to incomparable richness.

The crops that grow in this soil have no parallel. The quality of the vegetables gives a clue to the dishes of Sicily. Since their vegetables are of superior taste and quality, no Sicilian would defile them by creating complex dishes that mask the fresh flavour of their ingredients. Simplicity allows the pure taste of the vegetables to come through when they are eaten. This is a key attitude to cooking which is prevalent all over Sicily.

Sicily is an island that was conquered by many different civilizations for thousands of years. They came, they saw, they conquered, the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Hapsburgs, Bourbons.

When the Greeks saw the island of Sicily, they fell in love, sent their fleets, and set up colonies.  The Romans saw what the Greeks had, fought them for it, and became the new conquerors.  The Arabs saw what the Romans had, fought them for it, and put the island under their dominion.  From the north came the Normans, the Angevins, Hapsburgs and Bourbons, and when they saw Sicily, they too, went to war, and conquered.

Every time the island was conquered the new owners brought styles and ways of cooking that have shaped the cuisine that has evolved on the Island. The Greeks were colonisers, not conquerors, and they brought with them their more developed agricultural methods, their culture, and a mythology that would tangle with and incorporate Sicily. By the fifth century, the Greek city of Siracusa on the eastern shores of Sicily, and central to the trade routes, was the richest, and most powerful of all Greek cities, including those in Greece itself.

Sicily, as an island, had seas with an abundance of fish, sardines, tuna, swordfish, many varieties of smaller fish. Tuna was of the utmost importance, so much so that a festival celebrating the unique way of netting and killing tuna evolved. Meat was less prevalent, though we assume that goats and sheep were in abundance, and some forms of crude cheeses were made, possibly an early form of ricotta.

After three centuries of Greek dominance, the Romans wanted to have Sicily as a province. Roman power was felt in North Africa and the entire Mediterranean, and after the Punic Wars they succeeded in dominating the island. Sicily was just a province, though, and the Romans plundered the island, destroying forests and planting durum wheat, a crop that prospered in Sicilian climatic conditions. The island became known as the granary of Rome; the soil was depleted from overuse. The Romans did not influence Sicilian cooking; their cooking was influenced by Sicily.

After the Romans came the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Byzantines. Following them came the Arabs  also called Saracens in the early centuries. It was the Arab influence on Sicilian cooking that became the most important, and that has endured to this day. The Greeks colonized and taught methods of farming, the Romans used Sicily as their breadbasket, but it was the Arabs, conquering in 831, who brought food traditions that affected Sicilian cooking. They introduced sophisticated methods of irrigation that made vegetable farming possible, they introduced the eggplant, oranges and lemons.

The capitol of the Arab world at the time was Palermo. The splendor of Palermo was said to rival that of ancient Baghdad. Sicily and Spain were at this time main areas of communication between east and west. Because the Jewish peoples were able to move freely between eastern and western languages and thinking, the Jewish population flourished in Sicily, side by side with the increasingly large Christian population. Christian, Arab and Jew lived in harmony.

The most important Arab import to the Island was pasta. It probably was the Arabs who invented pasta. The Arab use of spices and dried fruit, in particular raisins, left an indelible mark on Sicilian cooking. They also brought cous-cous, known in Sicily as 'cuscusu'. Couscous is made of tiny balls of flour and water which are left to dry in the sun, then steamed over a boiling pan of water. The Arabs would use lamb, possibly chicken, to accompany the couscous. With the abundance of fish, this changed, and a classic Sicilian dish is couscous cooked with the broth of the local fish to give it a seafood flavor. The Arabs also brought rice dishes, though rice was considered the food of the sick. Despite this disregard, Sicily has its one classic rice dish - arancini, little round balls of rice with meat in its center, or of rice with cheese at its center.

The Arabs also brought a sweet tooth that would lead to the development of Sicilian baked goods and cookies of every type, cakes and sherbets. During Greek and Roman reign, honey had been the sweetener, but the Arabs brought sugar cane and the first rudimentary sugar refinery was established in Trappeto. The Sicilians took to this sweet marvel, and their pastries are today famous throughout Italy and the World.

