Barber’s Wire: Sicily, a melting pot for food production

Allan Barber has been away on holiday in Sicily and brings back his perspective on another part of the world’s agricultural and culinary tradition.

Sicily has been taken over by the Saracens, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans,  Swabia, Austro-Hungary and Spain, before Garibaldi led the rebellion that led to the unification of Italy under one monarch, Vittorio Emanuele I, in 1861. Each of the occupying powers has brought something different to the food and agricultural produce of this unique island.

The Greeks brought olives, the Romans began wheat growing, bread making and wine production, the Arabs brought spices and invented dried spaghetti, the Normans were responsible for salted cod and the Spanish introduced candied fruit and marzipan, while the Italians have refined bread and pastry baking and wine making. There is no evidence of Swabian or Austro-Hungarian influences, although their occupations were fairly brief.

Sicily has become a major food bowl of Italy, producing enormous quantities of olives, oranges, grapes, wheat and tomatoes as well as eggplants, artichokes, cauliflowers, and pumpkins of all shapes and sizes. Seafood  – fish and shellfish of all varieties – make up a large part of the Sicilian diet, while also contributing to exports to the continent, as mainland Italy is known.

Meat is a relatively small component of Sicilian agricultural production and food consumption, but we ate superb locally grown pork at a hillside town not far from the south east coast. Salami, prosciutto, mortadella and salumeria, all produced from the pig, decorate every butcher’s shop, market meat stall and breakfast buffet.

The markets in every city and town demonstrate the enormous variety and quality of produce grown locally, varying from place to place according to climate and topography.

Sicily, in common with the rest of southern Italy, is poor, although conditions have improved with the decline of mafia influence since the last 30 years of the twentieth century when Palermo mafia leaders had close links to Italy’s ruling Christian Democrat party. Those links still exist, but  the island in general, particularly Palermo, has been cleaned up and the average Sicilian can go about life without interruption. The east coast which is closest to the mainland is generally more prosperous than the west with a greater concentration of population down the coast and more facilities for tourism, although Palermo on the north coast is the island’s capital and largest city.

Tourism is a major economic and employment contributor, as it has been for centuries. Such famous figures from history like Archimedes, Cicero, Oscar Wilde and DH Lawrence had discovered the joys of the island long before the present generation of visitors arrived. There are increasing numbers of cruise ships and coach tours thronging to the main tourist centres to view the Greek and Roman ruins, Norman and Arab architecture and the glorious baroque rebuilds of the late 17th and early 18th centuries as a direct result of the massive earthquake in 1693 on the east coast near Mount Etna.

Slow food has gained great traction in Sicily, as it has in the rest of Italy, with the combination of growing and consuming local produce and ageing of some of the cheeses like sheep’s milk Pecorino. Since the introduction of the EU system of geographical origin protection (IGT) for all types of agricultural produce, DOC and DOCG for wine and DOP for everything else, growers have recognised the commercial advantage of meeting the standards to permit the use of these denominations. There is also a strong trend to revive the grain types grown by the Romans, made possible by seeds being preserved for 2000 years after volcanic eruptions by Mount Etna. Flour from these ancient strains of wheat are readily available for use in everyday cooking.

There are many Sicilian winemakers, especially around Mount Etna which has a unique climate and soil type, with different growing conditions on the northern and southern slopes. Many grape varieties unique to Sicily are used in winemaking which results in a wide range of types and styles, although the best reds are made from Nero d’Avola and dry whites with strong mineral characteristics made from Caterata and Grillo varieties. There are also two of the world’s most famous dessert wines, Marsala and Malvasia, grown and made in Sicily, although their popularity owes much to an 18th century Englishman John Woodhouse who started the Marsala industry by shipping the wine back home.

Michele Murgo, a winemaker that I spoke to, told me his family had owned the vineyard since the late nineteenth century, but recently they have invested a substantial amount of money in new tanks and bottling facilities, including producing Sicily’s only methode champenoise. The property also boasts accommodation and a restaurant which provide the opportunity for a fully integrated wine experience at about 800 metres on the southern slopes of Etna. The estate’s business comprises 250,000 bottles of wine annually – red, white and sparkling – of excellent quality, with 70 per cent sold locally, 20 per cent exported mostly to the USA, Europe and Australia, and the remaining 10 per cent sold on the Italian mainland. As he told me, there is not much call for a Sicilian wine in Tuscany or Piedmont.

Not having visited a supermarket while in Sicily, I am not able to comment on the number of imported products available or how easy it is to buy New Zealand lamb, but on a fishing trip out of Cefalu just along the coast from Palermo, the skipper Pascuale told me enthusiastically he always buys New Zealand frozen lamb from his supermarket. So at least we are on the map, although experience of eating round Sicily suggests the vast majority of meals are based on seafood, vegetables, pasta and pork salamis and cold meats.

Sicily has more contrasts than similarities to New Zealand in spite of being an island with plentiful agricultural production and offshore fishing. We can only dream of the enormous richness of choice available to Sicilians, whether meat, fish, seafood and vegetables, at a lower cost than New Zealanders have to pay. Seasonality of produce, grown locally, is another key feature of the way they live, so it is possible the winter will reduce the amount of choice.

My visit happened to coincide with an agricultural show, a cross between an A&P show and Fieldays, which showed all the latest farm equipment, a good range of cattle breeds and donkeys, and a food and wine hall. There was also a half hour traffic queue to reach the entrance, so not much difference there between our two countries.

With its amazingly varied history, having inherited elements from each of the occupying nations over the centuries, Sicily offers an amazing experience to the visitor. I can’t wait to go back.

Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. He has his own blog Barber’s Meaty Issues and can be contacted by emailing him at allan@barberstrategic.co.nz.

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