[ September 2, 2004 ]
Sicily: through the eyes of humanity
Symbolizing Sicily, it means “island with three points.” It is, in fact, the name that the Greeks gave to Sicily at the time of the Sicanians and the Siculians (the Island’s first identified inhabitants). It was inspired by the triskele—a symbol which appeared on the coins of Ancient Syracuse and which shows the head of Gorgon surrounded by three legs.

A land nourished by the sun, blessed with an abundance of colours, flavours and beauty; heir to a history both tremendously rich and varied; a crossroads endlessly tread upon by peoples of various origins who carried with them the most prestigious cultures; Sicily, a jewel reaching out from the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, has always been highly coveted! And that isn’t about to change!

Of course, today, it is the tourists who seek out the island! Once very closed in and reluctant to let others explore its treasures, Sicily is now slowly opening the door and allowing tourists to explore all that it has to offer… and are we ever grateful!

Sicily is the biggest island on the Mediterranean and also the biggest of Italy’s twenty regions. A volcanic island whose mountainous terrain is dominated by Mount Etna— the largest active volcano in Europe (3,350 m)—its people are a true reflection of their surroundings: magnificent, filled with tranquil strength, but always unpredictable!

Made a part of Italy in 1860, Sicily enjoys relative autonomy. This certainly provides a clue as to how strong and widespread the sense of independence is among the five million inhabitants of Sicily’s nine provinces: Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo (the biggest province and Sicily’s capital), Ragusa (the smallest), Siracusa and Trapani!

On every side, the sea is dotted with small islands, each one as beautiful as the next. To the north, the Aeolian islands, also called Lipari and Ustica; to the west, the Egadi Islands; to the southwest, the island of Pantelleria; and to the south, the Pelagie Islands—each one of them an absolute gem!

It is thought that there was once—many, many years ago—a land bridge connecting Sicily to Africa located between the tip of the Italian boot (Calabria) and Tunisia’s Cap Bon Peninsula!

This most strategic of geographic situations doubtless served to attract the great civilizations who settled there and forever influenced the area’s customs, food and artistic traditions.

Strength and intensity can be seen and felt throughout the island—the colours are magnificently vibrant, the beauty of the surroundings is striking, and the people are strong-willed! Of course, when one considers that the Greeks, Phoenicians of Carthage, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spaniards and French were all inhabitants of this land, how could it be otherwise!

An island that boasts a blend of cultures, Sicily has inherited an extraordinarily unique artistic and culinary heritage from its different occupants. So many things to discover, at a slow gentle pace that is truly Sicilian! Colours of a sky so awe-inspiring that they are almost surreal, a gentle breeze infused with delicate oriental-like scents such as jasmine and orange blossom as well as new, inviting aromas that beg to be discovered.

Taking a walk through Sicily is like taking a voyage through time: with every step, a different period awaits! Architecturally, the island abounds with treasures—the Hellenic relics of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, the temples of Selinunte and Segesta, and, of course, the mythical Siracusa (Syracuse) bordering the Palatine Chapel of Palermo and the Cathedral of Cefalù, prime examples of the Arab-Norman hybrid style—a style that is often combined with Byzantine elements and which was born in the Middle Ages as a result of the fusion between Arab and Norman cultures. And, despite the Renaissance’s lack of influence on the island, one can nonetheless admire beautiful examples of Baroque monuments.

With a practically palpable taste of romance in the Sicilian air, it is certainly easy to lose oneself in reverie. You may even find yourself humming a tune from the renowned opera La Norma, created by the equally popular composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), a native of Catania whose talent markedly enriched the lyrical art.

You might also find the time to appreciate a few lines written by Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936, Six Characters in Search of an Author), Nobel prize winner in 1934, or those of Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) whose life’s work was to paint a portrait of his native Sicily’s moral standards! Of course, the list is not complete without Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) and his famous work, The Leopard, which evokes the decline of the feudal order on the island during Italy’s unification period. This novel was also brought to the big screen by Luchino Visconti in 1963.

Now, onto the culinary side of things! But, where to begin? There is so much to say about Sicilian cooking! One thing is certain, it is a true mosaic of flavours, textures and aromas, each dish bringing out the distinctive characteristics of the different cultures that have contributed to its creation. Here are a few examples… The use of green and black olives, salted ricotta, lamb cooked in a wood stove, certain types of fish, honey and, of course, wine—which were all introduced by the first settlers on the island—remind us of how significantly the Greek civilization has influenced Sicily.

Several recipes have survived since Roman times, when Sicily was regarded as the Italy’s breadbasket—a wonderful fava bean soup (called maccu from the Latin maccare which means “to mash”), stuffed cuttlefish, oil-and-vinegar oven-cooked onions, sausage and the blood pudding that the Romans simply adored!

For their part, the Byzantines left spices that are still used to this day, and the Arabs gave Sicily an innovative push in every discipline, including the culinary arts.

Countless Sicilian pastries and desserts—such as marzipan or pappa reale—were created primarily using the refined sugar that was introduced with sugar cane crops. Cassata, a delectable and renowned dessert, is made simply by mixing ricotta with orange or lemon candied peel (fruit grown by the Arabs)! The Arabs also used blackberries, anise, sesame and aromatics such as cinnamon and saffron, which they imported.

Legend has it that sorbet was born in Italy, when fruit or floral essences were combined with snow from Mt. Etna. Today, one can still enjoy the same jasmin-flavoured treat in the region of Trapani. Another specialty first created using the snow of Mt. Etna is granita, a wonderful concoction of stacked ice and syrup. Perhaps the most popular is the coffee-flavoured granita.

Cuscusù (couscous)—a specialty from the Trapani area—differs from its North-African cousin by the use of fish instead of meat, but remains the most significant culinary heritage handed down from the Arabians to the Sicilians. And, last but not least, the Normans left their culinary mark with their smoked salted herring and baccalà (smoked salted cod), still regularly enjoyed in Sicily. Quite a mosaic of flavours, wouldn’t you say?

Sicily’s incredible history, marking the evolution of our civilizations, comes boldly to life as one makes their way through this wondrous Italian island. And, one cannot help but realize—with the deepest sense of emotion and pride—the most amazing feats humanity is capable of achieving.

On a final note, here are a few words from Renzino Barbera, contemporary author and poet, and a deep admirer of his home island: “On the 6th day, God accomplished His work. And pleased with all the beauty He had created, He took the Earth in His hands and kissed it. There, where He put His lips, that’s Sicily.”

Bon voyage!

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