3 (and more) things you don’t know about sicilian food culture
Sicily has always been a crossroads of cultures, of stories, of customs. Thanks to its favorable climate and strategic position, it has always been defined as a focal point at the center of the world.
Washed by the Ionian Sea, the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is the glue between Europe and Africa and, for this reason, it has been an easy and safe landing place for different peoples, who have made it what it is today: a multicultural land rich from every point of view, architectural, historical and gastronomic.
Each people has left as an inheritance customs and traditions, culinary techniques and dishes that over time have become the real strengths of this land, already rich in naturalistic, geological and historical points of view. As you already know, Sicilian cuisine is strongly influenced by Arabs, Greeks and Romans among the others and to them we owe the desserts and dishes that the world envies us.
Its greatest strengths? Undoubtedly, the sea and the mild climate, which favored fishing, cattle breeding and the cultivation of fruit trees, especially citrus groves, vineyards, almond groves, pistachio groves and olive groves, but also cereals, vegetables and vegetables. All this has allowed to increase, spread and export all over the world the culinary excellence and the most appreciated gastronomic products.
But there are many other curiosities and things you may not know about Sicilian food culture. Let’s discover them together with us!
What is the origin of granita?
The origin of granita is to be attributed without any doubt to the territory of Messina and Catania.
Granita is one of the most loved traditional Sicilian foods. Lemon, pistachio, coffee, mulberry, almond and even chocolate: everyone likes granita and in summertime it is a fresh dessert to be tasted in order to regenerate.
First of all, let’s not confuse granita with sorbet or with other similar desserts common in other Italian regions. According to tradition, during the Arab domination, it was the Arabs who brought to Sicily the traditional recipe of a frozen beverage which was flavored with fruit juices and rose water. This beverage was called “sherbet” or “sharbat“.
The custom was to mix ice with brown sugar, flower petals and fruits. This tradition spread especially in eastern Sicily. Sicilians used to collect snow on Mount Etna or in the Nebrodi Reserve in order to keep it in the so called “neviere” until summertime.
Once the good season arrived, snow was scratched and covered with fruit syrups. A dessert much more similar to the Sicilian “grattatella“.
However, we have to go back to the middle of the sixteenth century in order to trace the origins of the real Sicilian granita, the most velvety and creamy one, without pieces of ice.
Sicilian cooking is the most rich in the world
Can we affirm that Sicilian cooking is the richest in the world? Surely it is one of the richest! Sicilian recipes offer a great variety of flavors, from appetizers to aperitifs, from street food to pasta.
As we said at the beginning of this article, Sicilian cooking is a crossroad of cultures, a real journey through the history of the world.
From a gastronomical point of view, all this has led to the birth of a very varied, rich and, above all, unique culinary culture. It is enough to move a few kilometers from one country to another, from one province to another, to find different specialties and dishes with the most disparate names.
Lemons, oranges, tangerines, almonds and prickly pears, vegetables, vast vineyards and olive groves make Sicilian gastronomical culture a cauldron of enogastronomical excellences.
Sicily offers a very vast enogastronomical patrimony. Fish, meat and vegetables: no ingredient is excluded!
From first courses to desserts and wines, Sicilian recipes offer a menu so rich in ingredients that it is impossible not to find one’s favorite dish to put in the list. Not only street food and traditional dishes, but also important labels and selection of wines famous all over the world such as Nero D’Avola, Corvo Rosso, Passito di Pantelleria, Moscato di Siracusa!
Sicilian cooking is, moreover, connected to the “Mediterranean diet”, a dietary regimen spread in the Mediterranean basin in Greece, Spain, North Africa and Near East, known for its balanced nature.
It is said, in fact, that the Mediterranean diet promotes longevity and wellbeing of the body, so much that it has become an asset protected by UNESCO. The attention paid to the quality of the ingredients used for each dish, then, contributes to make Sicilian cuisine a healthy, fresh and zero kilometer cuisine.
A different bread, from east to west
You must know that bread is one of the products that can never be missing on the table. Not even during holidays, when you are about to burst and the quantity of food on the table exceeds the limit allowed by law. Joking apart, bread is for Sicilians an undisputed protagonist, perfect to be tasted hot with home made olive oil, to accompany meat, fish and vegetables dishes or to make the classic “scarpetta” with delicious sauces.
But how many types of bread are there in Sicily? One of the most famous is the black bread of Castelvetrano (pani nìuru), a bread of ancient tradition produced in Castelvetrano, in the province of Trapani, and in the surrounding towns. It is prepared with two wholemeal semolina milled in natural stone mills: Sicilian blond wheat and local durum wheat (tumminia).
Another type of bread known is bread of Monreale (u pani ri murriali), produced in the area of Monreale, in the province of Palermo. It follows a long leavening process, with many phases, and it has been included in the 1999 list of traditional Italian food products.
