Mediterranean Diet

Attention: Slow Fish Ahead – Sicily’s Rich Culinary Heritage

Al Leonard|December 31, 2010|Blog Post

More information on the island’s cuisine is preserved in The Life of Luxury written around 350 B.C. by another Sicilian, Archestratus of Syracuse, who has often been called the “Father of Gastronomy.” Written not in prose, but in poetry, this was less of a how-to cooking manual, and more of an epicurean travelogue in which Archestratus, an inveterate traveler, described his journeys as far as the Black Sea in order to satisfy his hunger for good food. His work described the what, when, and where to procure a wide range of foodstuffs and how to prepare and enjoy them simply, in the local manner.

As for culinary style, Archestratus seems to have rebelled against the more complicated, sauce-based cuisine of his predecessors, much as the mid-20th century nouvelle cuisine replaced the more flamboyant cuisine classique that was based on the writings of Aguste Escoffier. When describing his preferred method of baking a bonito fish, Archestratus instructed his readers to sprinkle the fish with a little oregano and wrap it in fig leaves. He then sternly adds the caveat, “no cheese, no nonsense . . . just wrap it up!”

Due to Sicily’s location, adjacent to the “toe” of modern Italy and often in sight of the North African coast, the island has been a cultural crossroads since time immemorial, witnessing a succession of conquerors and their armies who have left behind a trail of scarred and sun-bleached ruins that stand in silent testimony to the transitory nature of human success. As each group moved off the stage and into the history books they left behind small morsels of their own culinary heritage, adding them slowly to the evolving entity that would become Sicilian cuisine.

After the Greeks left, the Romans arrived bringing with them their self-rising breads. Saracen Arabs followed introducing citrus fruits, couscous, and sugarcane to the local diet. Norman chefs brought a taste of northern Europe to fish preparation, while the Spanish introduced New World luxuries such as tomatoes, potatoes, and maize. Periodically, the culinary pendulum in the kitchens of Sicily would swing back and forth, marking the shift between the simple and the complex. The richness of today’s Sicilian menu was slowly coming into its own.

In 1989, an organization called Slow Food was founded by Carlo Petrini in order to counteract the encroachment of “fast food” and what was viewed as the associated fast life that was threatening traditional Italian values and customs. Slow Fish, a sub-set of Slow Food, focuses on responsibly procured and sustainable seafood that is treated to minimal preparation emphasizing simple condiments made from local ingredients. These are foods that are as much a part of the local terroir as the wines that are served with them. In a way, the pendulum has swung back. The goals of Slow Fish are very close to the philosophy of Archestratus who wrote his famous cookbook over 2,500 years ago. Once again it seems that the more things seem to change—the more they stay the same.

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