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Ragusa Ibla and surrounding areas––known as Terre Iblee, the Hyblaean lands––at the southernmost part of the island of Sicily, is an area considered the cradle of unique flavors and ancient culinary history. Foods and recipes bear traces of all the many cultures that settled this area in the last 2,000 years which are also connected with the region’s cultural and spiritual endowment.
What makes the local food scene so special?
Cereals and local crops carpet the hills and plains, but the most thriving part of the local economy however is the area’s vegetables. Established especially on the sandy soils stretching from Vittoria to the coast, between Donnalucata and Scicli, and along the coast between Punta Secca and the Marina di Acate, Ispica, Noto and Porto Palo di Capopassero are miles of cultivations that provide Italian markets with eggplant, zucchini and the area’s jewels: tomatoes. Ciliegino, costoluto, datterino, and other varieties of plump vine ripened tomatoes from this area are the stars of local cuisine, made into in sauces, condiments, or canned and sun-dried, worked into paste and triple concentrate called strattu.
Food specialties unique to this part of Sicily are products like fennel-scented pork sausages and cured meats, stretched curd cheeses like provola and caciocavallo Ragusano, one of Sicily’s most ancient cheeses. Made from whole cow’s milk and shaped in to 2-foot rectangular bricks weighing 10kg, Ragusano ages hung on beams for 3 months in damp caves called maiazzé.
These appetizers are always served with local olives and delicious durum wheat sourdough bread, as well as other specialties such as arancine and local scaccia, which contrary to the Palermo sfincione bread, is made of thin sheets of dough layered with spinach and ricotta, cheese with broccoli, tomatoes or eggplant.
The area, crisscrossed by a thick web of dry stone walls that shape hills and fields, is also home to Monti Iblei DOP olive oil, made from a unique blend of the finest Hyblaean cultivars: Moresca, Tonda Iblea, Nocellara Etnea, Biancolilla, Siracusana and Nocellara Messinese.
Pasta dishes particular to this area include cavati e ravioli which is a curious plate of two different types of pasta: cavatelli and pockets filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and dressed with a pork meat ragout.
Maccu, a creamy soup made with fava beans, is also representative of the local cuisine. Ciciri co’ finucciedu a’ timpa, is a tasty dish made with chickpeas and fennel pollen served between February and April.
Main courses shine in recipes like costata ripiena (stuffed pork steak), knife-cut sausages, liatina (pork terrine in aspic) and iaddina co’ cinu (stuffed hen cooked on the day of the Patron Saint), as well as game dishes such as coniglio alla pattuìsa which is a rabbit stew in which the meat is marinated in wine. Originally the meat was tenderized in Port wine: hence the name pattuìsa, which is a dialectal shift of the word portoghese, Italian for “Portuguese.”
Offal lovers will enjoy Ragusa-style tripe and turciniuna, lamb entrails rolled up with onions, caciocavallo and parsley, cooked in a pan over low heat, usually during the Easter period.
Accustomed to the image of Ragusa and its surroundings set against the backdrop of the Hyblaean mountains, with its lowlands swathed in cultivations, olive groves and vineyards, we sometimes forget that the area boasts 80 km of coastline! Fresh seafood and sea-inspired cuisine benefit from the fishing ports of Donnalucata, Scoglitti and Pozzallo. Did you think we’d talk about Hyblaean cuisine and not mention its marine preparations? Sardi arrustuti (roast sardines) compete for the gold with tunnina fritta, which is a local recipe of thin slices of fried tuna seasoned with onion, tomato and oregano, and ‘mpanata di palummu, dogfish seasoned with tomato, fresh basil and onion. Sarde a beccafico and slow cooked cod “alla ghiotta” are more fish recipes popular in the area.
When it comes to sweets and dessert, Sicilians are true masters. In the Hyblaean area, there are plenty of traditional local pastries such as mucatoli (cookies stuffed with nuts), world famous cannoli with sheep’s’ milk ricotta and candied citrus, giuggiulena aka cubaita (sesame seed brittle), and characteristic ‘mpanatigghi, which are crescent-shaped pockets filled with almonds, chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, as well as ground meat. Yes, you read correctly, meat. ‘Mpanatigghi were most probably introduced in the 16th century by the Spanish during their domination of Sicily. The origin of the name deriving from the Spanish “empanadas” or “empanadillas” proves this, as well as the rather unusual combination of meat and chocolate so common in ancient Spanish culinary art. In the past centuries, game was used for the preparation of ‘mpanatigghi, nowadays commonly substituted with beef or veal. Curious anecdotes lie behind the recipe. Some maintain ‘mpanatigghi were born thanks to the nuns of a monastery, who (perhaps out of pity for the hard work the friars traveling between the various monasteries in the Lenten period) hid minced meat in the almond paste and chocolate filling of the pastries, which people were allowed to eat even in the period of fasting, since considered as lean food. According to others, however, the preparation of this pastry was linked to the use of game meats during periods of overabundant hunting.
Would you be surprised to know Hyblaean honey was mentioned by Virgil, Ovid and Theocritus? In ancient times, local honey was a renowned and sought after specialty. But finding it written about by William Shakespeare, on the other hand, is definitely strange. The honey is described in both Henry IV and in Julius Caesar and, unless you want to give credit to the rumors that maintain the Bard’s Sicilian origins, it’s a mystery where he may have tasted it. Sicilians practiced beekeping as early as 3,000 years ago. Organic thyme Honey from the Monti Iblei we enjoy to this day has not changed since ancient times. It’s great drizzled over aged cheeses, its aromatic characteristics are furthermore perfect for marinating raw meat or fish.
We can’t talk about Hyblaean confectionary without mentioning Modica chocolate. Made according to an ancient Aztec recipe for Xocolatl (that uses manual grinding instead of conching) which gives the chocolate a peculiar grainy texture and aromatic flavor. This technique was introduced in the Modica area by the Spaniards, during their 16th century domination, who in turn had “stolen” it from the Aztecs in Central America.
One of the prides of the Hyblaean territory is furthermore its wine. The southern part of Sicily is where some of the greatest wine cultures of the island has grown and developed around one of the area’s best-loved wines, Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG. With its typical cherry red hue, full velvety flavor and fruity bouquet, this wine is a blend of 50-70% nero d’Avola grape. which gives the wine strength and structure, and 30-50% frappato that lends elegance, softness and fruit aromas.
When you visit the Hyblaean area, next to the bagli farmstead buildings concealed behind thick walls, are incredible vineyards and wineries, with rows upon rows of vines, sustainable development projects, cutting-edge viticulture and brave entrepreneurial spirit.
If you’d like to learn more about Ragusa and the Hyblaean lands, you can browse our list of Ragusa experiences, or shoot us an email! We’ll be happy to provide further information on one of our favorite areas of Sicily.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.