Pasta: Sicily’s gift to the world

Pasta: Sicily’s gift to the world

Manuela Darling-Gansser
8 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Simon Griffiths

I am going to be a little controversial here, and will no doubt reveal my own personal bias. But from what I have read and heard, I am convinced that pasta as we know it today originated in Sicily. It is Sicily’s gift to the world.

When I say ‘pasta’, I mean the pasta you find in packets at your local delicatessen or supermarket. This is what Italians call ‘pasta asciutta’ (dried pasta), to distinguish it from fresh pasta that is made with eggs and must be eaten before it dries. You can find versions of fresh pasta in many different food cultures, usually in the form of doughs that are cooked to make dumplings, flat breads or gnocchi-style dishes. They have existed in the Mediterranean world since time immemorial.

The great virtue of pasta asciutta is that once it has been dried, it can be kept for a long time. Some people, speculating on its origins, say it was created as a food for ships at sea or by nomads, but the evidence seems to say otherwise.

Firstly, to make pasta asciutta you need a special variety of wheat that is quite difficult to mill. This is a particularly hard wheat called ‘grano duro’ in Italian (we call it durum wheat). Grano duro is high in protein and gluten and has a low moisture content. The protein helps it to dry properly and the gluten gives it the slightly chewy texture that true pasta asciutta should have. The popular shapes that pasta asciutta took, such as thin noodles (spaghetti), thicker noodles with holes through the middle (macaroni or bucatini) or thin flat sheets (lasagna or canelloni), came about so that the pasta would dry completely. The gnocchi-type balls of pasta frescha would not have dried in the middle so that shape could not be used.

Sicily has been the main source of durum wheat in the Mediterranean world since Roman times. The heat of Sicilian summers and the fertility of the soils gave the island a product no-one else could match.

The second piece of evidence supporting Sicilian pasta is to do with the milling process. Durum wheat is not easy to process and needs hard, heavy millstones. This is difficult on a small scale and ideally is done in a larger, centralised mill with a ready source of power. In an Arab text dating from 1150 there is a reference to just such a mill at Trabia, outside Palermo, which was powered by streams from the mountains behind. The same text mentions ‘many shiploads’ of dried pasta sent to other places. You can read the full story in John Dickie’s fascinating book, Delizia!: The Epic History of Italians and Their Food.

There is no evidence of pasta asciutta being produced anywhere else in the Mediterranean, so it seems most likely that it originated in Sicily and gradually spread to the Italian mainland where it evolved and acquired its current position as a signature dish of la cucina Italiana. On the mainland pasta was called many things, but it was often referred to as ‘macaroni Siciliani’ (Sicilian macaroni), and Sicilians themselves were called, a bit disparagingly, ‘macaroni eaters’. Diners in those times clearly thought pasta came from Sicily.

One myth can be laid to rest: pasta did not come from China with Marco Polo. It was established in parts of Italy well before he returned from his travels. Also, Chinese noodles are not made from hard wheat, but from a soft variety; they are quite a different product. Some historians also believe that what Marco Polo was talking about was not wheat-based noodles at all, but sago. Of course for Italians, this is not just a fine point of history, it is a point of honour.

One of the best places to see the famous wheat fields of Sicily is the area inland from Marsala and the south coast of the island. Between the mountainous interior and the coast there are long, spreading river valleys where wheat can be grown on the flats or on gently sloping hills. In springtime, the crop starts turning gold and wildflowers grow along the walls and roads, their disorder in rich contrast to the ordered uniformity of the wheat.

As you drive through the countryside you will occasionally see flocks of local sheep with a shepherd. Sicilian sheep are raised mainly for their milk as their wool is rough and meat is a luxury that is eaten only at major celebrations like Easter. Curiously, spaghetti with meatballs is often regarded as a typically Sicilian dish but it is not. It actually originated with Sicilian immigrants to New York as a way of showing how rich they were – they could eat meat all the time.

