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Italian Food Regional Cooking Sicily and Sardinia
Sicily and Sardinia
The roots of much of Italian cuisine lie in these islands. More than mainland Italy, the islands have held onto their traditions and this is true in the cuisine. While much of Italy has marched into the future, adopting a more modern cuisine there are places in these islands offer a glimpse of the way it used to be. There are similarities between the two but each maintains its own culinary identity.
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Sicily is a mountainous island with wonderful scenery, dotted here and there with the ruins of ancient Greek temples such as the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento. Home to Mt Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. In 1860 Sicily became part of the Italian Republic but before then it was easy pickings for a long series of conquerors. First, came the Phoenicians around 1000 BC then came the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Swabians, French and Spaniards. All of these cultures held sway for a couple of hundred years or more so each one left its mark on the culture and cuisine of Sicily.
Phoenicians made their living from the sea but they were also known throughout the ancient world for the quality of their wine. If you remember the Biblical story of the Wedding at Canaan when Jesus transformed water to wine, well the Canaanites were Phoenicians. Grapes were originally native to the Arabian Peninsula, so it was probably the Phoenicians that introduced grapes and wine to Italy around the 9th Century BC.
Greeks arrived about 750 BC and they brought olives and introduced the local population to olive oil. Sicily was absorbed into Magna Graecia along with the rest of southern Italy, which the Greeks had also colonized. Eventually there were more Greeks in Southern Italy than there were in Greece. The Greek language continued to be spoken here for centuries.
Romans were next to control Sicily and Sicily became the empire's granary. Romans were the gourmets of the ancient world, importing foods from across their Empire so they brought fava beans, chickpeas, lentils and some early forms of pasta.
Germans were next to control Sicily, when the Roman Empire fell apart the Germanic Vandals took control around 440 AD. There was little culinary influence from the Germans and by 448 BC Theodoric The Great tried to revive Roman culture, thus this time continued some Roman cuisine.
The Byzantine Empire was next during the 6th century but this is also called the Eastern Empire and this meant a continuation of the old Roman ways with some Greek being heard again on the island. By the 9th century, the
Arabs gained control of Sicily and they brought many foods that have become commonplace Sicilian foods today. The Arab period is perhaps the most influential and formative of what Sicilian has come to be. The Arabs brought aniseed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, watermelon and rice. They also started a long Sicilian love affair with sweets, including ice cream and granita (made with snow from Etna and other mountains), marzipan and candied fruits. The Arabs also introduced more advanced farming and irrigation techniques. There is some dispute about the origin, but the Arabs may have been the first to distill grape must to create grappa.
The Normans conquered Southern Italy in 1071 bringing Northern European innovations including the rotating skewer for cooking meat and air salting of fish. The French who followed them brought a legacy of chefs for the aristocracy. Control of Sicily continued to bounce from one kingdom to another until the kingdom of
Spain dominated in Sicily for 3 centuries bringing the next foreign control of the island. . The 400 years of Spanish Aragonese rule (1412-1713) brought tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chili and sweet peppers, squash, and chocolate. All of these, coming from the New World became very important parts of Sicilian food. These were incorporated into existing recipes so that the food of Sicily would now be unimaginable without them. The Spanish also introduced the prickly pear (called Ficodindia in Italian) Finally, the very brief occupation by the
English in the early 19th century left something to be remembered and savored in cooking - Marsala wine.
Cuisine Born of Poverty
Many of Sicily’s most iconic dishes are born out of poverty. While our food has been industrialized and homogenized a Sicilian might enjoy something like Pane con la Milza (a sandwich made of fried beef spleen,) or roasted goat brains. The industrialized north of Italy has always been the prosperous part of Italy but the food born of poverty and necessity can be some of the richest food you will ever encounter . As for the food, well walking around a Sicilian market and you will hear less haggling over price than you will inquiries over when the fish was caught or the produce came from the farm. The hallmarks of Sicilian cuisine are simplicity of preparation and quality of ingredients. Wild fennel from the mountains is a frequent seasoning in Sicilian food. Traditional meats are pork, lamb and goat but some beef is available. Of course, on an island seafood is very important but get away from the coast and seafood was always harder to come by until modern times. Cheeses here are still made from Sheep and goat’s milk as these animals are easier to raise in this mountainous place.
