THE NORMANS: FEDERICO II, WHITE WINES AND AGRODOLCE
The 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.
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.
The 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.”
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
According 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).
”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.