Jamie Mackay, the author of a new book on the history of Sicilian food, takes a culinary journey from Trapani to Mazara del Vallo on the island’s western edge, a region that is a heady blend of Italo-Arab influences
A foodie's guide to western Sicily
“In Trapani, eating out is an education,” declares Nicolò, my guide. “Every mouthful is a conversation with history, with the land itself.” Here on Sicily’s isolated western coast, this is more than just a platitude. Cut off from the rest of the island until the 1970s, this impoverished and repeatedly ransacked province has always kept the past close at hand, a traditionalism born out of the fear of invasion, but which today is forming the basis for an outward-looking cultural renewal.
At the heart of this is the Arab legacy. In the 9th century, the Tunisian Aghlabid dynasty established a caliphate across this part of Sicily, modernising agriculture and ushering in a short-lived golden age of scientific innovation that would spread across the island. Like all self-respecting emirs, the Aghlabids had a deep passion for food, and one of their greatest gifts to the local population was the total transformation of the cuisine. If northern Italy is famous for meat, cheese and other rich staples, in Trapani to this day it’s the intense flavours of the Maghreb that take centre stage: lemons, oranges, almonds, dates, pistachios and, of course, an array of spices.
“The Aghlabids revolutionised what was possible in cooking here,” says Nicolò, a local book seller and passionate chef. “They brought irrigation and other farming technologies and cultivated new ingredients. With our volcanic soil they had the perfect growing conditions, too – some very fertile land. It’s this combination that makes our cuisine so unique.”
The most overt symbol of this is the street food. Trapani’s central promenade, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is lined with stalls offering a panoply of pan-Mediterranean inventions such as panelle (chickpea fritters), crocchè (potato cakes), and involtini (barbecued meat skewers stuffed with breadcrumbs and spices). Faraway, the most popular are arancini, balls of deep fried risotto stuffed with a variety of local products. Trapani’s best can be found at Ke Palle, a rowdy bright-tiled bar at the gate of the historic centre. The combinations are a kind of a crash course in the history of Arab-Italian fusion: prawn and pistachio pesto, squid ink and almond, saffron and raisin. They make an ideal snack for wandering along the walls of the old fortress and watching the boats in the harbour.
For dinner, Nicolò recom-mends La Bettolaccia, a simple osteria offering local specialities. I opt for the most local of all, the prodotti di tonnara – a dried, smoked tuna antipasti that has been produced here since ancient times. “They’re very strong,” he warns me. The cuts, laid out like slices of prosciutto, arrive with a slice of lemon. “It is a journey,” I’m told, from the “lightest”, which has a pleasant umami quality, to the strongest, “caviar”, which is, as promised, overwhelmingly salty, though not altogether unpleasant. To follow I go with the busiate, thin pasta spirals, with delicious pesto alla trapanese, which is made with crushed tomatoes, almonds, olive oil, pecorino and large quantities of raw garlic that render it fresher, fierier and more refreshing than the popular variety from Genoa.
Roused by these electric flavours, I continue south down the coast to Marsala. The streets of this city are filled with the smell of butter and cinnamon, the aroma of Arab kitchens mingling playfully with those of the French patisserie tradition, which arrived in Sicily via Naples in the late 18th century. There are cannoli, tubes of deep-fried pastry filled with cold lightly spiced ricotta; cassate, rich, green marzipan cakes filled with cream and candied fruit; giuggiulene, slabs of honey-toffee filled with sesame seeds; and a whole array of biscuits made with almond, cocoa and fig jam. On summer afternoons, the locals prefer a Parisian-style brioche, served with iced coffee, or perhaps some almond milk followed, a few hours later, by ice cream, another Aghlabid gift and an incontrovertible staple of the pre-dinner walk.
I have a reservation at Assud Porta Nuova, a small place with just eight tables nestled cozily in a medieval storage room by the old Eastern gate. To start I order the caponata, a cold antipasto of fried aubergine, zucchini and olives in a sweet and sour sauce. “Like a more exciting ratatouille,” smiles my waitress to the amusement of a French couple at the next table. To follow she recommends the fish couscous. “Every house in Marsala has its own recipe,” she tells me, “Ours comes from the owner’s grandmother.” The fish, mackerel and mullet in my case, are flash-fried and served on a bed of expertly separated grains in a tasty broth spiced with cinnamon, cumin and cloves. When I ask for the recipe, I’m met with a stern gaze: “I told you it’s a family secret. We take this dish very seriously here.”
My final destination is Mazara del Vallo, a rough fishing port, which is about a half-hour drive from Marsala, famous among chefs for its highly prized gamberi rossi, red prawns. The majority are flash-frozen and flown off to boutique restaurants in London, Paris and Milan, but thankfully, each day a few hundred remain in the town for the locals to enjoy. It’s a sight to behold, the luminescent shells and writhing legs poking out from car boots in the town’s anarchic fish market. They’re best eaten raw, sometimes accompanied by a simple salad of fennel, orange and black olives. I try them at the Ristorante Alla Kasbah, in the old Arab city centre, where they are served simply, on a bed of rocket with a squeeze of lemon juice and olive oil that accentuate the unique sweetness of the meat.
To follow, the chef recom-mends a plate of bucatini con le sarde, thick spaghetti in a lightly stewed sauce of onion, sardine, pine nuts and raisins served in a dark green soup made of wild fennel and then topped with breadcrumbs. It was, I’m told, “the very first Italo-Arab fusion food”, thought to have originated in the 7th century as a staple for soldiers when the Byzantine navy was fighting off the Aghlabids. The sweet seasoning, so the story goes, was used to mask the taste of old sardines, while the medicinal fennel helped with digestion. If there’s one dish that best captures the idiosyncrasies of the island’s food, it is surely this.
I’m struck by what appears to be a growing pride in this often-overlooked history. The Kasbah itself, which was destroyed during the Spanish occupation, is now in the process of being renovated by a committed group of civic-minded residents from both sides of the Mediterranean. At its very centre, in a still semi-dilapidated central piazza, is Eyem Zemen, a no-frills restaurant set up by Fatiha Belaiba. She’s passionate about the cosmopolitanism of her hometown. “In the kitchen, I keep a Tunisian flag next to my picture of the Pope,” she tells me, “I don’t make any distinction between Africans and Europeans, Muslims and Christians.” The menu reflects this hybrid spirit boasting sambosak (fried cheese parcels), the famous tajine (stew), and of course the ubiquitous couscous, all dishes that originate in the Maghreb, but which, as this trip has shown me, are an ongoing part of food culture in Sicily, too.
Every night Eyem Zemen is filled with people, eating, drinking and chatting side by side in a cacophony of dialects. It’s a fitting place to reflect, surrounded by Arab-Sicilian babble in front of a fine plate of baklava. Poverty and underdevelopment may still haunt the island, but such places show how much it has to offer the minds and bellies of international visitors. Finally, it seems things are starting to move forward. In this bustling square, Sicily’s remarkable fusion of cultures continues with its roots in the past, but perhaps more excitingly, as the Kasbah shows, with an eye to the future.
Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. His forthcoming book, The Invention of Sicily, a cultural history of the island, will be published by Verso next year