Sicilian cuisine: a Journey through time by Daniela Nifosì
A Few Sicilian Specialties
Caponata (braised mixed vegetables) Is a traditional Sicilian dish made with local olives and eggplant
Pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines) is possibly the most famous Sicilian dish and it pays homage to local industries of vinyards for raisins and fishing for sardines. No, they do not use the oily fish in a can we are more likely to be familiar with; these sardines are fresh off the boat.
Sarde A Beccafico (Sardines stuffed with currants, pine nuts, sugar and nutmeg) is another typical Sicilian dish rarely found elsewhere.
Salsiccia alla pizzaiola . is typical of Sicilian sausage This is ground pork and spices, chopped onions, tomatoes, parsley and sometimes chunks of cheese or even pine nuts. This is a fresh sausage, not cured and dried like salami.
Couscous (A sort of pasta made by rolling semolina into tiny pellets )Is often served here, especially in the western city of Trapani showing the influence of North Africa.
Pasta alla Norma (pasta with fried eggplants in a tomato salsa sprinkled with fresh basil and ricotta.) Is a historic dish from the 19th century Sicily named after Bellini's opera Norma to honor both the dish and the opera.
Pane con la Milza (a sandwich made of fried beef spleen.) Is one of the most unusual local dishes, not for the typical American and certainly not for a low cholesterol diet
Arancine (rice balls) were invented in the tenth century during the Arab rule of Sicily. These are ballas of rice filled with meat and coated with a light, crispy batter,
Cassata is a traditional sponge cake and cheese creation from Palermo in Sicily which is known around the globe. It consists of round sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese, candied peel, and a chocolate or vanilla filling. It is covered with a shell of marzipan, pink and green pastel colored icing, and decorative designs. The cassata is finally topped with candied fruit depicting cherries and slices of citrus fruit characteristic of Sicily. This is one dish in which the Sicilian mantra of simplicity takes a back seat to fanciful decorations and combination of flavors.
Cannoli (pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta) Is a little different in Sicily because the local ricotta is made from sheep’s milk, rest assured Sicilians love their desserts and sweets in Sicily are wonderful.
A spectacular blog of Sicilian recipes may be found at http://www.bestofsicily.com/recipes.htm
Sardinia, Torre della Pelosa
Grotta di Nettuno,
In Italian, Sardinia is spelled Sardegna and pronounced sahr-DAY-nyuh. The ancient history of Sardinia is quite similar to that of Sicily, repeated invasions and colonization’s but this is about Sardinian cuisine so we won’t elaborate on the history except to say that there have been many different cultural and culinary influences in Sardinia dating back some three thousand years.
Sardinia is known for its fine sand beaches interspersed with rocky coastlines. The Costa Smeralda was created nearly forty years ago to transform a formerly wild and isolated coast into world-class tourist destination, has become an Italian hotspot for celebrities and tourists. Moving inland o the wild interior of Sardinia, called the Gennargentu , you find rocky highlands, valleys and plateaus. The mountains here are not very high. There are no earthquakes or volcanoes like in Sicily and mainland Italy, thus the mountains have had time to erode. Geologic stability means that Sardinia is a locale for exploring very ancient ruins. There are numerous Bronze Age remains throughout the islands, the best known being the Nuraghi - circular stone fortresses which were surrounded by dwellings. According to some scholars, the Nuraghic people were the Shardana, a tribe of the "Sea Peoples". Sardinia has protected its woodlands and forests so that now over 50% of Sardinia is covered with broadleaf forests and the local fauna is repopulating bringing this island closer to its natural beginnings.
