| Mary Taylor Simeti talking with Helen Greenwood
I was in Sydney where I attended some sessions of the Sydney International Food Festival. The World Chef Showcase on Saturday focused strongly on the cuisine of the Middle East and Mediterranean –this was the program that interested me the most.
The Festival list of Australian and overseas guests was very impressive and included: Musa Dagdeviren (Istanbul), Yotam Ottolenghi (London), Mary Taylor Simeti (Sicily, food history), Joe Barza (Lebanon) and Kamal Mouzawak (founder of Beirut’s Souk el Tayeb – a weekly market farmers’ produce and Lebanese food), Anissa Helou (London), Ozden Ozsabuncuoglu (Turkish food authority) and Mehmet Gurs (Istanbul).
Those of you who like Middle Eastern food and live in Melbourne will almost certainly know the names Ismail Tosun (Gigibaba) and Greg and Lucy Malouf (cookbook collaborators and Mo Mo Restaurant), also Abla Amad (Abla’s Restaurant). Sydney readers may recognise Somer Sivrioglu (Efendy Restaurant in Balmain).
Abla Amad was accompanied by Yotam Ottolenghi who was relatively unknown in Australia at the time and i was one of the first to hear him at Abla’s session.
There is an obvious and powerful connection between Middle Eastern and Sicilian cuisine – the Arabs ruled Sicily for two centuries (in medieval times they were sometimes called “Saracens” or “Moors”). The Arabs contributed to the development of Sicilian culture, agriculture and architecture and had a profound influence on the cuisine of Sicily.
The food that was prepared and discussed by the participating Festival guests featured many of the distinctive ingredients of Middle Eastern food – the rich spices (especially saffron and cinnamon), rice and grains, nuts and seeds (especially pine nuts, almonds, pistachio, sesame), sugar, and the typical fruits (citrus, figs, pomegranate) and vegetables and flowers (orange, jasmine, rose flower waters) of the Mediterranean.
The ‘Arab’ ingredients and flavours are not unique to Sicily. They are present in other countries of the Mediterranean, for example the cuisine of Spain and France.
A post on my blog is not the venue to discuss this topic at length. However I have already written about some recipes of sweets that could be attributed to the co-Arab and Sicilian association (for they cannot be attributed just to the Arabs).
Cubbaita (my relatives call it giuggiulena), gello di mellone, nucateli, riso nero (also called riso amauticato).
Here is a similar recipe to cubbaita (giuggiulena) and it is called petrafennula, (also called petramennula depending on the Sicilian locality).
All my Sicilian relatives and friends keep a selection of these small homemade sweets at home just in case someone visits unannounced.
PETRAFENNULA – PIETRA DI MIELE (Rock made of honey).
almonds, 500g blanched and roughly chopped into large pieces
candied orange peel, 400 g chopped finely,
cinnamon, ½ teaspoon (optional).
Place the honey in a saucepan.
Add the peel.
Allow the mixture to simmer gently and stir from time to time until it begins to solidify.
Take the mixture off the stove and work quickly
Add the almonds and the cinnamon and stir gently to incorporate.
Pour the mixture on to baking paper placed on a cold surface – such as a marble slab or a baking tray (traditionally this is done without paper on an oiled marble slab).
Break it into pieces when it is cold. When my mother made this, she sometimes used to drop dollops of the mixture (about a tablespoon in size) on to a cold surface to form small odd shapes – more like pebbles than sharp rocks. This seemed easier than shaping it into one large slab, which then needs to be broken into smaller pieces.
I have a friend in Adelaide who has the most wonderful garden and beehives. She used her honey to make giuggiulena and the petrafennula and both resulted into slightly softer versions of candy. We discussed this and think that it must be due to the varying levels of moisture in different types of honey and from the various locations. I have used a variety of honey including leatherwood (definitely not Sicilian) and other organic honey from a variety of Australian locations and have achieved the required results.