|Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle|
|Publisher: Grub Street/Wakefield Press, Country: UK|
|ISBN: 9781902304175/9781862548503, Edition: reprint, Year: 2009|
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|This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.|
A buzz of joy courses through some readers when they discover certain books of special note. Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti had this effect on me. The author’s prose has that rather stiff, knowledgeable and cheekily irreverent prose familiar in parts from writers like Elizabeth David or MFK Fisher. From discussion of the probable diets of different classes of people in classical times to descriptions of contemporary foodsellers to notes about making your own tomato extract, Simeti captures the culinary atmosphere, context, attitudes and flavours of deepest, hottest Sicily.
If you’ve been to Sicily, you’ll remember it vividly as you read. If you haven’t, you might well start fantasising about a journey. The author doesn’t waste words on gushing travel-brochure descriptions, and nor are there photos to help your imagination. This is straight text, with commentary about Sicilian culinary traditions and history (starting with the classical tale of Odysseus), anecdotes about origins of dishes, some literary quotes, and numerous authentic recipes to keep you busy for many months.
First published in 1989 as Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food, Simeti’s work has now been republished by Grub Street and Wakefield Press as Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle. It’s a pity that the new title hides the historical focus of the book, as Simeti tells the story of the development of this unique cuisine, in a place where so many cultures were present at various times. There is much discussion of where dishes come from and how they might have changed, but the recipes are still those of contemporary, traditional Siciliy. The book concludes with an appendix of places to eat “today” (1989 — time moves slowly in Sicily, so some places still exist) and an excellent bibliography. Although elements of the book are the author’s speculations (based on some impressive research and curiosity), this provides stimulation rather than evoking scepticism (as some speculative works can do).
This isn’t a book for people who dislike works with a scholarly edge and a tendency to detailed explanation or imagery. Sicilian Food is a book for reading (at first) for pleasure and imagination, and for exploring the joy of the recipes and their back-stories. Few cuisines have benefited from such an insightful and enjoyable description in English. Simeti apologises for mixing Sicilian and Italian names for dishes (perhaps it would have been better to have both, where relevant), but the inconsistency is a small blemish on a work of such quality.
“Cuccìa can be prepared in a number of different versions. The most archaic calls for vino cotto, a thick, molasses-like syrup made from sieved grape must boiled down to a third of its original volume, which is the “condensed wine” of the Apician recipe, and which, together with honey, was a basic sweetening agent in classical cooking. Later versions require that the soaked and boiled wheat berries be mixed with ricotta cream or with a corn flour pudding known as biancomangiare, and liberally decorated with bits of chocolate, candied fruit, and abundant cinnamon. In either case the result is as sweet and gooey as only a true Sicilian could wish.
“… The right quantity is difficult to determine: most Sicilians feel that since cuccìa, like Christmas, comes only once a year, one should make a lot. I am inclined to think that the quantities that I have given will satisfy the appetites of ten to twelve non-Sicilians.”
“The best-known kind of cookshop is a the friggitoria, the fry-shop, which sets out before the hungry passer-by a wide variety of fried delights, each wrapped in a golden-brown crust, to eat on the spot or take home as a quick first course: slices of breaded aubergine, arancine, and trays of finger-shaped croquettes also known, with what the reader will recognise by now as typical Sicilian humour, as cazzilli — “little pricks.”"
“Sicilians are very fond of this combination of orange and fish, which they also employ in sarde a beccafico, a dish to be found on every list of traditional Palermo specialities. The beccafico is a songbird that grows fat and sweet on a diet of figs, as fat and as sweet as these filleted sardines rolled about a filling of breadcrumbs, currants and pine nuts, and baked with orange juice and bay leaves.”
|: 5. Highly recommended
: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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