Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti – review

Cookbook review Sicilian Food Originally published in 1989 it was out of print for ten years or so. This new edition reminds us why Sicilian Food has been considered a classic.

Mary Taylor Simeti arrived in Sicily fresh from college in America. She worked as a volunteer at a centre for community development for $75 a month. Her interest in cooking came through necessity rather than love of the subject. Mary came from a well-heeled family in Virginia where they enjoyed the services of a cook. This was probably a marvellous environment to sample well-cooked food but hardly one that was going to prepare anyone for doing the job themselves. Marriage to a Sicilian eventually gave Mary the inspiration to look into the culinary history and delightful confections of her adopted home.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and the largest region of the modern state of Italy, but its relationship with the mainland has been tempestuous. Italy had once been a group of separate states ruled by France, Spain, Austria and other foreign countries, until Guiseppe Garibaldi unified Italy and drove out the foreigners. But Sicily was renowned for its delicious food before Italy was even a twinkle in the eye of Garibaldi.

Sicily enjoys marvellous produce that has been noted and coveted since the time of Homer. This volume considers the food heritage and presents recipes from cooks, books and monasteries. There is much that is recognisable as Italian but which might well have originated in Sicily. Pasta is first seen in Italy at the time of the Arab occupation, not on the mainland but in Sicily.

So let’s look at a pasta dish. Pasta Paolina Style (pasta alla Paolina) was invented by the friars of the Monastery of San Francesco di Paola in Palermo. It has both cinnamon and cloves along with anchovies and tomato sauce. Quite an exotic departure from the more ubiquitous pasta garnish of the tomato and herb-flavoured sauces of Italy.

The monasteries have played quite a part in the culinary tapestry of Sicilian food. They have preserved ancient recipes that reflect good taste and some quaint humour. Minni di Virgini (Virgins Breasts) are much-prized small cakes – sometimes with a cheeky cherry on the top. Sfinci Ammilati (Honey Puffs) are light balls of fried dough steeped in honey. These were also filled with an egg custard or ricotta to celebrate saints’ days.

Not everyone in Sicily was a nun or a monk. The island would be empty by now if that had been the case. Ordinary folks would enjoy Roasted Sweet Peppers (Pepperoni Arrostiti), Potato Croquettes (Croche di Patate) and Chickpea Fritters (Panelle) which were all popular street foods, and they would make lovely light lunches with just some green salad and a dressing of fruity olive oil.

A classic this book might be, but it’s readable and witty. The recipes are broad-based, covering peasant fare as well as elevated and noble dishes. It’s a social history as well as a cookbook and would be a great addition to any serious cookbook collection.

Cookbook review: Sicilian Food
Author: Mary Taylor Simeti
Published by: Grubb Street
Price: £14.99
ISBN 978-1-902304-17-8


Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018