In eastern Sicily, precisely in the Syracuse area, is produced a bread made with durum wheat semolina and Timilia flour, a very rare late wheat of Sicilian origin. This bread, typical of the area of Lentini and Carlentini, is baked in stone wood fired ovens. A real delight!
Then there is the soft bread, with its typical round shape, perfect to be seasoned with fresh ricotta cheese, olive oil, anchovies and Sicilian cheeses. We are talking about the moffoletta or muffulietta! This loaf of bread is prepared in different areas of Sicily, but it often has different consistencies. To be tried at least once in your life!
Why that strange name?
Cuccìa, sfinciuni, Norma, ‘ncasciata are just some of the strange names given to the most delicious traditional Sicilian dishes. But have you ever asked yourself what is the origin of these names? We will explain it to you! Talking about names, have a look also to the 10 Sicilian words to know and to the traditional names of Sicilian vegetables!
“‘Ncasciata” in Sicilian means encased, that is, placed in the case of the mold; some, confusing it with other specialties of the Agrigento area, call it “incaciata” for the binding function of the abundant cheese used.
Sfinciuni is a dish of ancient Sicilian tradition and with some variations it takes different names, such as “sciavazza” or “sciaguazza“. Sicilian sfincione takes its name from a contamination between Latin, Greek and Arabic. It seems to derive from Latin spongia and from Greek spòngos which both mean “sponge“.
The origins of the name “Norma“, instead, are rather uncertain. The first hypothesis is connected to the saying “a norma” (that means “according to standard” or just “in order“), which indicates the perfect realization of something.
From an etymological point of view it could be, however, also a singular homage from the people of Catania to Vincenzo Bellini, the famous musician from Catania who gave this name to one of his operas. Another interpretation, attributes the origin to a famous exclamation of Nino Martoglio (1870-1921), poet and playwright from Catania who, tasting this delicious dish, exclaimed: “Donna Saridda, chista è ‘na vera Norma! (“Mrs. Sara, this is perfect!”).
In the Belice Valley, an almost unique cheese is produced. Its name is “vastedda“, a typical fresh sheep milk cheese with a round and slightly flattened shape, which has an aromatic and delicious taste.
Vastedda is also common in the area of Ragusa, but with a different shape (wheel-shaped) and with the addition of elder seeds. As for the name “vastedda”, this derives from the ceramic plate in which the cheese is left to rest after spinning.
Another particular name given to a delicious Sicilian dish famous all over the world is “beccafico“. Sardines a beccafico are consumed in different provinces, from Palermo to Catania, and they can enter without any doubt in the “finger food” category!
But what is the origin of this name? The name of the dish derives from “beccafico“, a bird that in the past was consumed by the nobles who used to hunt it. Stuffed with the entrails of the same bird, this dish was too expensive for the most humble people. But why give it up?
So the poorer people created a variant of the dish, substituting the meat with freshly caught sardines and stuffing it with breadcrumbs and easily available ingredients. There are no more traces of the bird, but sarde a beccafico are talked about everywhere!
Arancina and arancino
The verbal struggle between arancino or arancina is still alive, but let’s mention its origins before talking about the name.
Arancina was born in Sicily between the fourth and the eleventh century. The origin of this dish, as all the ones made with rice in southern Italy, is to be placed during the Arab domination. Arabs had in fact the habit of rolling a little bit of rice with saffron in the palm of the hand, and then season it with the addition of lamb meat.
As Giambonino from Cremona noted in the thirteenth century, Arabs tended to call their meatballs with the name of a fruit which was somehow similar, at least in shape. Here are arancine, obviously inspired to the fruit of which the island was and is rich.
Sicilian arancina, as we know it now, appeared very late in the “official” cookbooks, more or less in the nineteenth century and that is why some people doubt about a real connection with Arabic cooking.
As for the etymology and the origin of the name, the term “arancinu” appears for the first time in the Sicilian-Italian dictionary by Giuseppe Biundi in 1857. There, it was defined as a “sweet rice dish made in the shape of a melarancia”.
Okay, hard to find a correlation. In fact, the transition to the savory dish we all know is first documented in Antonino Trina’s New Sicilian-Italian Vocabulary of 1868.
Here, the definition recalls “compound rice croquettes“, but without meat or other condiments. Its origin is to be found during the Arab domination. It was Palermo’s historian Gaetano Basile to discover the common characteristics with a dish tasted in Tunisia: rice seasoned with meat and spices. The leftover rice, imagine that, was fried!
But let’s come to the fight about the denomination: arancina or arancino? In this case, the name refers to the same thing, that is the orange. In Sicilian dialect, orange is feminine (arancina) in the province of Palermo and masculine (arancinu) in the province of Catania.
It does not matter, because whatever its name is, we eat it gladly anyway!