The Arabs ruled Sicily for two centuries. In that time, the church had developed into the greatest political force in Europe, wielding more power than any government. The pope in Rome, not liking the rule of infidels, encouraged French Normands to attack. Several hundred knights from Normandy, Lombardy, and southern Italy set on the Arabs in Sicily. Once again, the fortunes of the island changed. Christianity was restored; the Norman court gave birth to the Italian language; commerce flourished. The Normands added little to cooking methods, however, and their major food imprint was salt cod, called stoccafisso by the Sicilians. Not a profound legacy.

In the following centuries Sicily would be a pawn, as well as a provincial prize, and would be commanded by the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Spanish Hapsburgs, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, even the British Administration who sent troops to occupy Sicily in the Napoleonic wars. Spain would occupy the island, and in 1492 when Columbus was sent on a voyage of discovery, Spain expelled the Jews from both Spain and Sicily, ending the harmonious coexistence of religion on the island. Spain shifted her attention away from the Mediterranean with the discovery of the New World, leaving Sicily to her own meager devices. The Inquisition brought an end to religious tolerance. Through these centuries, Sicily would also endure earthquakes and the Black Plague, debilitating the island and its population even more.

In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi landed with his troops and speaking for Italian unity, drove the Spanish out of Sicily. Sicily's fortunes declined even further, and there was great unrest. After two decades of poverty, the Sicilians began to emigrate in large numbers, hoping to better their lives in America. During World War I an unfair conscription policy was set in place,more young men were drafted from Sicily than from northern Italy. The New World offered hope.

We have seen that the Arab influence on Sicilian cooking was the most profound. That legacy continues today in ways that make Sicilian cooking inimitable. Encouraged by the nomadic Arabs, as well as by the demands of the natural terrain, Sicilians raised primarily sheep and goats. The flocks provide the milk for caciocavallo, provolo and pecorino cheeses. The whey left over is used to make ricotta, and Sicilians swear that only sheep's milk ricotta gives the right flavor to their desserts.

Sicilian New Zealand Food Fusion

With the poor nature of the Island in the late 1800’s there was a huge exodus of people to America and other countries including Australia and New Zealand and with them they brought their rich history of cooking. Many of the original methods and recipes have changed over time but the passion for food and taste still exists. Much of the cooking was subsumed by Neapolitan cooking.

The Neapolitans were the first great wave of Italians who reached other shores, arriving in great numbers in the years from 1880. The first thing they did was to establish food markets which would provide for the foods they loved. Some of the more exotic Arab influences were lost. Saffron was prohibitively expensive in the west and fell away from Sicilian cooking.

Today there is renewed interest in all things Sicilian/Italian when it comes to food and wine. Their cooking style has started to flourish again all over the world. Sicilian cooking was localised on the Island, changing from village to village and with this renewed interest in things Sicilian and their way of adapting cooking to a regional basis we are seeing Sicilian style cooking growing and evolving from country to country.

New Zealand is no different. We have an abundance of high quality produce grown here, in fact some of the best in the world. The lamb, fish and other meats as well as vegetables are ideally suited to a Sicilian style of cooking. Forget about Pizza and things like that I am referring to healthy, taste-full food that abounds in flavour and quality.

My cooking style has been hugely influenced by my Sicilian heritage. Fresh seasonal foods cooked in a way that they take on added flavours but also retain their own taste and structure is the food that I eat.

Sicilian foods can be very simple to prepare and cook or you can make it where ever you want by putting a bit more time into preparation and cooking.

Cacciatore Style (Hunters Style)

Slow cookers work so well with Sicilian cooking. Hunters and Shepard’s in Sicily mastered the art of ‘One Pot Cooking’, Cacciatore Style (Hunters Style) and this can be adapted to slow cookers with easy and with very tasty results with little effort. Even if you are on the side of a hill why should your food not taste great?

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