THE NORMANS: FREDERIK II, WHITE WINES AND AGRODOLCE and RICOTTA

THE NORMANS: FEDERICO II, WHITE WINES AND AGRODOLCE

Ruggero II incoronated MonrealecopyThe Normans, or men from the north, arrived in Sicily at about the year 1060. They came armed for battle, and determined to conquer a new kingdom. Rough and uncultured, the Normans found themselves facing a much more evolved and culturally diverse population.

 Frederik II, also known as “Stupor Mundi”, (“Wonder of the World”) of the Hohenstaufen family, and a direct descendant of Federico Barbarossa (Redbeard), settled in Palermo, effectively making that city the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily. A man of science, and a lover of poetry (he founded the Sicilian School of Poetry 1230-1260 as one of his first attempts at unifying the “vulgar Italian” languages), Federico II was tolerant, and open to diverse cultural and religious experiences. Indeed, it was he, who, for the first time during the Middle Ages, founded a strongly centralized, secular state. 

 

Europe map_1100ad

 

The culturally eclectic sovereign loved to surround himself with both Western and Arabic academics, poets, and Jewish counselors, and, most of all, beautiful women, in keeping with Sheikh and Emirate tradition that ruled over various cities within the Sicilian kingdoms.

This  was a period of great prosperity and peace for Sicily and its inhabitants.

It is said that Federico’s culinary curiosity and experimentation led to the discovery of “agro-dolce”, or, “sweet and sour“, as it is called in English.

 

 vino bianco Alcamo editedThe agro-dolce usually consists of a sauce made with vinegar, sugar and onions, which is often used as a condiment to fried fish, and for which Frederik II was a glutton. He loved “Bianco d’Alcamo”wine.

This same sauce, with the addition of fried eggplant, capers and olives (the tomato arrived from America during the XVI century) was used to compliment capon and other poultry. The poor, however, who could rarely afford meat, were left only with the vegetable portion, and so caponata was born.

Ann Stutch, musician, world traveler, and lover of Sicily, offers some insight into the early days of caponata:

“Eggplant was first cultivated in India as long as 4,000 years ago, but was unknown in other parts of the world. The Arabs knew eggplant, and when they conquered Sicily in 831 A.D., they introduced many vegetables  to the island, where it flourished and finally became indigenous. Caponata originated as seagoing fare. It was known as the mariner’s breakfast, since it keeps well because the vinegar acts as a preservative. It then became known as “inn food“. The word, caponata, derives from the Latin word caupo, which means tavern or inn. The sweet and sour taste of the dish comes directly from the Arabs, as does the use of raisins. When the Arabs conquered Sicily, they saw an island covered with vineyards that had produced wine for millennia. They were Muslim and could not drink alcohol. So they picked the grapes, dried them in the sun and used them for cooking. Thus we have raisins.”

 

Caponata.Siciliana  copy small

 

It was around this time (900-1200 A.D.) when Sicilians began producing large quantities of white wine, particularly in the region between Palermo and Trapani. White wine was drunk cool and in its pure form. An optimal refreshment during the summer heat, white wine became the preferred beverage for travelers on horseback, who journeyed long distances at a time and rested overnight at caravansaries, or Arab-style inns that could accommodate caravans in their large courtyards.

 

FREDERIK II and how to eat Ricotta

ricotta cheese big copyAccording to Mr. Wright, one of the earliest mentions or depictions of ricotta is related to Sicily:“Professor Santi Correnti, chairman of the history department of the University of Catania and a preeminent historian of Sicily, writes that during the reign of the Sicilian king Frederick II, in the early 13th century, the king and his hunting party came across the hut of a dairy farmer making ricotta and, being ravenous, asked for some. Frederick  pulled out his bread loaf, poured the hot ricotta and whey on top and advised his retinue that : “cu’ non mancia ccu’ so’ cucchiaru lassa tutto ‘o zammataru” (those who don’t eat with his own spoon will leave all their ricotta behind).

