La agrodolce vita in Sicily

The Sicilian countryside is not as obviously scenic as say, the Amalfi Coast, and in places the island feels distinctly Wild West with its parched, barren landscape and the fast-and-loose driving style. Yet there’s abundant beauty in its grittiness, and a lot of that colour and sparkle comes from the vibrant food culture.

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A house in Scopello, Trapani Provence, on the north-western coast.

That apparently barren landscape actually hosts many different microclimates that provide fertile soil for plentiful crops ripened in the hot sun. Prickly pear cactuses (or fico d’India/Indian fig, as they’re known in Sicily) thrive in the desert-like areas, the mountains are home to nuts and mushrooms as well as game animals that produce quality meat and dairy products, fragrant lemon trees thrive on the balmy southern coast, and the surrounding sea provides much of Italy with the freshest sardines, anchovies, tuna, octopus and swordfish.

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Cacti, including prickly pear – or Indian fig – coexist with citrus in a lush Scopello garden.

Sicily has a complex past with invasions by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish. These have all left their mark on the cuisine in the form of usually quite elaborate dishes, such as timbale tummala – baked rice with layers of meat, eggs and cheese – and cassata siciliana – ricotta cake with a shell of marzipan, pink and green pastel-coloured icing and decorative candied fruit. The island has also known extreme poverty, and this influenced the Sicilians to make the most of easily grown, punchy ingredients like wild fennel, lemon, capers and mint to flavour simple and inexpensive dishes of grains and vegetables. The focus here is on fresco – fresh – and seasonal.

Typical Sicilian flavours at Palermo’s Mercato del Capo.

By the time we got to Sicily, arriving by car ferry into Messina from Reggio Calabri at the end of a long road trip around the UK, Scandinavia and Europe (more posts to come on these locales) we were a bit over ‘sights’, so we spent a good amount of time in Palermo just wandering the streets and eating. As well as sampling fresh foods and not-so-virtuous arancini and deep-fried seafood and veges at the bustling street markets (which felt much like I imagine an Arab souk would), over several nights we enjoyed feast-like and amazingly affordable meals of zuppa di pesce (seafood soup), suino nero (black swine), pesce all’acqua pazza (literally ‘fish in crazy water’), caponata (aubergine stew), raw shrimps with spaghetti, octopus and panzerotti di ricotta (ricotta pastries), washed down with nero d’avolo, the local vino rosso.

Turquoise seas and the old Tonnara di Scopello (tuna fishery) at Scopello on the northwestern coast.
The amazingly intact Doric temple on Monte Bàrbaro at Segesta, which was built around 420BC.
The amphitheatre at Segesta, which overlooks the surrounding valleys.

Having fallen in love with the rough gem, on our return to New Zealand I went looking for a Sicilian cookbook so I could continue to explore the cuisine and culture, and found two that looked like they might satisfy my aesthete requirements as well as my culinary interest: Sicily: Recipes from an Italian island, by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi and Sicily, an unattributed publication produced by Phaidon.

img_1299Sicily, published in 2013 and the older of the two cookbooks, states on the imprint page that it originates from Il cucchiaio d’argento Cucina Regionale, which is an Italian-language cookbook published by The Silver Spoon. (I’ve been looking for an Italian cookbook to use as a language-learning aid so maybe this is it.) The cover design ties in with the other books in this Italian series from Phaidon, Tuscany and Puglia, and the watercolour style extends to a map at the front that shows the different regions and what they are known for: cassata from Palermo, sardines from Agrigento, etc. The contents list is then separated into corresponding chapters. Each chapter has an introduction that gives more detail on that region’s specialty dishes, and then scattered through the recipes there are profiles of the ingredients that region is known for: the first section, Trapani, which is on the west coast, includes salt, capers, couscous, olive oil, tuna and marsala.

Because I love the piquant sour-sweet combination known as agrodolce, I decided to make the Caponata Classica (from the Catania section) using some plump aubergines from the local market. In Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, Matthew Fort writes that Sicilian cooking ‘embraces contrast, discord, counterpoint, counterpunching, variance and the absence of delicacy’, and speaking of caponata in particular, Anna del Conte says ‘a simple local ingredient, in this case the aubergine, is taken as the basis of the dish, and is then embellished and enriched until the end result is an opulent and almost baroque achievement’. Caponata could be said to sum up the Sicilian cuisine perfectly in one dish.

The agrodolce flavour comes from tomato, white wine vinegar, capers, olives, raisins and a fair whack of sugar. The recipe is fairly involved compared to a ratatouille (which is the most similar dish I can think of) – you have to blanch both the celery and the olives before adding them to the pan and as the recipe instructs you to cook the different elements separately rather than in one big pan, you’d end up with quite a collection of used pots and pans to wash if you followed the recipe to a T. I served the tangy and delicious caponata cool with grilled North African-spiced fish and a lightly creamy chermoula sauce to tie it back to its Arab origins and freshen up a rather wintery dish for a balmy summer evening.

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For dessert, I made the Almond Milk Puddings from the Caldesis’ take on Sicily. This book fullsizerender-6features an ultra-modern cover (interesting that both books avoid the classic food-photo look), and highly graphic chapter openers. I love the bold and colourful illustrations used on these, and the font, which is also used for the recipe names, does a good job of representing the punchy flavours of Sicilian cuisine (though is at times a little difficult to read). The first chapter, Palermo and its Street Food (followed by Antipasti, Soups, Contorni, Pasta, Rice & Couscous, Meat & Poultry, Fish, Dolci & Cocktails), does what it says on the box and includes recipes for eat-on-the-go classics such as arancini, chickpea fritters and sfincione. Like the Phaidon book, this collection also includes text on individual ingredients – rice, couscous, alfullsizerender-4monds, etc. – and gives you a history of some common Sicilian food types, such as how arancini came to be made.

The recipe for the Almond Milk Puddings is a fairly basic recipe consisting of cornflour, whole milk or almond milk, lemon zest, caster sugar, amaretto or rosewater and crushed savoiardi (Ladyfinger) biscuits to garnish. I used amaretto because that’s what I had on hand but I imagine rosewater would lend a more refreshing and less indulgent taste, so will try that next time. It was lovely and cooling eaten straight out of the glass on a humid late February evening. The recipe makes four small puddings and so it also made a refreshing lunchtime treat the next day. Mine definitely didn’t hold its firm shape like the one in the recipe photograph but the texture and flavour was great and I’d definitely make these again.

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So which book would I recommend if you had to choose just one? I couldn’t choose between them in terms of how many of the recipes I wanted to make from each. If you love Italian and in particular Sicilian cuisine, these are two cookbooks that won’t just sit on the shelf looking pretty and are different enough that you could (if you’re greedy like me) justify buying them both.

Sicily: Recipes from an Italian island by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi (Hardie Grant, 2016); Sicily (Phaidon, 2013).

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Palermo Cathedral, or Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Virgin Mary (Cattedrale metropolitana della Santa Vergine Maria Assunta!), is characterised by the presence of different building styles introduced through additions over time, reflecting the many cultural influences on Sicily.

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