A quarter of the Sicilian population lives in the province of Palermo, along the north-west coast. The capital city is also called Palermo, and the rest of the province includes townships such as Monreale, Cefalu and Bagheria. It is also home to the Parco Naturale delle Madonie, the natural park of the Madonie mountains, which contains some of Sicily's highest peaks. The park is the source of many wonderful food products, a great number of them protected by the Slow Food organisation, such as a cheese called provola delle Madonie, a unique bean called the fasola badda, and manna, a natural sweetener that is extracted from ash trees.
The diversity of the sea and the mountains, and the culture of a unique city, Palermo, contribute to a synthesis of produce and history, of sweet and savoury, of noble and peasant. The skyline of Palermo is outlined with memories of the Saracen presence.
Even though the conquering Normans converted the churches, many Arab domes and arches remain. As well as architecture, the table of today is still very much influenced by its early inhabitants.
The streets and the markets of Palermo are coloured with the abundance of the countryside, a bright palette of violet aubergines, sun-brushed arance tarocco (blood oranges) from Catania, aromatic lemons from Bagheria, and the serpentine green cucuzza squash; giant swordfish with their swords held high, ugly yet delicious scorpion fish, mysterious sea urchins and sardines; spices, herbs and roasted onions; and tomatoes and garlic dangling next to bunches of explosively hot peppers. The clamour of the vendors harmonises with the many smells.
The markets bear witness to the cross-cultural food history and the many ingredients that are laced through the traditional dishes. The speciality of Palermo illustrates this: pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines), bucatini tossed with fresh sautéed sardines, wild fennel, saffron, raisins and pine nuts, and garnished with toasted breadcrumbs.
The first impression as you arrive in Agrigento is of the impressively intact structures in the Valley of the Temples, dating back to 400BC or 500BC. In February, fields of almond trees are profuse with white and pink flowers, and there are many recipes to reflect that. The province of Agrigento is wide and stretches from the south-western coast overlooking the temple of Selinunte to the southern exposure of Licata, and includes the Pelagie Islands that lie between Malta and Tunisia (Lampedusa, Linosa and Lampione).
The cuisine is simple and fresh, and it relies on the many good products from the coast to the inland areas. People in the past didn't have the means of transportation that we do today, so seafood was mainly eaten by coastal inhabitants. Sardines and anchovies have long been preserved and traded inland, so there are many recipes that use them, but the inland cuisine was, and is, about such delights as sausages marinated in wine; leg of Girgentana goat or mutton stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese and roasted in a wood oven; and rabbit braised with wine and garlic, cooked with aromatic bay leaves and fresh vegetables.
At the seaside in Sciacca, you find prawns with conza, a condiment made with toasted breadcrumbs, often called the poor man's cheese. Someone with a sense of humour came up with the name for sarde a beccafico. Beccafico is the small songbird that might come to mind when you see the sardine rolls with the tails sticking up like a bird's tail. The sardines are stuffed in the same way that hunters used to stuff the little birds, with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and raisins, and are delicious.
As you drive through the coastal hills, the cultivation of prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus becomes evident. It is prized for its magically coloured fruit called fichi d'india, or Indian figs. In the late summer, rows and rows of broad-leaf cactus produce succulent golden and magenta-coloured fruit that, once the spines are carefully removed, is delicious in sorbets and granite.
Besides the usual holiday preparations, you will find some unique dishes throughout the province of Agrigento. San Giuseppe contributes pasta cu la muddica, a spaghetti dish with sugar, cinnamon and chocolate. At Easter you might find cannilera, made with cookie dough covering a hard-boiled egg and decorated with coloured sugar. The taralli (ring-shaped crackers) for All Saints' Day are sweetened with honey, sugar, chocolate, orange or vanilla.
Mount Etna, the tallest active European volcano, dominates life in Catania. A constant reminder on the skyline, with an ever-present plume of smoke drifting up to the sky, it commands a reverent, careful respect. Even in the face of imminent danger, the fertile land is irresistible for everything from blood oranges, nuts and prickly pears, to grapes for wine. Its hard, lava-sculpted surfaces are not easy to farm, with a dark swirling landscape and snow in the upper elevations, and small huts built of volcanic material on the lower slopes, but they are rich with iron.
Intense flavours erupt from the garlic, the sweet cherries from Macchia and Bronte's pistachios. There is no shortage of honey, almonds and chestnuts, and good grapes grow on the northern slopes. East and along the coast is one of Sicily's largest citrus zones, especially known for the blood orange juicing varieties called moro and sanguinello.
In the city of Catania, although the roots are ancient, the Baroque architecture is not. The entire city was destroyed in 1693 by earthquakes, and it has been covered in lava seven times, each time built anew. Fera o Luni, the largest market, is held every morning in Piazza Carlo Alberto with a backdrop of regal buildings. Here fresh produce from the countryside can be found, as well as olives seasoned with spicy chillies, roasted chickpeas, meat and fresh fish.
