Sicily’s food has been influenced by the island’s endless list of invaders, including Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, even the English, each of them leaving behind them traces of their gastronomy. Dishes such as orange salads, unguent sweet-sour aubergine and, of course, couscous evoke North Africa, while Sicily’s most distinctive pasta dish, spaghetti con le sarde – with sardines, pine nuts, wild fennel and raisins – is thought to date back to the first foray into Sicily, at Mazara, by an Arab force in 827. The story goes that the army cooks were ordered to forage around for food, and found sardines at the port, wild fennel growing in the fields, and raisins drying in the vineyards. Religious festivals too, are often associated with foods: for example at San Giuseppe, on March 19, altars are made of bread, and at Easter you will find pasticcerie full of sacrifical lambs made of marzipan, and Gardens of Adonis (trays of sprouting lentils, chickpeas and other pulses) placed before church altars to symbolize the rebirth of Christ. The last has its roots in fertility rites that predate even the arrival of the Greeks to the island.
Sicily is famous for its sweets too, like rich cassata, sponge cake filled with sweet ricotta cream and covered with pistachio marzipan, and cannoli – crunchy tubes of deep-fried pastry stuffed with sweet ricotta. Street food is ubiquitous in cities such as Palermo, dating back to the eighteenth century when wood was rationed, and few people were able to cook at home: deep-fried rice balls, potato croquettes and chickpea-flour fritters compete with dinky-sized pizzas. Naturally, fish such as anchovies, sardines, tuna and swordfish are abundant – indeed, it was in Sicily that the technique of canning tuna was invented. Cheeses are pecorino, provolone, caciocavallo and, of course, the sheep’s-milk ricotta which goes into so many of the sweet dishes.
Traditionally wine-making in Sicily was associated mainly with sweet wines such as Malvasia and the fortified Marsala – in the nineteenth century many a fortune was made providing Malvasia to the Napoleonic army – but the island has also made a name for itself as a producer of quality everyday wines found in supermarkets throughout Italy, such as Corvo, Regaleali, Nicosia, Settesoli and Tria. There are superb wines too – notably Andrea Franchetti’s prize-winning Passopisciaro, from the north slopes of Etna – as well as wines across a wide price range from producers such as Tasca d’Almerita, Baglio Hopps, Planeta, Morgante and Murgo.