Italy – A new look at Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti
Time honoured recipes from Italy's Abundant Isle – with video
By Robyn Lewis
We live in a time of health problems associated with the ‘modern Western’ - or perhaps more correctly, the ‘industrialised food’ – diet, high in processed foods containing superfluous sugar, refined carbohydrates and unpronounceable chemicals. As convenient as it all is for food manufacturers and transporters, it appears it’s not so good for our bodies. Wherever this diet is adopted, health problems seem to follow.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that a return to more traditional foods and ways of cooking them may be part of the solution. Indeed it will have to be. No matter how many taxes we pay in future, our governments will not have the means to pay for the epidemic of burgeoning waistlines, diabetes and heart and related cardiovascular illnesses that sits like a time bomb waiting to go off in many of our bodies and in our health care systems.
Fortunate indeed that a return to more traditional ways of eating may reverse the problem, at least in part. The 2009 republishing of Mary Taylor Simeti’s classic work Sicilian Food - Recipes from Italy's Abundant Isle is therefore very timely.
First published in 1989 under the more academic title of Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty Five Centuries of Sicilian Food, it became a classic and was reprinted in England in 1999, but has been out of print since. That loss has now been rectified, to the benefit of a new generation of cooks and chefs and especially those of us interested in our health and lifestyle, and what we put into our bodies.
Author Mary Taylor Simeti was born and grew up in New York City, and went to Sicily ‘fresh out of college’ as a community development volunteer worker. What was to be a stay of a year or so turned into a lifetime, when she met and married Antonio Simeti - then an agricultural economist – in the early 1960s. Her love soon came to encompass her new island home, its history and its cuisine.
Mary Taylor’s mother was a teacher and had been living in Florence, so Italy was not a total unknown to this adventurous young woman, and she also spoke Italian. Her new husband’s family had a farm, but the couple did not expect to stay, rather to travel the world. However after his older brother’s sudden death they found themselves both custodians of the farm and carers for his elderly and very traditional parents.
But rather than let that turn into a burden, the Simetis threw themselves into this unexpected life, and as well as having a family, gradually turned the farm organic. Simeti learnt how to cook its bounteous produce, and along the way became an authority of the cuisine of Sicily, which she discovered has a long lineage indeed.
There are not many cookbooks published today that start with chapters ‘dealing with the period before 1200’ AD, indeed back to the 9th century BC. ‘I learnt to cook so well in Sicily that I will cause the banqueters to bite the dishes and the plates with joy’ wrote Alexis of Tarentum in the 4th century BC. A modern chef could wish half as much.
Indeed Sicily was perhaps the first destination of what we now call culinary tourism, being visited by Homer, Archestratus and Plato, and then in the first century AD by Apicius himself (after whom the word epicure was added to the dictionary), who wrote glowingly of its food. Back then it appeared to be firstly the vegetable basket of the Mediterranean, and later the fruit bowl as well. Fava (broad) beans were a popular mainstay, along with wild fennel and other herbs – fish was also to become increasingly prevalent in the Sicilian diet, with a (then) local abundance of tuna, swordfish and man species of smaller fish in surrounding waters. (It also took over from meat in popularity in Greece around the same time).
According to Simeti (and there would be few to argue with her prolific knowledge) it was indeed the cuisine of Sicily that defined that of the Roman Empire, and thus of modern day Italian cuisine. Sicily was a cultural crossroads – new foods such as olives were imported from Greece and then spread around the Mediterranean. The home of original fusion cooking. Quite when pasta appeared is not clear but it seems to have been very early – but pasta made from stone ground whole flour, there being no refined flour for many centuries to come.
Simeti gives several recipes from these times adapted to modern techniques and palates. She includes the tomato – which we so associate with Mediterranean cuisine that it is almost impossible to think of it without, like chillis and Asia – but which was still 1500 years away, the Americas yet to be discovered by Europeans.
Some of the recipes such as fava bean soup and pasta with anchovies and breadcrumbs are rare and date from times which we would now describe as of poverty – they would not be found in restaurants except those seeking to return to our agricultural roots, as with the Slow Food movement (not coincidentally born in Italy in the 1980s, when Western fast food arrived). Sicilian Food is more precious for their inclusion, and we are fortunate that they have not been lost.
Simeti them moves through the centuries, covering garden produce and especially the ubiquitous lemon – perhaps the fruit most associated with Sicily? - aubergine (eggplant) and globe artichoke, starches such as real breads, couscous and rice, through to feasts from mediaeval to modern times. Weddings, funerals, Christmas and other religious occasions seem to be when more meat and poultry was eaten – the recipes she gives, which have been gathered from friends, family and local experts - are all adapted to the kitchens of today and do not require communal ovens that would have been used back then.
Then there are recipes for cotognata (quince paste), mostarda (white grape paste) and other preserves, and a chapter on street fare – genuine healthy snacks made from chick peas, aubergines, olives and capsicums, none of it prepackaged and all of it healthy. It all makes me long for the arrival of summer and spare time in the kitchen or on the barbecue. If you live somewhere warm and are fortunate to have your own garden or access to fresh garden produce, you could easily cook well for a year from this one recipe book alone.
No definitive book on Sicilian cuisine such as this would be complete without a chapter on ice creams, but not the fatty confections we so often see in the West but granita and gelati ices, make with water or milk, and not (usually) cream, often flavoured with fruit juices, spices and nuts. A fitting way to end a meal, or a banquet, or simply to refresh yourself between courses or on a hot, dry day.
Simeti ends this revised edition with a chapter on suggestions for places to eat in Sicily today, from luxury restaurants that serve authentic Sicilian food to smaller establishments that tend to specialise – what joy, there’s even one for artichoke enthusiasts! Hidden culinary experiences abound, from 13th century ex-monasteries to mountain mushroom cooking on the slopes of Mt Etna.
Little wonder that Simeti has once again put Sicily on the epicurean travel map – with this book in hand you could easily spend a month of good eating there, if you don’t have a lifetime. Move over Tuscany – Sicily can expect a resurgence in gourmet travel enquiries with this publication.
It’s also no wonder that Simeti is now the best-known American in Sicily, and if they have national living treasures there, no doubt she’s one. Despite the historical approach, her style is straightforward – Sicilian Food is as readable as a good novel and the recipes are obviously tried and tested – she now writes for publications such as the New York Times and Sophisticated Traveler.
One thing that perhaps should not be forgotten however is that even in 2009, it is reported that 5% of Italy’s population are still living in poverty, with a greater percentage in the south. Let us hope that today’s poor still have access to the bounteous garden and marine produce of this sun-drenched island that Simeti so beautifully brings to life – with these inherited recipes and cooking techniques they should be eating well, if not richly.
Something for all of those who value our health and longevity to consider, also.
This new edition of Sicilian Food - Recipes from Italy's Abundant Isle by Mary Taylor SImeti has been republished by Wakefield Press (South Australia) in association with Grub Street of London (2009; sc RRP A$29.95).
VisitVineyards.com subscribers receive a 20% DISCOUNT when buying this book directly through Wakefield Press. Details and link here »
Watch the video below for a small taste of 'agrituriso' in the beautiful island of Sicily.
- Italy - all (IT)
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