Monday, October 22, 2012

Sicily: Architecture and Cuisine

My first cookbook was titled Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily, a cookbook about the Sicilian folkloric cuisine known as cucina arabo-sicula (Arab-Sicilian cuisine).  This was not a cuisine that existed during the Arab presence in Sicily (827 – about 1230), but was a contemporary Sicilian cuisine believed to be dishes composed by what Sicilians took to be Arab influence.  A professor friend many years ago said when I mentioned I was writing such a cookbook: “that sound more like a dissertation topic than a cookbook.”
The idea for the book came to me years before that, when I was in Palermo and became enchanted by the architecture of some of the older palazzi and churches that I later learned could be described as examples of Arab-Norman architecture.  This led to an even greater fascination since I had never heard of any architecture described that way.  I remember though the church that set me on this road.  It was the Chiesa di San Cataldo in Palermo.  The Normans flourished in Sicily from 1060 to 1194 and the pre-existing Arab population flourished with them under relatively tolerant rule. 
The church was built around 1160 by admiral Majone di Bari.  The three red bulbous domes, the arches, and various cubic forms were typical of Islamic architecture while the combination of Arab and Norman builders, architects, and workmen is seen not only in the façade but in design aspects such as the simple forms derived from Norman military experience.
It was only a small leap from this church to some fabulous food.
[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

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