We were recently treated to a meal so extravagantly different to the kind of food we usually cook. My neighbourhood does not seem very multicultural at first sight, but one of our neighbours is not actually Greek; she settled here with her Greek spouse, after leaving her native Italy. Eventually, her parents moved out here too, after leaving their native Sicily, although they moved to Rome at a young age. Susanna enjoys looking at our thriving garden while she herself is pottering about in her own. She reminds me of my own gardening interests before I moved out of my bachelor pad (some would say it was an old maid's house); she's into flower gardening, while we are pretty much vegetable gardeners. We often give her aubergines which she uses to make pasta alla Norma, her favorite summer pasta dish, and no wonder, given its Sicilian origins.
Sicilian food and culture is incredibly similar to Cretan food and culture. The Mediterranean diet, well known all over the world, was based on the diets of both these islands. Read what Diana Serbe has to say about Sicilian food and culture, and simply replace the words 'Sicily' and 'Italy' with Crete' and 'Greece': the statements will have exactly the same ring of truth about them:
"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily, is not to have seen Italy at all" (Goethe). They came, they saw, they conquered: the Greeks, Romans, Arabs...When the Greeks saw the island of Sicily, they fell in love, sent their fleets, and set up colonies. The Romans saw what the Greeks had, fought them for it, and became the new conquerors. The Arabs saw what the Romans had, fought them for it, and put the island under their dominion...
Who would not fall in love with a country where even at night vegetables are "gleaming forth on the dark air, under the lamps." (D. H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia)? But what effect did such varied conquest have on Sicilian cooking? On the habits of the people? On the language?
Sicily is a large island of varied climate. There are subtropical areas growing prickly pears in abundance; every form of citrus is grown in Sicily - lemons, oranges, blood oranges... The quality of the vegetables gives a clue to the dishes of Sicily. Since their vegetables are of superior taste and quality, no Sicilian would defile them by creating complex dishes that mask the fresh flavor of their ingredients. Simplicity allows the pure taste of the vegetables to emerge. This is a key attitude to cooking, prevalent all over Sicily."
When we see each other from our own side of the fence, Susanna and I often talk about the food we cook with the garden produce. She recently asked us what all the new green plantlets are: broccoli, spinach, cabbage and cauliflower. Cauliflower, she tells me, is the main ingredient in her favorite winter pasta dish. She made some the other day and offered us a plate. The range of ingredients used in this pasta is really quite incredible. I would never have thought to combine these ingredients in one meal, and I would never have put it in my mind that such a dish could exist.
I googled the ingredients she told us she used to make this pasta sauce, and sure enough, a number of Italian recipes came up using exactly the same ingredients that she herself used to make this exotic-looking dish: cauliflower, anchovies, saffron, pine nuts and raisins. And of course, like all good Italian cooks, she made the pasta herself.
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