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The Food Culture of Siracusa

The Historic Gardens of Siracusa
February 16, 2022
Tomás Saraceno
February 21, 2022
The Historic Gardens of Siracusa
February 16, 2022
Tomás Saraceno
February 21, 2022
Dyonisus Mosaic, Paphos, Cyprus


A society’s cooking is the language with which that society unconsciously reveals its structure, unless, without knowing it, it’s actually revealing its contradictions.
Claude Lévi – Strauss L’origine des manières de table, Paris 1968
Innumerable manuals and books discuss the reason why the Greeks founded over a hundred colonies in the Aegean sea, Black Sea and the Mediterranean in just a few centuries. The academic world has identified a great range of reasons to try and understand the reasons for this intense colonisation: political, military, expansionist, commercial, climatic, demographic. Many of these are the same reasons that push men from all parts of the world to look for new and less daunting living conditions, to escape contexts of violence and war, political or ideological persecution, situations of misery or degradation. History repeats itself with one constant: the first and instinctive desire of the migrant: food, once he lands and for the future. No one is free until hunger is satisfied, and no one is able to plan and build a civilization without land and water from which to draw nourishment.
The history of the Mediterranean basin starts in Sicily, the island in the middle of three continents, in which exiles and travellers of all ages have always found - and still find - hospitality, food and perspectives for the future. The ecista Archias, mythical founder of Siracusa, certainly didn’t set off into the unknown as he had already heard about that “land of desire” where wheat, olives and vines grew, perhaps from Phoenicean navigators who had sailed the Mediterranean for centuries. That island in particular, the one which would later be named Ortigia, had all the necessary characteristics for the foundation of a new city: it was in an advantageous and well-defendable position, it offered easy access for boats and cover from the wind, it lay on a sea full of fish and had a source of freshwater, and the mainland was rich in forests, pastures and cultivated plains.
Those original characteristics have not changed over time, just like the ancient-Greek sense of hospitality of the people of Siracusa, the manners and the courtesy which differentiates them slightly from the other Sicilians. One could ask why a land so rich and hospitable, declared a World Heritage site, kissed by history, by the sea and the sun, with long summers, breathtaking views and in the center of the most beautiful and desired sea in the world, isn’t at the top of the Italian tourist destinations. The answer lies in the fact that Siracusa and its territory don’t respond to the hit-and-run kind of holiday, to greedy, hurried mass tourism, rough and unsensitive. Its genius loci - that sort of “spirit” which mixes physical and cultural identity - speaks only to those who accept its invitation to follow unusual paths, to sintonize with history, with the people and the culture.
Even when it comes to food, Siracusa is a different Sicily. Here you can barely feel the Arab influence or the French and Spanish loans which are so evident in the areas of Palermo and Trapani, nor is the link to the land and agricultural roots of Enna, Caltanissetta and Agrigento present and the contrasting flavours and refinements of Messina are even less present. It seems that even in its food, Siracusa has remained devoted to the ancient Greek koinè, compiling over the centuries a comprehensible but never daring recipe collection, simple without being rigorous, elegant but not sophisticated.
The great harbour of Siracusa- from ” Voyage pictoresque” by R.Saint-Non-Paris 1781/86.
Bas Relief from Isola Sacra, Ostia. (Photo by DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)
It was in Siracusa that the temperate and austere Greek cuisine was transformed into art. Polèmone of Athens, geographer and traveller at the time of the Punic Wars, tells us that in Sicily the Greeks had founded a temple dedicated to the goddess of gluttony, Adefagìa, who also protected cooks (megeiros). The site of this sanctuary is unknown (cited four centuries later by the philosopher Claudio Eliano) but it was probably in Siracusa which was already known as the gastronomical capital of the Mediterranean in the 5th century B.C., home of the first professional cooks and to the oldest cooking school. The hefty work, Deipnosofisti (philosophers at the banquet), written by Atheneo of Naucratis in the 2nd Century A.D. is a wealth of information regarding cooks from Siracusain Antiquity. He, together with Plato, Aristophanes and Gorgias, tells us the name of the first known “chef”, Miteco of Siracusa, author of a large recipe book called “On the Sicilian cook” of which we only have a single recipe for “Cèpola”, a “poor” fish, red and of an elongated shape: “Cut its head. Wash it and chop it up in pieces. Cover it with cheese and oil and cook it.”. Despite the simplicity, the sophist Maximus of Tirus considered Miteco as great a cook as Phidias was a sculptor. He travelled to Sparta to teach his art and taught the principles of balancing tastes and ingredients but was met by resistance from the Spartan cooks who thought his emphatic, sophisticated cuisine, rich in condiments and elaborate sauces, didn’t really fit their sober nutritional habits. But he met more fortune in Athens.
Atheneo’s book records large quotes from the Hedypatheia (The pleasures of the palate) by Archestratus, a 4th-century poet from Gela, polistor (of great culture), probably a scholar of the gastronomer Terpisione, who is thought to have been the precursor to Epicurus and who said of himself that he had travelled every land and every sea to find the best food and wine. The doctor Daphnos of Ephesus says this about him:
