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Sicilian Food – Book review

11 September 2009 by
Sicilian Food – Book review

Sicilian Food Mary Taylor Simeti
Grub Street £14.99
ISBN 978-1-902304-17-5

When a recipe book's bibliography runs to eight pages and the source materials name-checked include Plato's Epistles and Aristophanes' The Wasps, you know it means business.

First published in 1989, Mary Taylor Simeti's Sicilian Food provides as comprehensive a set of Sicilian recipes as you could wish for. All are set against the wider context of the culture and traditions that spawned them.

Discerning a food culture with "very little future but a very ancient past", she set out to capture the essence of Sicily's culinary traditions. Her quest for ancient dishes and venerable culinary textbooks took her from the island's rural hinterlands to the former convents and palaces of Palermo.

But this book is no time capsule, its recipes no museum pieces - all are contemporary, yet authentic.

Chapter One, "Of Ancient Abundance, Epic Appetites", presents the earthiest traditional Sicilian peasant dishes. Reading Simeti's recipes for maccu (fava bean soup); anchovies and breadcrumbs; and ricotta and aubergine, it's easy to imagine Odysseus himself gorging on this sort of honest fare, before heading off to blind the Cyclops.

From there on, the cooking gets more complex as Simeti documents feast-day dainties and elaborate aristocratic dishes with names like Virgin's Breasts, Papal Pudding and Chancellor's Buttocks.

Seafood is well-represented - tuna, sardines and swordfish particularly so - and there's a fantastic recipe for Sicilian feast day ragu that features caciocavallo cheese and farsumagro (braised meat roll) among its many component parts.

All the classic Sicilian dishes are present and correct. Cannoli (pastry tubes stuffed with ricotta cream); caponata (sweet and sour aubergine) and sfincione (Sicilian thick-bread pizza) all feature, along with enough cassata, ices and granitas to make your teeth ache.

More navigable and less wordy books on Sicilian food are sure to have been written. At times, the anecdotal history threatens to engulf the recipes. But if you like your cook books to fling open a window on the culture behind a cuisine, you'll find much to enjoy.

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