As you might expect the local cuisine of the island has been influenced by centuries of invasion.
The Phoenicians were the first to arrive, c. 1000 BC, followed by the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Swabians, French and Spaniards. The majority of these occupations lasted at least 200 years. As a result Sicilian cuisine is the most interesting of all the Italian regions, since each new invasion added another layer to an increasingly rich culinary tradition.
Nowadays, all Sicilians consider food a priority; they demand high quality and often turn a blind eye to cost.
Most people prefer a super simple cuisine combining the flavors that the generous surrounding seas and strong Sicilian sun provide.
The produce is extremely abundant. The powerful sun and rich volcanic soil, combined with the irrigation system introduced by the Arabs, means that a wonderful variety of crops can be grown all with a pure, intense flavor.
The main valley stretching west from Catania is now intensively farmed and Sicilian markets display an incredible wealth of produce. Since very little fruit or vegetables are imported the markets also display only what is in season and can be grown locally and therefore Sicilian cuisine and Sicilian recipes change noticeably from season to season. Sicily is also home to more than 1/3 of Italy's organic farms. There are 7000 organic farm estates in Sicily, making up the widest organic cultivation area in Italy.
One of the main crops is durum wheat, which is particularly suited to the warm dry climate and Sicily's soil. It is a hard grained wheat with and is used for making high quality pasta. The grain shatters when it is milled producing fine, silky, golden flour, 'semola', which makes wonderful bread, also golden in colour.
Citrus fruits are also vital to the Sicilian economy and cuisine and feature widely in traditional Sicilian recipes. 62% of Italy's citrus farms are in Sicily. Citron ('cedro') and lemons were introduced to the island by the Greeks and mainly grow in the Piana di Catania. Oranges, native to southern China/Vietnam were introduced by the Arabs and grow in profusion around the Conca d'Oro. Mandarins were not introduced to Europe until the 1850s but production has taken off in Sicily. The Sanguinella blood orange is used for juicing while the Tarocco is found only in Sicily and cannot be exported far as its skin cannot be waxed and therefore the fruit dries out very quickly. However, eaten fresh they are wonderfully juicy with an incredibly intense flavour. Their deep red pigmentation is a result of the striking differences between daytime and night-time temperatures.
Tomatoes have a strong intense taste unlike any others, and sauces made with them give distinctive flavor to many pasta and meat dishes. The fresh fish (particularly tuna, swordfish, octopus, squid, sardines, and anchovies) serves as a mainstay of the diet. In the same way, olives and grapes are extraordinarily flavorful, and fine Sicilian olive oils and wines have received international prizes.
Sicily is 3rd largest among Italian olive oil producing regions. It now has 3 DOP olive oil areas: DOP Mt Iblei, DOP Valle Trapanese and DOP Val di Mazara, with 2 or 3 other areas awaiting certification. The main varieties of olive cultivated in Sicily are:
Nocellara del Belice (Trapani),
Tonda Iblea (Ragusa),
Nocellara Messinese (Messina),
Nocellara Etnea (Catania),
Olives were first brought to Sicily between C.8 and C.5 B.C by the Greeks, they used the wealth created by the trade in oil and wine to build Syracusa. Sicily has been producing oil ever since although production was reduced under the Arabs who preferred to import oil from the Magreb and so uprooted many Sicilian olive groves to make way for citrus and irrigated crops. Production was restored under the Normans and the Spaniards.
Despite sheep and goats being more suited to the hilly and mountainous terrain and sparse vegetation, EU subsidies mean that more and more cattle are being farmed in Sicily. All produce enormous quantities of milk, flavoured by the wild herbs: thyme, fennel, sorrel, basil, oregano, mint and rosemary, on which the animals feed. The milk is then turned into a host of wonderful varieties of cheeses. Cheese which is fully appreciated when accommpanied by a fine Sicilian wine.
Pecorino: A sheep's cheese, made with full-fat milk, each region has its own version. It can be eaten fresh, immediately after production, when it is known as TUMA. Eaten after 15 days when the flavour is just starting to develop, it is known as PRIMO SALE. After 50 days it can be classed as SEMISTAGIONATO and after 4 months or more as STAGIONATO. Only this last qualifies for the Sicilian Pecorino DOP appellation.
Ricotta: This literally means "cooked again" and is made by re-boiling the whey left over when the curds have been lifted during the making of other cheeses. It is eaten fresh, baked or is salted and left to mature and is then used grated.
Caciocavallo: A cow's cheese which can be eaten at various stages: fresh, matured and occasionally, smoked (provola). It is made, like mozzarella, using the 'pasta filata' method. The curds are worked when hot into a stringy mass, this is then moulded by hand into a pear shape and the cheeses are hung to dry in pairs.
