Our bodies might still be stuck at home, at least partially, but if you’re like us, your mind is wandering. Remembering past vacations is fun, but mentally planning future journeys (and imagining what we would eat first!) is the sort of optimistic thinking we need.
Our travel buckets lists are long, but this week, as the summer creeps in and the beach beckons, our virtual vacation feet are firmly planted in the islands of southern Italy. Sicilly, to be precise. Join us?
Sicily (Sicilia), the largest region in Italy, is a triangle-shaped island located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Sicily is mountainous, with plains along the southern coastline. The largest volcano in Europe, Mount Etna, is located in northeast Sicily. About five million people live on the island, about 65 percent of them in small towns. Large cities in Sicily include the capital, Palermo, as well as Catania, Messina, and Siracusa.
Agriculture and fishing are very important occupations in Sicily. Fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, olives (and some excellent olive oils), artichokes, eggplants, beans, onions, lemons, oranges, and raisins are grown on the island. Prickly pears, grown on the cactus plants found on the slopes of Mount Etna (Ficodindia dell’Etna) are famous as a hand fruit, a pastry ingredient, and the basis for an aperitivo liqueur, Ficodi.
Seafood, including sardines, anchovies, tuna, swordfish, cuttlefish, and sea bass, is an important part of Sicilian cuisine. Meat dishes are prepared from rabbit, goat, turkey, lamb, and goose. Pasta and rice, as well as spices— pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove—and cheeses, especially Pecorino Siciliano, Ragusano, and ricotta, are important elements in Sicilian gastronomy.
Perhaps no region of Italy is as well known for its sweets and desserts as Sicily, where gelato, ice cream, and ices, as well as pastries and cookies, are produced and consumed in abundance. One of the most famous pastries in the world was born in Sicily: cannoli, a fried pastry dough filled with sweet ricotta cheese, sometimes with candied fruits or chocolate bits.
Food of Sicily
Beyond its clear ties to the varied regional cuisines of Italy, Sicilian cuisine reflects its unique location in the Mediterranean Sea. Influences from France, Spain, Greece, and particularly the Middle East are evident in traditional Sicilian dishes, seen in the use of spices, like cinnamon and cloves, as well as saffron, raisins, and other dried fruits.
Olive Oils: DOP extra-virgin oils whose name will appear on the bottle label: Monte Etna, Monti Iblei, Val di Mazara, Valdemone, Valle del Belice, and Valli Trapanesi. A table olive from the Trapani province, Oliva da Tavola Nocellara del Belice, has also received its own DOP designation.
Bottarga: Salt-cured roe of either tuna, swordfish, or mullet, bottarga is a delicacy that is often called the “caviar of the Mediterranean.” Roe is placed in brine for anywhere from eight to twenty hours, and then it is salted on all sides. The roe sacks are tied together, placed under a weight, and salted each day for 40 days, drying the roe. The roe pouches, which shrink in size, are then tied again and sun-dried for about a month. Bottarga is sold in jars, like caviar, and as solid blocks for slicing, and it is also sold as a salty/briny powdered condiment.
Wines of Sicily
Sicily is the largest producer of wine in Italy and may be one of the country’s most exciting wine regions. This excitement becomes real when you taste fine examples made from Sicily’s own grape varietals–Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese, Catarratto, Inzolia, and Grillo, among many others.
Sicily also produces other fine examples of wines made from popular international varietals, especially Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Some of the most interesting wines are produced from blends of traditional grapes or from blends of those traditional varietals with the “international” grape varieties.
The reds of Sicily are rustic: earthy, full-bodied, and excellent when paired with red meats and hearty pasta dishes. Nero d’Avola from Sicily has become popular in the American market, and it’s easy to see why. A big, earthy, inky, food-friendly red that reflects the sunshine of Sicily in its ripe flavors, Nero d’Avola is a perfect match for hearty dishes such as rich stews.
Sicily’s best whites are usually medium-bodied and display a distinctive seaside minerality that makes for an attractive match with fish stews and many other soulful seafood dishes. Lately, we’ve also seen quite a bit of Inzolia, a white grape from Sicily, in the American market. The best Inzolia wines have a fresh, fruit-driven flavor, with a subtle finish of hazelnuts. If we’ve piqued your interest, ask a knowledgeable wine merchant or sommelier to help you find a delicious Inzolia wine. We love Inzolia-based wines with a wide variety of seafood.
The region is famous for its fortified wine, Marsala, available in a wide range of styles (from bone dry to quite sweet). Sicily’s best Marsalas can be hard to find in the U.S. export market. Sicily’s export wines are moderately expensive to very expensive, but there are many values to be had in both good whites and reds.
Cheeses of Sicily
Sicily is famous for a cheese with ancient origins, Pecorino Siciliano (DOP), made from raw sheep’s milk. This pecorino is uncooked, and may be eaten as a fresh cheese (tuma), as a minimally aged salt-cured cheese, or as a cheese that has been aged for a minimum of four months, sometimes with black peppercorns imbedded in the cheese. After aging, Pecorino Siciliano is hard and solid, with a pungent aroma and sharp flavor; perfect for eating or for grating.
Another esteemed cheese from Sicily is Ragusano (DOP), made from cow’s milk. Ragusano is uncooked, and shaped into distinctive large blocks, known as scaluni. The cheese is aged for as little as one week, producing a soft cheese with a delicate flavor, or as long as four months, enhancing the intensity of flavor. Ragusano can be used as an eating cheese, a grating cheese, or served in thick slices that have been coated in bread crumbs and deep-fried.
Now that you’ve prepared for your trip, it’s time to head off to the kitchen—your gateway to every corner of the world. Try a few of these recipes for a small taste: