The Mediterranean connects three continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. The peoples that have settled in the Mediterranean have developed various languages, religions, philosophies, and cultures which represent distinct mixtures of nuances from each civilization. This is especially evident in the world-famous cuisines that make up the region, revealing the strong influence of the Arab world.
I first experienced the Mediterranean as the setting of the summer vacations of my youth. It is the Mediterranean Sea of holidays, of deep blue and turquoise waters, and salt on the skin after drying from a swim on a sunny beach. Traveling to its eastern and southern extremities, I noticed that the Mediterranean was a veritable bridge between peoples which inspired and witnessed some of the most significant events of humanity.
I noticed that the Mediterranean was a veritable bridge between peoples which inspired and witnessed some of the most significant events of humanity.
It is that ever-present legacy that makes swimming in that sea so special. And it is also possible to “eat” the supranational entity that is the Mediterranean to understand the “inclusivity of its specificities,” or rather, to grasp the essence of its multicultural vocation.
In that respect, enjoying a cannolo or allowing the scent of a lemon to release nostalgic memories of youth on the Amalfi Coast offers the chance to immerse myself in history. Indeed, these two foods serve as symbols, metaphors even, for the wealth of culture that the Arabs exported to Sicily – part of present-day Italy – from the ninth to the tenth centuries.
The Arab influence in Sicily — the Emirate of Siqilliya (صقلية) — ranges from food and culture to architecture and art. It also includes urban planning, fishing, agriculture, and irrigation techniques — more than many Sicilians would admit, considering many are more forthcoming about their Norman/Viking roots.
Lemons and Cannoli, Memories of Sicily and Amalfi
Among the wonders that the Arabs discovered when they traded, then invaded and settled in the lands that once made up the Persian Empire, India, and China, were beautiful fruits hanging from fragrant trees. The Arabs would call these fruits laymun (ليمون), the very same fruit Italians call “limoni” and English speakers know as “lemons.” The cultivation of lemons, along with other citrus and fruit varieties in the Arab empire, spread from the East toward Syria, Palestine, and North Africa.
They also arrived in Italy. While it appears that the Romans were already aware of lemons – or more likely cedar fruits – as depictions of these would adorn the mosaics of Roman North Africa and the frescoes of Pompeii’s patrician houses, these were likely imported rather than grown in-situ. What is certain is that the Arabs brought the lemon from the East to Persia, Iraq, and Egypt in the seventh century AD.
Arab agricultural and irrigation techniques had achieved sufficient sophistication around the ninth century (third century AH), as texts from that period have revealed. The most famous of those, and the most relevant perhaps in regards to the citrus fruits, are Abu Bakr ibn Wahshiya’s “Al-filāḥah al-nabaṭīyah” (Nabataean Agriculture), a veritable treatise of agronomy; and Ibn al-Awwam’s “Kitab al-filaha,” (Book of Agriculture) which devotes an entire chapter to the lemon. The texts reveal that the Arabs improved irrigation systems using canals and cisterns while introducing new cultivation techniques, which allowed for improvement in harvesting existing species and the introduction of new ones.
Such developments allowed the Arabs to expand the fruit nomenclature, as numerous varieties of the same fruits were produced. Furthermore, it allowed them to transfer the techniques and assortments in the lands of the empire and in those that bordered it. Thus, Sicily, as well as Spain (al-Andalus), served as important centers of food production and military expansion.
The port of Amalfi would come to play a primary role in the exchange of the “new” Arab products such as lemons, cane sugar, and silk to what was then the Holy Roman Empire.
The port of Amalfi (just south of Naples) would come to play a primary role in the exchange of the “new” Arab products such as lemons, cane sugar, and silk to what was then the Holy Roman Empire (which included most of central Europe). Amalfi, through its close relationship with the Byzantine empire and Constantinople, built close ties with the Arabs of Sicily, becoming an essential bridge between the eastern and western borders of the Mediterranean.
