Anthropologist rediscovers multicultural roots of Sicilian cuisine and takes it on a culinary adventure of a lifetime

The story behind food is what has always driven Melissa Muller to want to discover and share gastronomic antiquity with people. As an anthropologist and chef, she owned restaurants in New York City focusing on the underrepresented nuanced Sicilian recipes she grew up with. Muller is also the author of a cookbook, Sicily, which goes beyond just recipes, but in the history and cultural nuance of ancient recipes and the history of Sicily.

After years of turmoil in New York City, Muller decided to change his life completely. Almost a decade ago, she decided to settle in Sicily, where she fell even more deeply in love with the land where her grandmother came from, the largest island in the Mediterranean. Sicily, the place she visited with enthusiasm every summer since her childhood. Sicily also became the backdrop for her romance, where she met and fell in love with her husband, Fabio Sireci. All roads led her to Sicily.

Together, Melissa and Fabio have developed the vineyard of her family, Feudo Montoni, which now also offers organic specialty products specific to the region they cultivate and cultivate on their vast hectares which surround the estate. Sicilian grape varieties of lentils, chickpeas and ancient grains for example. Everything is done as before.

“Ever since I was a student at Columbia University, I have been fascinated by how the history of food boils down to what we know today. All of these different ingredients arrived at a specific time in history, through the different conquests and dominions of Sicily, and yet the dish we eat today is now known as Sicilian. My constant quest is to discover the origins of today’s Sicilian cuisine with a focus on long lost culinary traditions. To really know the food of the region is to know the roots of the island’s culture and history, ”explains Muller.

Muller and her husband live in the remote inland countryside nearly 100 kilometers from Palermo. The entire estate is surrounded by wheat fields which, for centuries, have naturally created a barrier for the vineyard, protecting it from both genetic hybridization and chemical contamination that can come from neighboring farms. For generations, the Sireci family has cultivated native high altitude Sicilian grapes, including Nero D’Avola, which features notes of calament, eucalyptus and frankincense, all herbs that grow wild on the land. ‘Isle.

Living in this remote area of ​​Sicily is for Muller the ultimate experience, “The farm is a perfect observatory for me to dive even deeper into the intriguing and mysterious history of Sicily”. Muller is currently putting together stories and recipes for a second book, which will focus on his journey from Manhattan to the remote farmhouse as well as the traditions of the island’s uncontaminated inner heart. “It was refreshing to come out of the pandemic, in this amazing historical moment, and a few years ago I had left Manhattan and left the restaurants because I had found the rawest version of Sicily here. I think that. that’s where the luxury is. I love that everything is organic, and it’s not just the wine we make, but it’s also in the ancient grains, and chickpeas, that we grow , I am focusing on the heritage and origin of these ingredients. ”

In recent years, there has been an increased awareness and understanding of what it means to be organic, but also the ethics of how food is grown, how the people who grow the crops are treated and the importance of treating the whole ecosystem. The organic philosophy of food cultivation must go beyond whether or not pesticides are used – but also the humanitarian ecosystem of how we treat the people who are part of it.

As soon as Muller married her husband, one of the first things she did was buy a plot of land next to the vineyard to start producing organic produce, she tells Forbes how bad this moment has been. been incredibly liberating, “organic farming brings more work to the local people. economic, but when not done ethically, it can also make people sick. So I’m adamant about agricultural farming. ethical. I bought my own land to save it organically. I took this land that was once used in a non-organic way and we are going back to give it dignity, in an area which is an incredible oasis but also a sometimes forgotten region of the world, ”explains Muller.

The lack of development in Sicily and much of southern Italy has a positive side as much of it remains intact and can become a pioneer region for the cultivation of organic products and can provide agricultural opportunities. more ethical. “All the food and ingredients that are now in Sicily come from the battle for this island. It is an earthly paradise, if you remove the politics and rutted roads and only focus on the island itself geographically, it is clear why this island has been fought over for centuries. It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and it was desired even for its religious purposes, ”explains Muller.

The culinary diversity and the richness of the ingredients are in large part due to the centuries of invasion, conquest and trade from which the island has benefited and from which it ultimately benefited. Muller writes on the emblematic dish of Sicily: Pasta con le Sarde, or Pasta with sardines. An incredibly tasty dish made up of inexpensive items that have become iconic of the island. Flavored with some of the native ingredients like wild fennel and sardines which swim in abundance in the sea, often used as bait for larger, more desirable fish. Muller writes on the legend of the creation of this iconic dish thanks to a Muslim general, Eufemio, and his chef: “When he landed in Sicily during the conquest of the island, Eufemio was forced to feed his troops with a combination of North Africa and fruits of the Sicilian island. Its chef combined Sicilian sardines and wild fennel with his offering of raisins, pine nuts and saffron ”, and thus one of the happiest mixes for the palate was born.

“In each dish, you see that there is so much history. Caponata, for example, there is the eggplant which arrives from the Arab period, the tomato, introduced from the Spanish period which comes from the Americas, the sugar introduced by the Arabs, it is all centuries of food ”, explains Muller. .

Even the dependence on mother nature influenced the Sicilian culinary traditions that are still being prepared today. Preserving food by cooking and canning fruits, vegetables and even seafood. “Historically, before the introduction of refrigeration and modern technology, Mother Nature provided us with the raw elements to prevent food. to spoil yourself: the sun, the salt, the air, the ice, the wind. Today, this addiction to nature is still an important part of Sicilian cuisine. Food preservation is an important way to keep the typical Sicilian flavors and aromas alive at all times cooked in a succulent caponata, many seasons of fruits and vegetables are extremely brief; preserving them allows us to extend their seasons, ”writes Muller.

One of the most beautiful things that rich and vast Sicily has to offer is variety. Here you can find it all, as some of the world’s greatest cultures have all set foot on the island at some point, leaving a piece of their culture behind allowing a new culture to emerge: the Sicilian.

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