If there is one book that belongs on the shelf of food lovers, it is Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti. This book is a classic, the definitive work on Sicilian cooking and it is full of authentic, hard to find recipes gleaned from the author's friends, family and acquaintances on the island itself. Originally published in 1989 under the title Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty Five Centuries of Sicilian Food and then unavailable for almost ten years, Mary Taylor Simeti’s affectionate, exhaustive work has come to be recognized as the definitive book on the food, traditions and recipes of this sun-drenched island.
The author, an American married to a Sicilian, set out to discover Sicilian food first hand. She haunted former convents and palaces where Palermo's libraries have been maintained. She tested each ancient recipe herself and updated the methods. Her directions are clear and easy to follow. The book is organized so that the material reflects both the external influences of a series of conquerors, and the domestic changes brought about by peasant, clergy and aristocrat alike. Her chapter titles hint at the enticing discoveries waiting for the reader and the recipes reflect the chapter titles.
There are recipes using the vegetable abundance of the Sicilian landscape, for ice cream or granita, and, yes there are recipes for Virgins Breasts and Chancellor's Buttocks. The book contains more than a hundred illustrations from Sicilian archives and museums and the text quotes freely from Homer, Plato, Apicius, Lampedusa, and Pirandello. Simeti's prose is so descriptive that to read it is to be in Sicily.
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About the Author
The author MAry Taylor Simeti, an American married to a Sicilian, set out to discover Sicilian food first hand. She haunted former convents and palaces where Palermo's libraries have been maintained. She tested each ancient recipe herself and updated the methods. Her directions are clear and easy to follow. The book is organized so that the material reflects both the external influences of a series of conquerors, and the domestic changes brought about by peasant, clergy and aristocrat alike. Her chapter titles hint at the enticing discoveries waiting for the reader and the recipes reflect the chapter titles.
Read an Excerpt
Of Ancient Abundance, Epic Appetites
I learnt to cook so well in Sicily that I will cause the banqueters to bite the dishes and the plates for joy.
Alexis of Tarentum, fourth century B.C.
The first foreign visitor to set foot on Sicilian shores was, some say, the archetypal traveller himself, Odysseus, who circumnavigated the island in a state of perpetual astonishment at the abundance of its fields. On the east coast, at the foot of Mount Etna, he saw the land of the Cyclops, so rich that despite the ignorance of its gigantic inhabitants, who neither tilled nor ploughed, "grain–/wild wheat and barley–grows untended, and/winegrapes, in clusters, ripen in heaven's rain." To the west, in the city now known as Trapani,
... he saw an orchard closed by a pale–four spacious acres planted with trees in bloom or weighted down for picking:
It is not mere intellectual whimsy to begin a discussion of contemporary Sicilian food with Odysseus. The gardens of Alcinoüs as Homer describes them, with their constant supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, olives to eat and to press, and vineyards to give wine, vinegar, and dried grapes, contain the very essence of Sicilian cooking. The raw materials present in The Odyssey, prepared according to the techniques described by later Greek and Roman authors, still dominate the Sicilian table today, a continuity all the more remarkable in the light of the many subsequent invasions. The conquerors who followed the Greeks increased and enriched the range of Sicilian cooking, but they failed to alter its basic character.
Like the mythical gardens of Alcinoüs, Sicily herself became synonymous with abundance. Here the colonists who had set sail from the poor soils and eroded hillsides of archaic Greece found mountains hidden by thick forests, fields covered by volcanic loam of extraordinary fertility, pastures so redolent of spring wildflowers that hounds could not follow the scent of their prey.
Just as their dogs were confounded by this abundance of perfume, so the colonists themselves were also led astray. Corrupted by the climate of plenty, they abandoned the simple, measured, even abstemious diet that had heretofore been the lot and the vaunt of Greeks of all classes, and by the fifth century B.C. Syracuse, the richest and most powerful of the Greek cities on the island, had become the gastronomic capital of the Mediterranean world.
