Sicily is a paradise for the senses. Its stunning beauty alone would be enough to captivate any visitor, but there is so much more. The sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of Sicily draw you right into the culture. It is a culture based on people, people who love life, where they are, and what they do. The people you meet in Sicily every day are rightfully happy and proud of this wonderful place, and it is their great pleasure to share this with you.
With such a passionate people, it is only natural that there would be great food.
A perfect combination of factors combine to make Sicilian food special. The growing conditions are ideal with a long growing season, rich volcanic soil, and plenty of sun and rain. With each season come special crops that lend their accent to the special dishes of that season.
The olive oil and wines of Sicily are amazing, one of the food world’s secrets. While wine grapes and olives are certainly the primary crops, depending on the season, you’ll see artichokes, blood oranges, lemons, fennel, eggplant, and many other top quality crops. Everywhere you look, people are growing food. A trip through the local market will quickly register what is in peak season now. Those things are what you want!
The rich, clear waters surrounding Sicily produce an amazing array of seafood. Local markets feature beautiful fish, mollusks, and crustaceans. Restaurants typically display a table of the day’s catch on a bed of ice, backed by a mirror so diners can make selections from their seats. Restaurants are expert at preparing fish dishes to suit any tastes. At one restaurant I ate in in Aci Castello, up the coast from Catania, fishermen lined the sea wall casting for fish and others canvassed the rocks for urchins later served there.
Livestock, including cattle, sheep and goats, are often seen grazing by the roads, or even lounging on the roads. A shepherd or trusty herding dog is always close by to protect them. Fresh pastured meats, sausages, and cured meats are readily available. Also, excellent cheeses produced from the milk of these same creatures. Local pecorino laced with black peppercorns or peperoncino, yum!
Beyond these raw ingredients, Sicilian food is heavily influenced by the island’s history. Humans inhabited Sicily since prehistoric times as indicated by Bronze Age artifacts. As a crossroads in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily was ruled by many different regimes over thousands of years. Phoenicians settled western Sicily in the 11 century B.C. Greeks colonized the island starting about 300 years later. This was followed by the island being ruled by Carthaginians from the point of Africa (present day Tunisia) that protrudes north toward Sicily. The Romans then defeated them in the Punic Wars, followed by a Germanic conquest by the Vandals in 468 A.D., and a prompt overtaking of them by the Byzantines who ruled until the 9th century. Next, was control by Arabs until near the end of the 11th century. The Arabs were vanquished by the Normans who ruled through the Middle Ages, followed by the Spanish and the Bourbons, and culminating in Italian unification in 1861.
History is actually what recently led me to Sicily, and the above description is quite brief, deliberately condensed to leave out much more complexity and intrigue, because our purpose here is about food! Each of these invaders, conquerors, and even passers-by brought their food culture with them. They adapted the local foods into their dishes, and brought some things of their own to share. Taking the best things from each of these cultures works like an ideal democracy where free and honest debate allows the best ideas to rise to the top.
Perhaps this is what makes Sicilian people so warm and open to visitors and friends alike. From the first person I spoke to on getting off the plane on my last trip to Palermo, the person at the rental car counter, to people in shops, restaurants, markets, and even on the street, everyone is happy to help you. And if you engage them, even with limited ability to speak the local language, Siculo, you will soon feel as if you are speaking to a long time friend or family member. They may invite you to their home to eat, or invite themselves to your home to eat!
And so it is that Sicily is a food lover’s paradise filled with fresh ingredients as far as the imagination can stretch, dishes and techniques perfected from a dozen cultures over thousands of years, and some of the friendliest people in the world eager to share their best with you.
Now I would be remiss if I did not share what I learned with you. So here is a recipe integrating some Sicilian specialties I picked up on our trip to Trapani.
Busiate Dai Sogni Di Sansica
500g Busiate pasta
3T Sicilian Olive Oil
7 cloves garlic minced
1/4t smoked red pepper flakes
1 cup small fresh tomatoes sliced in half
1 cup diced Sicilian jarred tuna packed in oil
3T minced pistachios
2T grated Sicilian bottarga di tonno
I made this recipe not just to feature some of the food treasures I hand carried back from Sicily, but also to remember some great meals eaten in Tonnara di Bonagio, Trapani, in a restaurant called Sirena di Sansica. On departing from the last meal there, the owner gave us a gift of his own garlic to remember him by. I wanted to make something that would recall the great food eaten in this place.
Busiate is a typical pasta of Trapani. It is a pasta made with grain, in this case Durum wheat, and water. The dough is cut in a narrow noodle and then wrapped around a reed or knitting needle to dry. The result is like a coiled macaroni. It can be purchased on line or made by hand.
While I recommend Sicilian or other oil packed tuna from the Mediterranean Sea, you may substitute other tuna as you prefer. Bottarga is another product made from the local tuna. It is the salt-cured, dried eggs of the tuna. Bottarga adds a distinctive Sicilian character to this dish, but it’s OK to leave it out if you cannot find it. (It’s worth making an effort to find it.)
Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a skillet. Add the garlic and sweat it until it is translucent. Add the red pepper flakes. This is typical of Sicilian food, a small dash of peperoncino gives a light heat. Add the tomatoes and cook until they slightly wilt. Add the tuna and reduce the heat to a simmer to keep warm.
Cook the busiate for 12 minutes until al dente in boiling salted water. Drain and then add a small amount of the cooking water back to the pasta to keep it loose. Dress the pasta with a small amount of the tuna sauce, just enough to coat everything. plate the pasta and dress with more tuna sauce, then top with a sprinkling of pistachios and bottarga. Serve and enjoy!