Syracuse on the Ionian and its Cuisine

Castello Maniace in Ortygia in Syracuse

Castello Maniace in Ortygia in Syracuse

The cooking of Syracuse, the beautiful classical city of Sicily on the Ionian Sea, is marked by highly aromatic foods in combination with fresh vegetables and seafood. This style of cooking is sometimes described as Baroque. The Baroque era in architecture, art, and music was a turning away from the ordered reality of the universe as conceived by the Renaissance to a more fanciful, extravagant, and flamboyant conceptualizing of everyday life. In the realm of gastronomy the baroque is evidenced in lush flavor melodies, voluptuous tastes, and ingenious combinations of ingredients.

The gastronomic heritage of Syracuse is as old as the first Greek colonies established their in ancient times. Syracuse or Gela is said to be the home of Archestratus, one of the earliest writers on cuisine whose only known work was a gastronomic poem written about 348 B.C., called the Hedypatheia, which can be translated as the “Life of Luxury.” During the Greek era Syracuse was known for its elaborate cuisine and no less than the great philosopher Plato criticized the city’s culinary excess.

One typical style of cooking in Syracuse are dishes known as being cooked in stemperata. Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce.” The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.

The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the then prevailing theory of dietetics prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it. Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing. In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.

Arriciola alla Ghiotta (Amberjack in Sauce)

Arriciola alla Ghiotta (Amberjack in Sauce)

Arriciola alla Ghiotta (Amberjack in Sauce)

For a taste of some Syracusean dishes–not necessarily ones called stemperata– give the following simple dishes a try:

Arriciola in Ghiotta

Mezzani Ziti with Syracuse-style Sauce

Penne with Syracuse-style Sauce

 

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