Amalfi and Sicily, therefore, became important centers for the transfer of products, culture, and knowledge from the Arabs to Europe. The Abbasid period cooks invented new recipes in the palaces of Baghdad and al-Fustat (Cairo) in the ninth and tenth centuries. Based on the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables the Arabs had discovered, these would spread throughout the empire.
Candy and the Advantages of Mixing Foods and Cultures
This brings me back to my dear cannolo. It is filled with candied citrus fruits, from oranges to cider and lemon. It is also filled with evidence of the great transfer of knowledge and traditions that are the foundation of present-day Italian cuisine. The very term candy, or candied, derives from the Arabic “qandi” (قندي), which indicates the sugar cane juice used that the Arabs used to preserve and transform flowers and fruits – especially citrus – into sweet delicacies. Candied orange peel and other fruits have become one of the quintessential specialties of Sicily and Amalfi, as it happens.
Still, the candied fruit represents but one of the many aspects of Arab civilization that every cannolo delicacy symbolizes. One of the most credible stories regarding the origin of the tube-shaped dessert is that is was created by the concubines in the harem of the Sultan of Qalt el-Nisa’ (e.g. Fortress of Women) – today’s Caltanissetta – to symbolize the virility of their lord. Today, there isn’t an Italian pastry shop – within and beyond Italian borders – that does not offer cannoli to eat together with an espresso coffee (and as for coffee, and café culture, its adoption in Europe comes by way of the Ottomans).
The cannolo’s history may date back to the Greeks and Romans, who enjoyed a banana-shaped dessert filled with ricotta, almonds, and honey. But it was the Arabs who elevated the taste experience through the addition of candied fruit. As a gluttonous connoisseur of food and desserts, I deem that the Sicilians make some of the most exquisite treats that the human mind has ever conceived.
The cannolo may date back to the Greeks and Romans, who enjoyed a banana-shaped dessert filled with ricotta, almonds, and honey. But it was the Arabs who elevated the taste experience.
And they owe it all to the Arabs, particularly those who arrived from Fatimid, Tunisia, a mere 90 miles from present-day Palermo. They brought with them the sugar cane and the principles of modern confectionery; along with the sorbet which comes from “sharbat,” an iced drink the Arabs made using snow from Mount Etna (near Catania), preserved in salt, a technique common in Middle Eastern courts.
The famous granita that southern Italians enjoy in the summer, is a direct descendant. As is the Limoncello liquor sold throughout the Amalfi Coast. And what of hemp, rice, artichokes, spinach, capers, and eggplants? When I eat eggplant parmigiana or caponata, couscous, arancini, pane e panelle, peperonata, sweet panzerotti (katayef), or cassata – which the Arabs call “Qas’a” – I never forget to exclaim “Allah!” in praise, as a way to thank the Arab geniuses who introduced these wonderful tastes to Sicily and Italy.
In that respect, while Sicily has often been invaded and dominated, it might be suggested that as with the Greeks, who settled in the island giving it its civilizational foundation, the Arabs too assimilated and integrated Sicily far more than they colonized it. Indeed, even the Normans, whom the Vatican urged to expel the Arabs from Sicily, remained mesmerized by the beauty and civilization they witnessed. Thus, the Normans did not expel or persecute them – as would happen in Spain in the 15th century.
Comparably, the Arabs educated Emperor Frederick II, the Great, who built one of the oldest universities in the world (the first secular one) in Naples. Frederick would become embroiled in the Crusades, but he is said to have led only one, without leaving victims or bloodshed.
Thus, even in the midst of the European nationalism and imperialism frenzy of the 19th century, the German historian Theodor Mommsen was able to observe that the peoples of the Mediterranean have a common foundation.
Ultimately, the fabulous cuisine of Sicily and its Arab legacy serves as a metaphor for the beauty that comes from “mixing,” not just foods and recipes, but peoples. Scientists believe that diverse genes produce stronger and more beautiful specimens. If one were to apply this notion to culture, the taste of Sicilian gastronomy certainly proves it.