Sicily Afterall

There is a deep sadness that crosses my heart, and my wife’s as well, after traveling from Palermo through Sciacca and onwards via Ribera, Licata and onwards to Noto, Etna  and ending up at Taormina. The landscape is superb, the people wonderful, and mostly helpful and gentle. Like most touristic places it takes a little finesse to manage the difficult situations but overall we didn’t have any real problems.

I admit that I had better hopes for Sicily and was caught off guard by the poverty, the extreme unemployment and the fact that there is so much political corruption. Just writing this reminds us of the multiple unfinished buildings we passed, concrete structures almost everywhere that are unfinished, stadiums, bridges, tunnels and the relentless people who took funding and pissed it away. It is just a pity and makes me feel like crying. There is a sadness yet another side to Sicily that brightens our passage, and that’s the landscape scattered with rolling hills, products, seashores and flowers.

But the human error here tags the soil and if it wasn’t for a handful of entrepreneurs in Sicily this place would be a total wreck. I guess the problem here is more complex than meets the eye, it is still quite antiquated and many people here think mañana.

I even heard a story that sums a certain thinking here: there was a friend’s friend looking for a position with a company, and so an interview was arranged. At the interview he was asked what he could do, his skills, etc, and he said, I can do a little of everything, he was a kind of all-rounder. Then they asked, “so what work are you willing to do” and he replied, “I am not looking for work, I am looking for a position” – this sums it up.

The history here is just too rich to be distracted by the locals who are used to staying home (being lazy) and collecting unemployment. When you sit back and think about it, Sicily is just too important in the modern-day history to write it off.

The agriculture here is still a key role in Sicily’s survival and without exports and tourism the land would be barren. Think back to the Magna Graecia and industrialized agriculture in Antiquity. The latifundium (Roman history) when there were great landed estates specializing in agriculture destined for export.

In more than two thousand years this strategic island, has been captured by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and the Normans to name a few. The Muslims played their role in Sicliy and captured it after the fall of the roman Empire, and hence the food culture they brought from Persia and north Africa had a huge impact on Sicilian cuisine.

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But sadly these days, Sicilian cuisine (in general) is rather poor considering the rich history and lack of identity. I guess the same could be same for some other Europeans cuisines. Sicily today did no live up to our expectations and we cannot say it’s a seafood mecca.

I also heard a frightening story that eating sea bass of a certain size isn’t recommended due to the number of refugees and other dead bodies floating in the seas off Sicily. But this will change in the near future, and isn’t that much different from the troubles of fish-eating contamination and pollutants all over the globe.

But Sicily is fascinating after you scrape past the hardness of their history and the corruption that has devastated the people and their land. The idea of food evolution is painted all around you and you cannot help to think about the history of the Sicilian people. The idea that sugar cane and citrus fruit replaced honey and locally made vinegar were used in Sicilian recipes.

The richness of the exotic spices such as saffron and cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper were almost born here and absorbed into Sicilian cooking. The artichokes, pine nuts, pistachios and raisins all arrived with the arabs and are still cared for by the Sicilian farmers.

Pine nuts and raisins are still popular in Sicilian cuisine and are a real luxury. The well-known nightshade, melanzane originating here from “mela insana” (an unhealthy apple) was treated with suspicion for centuries, and disparaged as a “Jewish food” has evolved here.

Almost every Sicilian town has a their Mercatino but in the deep south they look like they are feeding the third world. I didn’t see Palermo’s Ballarò Mercato but I am told it is more sophisticated than what I’ve seen around the south-west.

The vegetables and other raw materials are simply superb. There is a sense of agricultural integrity in Sicily but many of their finest products are exported and the locals seem to be living off the government, starving and deprived of the passion that surrounds them. On our last day one local said, “we are very rich, but very poor at the same time” and I understood what he meant.