20 DECEMBRE 2015 | PAR ANNA STEIGER
« In a month’s time ( if the winds are not against you) you will arrive on the affluent island of Sicily, where you will eat some of those macaroni that have taken their name from the (Greek word) beatify: they are usually cooked together with fat capons and fresh cheeses dripping butter and milk on all sides, and then, using a wide and liberal hand, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon of the finest that can be found. Oh dear, how my mouth waters just remembering them »
Ortesio Landi, Secretary to Lucrezia Gonzaga in the 16th Century
Winter festivals in Sicily – from I Morti ( All Saint’s Day on the first of November) to New Year’s Day – are celebrated by a complex and wide variety of traditional dishes illustrating the island’s long history of occupation. This mixture of Greek, Roman, Arabic, Byzantine, Norman, Jewish and Spanish/Italo Christian culinary traditions could only occur on an island with a past as diverse as Sicily’s.
Greeks brought the olive and the vine to Sicily. Arabs arriving in the 9th Century brought irrigation, sugar cane, rice and other crops in their baggage. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, created on Christmas day in 1130 maintained many of the Arab achievements long after the Arabs themselves had departed, and lasted until the death of Frederick II in 1250.
Later, with the decline of Sicily’s fortunes, many of these great advances in agriculture were forgotten or ruined. Death and destruction accompanied the passing of the crown to the Angevin and on to the Aragonese in 1282.
The Black Death of the 14th century ravaged the inner island resulting in a great number of the peasantry moving to coastal areas. Half of Sicily’s villages were lost and the island’s population was cut by a sixth, greatly affecting agriculture and trade routes.
This destruction of populace was hastened by the Aragonese forced exodus of Jews in 1492, the keepers of much of the Arab knowledge of the past.
With the Spanish reign and the discovery of the New World, tomatoes and peppers arrived on the island, and in the 18th C when French cooking became the rage, every grand family has a monzù ( Sicily’s answer to the French word monsieur) or chef. These messieurs brought with them a range of cooking techniques and ingredients such as cream, butter and brandy which had not previously been used in most Sicilian dishes. This rich addition to the island’s food culture would go on to become part of what was known as cucina baronale or baronial cuisine.
Wheat based pasta, that emblem of Italian identity, had its first mention on a commercial scale in “ The Book of Roger”, a survey written for the Norman Sicilian King Roger II by the geographer Al-Idrisi in 1150 AD. Al-Idrisi called the pasta itriya – Arabic for little worms or vermicelli.
This word survives as tri in Sicilian dialect today. Tri were exported to Genoa and on through Italy’s mainland – thus, Bologna had a tria genovese dish to be prepared for sick by 13th C :
« Dei peselli freschi per li ‘nfermi: Togli i pesi novelli e latte spesso a amandole, e ponvi un poco di sale: poi fa’ uno coppo di pasta bene composto: giungivi su, se tu vuoli, zuccaro, e metti a cocere, e mangia. »
With a price three times higher than that of the price of bread, pasta in Sicily was destined to be eaten by the well off, the middle class and the aristocracy. For everyone else, pasta dishes were kept for special occasions until well into the 17th Century.
Pasta made its first entry into Italian literature in the Bocaccio’s Decameron (1353) where pasta, in the land of Cuccagna or the Land of Plenty was presented as a celebratory, almost hallucinatory food:
« A wonderful mountain was also to be found in that country, he told him, all made of parmesan cheese, and inhabited by folk who spent all their time making macaroni and ravioli with they boiled in capon broth….»
In Sicily, Cuccagna came to mean a distribution of food to the poor on feasting days as part of the policy for keeping the Sicilian (and Neapolitan) masses quiet during the reign of the Bourbon Kings. Named The Three F’s: feste, forza e farina or festivals, gallows and bread flour, this policy was in itself a throw back to the Roman satirist Juvenal’s panem et circuses (Satire 10.77–81 Circa 100 AD) – bread and circuses – with which the plebeians were kept under control during the Roman Empire. The Spanish Bourbons ruled the island until Italy united under one flag in 1860.
Winter festivities begin in Sicily with the festival that marks the day of the dead on the 1st of November, called I Morti or The Dead.
This is traditionally the day where children who have been good and pious are given presents and treats, as the Morti themselves rise from their tombs to distribute sweets and marzipan throughout the city.
As the long Sicilian summer draws to a close, magnificent processions take place throughout the cities of Sicily and artificial sweets made of marzipan and sugar made to look like fruits and vegetables appear in the shop windows.
Marzipan in Sicily is known as pasta reale, royal paste or sometimes frutta di Matorana, fruit from Matorana, named for a convent near Palermo famous for the culinary skills of its nuns.
« It is said that their mother superior, Gertrude (…) instructed the nuns to mould the pasta into fruit shapes and then hung them on the orchard trees of the cloister»
In Palermo, Pupi di cena or pupi di zuccaru – literally, sugar marionettes – made from sugar moulded into various figures, are created for I Morti .They are as highly colourful as the festival’s pasta reale and are often decorated with gold or silver paper. The most celebrated pupo di cena depicts a Paladino – a dashing and colourful knight on horseback, often represented with a sword.
The Feast of Saint Martino falls on November 11th and marks both the end of the harvest and the arrival of the first new wines of the season. The wine is accompanied in Palermo typically by biscotti di San Martino, delicious little round pastries filled with ricotta or whipped cream, or hard, dry round snail patterned biscuits of the same name.
