This is Siracusa in the third millennium, always hospitable, affectionate, polite, pleased with herself and always gluttonous… so very appropriate for a city in which the temptations of gluttony were a ‘must’ already in the days of Mithaecus, Labdacus and Terpsione, the master-chefs of Arethusa’s city, who invented the first gastronomic academies in the 5th century BC and imposed Syracusan tastes on the tables of Sparta and Athens. They had low-key imitators also during the times of Apicius and Atheneus, and again during the rule of the Aghlabid Arabs, although those names haven’t come down to us. In Greek and Roman Siracusa, food shifted for the first time from something used for mere sustenance to becoming a gastronomic and hedonistic pleasure, a sign of class, good taste and refinement. After the Byzantine period, two centuries of Arab domination created a real food revolution destined to change the face of agriculture and cooking not only in Siracusa and in Sicily, but all over the Mediterranean. The Arabs not only introduced new farming techniques and more efficient irrigation systems, but they also brought to Sicily and from there to the rest of Europe, produce unknown before, such as sugar cane, almonds, pistachio, citrus fruit, rice, aubergines, saffron, spinach, melons, new spices and even durum wheat pasta. They taught the people of Siracusa the basics about frying, drying, steaming and making candied fruit; they introduced sorbet and nougat, and revealed the secrets of distillation and fermentation, while adding fascinating touches of colour to dishes.
In the Syracusan pastoral cooking of land and sea, you’ll notice more Sikel-Greek influences than Arab-Byzantine, but the Arab contribution is noticeable in baking, sweet-making and in street-food, and nowhere more so than in the country baskets of excellent produce from the variety of terrains and climates of the province. Most of the top crops were brought here by the Arabs; water-melon, the lemon of Siracusa, almonds from Avola and date-palms, pomegranates, artichokes and aubergines. The potato of Siracusa, tomatoes of Pachino, horn peppers and the omnipresent prickly pears have a more recent yet successful history. Wines, cured meats and cheeses were already present long before the Greeks arrived, just like the honey from the Hyblaean Hills which rivalled that of Crete which Jove was weaned on as a child.
The taste-trails of Siracusa, drawn by history and embroidered by myth, are an irresistible invitation to gastro-nomadism, that discipline of wellbeing which is practised by leaving your phone behind and your watch in your rucksack, and wandering apparently randomly along paths through olive groves and orchards, vineyards and fields of grain, past streams and dry-stone walls. The many producers of wine and oil, meats and cheeses, fruits and bakery are there simply to fill the hands of guests with samples of their products - no fuss, no ceremony. The restaurants of Siracusa, Palazzolo Acreide, Noto, Floridia, Sortino, Ferla or Augusta open their doors to anyone who wants to enjoy the skill of their cooks, the freshness of their produce and the professionality of their staff. Because here, guests are sacred, just as they were in the days of the Greeks and as it has always been in the best of Arabic culture.