SICILY AND SARDINIA
These two islands represent an unspoiled tradition of what is believed to be the earliest Italian cuisine. The cuisine stems from many influences, especially the early Greeks who conquered Sicily and the early Phoenicians (Lebanese) who conquered Sardinia. It is a tradition dating back more than 2,000 years; this is the tradition of fine cuisine that touched the Romans and all of the Roman world. But there is also a lengthy tradition of poverty, of feuding peasants and landlords, of insularism and a proclivity for traditional lifestyles.
Most notably, there is a difference in the personalities of the Sicilians and the Sardinians, the former known for their explosive exuberance, the latter similar to the Spaniards – quieter and more reserved.
It is believed that the Saracens in the 800s C.E. introduced to Sicily a taste for sophisticated sweets such as the cassata, cannoli, and the crisp candied almonds thrown at the wedding couple for a “fruitful and sweet life.” So famed are Sicily’s sweets that monasteries still compete with treasured recipes of candies, confections, and ice creams.
Their varieties of white and crusty bread and rolls include an unleavened bread that is enjoyed by dipping in olive oil and eating with saltfish. San vito pizza, pizza dough topped with sardines and Caciocavallo cheese, or scacciata, a type of Sicilian bread pie where two rounds of dough are sandwiched with a filling of ham, anchovies, tomatoes, and seasonings, then baked and served in wedges.
Fish of all kinds are important in the Sicilian diet: salt fish, freshwater fish, seafood of all kinds, and especially tuna and sardines, each of which may appear in pasta dishes such as pasta con sarde, a layered pie of macaroni with a sardine sauce that includes fennel, anchovies, pine nuts, and white raisins.
The list of Sicilian staples includes pasta and rice, fish of all types, meats in the form of meatballs and sausages, and a good variety of cheeses. Vegetables are important too: tomatoes, capers, olives, eggplant (rnelanzane), zucchini, cauliflower, artichokes, and onions. Fennel, oregano, mint, and sesame seeds highlight fresh natural flavors. Citrus fruits, cactus fruits, and prickly pears, melons and fresh or dried figs are special snacks or desserts in season. Grapes are enjoyed as a fresh fruit and also in the production of fine wines including Marsala, the richly sweet dessert wine used in making zabaglione; many fine white wines including Corvo and Etna, as well as muscatel wines. Walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts are used in the many rich confections, cakes, and ice cream desserts. The abundance of pasta and breads, fruits and vegetables as well as cheese and wine make it no surprise that the typical country lunch is usually one of sausages, bread, and cheese refreshed with local wine – a fine Sicilian meal.
Sardinian meals are heartier and more frequently use meats than do Sicilian meals. Pit or spit-roasted pig, lamb or kid braised over the smoking embers of natural woods add a special smokiness to the Sardinian furria furria. Wild sheep, bears, many birds, wild boar, and hare are usually prepared by boiling them first (to tenderize) with their innards, then flavored by placing them in bags lined with myrtle leaves. Bread is more of a staple here than pasta and two types include pan frattau and carasau, thinly crisp and usually baked unleavened. Pecorino is Sardinia’s best-known cheese. Sardinia’s wines are unusual: Vernaccia, a rich amber wine redolent of orange blossoms and traditionally served with fish, and especially Malvasia, more popularly known as Malmsey and said to have come to Sardinia from Greece.