Helen Brown Describes her love for Sicily, and in particular Sicilian food, during a year spent on the island.
As part of my degree, I was lucky enough to spend a year in Sicily, where I learned far more than what the local professori had to offer. I discovered a land of intrigue, contradictions and people with unabashed exuberance for life.
My journey, from my first tentative steps out of Catania airport to fluent Italian speaking waitress, working in the mad rush at the height of the summer season, was not without its mishaps, but resulted in a full-blown passionate love affair with this extraordinary island – a love affair that keeps enticing me back year after year.
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Sicily is the perfect destination for lovers of good food, fine wine, rich culture and history. With unspoilt countryside and small winding roads, it’s not hard to imagine yourself in the shoes of the Spanish when they first landed here. Sicily is above all a land for those who want to explore.
Everything you've ever heard about Sicilian food is true
I’ll admit: it was the food that first won me over. As a student whose prime source of nutrition was chicken nugget sandwiches, you’d be forgiven for being skeptical of my rapture over Sicilian food. Sicily however, was where I first discovered my dormant gourmand tendencies. After all when you live down the street from the second largest fish market in Europe (the pescheria in Catania) it’s pretty hard to resist the lure of the fresh catch day after day.
Everything you’ve ever heard about Sicilian food is true. From the humble arancino – king of street food – to the famous pasta con le sarde, everything is simple, fresh and above all else, incredible. Trust me, until you’ve tried Cannoli you haven’t lived. What stands out however is the passion and dedication all Sicilians put into each dish they create. From the initial ingredients to the final presentation, every stage is meticulously considered.
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If you ever get the chance to accompany a Sicilian on their weekly food shop, go; it is something of a revelation. Forget the British approach of a dreary Saturday morning dash around your local packed Sainsburys – in and out as quickly as possible. A Sicilian can happily spend an entire morning buying the ingredients for just one dish. My uncle, who is from a small south-eastern Sicilian town called Pachino, but has lived in England for 10 years, is still incredulous that the English buy all their food from one place. Food shopping for him has always involved one shop for bread, one shop for olive oil, one shop for vegetables and an entirely separate excursion to a local vineyard for your wine.
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Every Sicilian has an opinion on food and all of them will gladly share their opinion and even favourite recipes if you show the slightest interest. My most memorable experience of this was when I was shopping with my mother in my local market. I happened to remark to the man behind the meat counter that ‘involtini’ were one of my favourite Sicilian delicacies and was treated to a 10 minute explanation of the best way to cook them and the perfect accompanying sides. It’s this willingness to share their food and culture with you that make the Sicilian people some of my favourite in the world.
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Favourite Sicilian dishes
I could go on and on and on about Sicilian food but instead I’ll leave it here with a few recommendations of my favourite Sicilian dishes:
- Much has been made of Arancini already but I seriously can’t recommend them enough. This is fast food on a whole other level. Delicious, filing and steeped in tradition.
- Involtini di melanzane are thinly sliced rolls of aubergine, stuffed with ricotta cheese, which are then rolled in breadcrumbs, fried and simmered in a tomato sauce. Heaven. The swordfish version (involtini di pesce spada) is also delicious.
- Parmigiana is proof that aubergines, despite the opinion of my younger self, make any dish better. Layered slices of aubergine, tomato sauce and cheese are baked in the oven and then served hot or cold, normally as an appetizer.
- Last but by no means least is Insalata di polpo or octopus salad. I’m including this because it epitomises the simplistic approach Sicilians take towards cooking. Boiled octopus with lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. Yum.
About the author: Thank you to Helen Brown, a Sicily enthusiast and friend of Sicilian Places, for this great post. She spent a year living in Sicily as part of her degree and has returned since many times. She has lots of happy memories she’d like to share here on our blog.
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