There is only one natural lake in Sardinia but there are numerous manmade lakes to catch the runoff from numerous rivers. There is some freshwater fishing here but surprisingly seafood does not have a long history with the natives here in Sardinia. With all those invasions in ancient history, the native inhabitants of Sardinia fled inland and left the coastline to the ruling invaders of the time. Nevertheless, Sardinia is surrounded by the sea and now that the fear of invasion has gone fishing and food from the sea is now long established. If you haven’t already assumed it, sardines are named after Sardinia and those oily little fish we buy in cans are a poor representation of the fresh sardines found in the Mediterranean. Spicy fish soups called Burrida and Cassola along with lobsters, crabs, anchovies, squid, clams and fresh sardines are all very popular along the Sardinian coast.
SIMPLY SICILIAN Italian Cooking
Sardinian Wedding Cake
Pasta and rice are the first courses in Sardinian cuisine. They are of the highest quality and served with a minimum of garnishing. Sardinians like their food prepared as simply as possible so the natural flavors shine through. Herbs such as mint and myrtle are used. Funghi di carne , in Sardinian "cardolinu de pezza " and "antunna ", are tasty natural mushrooms which grow in hilly areas and up high in the mountains. Local fruits and vegetables cardoons, asparagus, artichokes, broad beans, Camona tomatoes, cherries, chestnuts, almonds, figs and oranges, especially “Blood oranges”
Sardinia is a land of meat eaters. Suckling pig and wild boar are roasted on the spit or boiled in stews of beans and vegetables, thickened with bread. Horse and donkey steaks from young animals are old traditional foods. Shepherds are said to take better care of their flocks than they do their families. They stick to old ways, this is not commercial mass produced or processed meat like ours. Sardinians raise their animals with quality and traditional methods. Sardinia is famous for its salami and its hams.
There are really two cuisines in Sardinia, one for the coast noted for its wide variety of seafood and a second cuisine from the woodlands, farms and mountains in the middle of the island.
Sardinian Paella from Oliva Cooking
A Few Sardinian Specialties
Spit roasted meats Traditionally a whole animal (often suckling pig, baby lamb and wild game) is cooked over aromatic herbs and wood charcoal.
Su Porcheddu Roast suckling pig is favored all over Italy, here it is with wild fennel, artichokes and green beans
Carta de musica Literally, music paper. It's a thin, crisp, circular flatbread. Called pane carasau by inlanders and pane fresa by coastal residents. The best known bread of Sardinia is also the base for many other Sardinian dishes. One is called 'panni frattau' which also includes eggs, onions, pecorino cheese, tomatoes and meat broth.
Pecorino Sardo Sardinia's most famous sheep's milk cheese is similar to (and sometimes sold abroad as) Pecorino Romano.
Malloreddus tiny Sardinian semolina gnocchi or dumplings flavored with saffron that resemble cavatelli pasta are often called gnocchetti sardi , usually served with butter and Pecorino, a simple tomato sauce, or a rich lamb ragù.
Culurzones Ravioli filled with potato, egg and mint paste.
Bottarga Salted mullet or tuna roe is pressed into a firm mass, salted and dried, then thinly sliced. Eaten as an appetizer or used as a flavoring agent for main dishes.
Spaghetti alla bottarga , spaghetti with eggs and mullet roe.
Aragosta alla castellanese : lobster sautéed with tomatoes, garlic, onion, red pepper and lemon
bracciole di asinello : mule steaks
Su zurrette is an ancient traditional dish from the interior, it is a kind of black pudding made with sheep's blood. The blood is poured into the stomach of the sheep, together with offal, salt, pepper, grated pecorino cheese and spiced with thyme and pennyroyal mint, then sewn up and boiled or cooked over coals until it has become creamy.
Culingiones Raviol usually stuffed with spinach and pecorino cheese.
Pardulas or Casadinas are small cheese tarts that are the typical Sardinian cakes for Easter. There are many variations of the recipe around Sardinia. In the south, they are made with ricotta cheese and are called Pardulas . In the north, they are called Casadinas , these cheesecakes look the same but the cheese used is fresh pecorino.
Cruxioneddu de mindua These sweets are pockets made of puff pastry shaped like ravioli, that are stuffed with almonds, fried and covered with a thin layer of icing. Variations are filled with almonds, custard or sweetened ricotta cheese.
Sos guelfos , little balls of paste of almonds or hazelnuts
Sas pompias Sweets made from the skin of the wild citron sweetened with honey.
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