Spring in Sicily Introduction:
I have been in love with Sicily for most of my life. Until recently I did not know it well, but it has always been there, just on the edge of my mental horizon, a place of mystery and fascination. As a child I went on family summer holidays to the Aeolian Islands off the north coast and I have returned several times since, but only for brief visits that left me wanting more. This book is the result of a long-held ambition to travel the island, to experience the very different landscapes and to thoroughly explore its food and traditions.
The best time to visit Sicily is in the spring. Winter can be cold and grey, while summer is very hot and in autumn the land has a parched, even exhausted appearance. But in springtime the full bounty of growth that this fertile island can produce is on display. Fruit trees and vines are in new leaf, wheat fields stretch to the horizon, and wildflowers grow in profusion along the roadside. At sea, unseen but keenly awaited, tuna are massing for their annual migration along the north coast and swordfish swim in the Straits of Messina. You can see the results of all this abundance in Sicily’s famous street markets and in the spring they are dazzling.
There is a great diversity of produce and cooking in Sicily depending on where you go. This should not be surprising as the landscapes on the island are all so different. You find long stretches of coastline, inland valleys and mountains, fertile lava fields and isolated islands.
To this diversity in landscape you have to add layers of history of an extraordinary richness. Situated in the very centre of the Mediterranean with a number of excellent harbours, Sicily has always been strategically important. But it was the harvests of its seas and agriculture that made it particularly attractive. You might say the various conquerors came to occupy – but stayed to enjoy.
Sicily has been settled over the past 2500 years by most of the major players in Mediterranean history. Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans and dynasties from France and Spain all saw the island as a prized possession. Even today the remnants of the respective occupations are all around you. In this sense Sicily is something of a living museum – the past is always with you.
Nowhere is more true than in the food. If you put all the specialties of Sicily on a long table under a pergola (and what better place to enjoy it), you would have the whole history of the island spread before your eyes.
Not all the conquerors had the same impact – some were definitely more civilised than others. One group that left a very strong legacy was the Moors, who ruled the western part of the island in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Their capital, Palermo, was a wonder of the civilised world at the time. And in keeping with their culture, the Moorish influence on food was very strong and is still there today. It is something that makes the food of Sicily distinctive.
The people of Sicily are also one of its attractions. They are a diverse group, with the history of the island quite literally in their DNA. You still often see the blue eyes or the red hair of the Normans, for instance. Sicilians are very aware of their past, still often speak Sicilian dialects among themselves and consider themselves to be different from the ‘mainlanders’ of Italy.
In more recent times, the island has had bad press when stories about the Mafia and blood feuds hit the news. This has cast a shadow over life in parts of Sicily, but in all my travels I have always felt safe and, almost without exception, I have found the people to be warm and welcoming. In the countryside you may find a natural reservedness, buy if you express interest or appreciation in what people are doing, they become open and friendly.
In the cities life is changing. Increasingly you see city centres that look cared-for, with derelict buildings being renovated and protected. A new sense of openness and optimism seems to be replacing the old ways. It is as if the island is waking from a long darkness to reclaim its place in the sun.
So you can see why I am so drawn to Sicily. I am passionate about food – and not just the food on the plate. I want to know the history, the traditions and how the various dishes came about. If you understand all this, it adds greatly to your enjoyment of the food itself.
This book is a story of my travels in Sicily and the food that I found. It is not meant to cover everything and go everywhere and the selection is very personal. I have chosen to focus on the places that appealed to me and the recipes that I would cook at home to remind me of my visit. The food is fundamentally Mediterranean Italian (with a strong Sicilian accent), so it is simple, direct, healthy and full of strong flavours – the sort of food we all enjoy today.
So if this is the food you like and Sicily holds the same fascination for you, join me in my travels and sample the wonderful food of this ancient island.