Fish dominates Sicilian cuisine on the coast. Tuna was first fished by the Phoenicians, it was they who also developed the salting process to preserve this precious catch. Nowadays most tuna is fished off the NW coast. Swordfish, prized by the Greeks, and amberjack, (ricciola, "la regina del mare"), run in the straights of Messina. Vast shoals of sardines and anchovies are fished between March and September. Squid, cuttlefish and octopus are to be found in abundance, not to mention mussels, clams, prawns, crabs, sea urchins etc…
No description of Sicilian cuisine would be complete without mention of 'dolci'. The Arabs introduced sugarcane to Sicily and revolutionised the whole of European confectionary, which had previously centred on honey. The latter has a strong flavour whereas sugarcane is neutral. With the introduction of sugarcane Sicilians also developed their Oriental taste for the overpoweringly sweet, which is still characteristic today. The ingredients in traditional Sicilian desserts include candied citron, orange and other fruits, almonds, walnuts and pistachios, marzipan, sheep’s milk ricotta, jasmine and orange essence, homemade bread crumbs, eggs and Marsala wine. The cakes often include ground nuts in the flour, and are often heavier in texture than normal cakes. Desserts developed in the 19th century are based on creams, chocolate and butter, and are often French adaptations of lighter pastries from Florentine Renaissance cooking.
Sicily produces a phenomenal quantity of nuts: pistachio, almond, hazelnut, pine nut, all of which contribute to the vast array of confectionary. Almonds are ground down to produce the famous 'pasta di mandorla', or are turned into marzipan by adding water and icing sugar. The marzipan is then used to create the famous 'Martorana' marzipan fruits and figures, which feature prominently in the various annual feast-days. There was a very strong Sicilian tradition, almost totally lost now, of the nuns enclosed within the convents almost competing amongst themselves to produce the most spectacular marzipan creations, Martorana was one such convent. These sweets and pastries provided the nuns, leading very restricted lives, with a rare outlet for creativity.
Chocolate was only introduced into Europe in the 1520s and then it was only known as a luxury drink for the rich. Solid, sweet chocolate therefore only became part of the confectioner's palate in the 1830s. Bitter chocolate has a long tradition of use in Sicily however, and was used during the Baroque period as a spice to flavour savoury dishes. Chocolate from Modica, still made without the addition of cocoa butter and flavoured with peppercorns, vanilla and cinnamon is internationally famous and has maintained its reputation for quality since production first began in 1880.
Sicily is rightly famous for her 'granite' and 'sorbetti' . Tradition has it that the Arabs fetched snow from Mt. Etna to make them and the habit of mixing sugar and jasmine essence in a glassful of snow goes back to those times. Sicilians were also the first makers of ice-cream in Europe and they consume it in vast quantities, sometimes as a filling in a brioche as a pre-dinner snack!
Antipasti: Undoubtedely, Sicily has the most varied antipasto course in all of Italy. It consists of a series of dishes, both warm and at room temperature, with emphasis on the contrast of flavors. This type of antipasto table is inspired to the old Renaissance antipasto, which was developed for the noble families of Italy. It has survived best in Sicily, having been much simplified in other regions.
Melanzane parmigiana: sliced aubergine cooked in oil with tomato basil and parmesan, baked in the oven. The eggplant parmesan, all vegetarian eaters of Italian food resort to has its origins in Sicilian food. But there is no parmesan in this dish (that cheese belongs to another region of Italy, after all, and was added as a substitute when immigrants moved abroad). Eggplant is sliced, fried, and layered with cheese and tomato.
Caponata: mixed aubergine, olives, tomatoes, celery, garlic cooked in oil.
Peperonata: green and red peppers, grilled skinned and cooked in oil. Insalata di mare: seafood salad comprising squid, octopus, clams and strips of carrot.
Pasta alla Norma: a tomato/basil sauce with fried aubergine named after Bellini's opera.
Involtini di melanzane: spaghetti with tomato sauce rolled in cooked aubergine, baked with extra cheese.
Pasta con le sarde: with fresh sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts and raisins. - sometime served with breadcrumbs.
Spaghetti alle seppie: with black cuttlefish ink.
Pennette all'isolana: with tuna, tomatoes, capers, mint and olives.
Fritto misto: deep-fried fish and seafood.
Pesce Spada: grilled with oil and lemon juice.
Salsicce: pure pork, sometimes with wild herbs.
Involtini: meat rolled around stuffing and sometimes offal.
Arancini: It is Italy's favourite street snack - those fried, and sometimes baked, balls of rice. The Arancini is typically from Ragusa in Sicily. Bite into one and you could find anything from meat sauce to mozzarella and peas inside the crunchy exterior.
Cannoli: crisp pastry cylinders, deep fried, then filled with ricotta mixed with sugar (sometimes vanilla, lemon zest, candied peel, chocolate pieces added)
Cassata siciliana: ricotta cake, mixed with sugar and vanilla and decorated with colourful candied fruit on brightly painted icing and marzipan. The cassata has gone global. And in India too, we may remember it from the "cassata icecream" of our childhood days, served in a bastardised form of course in old fashioned restaurants and by ice cream companies. The real Cassata Siciliana is a sponge cake soaked in liqueur; it is layered with ricotta cheese and covered in almondpaste. There's some icing on top and it is studded with fruits and other sweet things. There's no ice cream and this is an incredibly sweet dessert.
Ravioli di ricotta: deep fried pastry cases filled with fresh ricotta, and/or cinnamon, honey, lemon zest.
Bucconcini: pastries filled with figs & nuts or orange & almonds.
Cubbi ata: soft nougat.