When you see sheep and wheat together, you are seeing two of the raw materials for a typical pasta dish: wheat for the pasta itself and sheep for pecorino, the salty sheep’s milk cheese that you grate over it. It must be said that these days parmesan cheese is also widely used in Sicilian cooking, as well as pecorino. But parmesan is a product from the valley of the River Po in the north of Italy, not local to Sicily at all. It is an exceptional cheese, though, and it must have been its taste that overcame the skepticism of locals about a ‘mainland’ product.

Every Sicilian grows (or seems to know someone who grows) tomatoes, the third element in the mix. Typically tomatoes used to make a pasta sauce are cooked down to a concentrated spiced paste. In Sicilian markets you will see slabs of a thick, almost dry tomato paste called strattu, which is used for the classic pasta al pomodoro sauce.

One rather surprising and very distinctive thing about pasta dishes in Sicily is that they are often served with breadcrumbs. In fact quite a number of other dishes also use breadcrumbs, either as a crumb coating or in a stuffing. The reason is simple but sad. For a long time the price of pasta was a lot higher than the price of bread – it was considered something of a luxury dish. If you were a poor person (and poverty was widespread on the island until the 1960s) you would use your leftover bread to make the pasta go further. When bread was used in stuffings, it was to make the dish more filling. Hunger was a key element in the Sicilian diet. But in more prosperous times, Sicilians have acquired the taste for breadcrumbs and bread stuffings and use them not because they are hungry but because they like them. Their use of breadcrumbs in this way is one of the things that makes Sicilian cooking different from much of the rest of Italy.

As an aside, Sicilian bread itself can be wonderful. A loaf made from grano duro has an excellent crust and looks quite yellow inside, almost like corn bread. It has real taste and eaten just with oil, salt and tomatoes (as we did at the Titone Olive Grove) or with a slice of prosciutto, it adds distinction to a simple meal.

Where do you begin in choosing pasta recipes to include in this section? It is an almost impossible task as there is such a marvellous range of dishes and everyone seems to have their own favourites and specialties.

One choice is obvious: pasta alle sarde (pasta with sardines). This is ‘tipico’, which in Italy is a great compliment. It means that it is the best food to eat in a particular place and the best place to eat that food. If you asked Sicilians to nominate the island’s signature pasta dish, this would probably be it. What makes pasta alle sarde so special is the unusual sauce. Don’t be put off by the fairly long list of ingredients – there are lots of different spices, such as cumin, cinnamon, and tumeric, and these give it an exotic and distinctively Moorish flavour. Pine nuts, raisins, breadcrumbs and mint are also very typical and the wild fennel adds a unique local element. In many markets in Sicily you can buy special pre-mixed pasta alle sarde spices, but at home you will probably have to make it yourself. The recipe here is based on the mix sold in Antonio Drago’s spice shop in Ortigia and it is the best I have tried.

I have also included a recipe for pasta alla bottarga (pasta with sun-dried mullet roe). You can buy bottarga made from tuna roe, but I much prefer that made from mullet. It tastes better and has a wonderful bright-orange colour.

Another unusual dish is linguine con uova di ricci (linguine with sea-urchin roe). This is the dish we enjoyed so much at Piccolo Napoli in Palermo and it is a classic along the Sicilian coast.

Because our trip took place during the spring, I have chosen pasta primavera, which makes use of a number of the new season’s fresh vegetables. Pasta con pesto alla Trapanese uses a pesto that is quite different from the classic pesto from Genova. It includes tomato, almonds and breadcrumbs and is delicious.

There are two more unusual pesto sauces to tempt you that are typically Sicilian: pesto al pistachio (pistachio pesto) and pesto ai capperi e mandorle (caper and almond pesto).

Finally, there is pasta al Borgo San Nicolao, which we enjoyed for dinner at the Borgo San Nicolao Agriturismo near Mount Etna. It is a restrained, rather refined sauce that I thought was exceptional.

Recipes in this Chapter

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