30.9.10

Wild Foods of Sicily - Sicilian Wild Food

Back from my holidays from the beautiful island of Sicily and well, what a place and what a Wild Food heaven. If you want to visit a country that truly uses Wild Food in all of its forms (and has never forgotten) visit Sicily!

Sicily has a rich and complex history of oppression and invasion. With every conquering army came new cultures, foods and cooking techniques. With the Greeks and Romans came the cultivation of the grapes, with the Arabs Citrus fruits. In more recent times money and social class also had a lot of influence on Sicilian dishes whilst the rich gorged on delicate pastries and complicated dishes dreamed up by imported or French trained chefs the poor still led a peasant and usually vegetarian diet based on what they could afford or forage.

In the North East of the country where I was staying the landscape is dominated by Mount Etna, a still very active volcano. Although most would think that a volcano is a destructive force it is a huge positive force of creation. The rich soils that lay on its slopes are incredibly fertile and so rich that they directly affect the flavour of everything that is grown upon them. A lady who lived on the farm we stayed at on the first part of our trip simply described this flavour as ‘the taste’ and she was so right. All foods grown on or near the slopes of Etna, wild or cultivated are extraordinarily rich in flavour and just downright delicious!

The Wild Food plants of Sicily are hugely varied and there are plants that thrive on the slopes of Mount Etna, in the heart of the country as well as on the coast that also exist here in the UK. There are many many great Wild foods that are readily used by Sicilians. Even when relaxing by the pool I saw an older man teaching his 30 something daughter to pick the best Wild Greens on the hills nearby, a scene that I presume has played out many times there before. I’ll take you through some of Wild Foods that I found although I do not pretend to have grasped anywhere near a full understanding.

Wild Fennel

What an important Wild Food this is in Sicily. Wild Fennel is regularly used in many dishes (most traditional fish Sicilian dishes involving Sardines and Anchovy) and plays a major part in flavouring the Sicilian national dish ‘Pasta con Sarde’ or in English ‘Pasta with Sardines’. This wonderful aniseed flavoured vegetable grows everywhere and can be harvested from spring through to autumn. The plants stem, leaves and seeds are all edible and can be eaten cooked and raw or as in this cases a fantastic flavouring.

Wild Oregano

On the slopes of Mount Etna we had booked a few days in a converted farmhouse, literally as soon as the taxi dropped us off I started to see massive volumes of Wild Oregano growing everywhere. This fantastic meaty herb so well known in Italian and Sicilian cooking was growing profusely and simply everywhere. This herb like its close relative Wild Marjoram and unlike many other herbs benefits from being dried. This is the way that it is sold in markets and shops all over Sicily and the way in which I prefer to use it.

Wild Asparagus

What a delight, to be able to amble through the hills and collect s
uch a kingly gift as a bunch of Wild Asparagus. Asparagus has been used from early times as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavour and diuretic properties. There is a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius’s third century AD De re coquinaria, Book III. I found it not on the hillsides but in the markets in beautiful and convenient bunches.. The fantasy that overtook me when I saw it for the first time was individual spears doused in Olive Oil and seasoning with a twist of Lemon juice and thrown on a BBQ over hot coals! Smokey, green meatiness with a citrus edge, delicious!

Prickly Pears

Prickly pears are the fruit of the cactus and are available in autumn. They proudly display themselves to the sun to ripen along the edge of the oval cactus leaves to ripen from green spiky fruits to yellow, orange and red fruits. The fruits are spiked and for this reason difficult to collect - I was recommended to forage with chain mail gloves and a knife in order to collect prickly pears, you assume heavy artillery such as this is required until you see the street food salesmen preparing them for passers by with their bare hands! However, to the untrained or un-hardened hands I think this is an excellent recommendation! The flesh tastes remarkably like Melon, and as I dodged the many pips and wiped the sweet juice from my chin I thought this would indeed be a perfect accompaniment to salty slices of Parma Ham. It was the first time I had tasted this wonderful wild food and still my mind swims with the possibilities that are to be had with it. My latest idea is a sorbet.. Surely the Sicilians have thought of that!?

Wild Grapes and Vines

Perhaps the most ancient reference to Sicily’s thriving wild vines is in Homer’s Odyssey, as it talks about vines growing wild everywhere on the “land of the Cyclops.” It was the Greeks in the 7th century B.C. that gave life to Sicily's fertile viticulture tradition. The Arabs are credited with planting the Zibibbo vine, a wine with a liqueur quality that makes it the perfect accompaniment to Sicilian cannoli or other desserts but also for ripping up the many by then well established ancient greek vineyards and replacing them with citrus trees! Some of these Wild Vines relatives are those that make up the unique and stunning wine that is made today.

Capers

I was in Sicily in September so too late to see this enormously famous Wild Food, made famous by the Italians. The Caper is the pickled immature flower head of the plant that’s Latin name is ‘Capparis Spinosa’. Italy and most importantly Sicily produces the best Capers (we can make a poorer version but still good from Pickled Dandelion heads). Although the French try, the Italians are the kings with Capers!

