Food And Culture in Sicily: Christmas Cookery Workshop, 7 December 2013
Presented by Dr Gillian Shepherd and Marisa Raniolo Wilkins
Gillian began the presentation with short history of food and feasting in Sicily. Gillian focused on the literary and archaeological evidence for food production and consumption in the ancient world of Sicily with particular emphasis on festivals, sacrifice and feasting (i.e. pagan “versions’ of Xmas). She described how in ancient times the ordinary people only got to eat meat as the result of sacrificial offerings to the gods (the gods inhaled the smoke and aromas as the sheep and goats, and less often cattle, were roasted).
Using our dining room wall as a screen, Gillian projected images of temples and townships, altars and cooking implemenents and a map of Sicily to clarify and enrich the presentation. She also showed the guests examples of formelle from her personal collection. Formelle are special, handmade ceramic moulds that were traditionally used to make decorative mostarda (must and ash paste) and cotognata (quince paste, I provided the recipe). Gillian is a compulsive collector of formelle and was able to tell me about a formella that I have inherited from my paternal Sicilian grandmother.
For my presentation, I talked about the similarities and differences between the ancient recipes recorded by Archestratus and Apicius and what are now traditional Sicilian recipes. The menu I selected for this event reflected the development of the recipes and methods used from the ancient world into the Sicilian recipes, the influences of the seasons, religion and culture of Sicily, which in the course of 3,000 years has layered Christianity over Islam and Roman, Greek and more ancient religions.
As the theme of the presentation was Christmas cookery, I focussed on fish and vegetables since Sicilians observe the Catholic rituals of Advent, which involves a month of fasting. The Christmas meal for Sicilians happens on Christmas eve, when they traditionally eat fish. Gillian helped explain the connection between fish and Christ, referencing the Greek word for fish, icthos, which in the early christian era was the symbol most more closely identified with Christ than the cross and whose letters were used as an acrostic, to spell out in Greek, Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour.
This is my third Workshop organised by The Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University.
- Baked ricotta and marinaded black olives
- Lentils and chicory soup with a soffritto of garlic and parsley (chili optional)
- Soused fish with vinegar, garlic and mint
- Baccalà cooked in bianco with olives and capers, parsley, garlic and potatoes
- Baked fish inserted with anchovies and marinaded in red onion, lemon, vinegar and extra virgin olive oil
- Fish balls with pine nuts and dried grapes (muscatels)
- Asparagus dressed with oil and vinegar
- Green salad; endive, chicory, frisse, batavia /roman lettuce and cos lettuce
- Cuccia (to honour Saint Lucy, patron Saint of Syracuse, mid December)
- Buccello (bucciddatu in Sicilian), a round ciambella (ring-shaped cake) eaten at Christmas with a stuffing of dried fruits and nuts enclosed in crumbly, short pastry. This was made by pastrychef Marianna from Dolcetti.
We drank Sicilian Wine: Marsala fino, Grillo, Nero d’Avola and Zibbibo,
Some guests did not eat fish and they were presented: Zucchini in agro-dolce (pinenuts and currants, vinegar and sugar), Tomato salad with feta, Potatoes alla pizzaiola (black olives, oregano, garlic and tomato). These vegetables were unknown before the discovery of the American continent (Christopher Columbus in 1492)
Baccalà is traditionally eaten on Christmas eve in Sicily. The ingredients are sufficient for a main meal for 4 people.
A common Sicilian method of cooking food is ‘alla ghiotta’and it usually contains green olives, capers and celery. Stockfish or Baccalà alla ghiotta in bianco is cooked without tomato and is more commonly cooked in the winter months –culinary term, white — with little seasoning and definitely without tomato.
The cod can usually be bought from Italian or Spanish supermarkets. You need to begin preparations at least two day before. Some salt cod is pre-soaked by the vendors beforehand, so it is best to ask about this when you buy it.
AGGHIOTTA DI BACCALA` IN BIANCO (Baccalà ALLA GHIOTTA and IN BIANCO) Recipe from Sicilian Seafood Cooking
Dr Gillian Shepherd is Lecturer in Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Director of the A.D. Trendall Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University.Gillian studied Classics and Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne before going on to complete a PhD in Classical Archaeology at Trinity College, Cambridge, followed by a research fellowship at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.
Until her recent return to Australia to take up her position at La Trobe University, Gillian was Lecturer in Classical Archaeology at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research interests are the ancient Greek colonisation of Sicily and Italy, burial customs, and the archaeology and art of Greece and Magna Graecia.