A food voyage through Sicily
Pastries the Sicilian way. (Russell Mountford/LPI)
The cuisine of Sicily is respected as one of the most exciting and exotic, but also as one of the most traditional.
A huge part of anyone's visit to this gorgeous island will be taken up with eating, and with learning the many unwritten (and written) rules of eating the Sicilian way - understanding the strict order of the dining ritual, matching tastes and preparation methods, choosing the right dessert, having the right coffee.
Every village, town and city has a raucous, sense-exploding food market - all you need to do is walk through Palermo's Mercato della Vucciria or Catania's La Pescheria to work up an appetite.
Traditional recipes are wonderfully preserved, and the restaurants that flirt with modern cuisine - such as Catania's Metró or Palermo's Osteria dei Vespri - do so with utter respect for traditional ingredients and methods. The Sicilian attitude toward food is much like its character - a lot of tradition with just a sprinkling of modernity.
The task should be immensely enjoyable: Sicily's kitchen is packed with fresh ingredients, shiny fish straight out of the Mediterranean, unusual additions such as almonds and pistachios, and delectable combinations such as pasta with sardines, saffron and sultanas.
What is really impressive about Sicily's cuisine is that most of these amazing tastes came out of poverty and depredation. The extravagant recipes of the monsù (chefs; from the French monsieur le chef) employed by the island's aristocrats were adapted to fit the budget and means of the less fortunate.
Ordinary Sicilians applied the principle of preserving the freshness of the ingredients, and most importantly, never letting one taste overpower another. And that is the key to all of Sicily's dishes: simplicity.
One of the best ways to sample Sicilian cuisine is on the streets. If you were taught that this was bad manners, you can break the rule in good company here. Palermitans are at it all the time: when they are shopping, when they are discussing business, romancing... basically at any time of the day.
What they are enjoying is the buffitieri - little hot snacks prepared at stalls and meant to be eaten on the spot, just as they were in the marketplace of Sicily's Greek-settled cities. Kick off the morning with a pane e pannelle, Palermo's famous chickpea fritters - great for vegetarians and they make a great change from a sweet custard-filled croissant.
Or, if it is later in the day, you might want to go for the potato croquettes, the sfincione (a spongy, oily pizza topped with onions and caciocavallo cheese) or scaccie (discs of bread dough spread with a filling and rolled up into a pancake). In summer, locals enjoy a freshly baked brioche filled with a type of ice cream flavoured with fruits, coffee or nougat.
From 1600 local time onward the snacks become decidedly more carnivorous and you may just wish you had not read the following translations: how about some barbecued stigghiola (goat intestines filled with onions, cheese and parsley), for example? Or a couple of pani cu'la mensa (bread roll stuffed with sautéed beef spleen). You will be asked if you want it "schietta o maritata" ("single or married"). If you choose schietta, the roll will only have ricotta in it before being dipped in to boiling lard: choose maritata and you will get the beef spleen as well.
Some what tamer, and a favourite in Catania, are all manner of impanata (bread dough snacks) stuffed with meat, vegetables or cheese, and the unique arancino (a deep-fried rice ball stuffed with meat, tomato and vegetables).
Regardless of how you choose to tantalise your tastebuds, a few days in Sicily and you will begin to wonder why Palermo is not the obesity capital of Europe given how much eating goes on!