A Sicilian Feast

Two weeks ago, I was invited to a memorable feast by a fellow food history enthusiast. She gave me the opportunity not just to enjoy delicious food, but also to help in the kitchen, getting insight into both the process by which the recipes were created and the way the dishes were realised. It was a fascinating experience to see how an appoach very different from mine produced deliciousness, learning, and joy.

The theme of the feast was Sicily. Not, as I am wont to do, a specific time period or set of sources, but a journey through its culinary history from the Neolithic to the modern era. Many of the dishes were based on written sources or extant tradition, others creative interpretations of documented combinations of ingredients and flavours, all combined to produce a cohesive whole while reflecting the wide variety that existed over time and geography.

The first course, reflecting the transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to cereal agriculture, consisted of roast quail, mushrooms, and cooked spelt wrapped in vine leaves. The quail rested on a whole slice of boletus mushroom, obviously not historical practice, but delicious with the reduced mushroom liquor seasoning the meat. The spelt dolmades, again not fully plausible – wine is not grown on Sicily until much later – add the rich solidity of cereal grain without overpowering the sylvan notes of the main feature.

The arrival of the Greeks was the focus of the second course, a light and sweet combination of figs and cheese with honey. It serves as a reminder of the wealth of fruit agriculture that enriches Mediterranean cuisine and the way that animals, both domesticated, like sheep, and feral, as the bees then were, added to the breadth of pleasures. We know that cheese and honey were combined in Greek times though no recipes as such exist. This combination, like cheese and pears or oil and fragrant herbs, feels absolutely natural.

Chickpeas and artichokes introduced the advent of Rome. The former are, of course, referenced in the name of Marcus Tullius Cicero, a champion, early in his career, of the cities of Sicily against the depredations of their Roman governor Verres. Artichokes, meanwhile, have a more convoluted connection in their association with the Jewish population of the city of Rome. This tradition may not go back farther than the Renaissance, but the reminder is timely. It was under Roman rule that the first Jewish communities formed in Sicily, many not arriving of their own free will, but as deportees. The chickpeas were served roasted, as we know ancient Romans liked to snack on them, and in their modern form of falafel, a food that straddles another demarcation line of religious and ethnic identity in today‘s Mediterranean world. The combination was poignant, but delicious.

Byzantium, really a continuation of Rome‘s rule over its oldest province, was referenced with tuna, coated in sesame, grilled, and lightly dusted with cheese, a practice Greek dietary manualy counsel against as a Sicilian deviation. It made for a lighter touch to the palate as well as a reminder of the treasures of the sea that surround the island. Sicilian food is no more imaginable without the wealth of its fisheries than without the wheat and olives that form its backbone.

The next great revolution in the fate of Sicily came with the arrival of Fatimid armies and the establishment of the Qalbid emirs in Palermo. It was here that the political centre of the island shifted from its east coast to its west, and that new crops and forms of agriculture arrived. A combination of chicken, coated in a combination of almonds, spices, and citron, inspired by known Arabic recipes but adapted to serve as fingerfood, was combined with glazed chestnuts. Chestnuts, one of the oldest crops of the European Mediterranean, are here married to sugar, the latest arrival of the Arab era. My sole regret was that there was not more of it.

The conquest of the island by the Normans was marked by a rich, meaty, salty celebration of their northern culinary tradition. Fennel-seasoned sausage merat wrappd in veal and rolled in thin slices of ham, served with cactus pears, a fruit entirely alien to their way of eating, but emblematic of their fascination with their sophisticated southern realm. We know that both the Hauteville kings and their Hohenstaufen successors were served by Arabic-speaking cooks, marrying the carnivorous excess of their ancestors with the culinary art of their conquest.

Modernity arrived in the guise of sweet confections, fig rolls, cream-filled cannoli, and finally an entire cake in the shape of a fire-breathing volcano. These things, now considered a glory of Sicilian cuisine, came into being as an established Arab tradition of sugar cookery is combined with innovative ideas from the mainland – whipping cream, crumbly ‚short‘ cookies, chemically leavened cakes, and the profusion of sweet dishes that increasingly cheaper sugar allowed. The pomp and circumstance of the famous kingdom of Naples, politically an appendage of Aragon and Spain, but culturally its own universe, shone through.

The entire experience was fascinating, if a little disorienting to me. I would never have done it like this. My way would have been a deep dive into sources, a combination of plausible dishes, documentable foods, and increasingly tenuous guesses to fill the gaps in my knowledge to arrive at a meal of known quantities. Combining singular data points into a web of cross-references, an experience eerily reminiscent of the intertextual reading so much good postmodern fiction encourages, was never part of my repertoire. That day, I learned that it can be extremely rewarding and make the past accessible in ways that the more antiquarian mode cannot.

The lady in question has offered to collaborate on a feast arranged around the theme of Valois Burgundy. I very much look forward to the project.

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