« Pi San Martinu, ogni mostu e vinu” – “ By the feast of St Martin, all the must has turned into wine»
In the street markets you will find chrysanthemums, the local flowers of the dead, which will later decorate freshly swept graves, as well as nuts and pulses such as almonds, sugared walnuts and chickpeas.
Dishes eaten on San Martino include Aneletti a la siciliana, made from a pasta shape unique to Sicily whose name means “little rings”, served with a ragù of pork. Alternatively, a sauce made of local sausages with pecorino or parmesan cheese and some fresh ricotta can be prepared.
The Feast of Santa Lucia falls on the 13th of December. Lucia is the patron saint of light and vision and is, after Mary, the most venerated female Saint in Italy. In the Julian calendar, Santa Lucia’s day fell on the first day of winter. It now falls on December 13th.
No food from milled wheat is to be eaten on Santa Lucia’s day, and potato and rice dishes such as the celebrated fried rice balls called arancine (little oranges) are prepared. Panelle, fritters made from chickpea flour – a legacy of the Arab occupation – are also consumed. Panelle have the distinction of being the only traditional dish in Italy made with chickpea flour.
The prohibition of milled wheat is meant to honour one of Lucia’s miracles. Lucia, who lived from 283 to 304 AD, was a Sicilian from a noble family based in Siracusa. Legend has it that during a grim famine when crops had failed, a ship appeared in Palermo’s harbour bearing a cargo of wheat on Santa Lucia’s Day in 1646, saving the populace from starvation. So desperate for food were they that the ship was boarded and wheat berries were eaten raw without prior cooking or milling.
The legend of the raw wheat berries has been transformed into a dessert called Cuccìa, whose name reflects the Arabic word kiskiya – a type of grain. Cuccìa, wheat berries soaked and subsequently boiled and mixed with biancomangiare (blancmange), then seasoned with sugar and cinnamon and sometimes chocolate shavings, is a dish widely eaten on Santa Lucia day.
As the year draws to a close, Christmas celebrations begin. Sicily had become a poor island as time progressed and money was scarce. Santa Lucia and other local Saint’s days were given precedence over Christmas until modern times. Historically, families would take food to the Cathedral or church grounds on Christmas Eve and celebrate the arrival of Christmas day in a friendly, picnic-like atmosphere which displeased the church so much that the custom was banned altogether in 1399.
Christmas today is typified by a family cenone, or large dinner, where turkey or capon are eaten. Sweet specialities include mustazzoli – a sweet yeast-free biscuit of Arab origin modelled into different shapes to suit tastes: a holy dove perhaps, or a pagan snake or woman’s shape. Traditionally, these biscuits were made by convent dwelling nuns.
Buccellato is a ring shaped pastry served at Christmas which can also be offered at christening celebrations. Filled with almonds and figs and decorated with candied fruits, buccellato is a cheerful, plentiful and festive looking dessert.
Cannoli, literally little tubes, is Sicily’s most renowned pastry. The name of this delicious pastry is said to derive from the Arab word for canals, qanawāt. It is said to have traveled to Sicily from Al-Andalus, modern day Andalucìa. Filled with ricotta or whipped cream, sometime topped in powdered sugar, melted chocolate, crushed pistacchio or candied fruit, this small pastry is now characteristic of the South of Italy. Examples have been exported throughout the Italian diaspora, varying not only in filling but in size, from the small cannulicchi no bigger than a finger to the larger size typical of the area South of Palermo.
New Year was once celebrated with lasagne, a dish meant to bring good luck. Today, lentils with either cotechino – a large sausage made from the best cuts pork – or zampone – a wide sausage made from pigs trotters – are most often eaten. The lentils, shaped like little coins, are meant to symbolise wealth in the coming year.
The Christmas and New Year’s celebrations come to a close on the 6th of January with what the Italians call La Beffana, or The Witch. To us, that date is known as the Epiphany. It is said that La Beffana got it’s name through local mispronunciations of the Greek word Epifania, meaning appearance. According to legend, a benevolent witch travels around the city on her broom distributing sweets and other treats to eager children as she flies down chimneys, just as our Santa Claus does. She is often represented as covered in soot as a result.
Our potted tour of the splendours of Sicilian winter traditions now comes to an end.
I leave the last word to Anna Tasca Lanza, a Sicilian native and owner of the Regaleali country estate where perhaps the last cucina baroniale is still in practice :
« The winter sunshine in Sicily is one of the most beautiful things you can experience. I remember one magical day, one of those days I call a gift from God. The sky was blue, blue, blue, and the countryside green everywhere. From where I stood, I could see the Madonie Mountains, covered with snow, and Etna, also snowcapped, in the distance. All around me was silence, except for a few birds here and there talking to one another»
 Beatify translates into Makarizo in Greek
 Taylor Simeti, Mary, Sicilian Food, P. 123, ed. Grub Street, London 1989.
 Ibn Butlan,Tacuinum Sanitatis, published in Latin translation in Palermo 3 in the 13th C, translation Anna Steiger: Fresh peas for the infirm: pick fresh peas and put them in milk, most often almond based, and add a little salt. Then, make a well composed pasta dish and add sugar if you so desire. Cook it and eat it.
 Boccaccio, Giovanni, Decameron, Florence 1348-1353.
 Taylor Simeti, Mary, On Persephone’s Island, p.15, ed. Alfred 6 A. Knopf, Inc., USA.
 Sicilian saying.
 Tasca Lanza, Anna, The Heart of Sicily, p 207, ed. Ici la Press, Woodbury, 8 Connecticut, USA.