It is said that agriculture first emerged in Eastern Anatolia, now modern Turkey, some 12,000 years ago. Our ancient ancestors settled, planted and harvested in one place giving rise to civilizations. No longer wandering to forage and hunt, they began to cultivate and thus could rely on a steady source of food. This Fertile Crescent may have hosted the beginnings of agriculture, but the art of eating, I believe, must have certainly been birthed in Italy.
Several months ago, a friend and colleague in the art of eating and wine tasting asked if I would like to accompany her on a tasting excursion in Sicily. Both of us are connoisseurs of fine fresh organic faire and delectable wines in far-flung places. I could not decline.
As soon as the plane anointed the ground, I notice the strength of the Mediterranean sun. The light crashes against ancient structures, some are perfect white stucco facades, others graduating into centuries of decay. This place is old. Evidence of human habitation goes back 12,000 years here as well.
The peoples of Sicily were seafarers and this place, at the toe of the boot of Italy, was a strategic place of trade. As civilizations grew, fueled by the agricultural revolution, this island became desired for its location. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Swabians, Visigoths and Vandals sailed in and conquered. Intermingling and contributing their culinary traditions and tastes. The art of eating here originated, not from just one culture, but a mélange of many, a kaleidoscope of flavors and gastronomy; an organic international cuisine representing a potpourri of peoples.
Not only is the Island nation blessed with this miscellany, but the climate and sun, currents and soil contribute to the unique flavor profiles of the harvest. Mandarins hang heavy and tart amongst ancient olives groves that produce fragrant and citrusy oil. Swirling vineyards boast voluptuous grapes that carry the essence of Vulcan minerals to my glass of wine. This is pure terroir mixed with migration and flair … and so I am ready to eat.
After an undulating drive through craggy valleys and coastal peaks, we arrive at the antediluvian town of Cefalu. We walk the archaic cobblestones, take in the ocean air and find a small ristorante that welcomes us in with fine aromas. Our host seats us, pours a carafe of a not-so-simple house wine. In it, I taste luscious berries and obsidian, the inside of a cathedral. He asks us if we perhaps want the buffet and my mind goes straight away to withered vegetables and soggy meats languishing in hot tables. But no!
Instead we are lead to the “cucina” or kitchen where momma and daughter have been cooking for many hours. The platters of crisp breaded eggplant are nestled warmly against great mounds of broccoli, cauliflower and native savory greens. Voluminous bowls of cucumber, basil, potatoes and caper salad are anointed with fine Sicilian olive oil. White fresh cheese wearing smoky rinds are interlaced with an array of succulent pancetta, prosciutto, capocollo, soppressata, salumi, a feast of salty porcine pleasure. Green salad with Roma tomato and soft balls of fresh mozzarella are graced with a simple gratin of carrot. All of these dishes and more are brought ceremoniously to our table, one after the other, until we are forced to take a pause. Just one more dip of sour crusty bread in pools of green nectar, another sip of red divinity on the tongue.
We have finished the appetizer course and … are we ready for pasta? Alas this is only lunch and if we indulge to temptation we will certainly be unable to trundle away gracefully. A diminutive cup of cappuccino laced with a splash of Sambuca provides the finishing touch.
We drive away satiated and my thoughts turn to the landscape which produced much of the food we just imbibed. Here there are no goliath rows of mono-cropping to be seen. Every valley every slope is lined with a parcel of red Romas, a petite vineyard of pino, a diminutive olive grove. The farms are small and well kept. These agriculturalists, who spring from the ancient traditions, have a deep understanding and care for the soil. Most are organic by nature and tradition. The balance of soil fecundity and fertility have been practiced and nurtured here for centuries . No need for nitrate-laden fertilizers or carcinogenic herbicides. The ancient ways of planting and producing food has served for centuries and continues today through these small crofters.
This first meal, this first view, has rendered me to ponder how organic agriculture isn’t new, but indeed is the original conventional. Practicing organic methods is the way ancient growers, ranchers and cultivators have been holding and nurturing the soil for thousands of years. From time out of mind, we must not forget the natural balance of biology and ecology. I have Sicily to thank for offering up this remembrance of our organic traditions.