Food and farming

Wheat, wine and olive oil were the primary focus during the Byzantine period in Sicily.

Sicilian food is famous – it is also distinctive. The people of Sicily, with strong links to North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Near East, Greece and Anatolia and ultimately from Western Europe (aDNA), all brought new foods and recipes with them.

While the Byzantines focused on the three staples – wheat, wine and olive oil – the Muslims introduced vegetables and fruit from their dominions in the east. Caliphs sent each other presents of these exotic plants, which is how the orange made its way through Muslim countries from Burma to Seville. Plant remains found in Mazara include spinach, aubergine, melon and lemon.

Important cash crops arrived in Muslim Sicily too: cotton to supply the demand for light white garments and sugar cane, which was refined in Palermo using characteristic pots. Gardens and orchards also were created outside towns.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) Iranian aubergine (Solanum melongena)
Rice (Oryza sativa) Melon (Cucumis melo)
Sorghum (Sorghum sp.) Durum wheat (Triticum durum)
Sugarcane (Saccharum officina rum) Citrus (Citrus)
Elephant ear (Colocasia) Bananas (Musa sp.)
Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) Coconut (Cocos nucifera)
Mango (Mangifera indica) Black mulberry (Morus nigra)
Cotton (Gossypium sp.) Watermelon (Cytrullus lanatus)
Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus)  

The expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean led to the introduction of new plants of oriental and tropical origin to Sicily (Watson, 1983).

Meat was also consumed throughout Sicily. Sheep were the most popular domesticated animal and were eaten in both Byzantine and Muslim times. They were bred in increasingly large sizes, but by Norman times they were older when killed and so were likely bred for the wool trade rather than for food. The upper classes were passionate chasers of deer in Muslim and Norman times.

The farming of sheep, deer and pigs varied during the Islamic and Norman periods. Click to enlarge

Veronica Aniceti's study of animal bones showed that pork was rarely eaten in the Muslim towns, where orthodox Muslims would likely refrain for religious reasons. However, in rural settlements the farmers (who were probably Christians) carried on keeping pigs, and by the Norman period they had been reintroduced nearly everywhere. Chickens were always popular in Sicily. Although initially mainly rural, from the Muslim period they were increasingly found in urban settings where they were probably fenced in and fed on scraps from human meals.

Clear differences exist in pig production between the Islamic and Norman periods. Click to enlarge

Apart from examining the rubbish left in pits (as at Mazara) the archaeologists had two other ways for determining what people ate. Organic residue analysis (ORA) extracts the organic compounds left in the porous walls of cooking pots, and identifies them by comparing these with modern specimens. Jasmine Lundy found a great many variations in Muslim and Norman cooking pots. This was probably due to varying uses, but there were some interesting trends in the Muslim examples: wine and pork fat was used for cooking and some pots were dedicated to dairy products (milk, cheese) at rural Castronovo. Interestingly, these were not encountered in urban Palermo. Stable isotope analyses of carbon and nitrogen compounds is another of investigating diet: here the evidence is inside the skeleton and tell whether fish or meat is preferred. The same method can be used to see what animals were eating.

The Sicilian Muslims were probably responsible for some important innovations in farming, for example managing water to provide irrigated terraces to grow fruit. The legacy of North African and Near Eastern cooking is still strong in Sicily - for example:

  Artichokes in Vine Leaves

The wild form of artichokes is native of the Mediterranean but its domestication remains obscure. The domestication process began during the Roman period, perhaps in Sicily. Artichokes as we know them seem to have been spread by Arabs across the Mediterranean during the early Middle Ages.
  Bruschetta with Vine Roasted Tomatoes

Toasting bread and accompanying it with garlic and olive oil seems to be a habit that dates back to the Roman period. Tomatoes, on the other hand, come from the American continent and were only introduced into Italy during the 15th century. They were first used as an ornamental fruit before becoming an essential part of Italian cuisine.
  Arancini with Spinach and Mushrooms

Spinach is one of the many new foods introduced into Sicilian cuisine under Arab rule between the 9th and 11th centuries. Arancini - stuffed rice balls, coated with bread crumbs and fried - are a common Sicilian dish.
  Lemon Curd Tartlet

Citrus are part of the many new foods introduced into Sicilian cuisine under Arab rule between the 9th and 11th centuries. Pottery found in Sicily may have been used to refine sugar from sugar cane.
  Melon cubes

Watermelons, melons and cumcumber are part of the many new plants introduced into Sicilian cuisine under Arab rule between the 9th and 11th centuries. Cucumber and melon seeds has been identified by archaeobotanists in Mazara del Vallo (East of Sicily) as early as the 11th century.
  Biscotti with almonds

The almond tree originated in the region of present-day Iran, and was one of the first domesticated trees. Perhaps imported into Italy by the Romans, the almond was a popular fruit, also used in Arab cuisine.