The Greek invasion was from the very beginning an agricultural rather than a mercantile one, and the wealth of the colonies was derived from the production and exportation of agricultural goods–wheat, cheese, oil, honey, and timber to the homeland, fruit and vegetables to the Greek and Phoenician colonies of North Africa, a scant hundred-mile sail to the south. These products were much appreciated at home on the island as well, where they became the basis of a distinguished local cuisine.
The earliest notices of these culinary developments are very fragmentary: Syracuse produced the treatise by Mithaecus and the first school for professional cooks, which was run by a man named Labducus. The master of them all was not a Syracusan, however, but a man from Gela named Archestratus, a gourmet of such refined palate that it was said he could detect a difference in flavour between a mullet caught during a waxing moon and one taken during the waning.
Archestratus travelled throughout the Mediterranean, a fourth-century B.C. Michelin inspector, spreading the gospel of good eating and passing judgement on what the local markets had to offer; five stars to the eels fished off the coast of Messina and to the herrings from Syracuse; three stars to Sicilian tuna caught near Tindari or Cefalù, but five to that of Byzantium.
And have a tail-cut from a she-tunny–the large she-tunny, I repeat, whose mother-city is Byzantium. Slice it and roast it all rightly, sprinkling just a little salt, and buttering it with oil. Eat the slices hot, dipping them into a sauce piquante: they are nice even if you want to eat them plain, like the deathless gods in form and stature. But if you serve it sprinkled with vinegar, it is done for.
Archestratus of Gela, fourth century B.C.
Only fragments of Archestratus's poetry have survived, incorporated into The Deipnosophists — The Sophists at Dinner, a lengthy compendium of gastronomic thought and practice written six centuries later by Athenaeus of Naucratis, for whom the precepts of Archestratus represented a golden age of moderation. Yet Archestratus's constant exhortations to simplicity indicate that overindulgence and excess were already the rule. One foreigner who visited the court of the tyrant Dionysius in 387 B.C. was so disgusted by the licentiousness and the gourmandising he found there that he wrote an epistle home to say so:
And when I came [to Sicily] I was in no wise pleased at all with "the blissful life," as it is there termed, replete as it is with Italian and Syracusan banqueting; for thus one's existence is spent in gorging food twice a day and never sleeping alone at night and all the practices which accompany this mode of living.
Plato, Epistle VII, fourth century B.C.
The measuring stick Plato used to judge anyone's lifestyle was undeniably straight and narrow. Still, the self-indulgence and the overeating that he condemned were not unique to the court of Syracuse. The Golden Mean had fallen into disregard throughout the island, and everywhere fabulous banquets were consumed in the shadow of outsize temples. The Olympaeion, then a building in Agrigento, was one of the largest temples in the Greek world and inspired the famous epigram, of uncertain attribution but unerring wit, according to which the people of Agrigento "built as if they thought they would live forever, and ate as if they knew they were never to eat again."
Archestratus, who is said to have known Alexander the Great, wrote at the height of the Hellenistic Age; within a century of his death, Sicily became a province of Rome. Although there are no sources that document how this affected Sicilian cooking, it would appear that in culinary matters, at least, it was the Sicilians who won the war. The fame of Sicilian cuisine spread throughout the classical world, and the Sicilian cook became a stock character in classical comedy, as well as a status symbol for the wealthy Roman. Siculus coquus et sicula mensa, the proverb went ("a Sicilian cook and a Sicilian table"). It can therefore be argued that Sicilians played a large part in developing the elaborate cuisine of Imperial Rome.
In the light of this reasoning and in the absence of more direct sources, it is both legitimate and helpful to turn for information to a text that never actually mentions Sicily at all, the De re coquinaria. Either written by or dedicated to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a renowned gourmet who lived in Rome in the first century A.D., the De re coquinaria is a proper cookbook, albeit one intended for professionals who have no need for precise instructions and exact quantities, and it offers a wealth of details about the food of the Roman Empire.
The modern reader tends to be befuddled by an excess of seasoning when reading the recipes of Apicius, each of which contains a long list of spices and herbs that are repeated with monotonous frequency. I am indebted to the edition translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling, a chef by profession and a classicist by vocation, for pointing out the economy and elegance that lie beneath the trimmings and prove this cuisine to be much closer than is often thought to the true "Mediterranean diet."