Cannoli Palermitani by VRC copy”The first depiction of the making of ricotta is an illustration in the medical treatise known as the “Tacuinum sanitatis” (medieval health handbook), the Latin translation of the Arab physician Ibn Butlan’s eleventh century “Taqwim al-sihha.”From sweetened ricotta put over cuccia (a wheat berry pudding eaten on St. Lucy’s Day)or piped into cannoli, to ricotta salata grated over pasta (an aged, salted form of ricotta where the curds pressed in wicker baskets to drain and solidify), ricotta is omnipresent in Sicilian cuisine today. As far as how the Normans might have been served ricotta,looking at what Sicily produced, it might have been as simple as ricotta mixed with the island’s incomparable honey and sprinkled with almonds and pistachios.

 

 

DE NATURALI VINORUM HISTORY CARAVAGGIO AND TAVERNIERI

Andrea BacciIn 1500, an abstract on wines attributed to a certain Andrea Bacci, (Sant’Elpidio a Mare, 1524 – Rome, October 1600)  De Naturali Vinorum Historia, was written.Largely dedicated to Sicilian wines, the writing refers to I rossi dell’Etna (The Reds of Etna) and the wines of Val di Noto as being of high quality.

 

 

Enta by Vanvakys

On the wines 0f  the  PalermoCammarata and Agrigento regions, he wrote: “...in Cammarata the vines grow prolifically, and as tall as men, so rich in grapes that ten plants are enough to render a bottle of must… The red wine is very strong, rich in fragrance and flavor, it is optimal for long-term
preservation…The great wines of “Mongibello” (Etna) are good due to the natural warmth that springs from below ground… (while) the wines of Palermo are clear and light…”

Antico palmento _2

 

Even Pope Paul IV, during the XI century loved Sicilian wines, and was known to recommend Bianco d’Alcamo most of all.

 

 

 

 

K43692CARAVAG 1 Michelangelo Merisi or Amerighi da Caravaggio  or simply the Caravaggio, is in exile in Sicily, around 1608 : he’s one of my favorite painter of all time!… “Caravaggio’s novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of “chiaroscuro” like a black and white photographer…Caravaggio made his way to Sicily where he met his old friend Mario Minniti, who was now married and living in Syracuse. Together they set off on what amounted to a triumphal tour from Syracuse to Messina and, maybe, on to the island capital, Palermo. In Syracuse and Messina, Caravaggio continued to win prestigious and well-paid commissions. Among other works from this period are Burial of St. Lucy, The Raising of Lazarus, and Adoration of the Shepherds. His style continued to evolve, showing now friezes of figures isolated against vast empty backgrounds. “His great Sicilian altarpieces isolate their shadowy, pitifully poor figures in vast areas of darkness; they suggest the desperate fears and frailty of man, and at the same time convey, with a new yet desolate tenderness, the beauty of humility and of the meek, who shall inherit the earth.

 

 

 

 

vino bianco Alcamo edited Sicilian wines became so famous that they made for extremely profitable commerce for the VenetiansGenovesePisansFlorentines, and Jews. It was the beginning of a cultural period that lasted until “modern” times. The “cultural backlog” in Sicily, particularly among the agricultural sector, had kept the society attached to a somewhat feudal system, whereas the rest of Italy, and most of Europe, had developed into Republics and municipalities.

 

 

 

 

araldo medievale Caccamo  copy smallAs a consequence, Sicilian wine was commercialized by and for foreigners, therefore even nowadays used mostly as an additive for French, Spanish, and Northern Italian wines, leaving a legacy of wine culture limited merely to a handful of passionate barons, counts, and local croppers.
The business of wine did not adhere to many standards of quality at that time. Negligence, ignorance, and apathy accompanied Sicilian wine toward oblivion and mediocrity, with respect to other aspects of culture that were considered more important.

 

 

 

 

The-Merchant-of-VeniceIn fact, the business of Sicilian wine and produce in the North was managed almost entirely by those from Lombardy, a traffic pattern which led to the formation of La Maestranza dei Tavernieri or “The Majesty of the Public House Keepers”, in 1545.