Capers come in many grades and this was what astounded me in Sicily. The sheer volume and types and grades available are mind boggling. When you get used to the volumes and types of Capers and then find out you can buy the mature fruits pickled as well, you will probably give up and just accept you won’t ever be able to tell the difference. The Caper plant an easily recognisable bush with succulent leaves that grow on walls and rocks along the seaside.

Dorade

Now here was a surprise for me.. Although I have been told that this fish is far wider traveller than just European waters I had never tasted it before. This fish similar in look to a UK Sea Bream is simply lovely. I swam with them in the bay next to the Isola Bella (beautiful island) and when climbed the steps to Taormina town.. I ate them at a fantastic restaurant called Nino’s (which I highly recommend) with nothing but a fantastic local Olive Oil poured over the perfectly filleted fish. What a great night and most importantly what a great dish! If you go to Nino’s though easy on the Grappa, they are generous!

Sweet Chestnuts

One of the most ancient and largest chestnut trees can be found in Sicily, not far from the farmhouse in which we stayed on the slopes of Etna. The Chestnut tree is 3000 years old and is known to local Sicilians as Castagno dei Cento Cavalli, or Chestnut Tree of the 100 Horses. It is believed that Giovanna the first of Argon and her attendants got caught in a rainstorm while hunting on Etnas’s slopes. When the rainstorm – and we got caught in a huge Autumnal thunder storm so can vouch for the power of them – started, they sought refuge under this amazing tree (the tree is 60 metres around). The Sweet Chestnut nuts on the slopes of Etna appeared to be huge, again probably due to the immensely fertile soils and the trees all strong and tall. Although I was too early to taste any of the dishes created by Sicilians with this huge sweet nut I am sure that the previous Spanish invaders made sure that Chocolate would have been paired somewhere along the way!

Rabbit

Sicily's aristocratic hunters used to roast rabbit but it isn't as popular as it once was. But small scale hunting appeared to be OK! The slopes of Etna for short times seemed to sometimes crackle with shotgun fire as Rabbit were being hunting and collected. Although this could be easily mistaken for fireworks that are always used by towns and villages to celebrate their favourite saint, the celebration that I heard was definitely one of a culinary influence. Although I never got to taste Rabbit on the menu I was told that they do make an excellent Ragu from it.

Wild Mushrooms

Sicilian cuisine contains the use of many Wild Mushrooms, whether this is a direct influence of the very close by Italy or if the ancient invaders brought this love there is many Wild mushrooms available in the island. Although the obvious prince of all mushrooms is the most common – The Porcini!! There is also other very common mushrooms including the king trumpet mushroom or French horn mushroom which is also native to many other Mediterranean regions as well as the king of all mushrooms the Caesar Mushroom.

Love Mushroom hunting? Check our shop for mushroom hunters!

Without trying to sound like a tour company or someone who has a direct relations with the tourist board of Sicily I would highly recommend any Wild food enthusiast to arm themselves with a little knowledge about the cuisine and indeed the Wild Food and then head for this amazing place. The scenery is jaw droopingly beautiful, the waters crystal clear, the people warm and welcoming and most importantly the food is simply amazing. I say simply with a dual reference, the food is simple but that is because it doesn’t need to be complicated – the ingredients speak for themselves! What isn’t wild is probably Organic as again due to the fertile soils of Etna they are the largest supplier or Organic produce to Italy, this sparsely populated island supplying over 30% of all organic produce to Italy!

One of the best dishes that I ate in Sicily was a Courgette and Penny Bun or Zucchini and Porcini Tagliatelli, but another foraged treat which again is nationally famous is meatballs grilled in foraged Lemon leaves – a dish that I am hoping to replicate with Lime leaves here! Of course the Tagliatelli was home made and the vegetables were grown and foraged on the slopes of this generous volcanoe, but this was the dish that was simply explained to me as ‘the taste’ of Etna.. You must go!

Wild Thyme and other herbs, Wild Thistles and other Wild Greens litter the mountainsides. Wild fruits such as figs, Wild Olives and escaped fruits such as Banana’s all grow vigorously where ever they find enough soil to plant roots. The hills and mountains hide treats such as the nearly wild Nebrodian Black Pig and the seas, especially the Aeolian Sea that I spent so much time swimming in hides fish species such as Swordfish, Tuna, Sardines and Anchovy and other edibles even though its aquamarine waters are so clear they look like they could hide nothing!

If you are lucky enough to be close or have a good view of the sea in the evening keep your eyes out for the small fishing boats hunting fish and Octopus with bright lights at night. The fishermen hunt their wild prey by looking through bottomless dustbins and hunting with very long fishing spears, spearing the startled Octopus and fish including fish such as the Scorpion fish, when they are dazzled by the lights.

Or you could even try more exotic flavours such as the Sea Anemone, although an acquired taste I found it delicious cooked with pasta. Or something more close to home such as a Nettle risotto, treats I am sure that you would agree if found on menu's in the UK, common place in Sicily!

Sicily, especially the North East is a magical place and one where the Wild Food enthusiast can forage and experiment themselves or if you would prefer to be on holiday and relax, Wild Food is so embedded within local tradition you will easily find someone else to do the foraging and cooking for you!

I can‘t wait to go back and there and enjoy this stunning country and its fantastic food again. I am unashamed to say, I love Sicily!! … I hope that you get the opportunity to go as well!!

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