Wheat. Hard durum wheat. To truly understand Sicily, one must understand that the act of cultivating grains on the island has probably been the main economic engine of the region for millennia. The Greeks started it, but the Romans made it their main business in Sicily. They had an empire to feed, after all.
From the planting season, which is sometime in the early fall, through to the harvest, which can go until August, the crop (and the political leadership) put the island’s inhabitants on a schedule and gave them a common cause. Add in a religious practice of venerating the culture’s goddess or patroness or patron of wheat, grain, and fertility, and voila! you have a strong civilization. Wheat cultivation was back-breaking work before mechanization, so let’s remember who was responsible for the labor: a large class of “serfs” (Let’s be honest. That’s a nice name for slaves.) who lived on feudal lands throughout the island’s vast hinterland. To keep this post reasonably short, I’ll summarize by saying popular and economic history unfolds from there.
Photographed last week, you can see where we are currently in the year’s growth cycle: young, emerald-green grasses are burgeoning in the dark, mineral-rich soil. Sicily will look like Ireland in a handful of weeks with seas of grasses everywhere you turn. Different species of wheat grains are cultivated throughout the region, and once mature, they are brought to the mill (when exactly depends on from which microclimate they come) from June through August. The grain pictured has already gone through the first steps of a multi-layered process to prepare it for grinding into flour.
Last week, I was hosted by Annalisa Pompeo of GoSicily culinary experiences at Molino Riggi grist mill in Caltanissetta, where I learned about different wheat varieties and the course taken to achieve various blends of flour. I must admit, I am amazed about the science and technology that goes into it all. It is complex! The outstanding pizza and pasta we ate for lunch that day that was made from flour ground at the mill made me a convert. I will never look at bread–or the fields in the center of Sicily–the same way again.
Caltanissetta, Sicily, Italy