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FOODS OF SICILY AND SARDINIA Introduction
THE BEST OF BUGIALLI
FOODS OF TUSCANY
BUGIALLI ON PASTA
FOODS OF ITALY
CLASSIC TECHNIQUES OF ITALIAN COOKING
THE FINE ART OF ITALIAN COOKING
|from: Foods of Sicily & Sardinia|
|1996, New York, Rizzoli International|
|BY GIULIANO BUGIALLI|
over 3,000 years, the Mediterranean has produced a steady stream of remarkable
sailors and a succession of great naval powers who have found the beautiful
and bountiful islands off Italy's coast a great temptation. Throughout their
history the two largest, Sicily and Sardinia, as well as the smaller treasures
of Elba, Giglio, Capri, Ischia and Pantelleria have experienced a continuous
series of raids, invasions and occupations. In addition, cut off by the sea
from their neighbors, the islands have been able to preserve their ancient
Roman culinary traditions to a degree not possible on the mainland. This
has produced a cuisine that is one of the most historically interesting to
be found. The Phoenicians and the Greek city-states were among the early
occupiers, for whom these islands became objects of the epic struggle between
Rome and Carthage. When Roman power waned, there were the various Germanic
tribes, the most influential of which were the Lombards. Then came the Byzantines,
Arabs, Normans, medieval Swabian Germans, and most lastingly the great Italian
sea powers of Pisa and Genoa and finally the Spanish Aragonese.
Sicily, the center of Mediterranean trade from the Roman period until the late Middle Ages, was the chief prize. It has become trendy in recent times to vastly overrate the Arab influence on Sicilian food. But a careful examination reveals facts that challenge this assumption.
The Phoenicians and Carthaginians followed the exact same route that the Arabs did well over a thousand years later, and many of the products credited to Arab influence almost certainly existed long before the relatively short Arab occupation of parts of the island. If we consider some of the most important ingredients of Sicilian cooking. we find the following: the cultivation of oranges and lemons did not begin until the Spanish occupation of the last few centuries and all beans and legumes, except favas, lentils and chick-peas (all three used by the Romans), came from the New World, as did peppers, zucchini and other squashes, tomatoes and potatoes. All types of broccoli and cauliflower were developed from cabbage, most likely in Italy at some point. Lamb and kid were used by the Romans, as was a very important Sicilian meat, pork, which is, of course, forbidden to Islam. In addition, other pork products such as lard, often the shortening of choice, pancetta and prosciutto are essential to the island's cookery. By the time the Arabs arrived, olive oil was already being produced by the Etruscans and Romans. Dried pasta was made in Sicily for the entire late Roman world. It is unlikely that eggplant was brought in by the Arabs. The wide range of Indian spices was crucial to upper-class Roman Empire cooking.
The widespread attempts to prove Arab origin through the etymology of certain names is tricky. Some of these efforts remind one of the amateur etymologist, Le Curé, in Marcel Proust; Remembrance of Things Past, whose derivations are demolished by another character who is a real professional. Ax grinders have even attempted to show Arabic origins of such an obviously Latinate name as cassata. Devoto, Italy's greatest etymologist, derives it from its main ingredient, ricotta (Latin: caseus). But even the origin of the name does not always prove the origin of the dish, Couscous, an undoubtedly Arabic word, became the name of a dish that was one of a group of coarsely ground cereals forming the mainstay of the working-class Roman diet. A similar case is that of bechamel, a sauce that was invented in Italy, renamed in France and came to be called by its French name in Italy. And couscous has continued to change in modern times, so that even in North Africa now, it includes vegetables such as squashes, peppers and potatoes, all of which come from the New World as does the hot red pepper of the main condiment, harissa. And so, a cookbook presenting the true Sicilian tradition cannot depend wholly or largely on alleged Arab influence.
Another point to bear in mind is that French cookery, which started in the early nineteenth century with Câreme, became a model for the wealthier classes in much of Europe. Even today some of the landed Sicilians do not eat Sicilian food at all. They have chefs called monzú, who are wholly trained in the French tradition. Indeed it is extremely difficult to get the really sophisticated restaurants on the island to cook the dishes of the older nobility, because for the restaurants, Sicilian food means working-class food, while food prepared in the French manner is more refined. This "refined" food, however, has little to do with Sicilian tradition.
Giuliano Bugialli, 1996
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