Sicilia, or Sicilia A love letter to the food of Sicily to use its full title, pays homage to what chef and author Ben Tish describes as one of the oldest, most richly varied food cultures in Europe but also to an island “that is a frustratingly complex contradiction in terms” to use his own words.
Tish characterises the contradiction as thus: while Sicily is a frugal and peasant land with a “simple and robust cuisine” it is also a land of “shameless extravagance”. It is also a part of the Mediterranean that is home to some of the most diverse cuisine thanks to the island’s occupation by the Romans, Normans, Spaniards, French and Greek, although Tish’s main interest is with the culinary footprint left by the Moors and Berbers.
This is a topic particularly close to Tish’ heart, his last cookbook Moorish focused on the impact the ingredients and flavours of North Africa and the Arabic world had on the Mediterranean as a result of the Moors invasion and he is also chef-patron at Norma in Fitzrovia, a Sicilian-Moorish influenced restaurant.
As you might expect, therefore, alongside the more expected recipes - saffron arancini,; spaghetti with crab and chilli; ricotta, parmesan and lemon ravioli - Sicilia contains numerous ones for dishes only those familiar with the varied cuisine of this island will recognise. From impanata catanese, a Sicilian cheese and cauliflower bread ‘pie’, and braised tripe Ragusa-style - tripe is considered a delicacy in Sicily along with most other offal – made with blanched almonds, hazelnuts and aubergine, to baked analletti timballo, a pie-like creation made using aballetti pasta rings and a minced beef and pork sauce that is served in slices, there’s plenty for Italian food lovers to attempt for the first time.
Tish, who is also culinary director of the Stafford London in St James’s, is now an old hand at cookbooks and it’s not hard to see why his output it so popular. The chef’s calm passion for his topic is evident with each recipe accompanied by a brief explanation, whether it be history lesson or just a personal anecdote that sets it up nicely – he notes that his decidedly non-authentic dish of fusilli with pork, orange and mint ragu raised a few eyebrows when put on the menu at Norma but has since become a bestseller.
Chapters, which include ones devoted to bread, fritti, pasta and rice, vegetables, fish, meats, sweets and sauces, have pithy introductions that often neatly make the connection between Tish as a UK-based chef and his Sicilian topic – he describes acquiring an affinity with fritti from his upbringing in Skegness, “a deep-frying Mecca”, for example, while the popular street food dishes of grilled intestines and spleens are described as being fast food that beats McDonald’s.
Sicilia, a love letter to the food of Sicily
Author: Ben Tish
Number of pages: 305
Must try dish: Baked Sicilian analletti timballo
Publisher and price: Bloomsbury, £26