Archestrato took a trip around the world to fill his stomach and other baser appetites and said: ‘eat a slice of Sicilian tuna, when it is cut and ready to be salted and placed in jars. But the perch, the aroma of the Pontus, I would give to the lower regions, just as those who laud it do. As there aren’t many mortals who think it is a poor meal. However, keep a mackerel out of the water for three days before starting the brine, still fresh in the jar and only half salted. And if you go to the splendid city of Byzantium, eat - I beg you - a slice of horaion as it is truly succulent.”.
Deipnosofisti di Ateneo di Naucrati-edizione cinquecentesca
Archestrato, Imaginative Incision from the XIX cent.
Considered the elder of all the touristic-gastronomical guides, the Hedypatheia doesn’t stop at recipes and different cooking techniques but also discusses the “denomination of origin” of products, from flour to bread, from wine to game and especially fish, of which it indicates the best species, the areas from which they come and the season in which they taste best.
“When Orion is in the sky, and the mother of wine pickers starts to untie her braids, then have an oven-cooked bream, covered with plenty hot cheese and filled of bitter vinegar, as such a fish has a leathery pulp. So remember to season in such a way that every fish lasts But fish is naturally tender, with a rich pulp, fix it only with salt and oil, as it already contains every joy"”.
As for methods of obtaining such delicacies, if the merchant isn’t willing to sell them even when paid their weight in gold, Archestrato suggests threatening them with divine retribution, stealing and even, if there is no other way, being ready to face death. On one thing Archestrato - and others - is critical about the cooks of Siracusa; the use of cheese and silphium (the resin of a species of giant fennel, now extinct) on fish. So he warns the reader:
…do not let people from Siracusa or Italian Greeks sit beside you as you savour this dish, as they do not know how to prepare a good fish, preferring to ruin it by covering it with cheese and soaking it in vinegar and brine of silphium..
Archestrato from Gela, author of the first receipe book with cheese and fish
Siracusa was also the home of Eraclide, writer and gastronomer who left us a few fragments; Trimalchio, a famous cook contested by the most wealthy families; Labdaco, an academic and teacher of cooks from all of Greece, founder together with the already cited Terpsione of a renowned hotel school.
The recipe books and cooking schools of the coquis siculis of Siracusa were very popular and often ‘gossiped’ about all across the Mediterranean for centuries. No less was the fame of the refined (and lusty) gourmet citizens of the polis. In Pericle’s Greece, refined dinners were defined “Syracusan tables”, and “Syracusan” was the adjective used to describe the banquets in which there were an abundance of dishes and preparations. Witnesses of the luxury and opulence of Siracusa were Diogenes the cynic, Aristoteles, Aristophanes and Strabo. Plato, who considered food to be nutrition of the soul, joined the chorus of voices that accused the people of Siracusa of eating too much, too often and too seasoned.
Just as renowned as the cooks and their specialities, were the ancient wines of Siracusa, lauded by Aristoteles, Teofrasto and Plinius the Elder, while there are countless depictions of grapes, vines and wine on cups, craters and amphore in all the archeological areas of Siracusa. Yesterday as today the main area of the vineyards of Siracusa is the plain and low hillsides with earth rich in mineral elements, well-ventilated by marine winds which give flavour and by three hundred days of sunshine. Nor does water lack even during the warm season, as the erosion of the canyons of Pantalica, Cavagrande del Cassibile and Cava d’Ispica.
Of the Ancient Pollio Wine from Siracusa
The passion for wine gave people from Siracusa a reputation for being avid drinkers, to the point that Archestrato defined them “frogs”:
At the banquet you go to eat and not only to drink, as those frogs of the people of Siracusa do, who drink wine and only wine and don’t eat..”
We have records of a vine called “byblia”, originally from Thracia, which was intensely cultivated round Siracusa already in the VIIth century BC. This grape, classified by Columella as “apiana” - as sweet as honey - was used to produce a sweet, aromatic, white wine - distant relative to the great family of Moscato wines, and was known as Pollio, after a presumed local tyrant. According to the historian Saverio Landolina Nava, this variety of grape was the forefather of the Moscato wine of Siracusa which today still represents a rarity in the panorama of Sicilian sweet and after-dinner wines, an ideal complement to the stars of the local baking tradition; totò,“cassatedde” with ricotta, and sesame-based “giuggiulena”.
February 2021
Sergio G. Grasso

When he was young, he was a voice actor for actors such as Orson Welles and Jeff Goldblum. He is a teacher or Anthropology of alimentation, food-writer, expert and popularizer of social history of food, he curated gastronomic events connected to the representation of food in the art of Caravaggio, Leonardo and Michelangelo. Author and TV presenter, he worked for Rai programmes such as Unomattina, Lineaverde and La prova del cuoco. Creator of the Girotonno of Carloforte and of Mediterraneans in Saudi Arabia and part of manifestations such as the Cous-Cous Fest in San Vito Lo Capo and the Festa del Torrone in Cremona. He writes and is part of the editorial board of SiracusaCulture.