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Sicily - too much for a lucky dip

"dinners for the rich and food for the poor" Guiseppe Pitrè

It's time I dealt with my Claudia Roden The Food of Italy lucky dip. It's been sitting on my desk top for ages now, not because this is not an excellent book, but because the lucky dip page I turned to was her introduction to the food of Sicily - a subject far too vast for one modest post.

As you know I have pondered on this and thought of various approaches - the latest being the three Cs - Caponata, Cassata and Cannoli - but each of those deserves an individual post on their own. So today I have decided to dispose of this briefly with one recipe - the first one in the chapter - and with just a few brief observations based on her introduction.

I have never been to Sicily and so I have no idea whether the commentary that you find about this island in the middle of the Mediterranean is true or not. Not that I would have known anyway if I had been there, for I would have been a tourist, and tourists don't really see the 'real' country they are visiting. You might get a glimpse if you go away from the main tourist sites, but it is only ever a glimpse.

So - Sicily, and its food in particular - in Claudia Roden's words - repeated by just about every other food writer on the topic that I have come across:

"The island is so poor that much of the male population has to leave in search of a livelihood and yet not only is food important but the cooking is one of the most varied and exotic in Italy. The secret lies in the 2000 years of occupation. Being right in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sicily was always desirable when this sea was the centre of the world. She was colonised by Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Normans; governed from Spain, Austria and Constantinople, and occupied by the French, Germans and English (during the Napoleonic wars). She was not only conquered, but the seat of the conquering kings, which lends grandeur to anyone's cooking."

All of which means that Sicily uses ingredients such as dried fruits, almonds, and couscous that the rest of Italy does not. From Sicily come two of the greatest gifts food wise that the world has taken to its heart - pasta and ice cream. They both began here. Forget Marco Polo - it was the Arabs who brought pasta to Italy.

Add to this the feudal society which was prevalent until late in the nineteenth century, the influence of the Mafia and the Church which resulted in an emphasis on family, on making do with very little and with feasts and celebrations:

"Here, any event from a homecoming or birthday to saints' days and weddings is an occasion for a feast." Claudia Roden

From whence come those elaborate desserts such as cassata and cannoli. I love this photograph because it is so over the top. It is from the Time/Life book The Cooking of Italy and shows a Sicilian puppet from the saga Orlando Furioso and a cassata - an elaborate cake. I think way back some time in my adventurous past I made this recipe although my version would not have been so elaborately decorated. It might have had the chocolate but not the piping. I am hopeless at such things. And I also still remember that I thought cassata was ice cream not cake. Maybe there were various cassata ice creams around then..

I'm sure you all know everything that I have said about Sicilian food and Sicily itself already. It's the myth of what Sicily is, is it not? Is it a myth? Are the Sicilians really different? Well we have a lot of ex Sicilians here in Australia which was one of main places to which all of those poverty stricken Sicilian men emigrated. My Italian teacher's in-laws are of Sicilian origin. Their Italian is apparently full of dialect words, and an almost incomprehensible accent. The Sicilian language in its extreme form could almost exist as a separate language. So Australia has quite a connection with the place and many of us go there to holiday. Well before COVID anyway.

But that's the thing about islands isn't it? Their borders are clearly defined and not likely to fluctuate like the borders of just about every other nation in the world. The sea has a huge bearing on the way that life on that island develops, both in what they eat, and how the national identity itself develops. Even on such a huge island as Australia. Today Australia can be accessed within twenty four hours by air by almost anywhere in the world, and instantaneously via the internet, but the fact that it was so remote from the rest of the world and only accessible by sea was one of the factors that meant that it developed a fiercely independent spirit. And the same goes for any island anywhere in the world.

Sicily, is the same - and yet very different because of its centrality in the Mediterranean and its vulnerability to all those powers who wanted it for its strategic position. Pluses and minuses of course - particularly in terms of food. In Sicily it led to a vibrant mix of cuisines over centuries leading to something unique to Sicily. Australia is still in that process but getting there. Well progress of any kind has speeded up exponentially through history.

But I'm waffling. I will conclude with that first recipe - Carciofi alle mandorle (Artichoke hearts with almond sauce).

The line drawing at the top the page is from Claudia Roden's introduction and somebody - she, the publishers, the artist? - have chosen to represent Sicily's food with an artichoke. Apparently Sicily has many different kinds of artichokes and so they, like many other vegetables, feature in the island's cuisine. When I came to look for pictures of this dish however, I found that this particular dish is a rarity - even to the Italians. Which is interesting because Claudia Roden obviously has a limited number of recipes that she can present in her book and some of those must be taken up by the obvious - the three Cs and various other dishes that you would know of. And yet she has chosen this humble dish one that is possibly made in just one little village and/or one nonna, somewhere in remote Sicily. I'm guessing it was chosen because of the ingredients - artichokes, almonds, anchovies, vinegar, lemons, capers. A sweet and sour dish which is supposed to be the defining feature of Sicilian food - the savoury kind anyway. Not having been there I do not know if this is true.

I did find lots of dishes that combined artichokes and almonds - most of them pasta dishes, but the one shown here - Spicchi di carciofi alle mandorle - is different. No sauce - I think the almonds are scattered on top. I say 'I think' because the recipe is in Italian and my Italian is not quite up to it - without a dictionary anyway. Well I think you fry the artichokes, moisten with stock and cook for a bit before serving with scattered toasted almonds. There's some garlic and rosemary in there somewhere too. If you like artichokes it might be a pretty simple entrée.

Claudia Roden's dish however, is served cold and involves an almond sauce. I did find a few options - not hers. Google Books has digitised her book - another edition to mine - but frustratingly they have not digitised this page. Here are the other versions I found though - if you are interested that is, and I have to confess that I am not: the first is from Ricetti di Sicilia; the second is a Spanish version (they also were under Arab rule for centuries of course) from Williams Sonoma of all places and the last from A Mediterranean Gourmet. In fact as I recheck this version I see that it is indeed Claudia Roden's - so that's what you are aiming for. I knew someone would have had a go. The author - Derek Farwagi - ends his introduction with these words:

"The recipe calls for gently softening onions and garlic with jarred anchovies and blending in finely ground almonds, chicken stock and a teaspoon of vinegar. Now before you throw your hands in the air and declare a deep-seated aversion to anchovies, I assure you that once you cook them, their taste is completely altered and they add a delicious depth to this creamy, nutty sauce. I urge you to try it."

I have to say that this last version at least looks easier to eat. But not for me I think because I'm not a fan of artichokes. I don't like all the fuss and bother of preparing them, and it seems to me the resulting bland taste and soapy texture is just not worth that fuss.

So lucky dip over. Sort of. I might tackle those other more rightfully well-known Sicilian specialties some time, but not tomorrow anyway.


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