I became interested in what would be grown in an heirloom Sicilian garden after my mom, cousin and sister’s trip to Sicily this summer. My grandpa immigrated as a child from Termini, Sicily. He loved cooking with his mom in the kitchen and kept the Sicilian cooking traditions alive in the family. Although we are no longer blessed with him in person, we have many memories and recipes that keep his memory alive.
Sicily is a unique blend of many cultures having been conquered by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, and finally unified with Italy in 1860 and was given the status of an autonomous region of Italy in 1946.
Greek influences include olives, broad beans, and pistachios. From the Arabs came apricots, citrus, sweet melons, pine nuts, aromatic herbs like saffron, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, raisins, and sugar. They also introduced tuna fishing. The Spanish introduced New World natives like chocolate, corn, tomatoes, and peppers. Being an island, fresh fish is a intricate part of the food, particularly anchovies and sardines.
Even with the diverse background of many cultures having made Sicily home through the ages, Sicilian cuisine preparation is simple with just a few ingredients, letting the flavors of each shine through. Fresh vegetables are used prominently.
An organic Italian kitchen garden is called l’orto biologico. For the heirloom varieties, I did a lot of searching on the internet and Sicilian cookbooks. It was hard to find! A great resource was Slow Food’s Ark of Taste and Presidio. Slow Food actually originated in Italy to preserve food traditions that were being lost in our modern times.
As with all Italian gardens, Mediterranean herbs play a big role. Thyme, Salina and Pantelleria capers, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, basil, wild fennel, garlic, sage, bay, geranium, lemon verbena, lavender, parsley (Gigante D’Italia, Castalogno) and mint, particularly spearmint, have featured prominently in Sicilian gardens for centuries. Ispica sesame seeds are also a local heirloom.
Apples-Cipudda, Cirino, and Cola
Wild black cherry (Prunus cerasus)
Fig trees (can get hardy figs that can withstand our Midwest winters)
Lemons-Messina Interdonato and Verdello
Melons-Alcamo Purceddu and Paceco Cartucciaro
Peaches-Bivona, late-harvest Leonforte, and Etna Tabacchiera
Ragusa Carrubo fruit
Strawberries-Maletto, Sciacca, and Ribera strawberries
Sicilians are big on collecting wild greens which you can also easily grow in your garden. These include arugula, asparagus, calamint, plantain, chickweed, Good King Henry, borage, wild mustards (mazzareddi, cavolicelli di vigna, senapa), purslane, dandelions, salad burnet, bitter cress (sparacelli amari), sorrel, shepherds purce, wild chicory, chard (salachi), mallow and wood sorrel (agriduci), and amaranth.
The nuts that are popular in Sicily include Noto almonds (you can get Midwest hardy almond trees) and Bronte pistachios (there are varieties hardy down to Zone 4).
Artichokes and Cardoons-Violetta (hardy to Zone 6 per Territorial Seed Co.) and Monfi Spiny
Broad beans-Sweet Lorane, Windsor, Modica Cottoia, Leonforte
Green Beans-Romano, Roma (bush and pole) like Burro d’Ingegnoli, Garrafal Oro, Trionfo Violetta
Shelling beans-Borletto, Cannelloni types, Polizzi Badda, Scicli Cosaruciaru
Broccoli- Broccoli di Rape (cime di rape), Haloan Green Sprouting, Calabrese, De Coco, Purple Sprouting, Purple broccoli
Carrots-parsnips used to be the standard
Chard-Argentocta, White stem
Chicories-Radicchio, Endive, Red Treviso, Grumolo, including dandelions
Eggplant-Violetta Lunga, Rosa Bianca, White Italian, Listada de Gandia. A Sicilian favorite is Tunisian eggplant with its thin skin.
Garlic-Nubia Red, Chet’s Italian, White Italian, Early Red Italian, Italian Late
Greens-Broccoli di rape, Rosolini (similar to collard greens), endives
Kale-Lucinato (grown in Tuscany for centuries)
Lentils-Ustica and Villalba
Lettuce-Romaine, Butterhead, Lolla Rossa, Lollo Biondo, Lolla Rossa, Resisto
Olive-Minuta (not hardy for Midwest winters)
Onions-Cippolini, Italian Red Torpedo, Breme Red, Cipudda Portannisa, Giarratana (large, sweet onion). Sicily is in a short day onion area.
Peppers-Spicy varieties like Cayenne, De Arbol, Rosso di Sicilia a Mazzetti, and Piccante Calabrese (cherry type). Sweet varieties like Marconi Giallo, Rosso Dolce Appendere, Corno di Toro (shaped like a bull horn)
Spinach-many varieties, Italian Summer
Squash-Zuchetta or Zucchino Rampicante, Trombocino, Zucchini
Tomatoes-First tomatoes to reach Sicily were yellow and round. This is where the nickname pomodori (“golden apples”) comes from. Sicilian Saucer, Ciliegino cherry tomato, Inciardi (oxheart type) Licatese medium size, Pachino, Bilici Valley Siccagno. Prinicipe Borghese and Belmonte are favorites in Sicily from the Italian mainland.
For seasoning, you can try Trapani sea salt or a sheep's cheese. Sheep are much better suited to the island than cows. A commonly used cheese in Sicily that is not hard to find in the US is pecorino. Slow Food Ark of Taste Sicilian cheese include Piacentino, Ragusano, Modicana, Madonic Provola, Belice Vastedda, Maiorchino, Nebrodi Provola, Ricotta Moscia, or Sicilian Canestrato.
Types in italics are listed in Slow Food Ark of Taste and/or Presidio for being rare and heirloom to Sicily.
For more tips on organic and heirloom gardening in small spaces and containers, see Melodie’s blog at Victory Garden on the Golf Course.
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