Italian food has come a long way in recent years. To take London as an example, the all-in ‘Italian’ restaurant serving Spaghetti Bolognese (‘Spagbol’ in common parlance), an Anglo-American invention, together with variety of other standard fare regarded as generic to all regions are now on the way out. No doubt helped by the 500,000 Italians now living in London, Italy’s distinctive food traditions are now pervasive: Venetian bacari, and Neapolitan pasta and pizza specialities mix with Sicilian street food. Given Italian food is essentially regional, this can only be a good thing. It is now even possible to have proper granita and brioche for breakfast in central London (thanks to Etna Coffee, a recent arrival in central London’s Victoria district).
However, this change in Italian food provision is not merely a matter for foodies and ‘fine-diners’ (‘faine daining’ as some cynics call it), but reflects a more serious shift in knowledge and attitudes and in a commitment to change the food culture. Movements, including Slow Food, which promotes what it calls ‘good, clean and fair food’, have helped pushed food to the centre of many social, political and environmental agendas, influencing policy on obesity, school dinners, the debate over ‘soda tax’ and the price of milk in supermarkets. As a result people are becoming more discerning about the food they buy and empathetic to those who have produced it.
What we are now seeing is the potential for the revival of food to be part of wider social change and economic development. Sicily is a very good example. Facing historically embedded problems of corruption, economic stagnation and inequality in comparison to other Italian regions, there are now several organisations, partnerships, projects and campaigns involved in developing sustainable alternatives. And food is at the heart of these developments. Libera Terra (http://liberaterra.it/en/), for example, produces olive oil and wine on land confiscated from the Mafia. The rapid growth of Agriturismi, farms which provide bed and breakfast accommodation and serve local produce in some remarkable locations, have revealed a new attraction for those who want to be not merely tourists but short-term ‘residents’ able to appreciate local hospitality.
In fact, Sicily is being rediscovered by new generations of British and Americans. Popular with Victorian and Edwardian travellers for health and leisure pursuits, the Brits since shifted their attentions to the north and centre of Italy. The appeal of Tuscany, for example, may be as strong as ever, but the interest in Sicily – and the wider South – is perhaps indicative of a more curious, adventurous British public in search of a more complex and challenging holiday.
The sheer diversity of Sicilian food, often found in differences between villages, is vividly apparent in Sicily’s tempestuous and troubled history, as the various dominating powers have left their influences in different parts of the island. The Greek influences are most apparent on the east and south-east coasts; on the West the Arabic and North African influences predominate. This was apparent to me during the making of a 2011 BBC radio programme about Sicilian food in Trapani, where the contrast between couscous served up there and the couscous in Marsala just a few kilometres away, was the subject of great debate among chefs.
The Slow Food movement has had particular success in Sicily. Less industrialised and poorer than mainland Italy, the production and cultivation of local food has a profound significance for its future prosperity. It now has more Slow Food presidia produce, that is quality accredited food whose heritage is uniquely derived from a particular territory and production methods, than any other region of Italy. On a visit to London in July 2015, Saro Gugliotta, President of Slow Food Sicilia, and his colleagues, managed to ensure a commitment from Italian restaurateurs to include at least two presidia products when cooking typical Sicilian dishes.
Some of the interest in Sicily in the UK has been stimulated by the success of Andrea Camilleri’s popular Montalbano detective series, whose main character, Commissario Salvo Montalbano is a gastronome, whose favourite dishes served up by a local trattoria or his cook Adelina are followed as closely as the crime plot. However, food has been a key theme in the work of many of Sicily’s leading writers, whether in the reassuring Macaroni pie of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard at the uncertain time of Italian unification, or in the works of Leonardo Sciascia, perhaps the most profound observer of the Sicilian predicament.
Geoff Andrews is a writer and historian. His latest book The Shadow Man: at the Heart of the Cambridge Spy Circle has just been published by I.B.Tauris. His previous books include The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (2008) and Not a Normal Country: Italy after Berlusconi (2005). He is the founder of Sicily Unlimited which organises sustainable summer schools on the island. www.sicilyunlimited.com