Then as now, for the Greeks and the Romans as well as for our cholesterol-conscious contemporaries, the Mediterranean diet was based on cereals and legumes. While in Greece and in many other parts of the world barley, millet, and other lesser grains predominated, Sicily's soil and climate were particularly suited to the cultivation of hard-grained durum wheat. It was durum wheat, therefore, that supplied the basis of the Sicilian classical diet, either in bread (Athenaeus credits the renowned Greek bakers with seventy-two different kinds of bread) or as whole grains boiled into a sort of porridge or gruel known in the Roman world as puls. This gruel formed the mainstay of the meals for the slaves, for the peasants, and for the soldiers. Thucydides, speaking of the defeated Athenian army held prisoner in the stone quarries of Syracuse, tells us that the daily allowance for each man was half a pint of water and a pint of grain.
For the plebs, gruel was the main and probably the only course, and it is unlikely that it had much more than a little salt and maybe some wild fennel for seasoning. What variety they could hope for came from legumes: chickpeas, lentils, and fava beans. Apicius gives a recipe for a tisanum, a porridge of mixed legumes that was supposedly the favourite dish of Caesar Augustus. One can imagine that this porridge, spiced up with vegetables and with costly silphium into food fit for an emperor, must have been nostalgic eating for Augustus, taking him back to the days when he was just one of the boys, hitting the chow at the castrum with the rest of the legionnaires.
Soak chickpeas, lentils and peas, crush barley and cook with the legumes. When well cooked add plenty of oil. Now cut greens, leeks, coriander, dill, fennel, beets, mallows, cabbage strunks, all soft and green and very finely cut, and put in a pot. The cabbage cook [separately; also] crush fennel seed, plenty of it, origany, silphium, and lovage, and when ground, add broth to taste, pour this over the porridge, stir, and use some finely chopped cabbage stems to sprinkle on top.
Apicius, Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, first century A.D.
The Romans were also enthusiastic about fava beans, which grow inside thick green pods as much as 25 cm/10 inches long, each pod containing from three to six flattish beans resembling limas both in their shape and in their mealy texture. Green and tender and very sweet when they are young and still the size of a fingernail, fava beans are often eaten raw, with primosale or pecorino cheese. As the beans ripen, the skins lose their colour, become tough and slightly bitter, and must be discarded.
The Greeks associated the fava beans with funerary rites–according to Pythagoras the hollow stalk of the fava plant provided a pathway to Hades for the spirits of the dead–and some were loath to eat them. The Romans had no such qualms, and they may have been the ones to introduce maccu onto the Sicilian table. Maccu is a purée of dried fava beans that has been a staple of Sicilian peasant cooking from antiquity on down. It is something of a rarity nowadays and almost never to be found in restaurants, except on the occasions in which the rich indulge in nostalgia for the "genuine" tastes of a poverty they have never known.
FAVA BEAN SOUP
450 g/1 lb dried fava beans, peeled
Soak the fava beans in water overnight, then drain. If you are not able to buy the beans already peeled, buy 550 g/11/4 lb of unpeeled beans, then peel them after they have soaked.
Put the drained and peeled beans in a heavy flameproof soup pot (preferably of terra cotta) together with the 2.3 litres/4 pints water, the fennel (sprigs or seeds), and some salt. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for 2 hours or until the beans are completely tender and can be mashed against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. Stir frequently.
At this point you must decide whether you wish to eat your maccu as a simple purée or to have it with pasta. In the latter case, thin the maccu with a 225-450 ml/8-16 fl oz of boiling water, then add the pasta. Stir very frequently as the pasta is cooking, since maccu thickens and sticks very easily. For an added fillip, sauté chopped onion and tomatoes in oil until tender and stir in at the last minute.
All versions require that you correct the salt and add a liberal sprinkling of black pepper and of olive oil.
Leftover maccu can be poured onto a platter and left to harden, then cut into strips, floured, and fried in a little olive oil — a special treat for the peasant families of the past.
Wild fennel is just one of the seasonings that modern Sicilians have inherited from the classical world. The "broth" that Apicius calls for in many of his recipes is garum, an essence made from fermenting salted fish that was commonly used to flavour Roman cooking. In spite of the rotten reputation thatgarum has acquired over the centuries, Vehling maintains that at its best it was "akin to our modern anchovy sauce."
