Poisoned cannoli, salt cod and the virgin's breasts

Fertility is perhaps the crucial factor in the history of Sicily.

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Sicily has long been a victim of its perfect geography. It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, barely 100 miles from the Tunisian coast and within swimming distance of mainland Europe. The desperate influx from Africa is only the latest in a long line of arrivals, as the British Museum’s “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” makes clear. Yet, according to the exhibition’s curator, Dirk Booms, it has always been more than a mere stepping stone to somewhere else. “Everyone wanted it because it was so rich,” he says.

Sicily’s fertility is perhaps the crucial factor in the island’s history and its importance can be seen in the treasures on display: the gold signet ring with the image of a suckling calf and the votive figures showing off their pomegranates, the date palms in the mosaics and the painting of the royal palace at Palermo surrounded by orange groves.

All of Sicily’s immigrants came with baggage – their tastes in architecture and art, their language and their crops. As Matthew Fort, the award-winning author of the Sicilian travelogue Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, observes: “If ever there was a country whose history is written in its food, it is Sicily.”

The Greeks brought honey, vines and olives; the Romans wheat, grains and pulses; the Arabs many of the things now considered quintessentially Sicilian, including the island’s magnificent citrus fruits, celebrated pistachios and love of spices, ices and all things fried. The Normans were responsible for the curious popularity of salt cod in a place where fresh fish are abundant; the Spanish introduced foods from the New World, including tomatoes and chocolate. Even the British left their mark in the form of Marsala, Italy’s best-known fortified wine.

As the chef Giorgio Locatelli, a northerner smitten with the south, writes in Made in Sicily, people can bring what they like but it is the land that “ultimately decides what grows”: this is “a very special, particular land”, which has “stayed constant . . . throughout all the cultural changes, hardship, bloodshed and extortion”.

A land with dark volcanic soil, which once exported snow from Mount Etna, and where temperatures can soar to nearly 50°C in summer, Sicily is an island of extremes, of bright sunshine and black shadows. In the southern heat, as the food writer Clarissa Hyman puts it, “flavours seem more powerful . . . hotter, spicier, sweeter”. The sugary pastries once churned out by bitterly competitive convents rejoice in names such as “the virgin’s breasts” and you can still feast on the swordfish of Messina that was lauded by the poet Archestratus of Gela, two and a half millennia ago.

But, as the Rome-based food writer Rachel Roddy, who is working on a collection of Sicilian recipes, admits, below the surface it is not an easy place. It is “a rich land, but a difficult land”, an old man called Peppe tells her on the slow bus from Palermo to Gela. An island of seductive, infuriating contradictions, it was the first region in Italy to grow rice and make pasta, yet now hosts a festival of couscous. It has such a sweet tooth that it seems entirely reasonable that a Mafia boss could be bumped off by poisoned cannoli in Palermo in The Godfather Part III, yet its lava-rich soil yields fat, aromatic lemons and deliciously tart oranges with flesh the colour of spilled blood.

History will continue to sweep over the island like a wave. Yet, in the words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of the great Sicilian novel The Leopard (which opens at the time of Italy’s unification): “Sicily is Sicily – 1860, earlier, for ever.”

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred