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On the Taste Trails

“Discarded territories and landscapes”
April 17, 2021
Eliseo Lupo
April 18, 2021
“Discarded territories and landscapes”
April 17, 2021
Eliseo Lupo
April 18, 2021
Ph. © Antonio Gerbino

On the Taste Trails

 
Born of the sea and on the sea, built and made great by people who came from over the sea and who were its masters for centuries, Siracusa owes its magnificence and destiny to the geological and climatic conditions of its position, the abundance of sweet waters, the fertility of the hinterland and above all to its harbours, some of the oldest of the Mediterranean. At the height of the city’s power, it had to feed up to half a million inhabitants including a large multiethnic army which sailed and marched - as Julius Caesar said - above all on its stomach. The quaysides where Archimedes and Plato strolled, teemed with soldiers, fishermen and merchants busy around their triremes and ships. The great belly of Siracusa demanded produce of all types and from all origins, and started to create a model of food syncretism made up of vines and olives from the Peloponnese and Crete, onions from Egypt, dates and figs from the Maghreb, pomegranates from Persia, garum from Spain and silphium from Cyrenaica.
Today’s travellers who come without a set goal or time limit, who dare lose themselves in the lanes of Ortigia, just need to close their eyes and alert their senses to capture the echoes of those “abbanniate”, the calls of the ancient merchants of meat or grain or the farmers shouting surrounded by baskets of fruit and vegetables. They will still hear the chatter of groups of men and women from the most varied social backgrounds, aristocrats or common, citizens or immigrants, in the streets of Neapolis or Akradina, measure up with a glance the lambs and cheeses of the shepherds, the sausages and dried meat of the butchers, the wicker baskets of eggs or olives. Now they can hear the shouts of the fishermen at the Fountain of Arethusa and the jetties, the curses of the ships’ crews, the calls of the children on the steps of the Temple of Apollo or Athena, the deafening noise from the arsenal and the bitter smell of sweat on the slaves and sailors mixing with the perfume of bread.
When those travellers open their eyes, they notice with amazement that the smells and sounds that seemed to be imaginary are in fact real, that everything is still here, just a little more familiar and contemporary. For countless years, in Siracusa men and women have left the house at dawn to put a triumph of fruit and vegetables on display, with fragrant breads, shining fish and meat, delicious cut meats and cheeses. Yesterday they wore tunics and peploi, today jeans and t-shirts. Clients walk past benches and shelves, they look, touch, smell and buy the objects of their gastronomic desires. In the place of the wooden cart of Peusippos, we find the van of Riccardo, the fish-stall of Alexis is now Salvatore’s shop, Isidros is called Antonio but still sells sheep's cheeses and pulls them out of a fridge instead of a cane basket, eggs have enigmatic alphanumeric codes on them but are still produced round the corner, there's less noise and perhaps things are tidier and more hygienic, but the perfumes of the bread, spices and freshly-caught fish are almost the same although less intense and more distinct. Walking through the exuberant but orderly Market of Ortigia today, the banniate of the sellers mix with the aseptic chants of tour-guides, the polite laughs of the Japanese, comments in Spanish and discussions in English or Russian.
 
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.
April 2021
 
 
SERGIO G. GRASSO

As a young man, he did voice-overs for film actors of the calibre of Orson Welles and Jeff Goldblum. Author and television host, he has worked for RAI programs like Unomattina, Lineaverde and La prova del cuoco. He is a lecturer in Food Anthropology, food-writer, researcher and racconteur of the social history of food, and curates gastronomic events inspired by the representation of food in art. He writes for Siracusaculture and is part of the editorial team.