In the letters written by the Marquis of Ormonde during his Sicilian travels, there is an all too brief reference to a nineteenth-century version of the same: "The flesh [of the tuna] is good, and a sauce called garum is prepared from it." Although salted tuna has disappeared, both anchovies and sardines, either in salt or in oil, occur in contemporary Sicilian cooking with much the same frequency and to much the same end as garum in the Roman cuisine. In Syracuse, for example, the most characteristic pasta dish is spaghetti with an anchovy sauce. There are many variants of this all across the island.
PASTA WITH ANCHOVIES & BREADCRUMBS
(Pasta con Acciughe e Mollica)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Coat the bottom of a heavy frying pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the breadcrumbs and toast them over a low heat, stirring constantly, until they are a rich golden brown. Put them in a small serving bowl and set aside.
Put 5 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan, add the garlic cloves, slightly crushed but still of a piece. Sauté the garlic until it begins to colour, then discard. Add the tomato extract and the water to the hot oil, stirring until the extract is completely dissolved. Simmer over very low heat for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling water, only lightly salted since both the tomato extract and the anchovies are very salty.
In a separate pan or a double boiler (I always use a small double-handled frying pan that will sit on top of my spaghetti pot), cook the anchovies together with 1 teaspoon of olive oil, stirring them until they dissolve into a cream. This must be done over steam and not over the direct heat, lest the anchovies turn bitter. Add the anchovies to the tomato sauce and simmer 2 to 3 minutes longer.
Drain the spaghetti when cooked al dente, reserving 225 ml/8 fl oz of the cooking water. (This is always a wise precaution when preparing pasta with a very concentrated sauce or with breadcrumbs — a few tablespoons of the reserved liquid will correct any eventual dryness.) Place the spaghetti in a large bowl, add the sauce, and mix thoroughly, pouring in a little of the reserved liquid if necessary. Sprinkle with some of the breadcrumbs and with the parsley. Pass the remaining breadcrumbs on the side.
Note: Sicilians use different kinds of breadcrumbs for different purposes. What I call "dried breadcrumbs" are the ordinary crumbs grated from stale bread, crust and all, which can be either purchased or prepared at home. When browned in oil as in this recipe, these become "toasted breadcrumbs." A third variety are what I shall call "stale white breadcrumbs," meaning more specifically the white part of 2-to-3-day-old semolina-flour bread that has been grated, sieved to remove any big pieces, and allowed to dry for a day or two (a barely warm oven can speed this process). If these breadcrumbs are not thoroughly dry, they will become gluey.
Purists require that this recipe be prepared using 'u 'strattu, tomato extract that is obtained from enormous expanses of bright red tomato purée salted and spread out on boards to dry in the sun until it hardens into a very dark red paste with the consistency of clay. The 'strattu gleaming in the bright summer sunlight, together with the pennuli, a sort of thick-skinned cherry tomato hung up in bunches on the wall to keep until December, make bright splotches of red pigment along the whitewashed streets of Sicilian villages, but it is rarer and rarer that you see it nowadays. As far as I know the 'strattu produced today is marketed only on a very small and very local scale: most Palermo groceries have bowls of it on their counters and weigh it out by the spoonful.
Given the success that sun-dried tomatoes are currently enjoying, I cannot believe that it will be long before 'strattu appears here. Until its moment comes, however, those who are curious, and can count on two days of very hot sun, can try making their own.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sicilian Food"
Copyright © 2009 Mary Taylor Simeti.
Excerpted by permission of Grub Street.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ONE Of Ancient Abundance, Epic Appetites,
TWO The Gardens of Paradise,
THREE The Staff of Life ...,
FOUR ... And the Stuff of Dreams,
FIVE Princes, Priests, and Not So Humble Friars,
SIX Virgins' Breasts, Chancellor's Buttocks, and Other Convent Delicacies,
SEVEN Street Fare,
EIGHT I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream,
Appendix A Few Suggestions About Eating in Sicily Today,