Street food in Catania has a slightly different take from that of Palermo. Although some similar foods, such as arancini (stuffed rice balls) can be found, stands and trucks sell sandwiches, scacciate (savoury dough pies) and crespelle (stuffed crêpes), and in the evenings large braziers roast various meats and fill the streets with their smoky aromas. On 5 February each year, the patron Saint Agatha is celebrated with a passionate festival. According to legend, the saint's breasts were cut off after she refused the advances of a Roman official. Small, breast-shaped cakes called minne di Sant'Agata (St Agatha's breasts) are dedicated to her.
Catanian food shows Sicilian cuisine making its most creative use of land and sea. The most famous dish is pasta alla Norma, made with aubergines and tomatoes in the height of summer.
The best pistachios come from Bronte, a village on the western side of Mount Etna. Called the Bronte red or pistacchio verde di Bronte DOP, they are encased by a hard shell, and the interior nut is emerald green with a red husk. More of a seed than a nut, it is resonant with fat and slightly resinous in flavour. This is the only place they grow in Europe, their string roots thriving in the volcanic earth and producing hand-picked fruit every other year. They are most commonly found in desserts, but pistachios are also used in savoury dishes such as pasta, or as a coating for meat or seafood. Most gelaterie in Sicily offer pistachio gelato, and the authentic recipe can be identified by the colour, a rather drab green. The annual pistachio sagra, or festival, is on the second Sunday in October.
Prawns with conza
5 tablespoons olive oil; 1 small onion, chopped; 1 clove garlic, chopped; 1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped; ½ teaspoon chilli powder; 500g uncooked peeled prawns, deveined; 100ml dry white wine, salt
For the conza
2 tablespoons olive oil; 100g shelled almonds, chopped; 100g fresh breadcrumbs; 1 heaped tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese; pinch of chopped flat-leaf parsley; salt
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Method: Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan, add the onion, garlic and parsley and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for a few minutes, then add the chilli powder and prawns. Cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes. Drizzle in the wine and cook for five minutes, until evaporated. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt.To make the conza, heat the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan. Add all the conza ingredients, season with salt and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent the mixture from burning. It will be ready when it is golden brown. Serve immediately with the prawns.
Arancini: stuffed rice balls
300g risotto rice; 100g grated mature (sharp) caciocavallo cheese; 150g mozzarella cheese, cut into cubes; 2 eggs; 80g fresh breadcrumbs; olive or vegetable oil, for frying; salt
For the meat sauce
200g shelled peas; 40g butter; 2 tablespoons olive oil; ½ onion, chopped; 250g minced steak; 2 tablespoons dry white wine; 1 tablespoon tomato purée; salt and pepper.
Preparation time: 2 hours
Cooking time: 30-40 minutes
Method: Cook the rice in a pan of salted boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes, until al dente, then drain. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the grated cheese and cool.
Meanwhile, blanch the peas in boiling water for five minutes, then drain and set aside. Melt the butter with the oil in a pan, add the onion and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for five minutes, until softened. Add the minced meat, increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned. Add the white wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, then mix the tomato purée with a little water in a small bowl and stir into the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover and simmer over low heat for 50 minutes. Add the peas, re-cover the pan and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Take a little rice and put it in the palm of your left hand, then shape it to resemble a small, slightly pointed orange with your right hand. Make a hollow in the centre with your thumb and fill with a teaspoon of meat sauce and a cube of soft cheese, then cover with the rice. Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt in a shallow dish and spread the breadcrumbs in another dish. Heat oil in a deep fryer to 180C/350F or until a cube of bread browns in 30 seconds. Dip the croquettes first in the beaten egg and then in the breadcrumbs. Add them to the hot oil, in batches, and cook until lightly golden brown. Remove, drain on paper towels and keep hot while you cook the remaining batches. Serve hot.
Pasta with sardines
6 bunches wild fennel; 500g sardines, scaled and boned; plain flour, for dusting; 150ml olive oil, plus extra for drizzling; 1 clove garlic, finely chopped; 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus extra to garnish; pinch of saffron threads, lightly crushed; 1 onion, chopped; 80g sultanas, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes, drained and squeezed out; 80g pine nuts; 4 anchovy fillets, soaked in milk for 5 minutes, drained and chopped; 500g maccheroncini, salt and pepper
Preparation time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Method: Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil, add the fennel, bring back to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and pat dry with paper towels, then chop finely. Reserve the cooking water.
Dust half the fish with flour, shaking off the excess. Heat half the oil in a large frying pan, add the floured sardines and cook, turning once, until evenly browned, then remove from the heat.
Heat two tablespoons of the oil with garlic and parsley in a shallow pan, add the remaining sardines, pour in 100ml water and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Mix the saffron with a little water in a bowl, then add to the pan, season and stir to break up the sardines. Simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from the heat.
Put the onion, remaining oil and 100ml water in a shallow pan and cook for five minutes. Add the wild fennel, sultanas, pine nuts and anchovies and simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring the reserved cooking water to a boil, add the pasta, bring back to a boil and cook for 8-10 minutes, or according to instructions, until al dente. Drain, return to the pan and drizzle with olive oil, then stir in the saffron sauce and onion and fennel mixture.
Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.
Make alternate layers of pasta and fried sardines in an ovenproof dish, ending with a layer of pasta. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove from the oven, sprinkle with parsley and serve.
'Sicily' is published by Phaidon Press, £24.95 (phaidon.com)