top of page
  • Writer's pictureGiovanni

The origins of pasta with sardines: between history and legend

Sardines pasta is a traditional Sicilian speciality and as usual for many Italian food recipes, it has a story behind each dish, a mix between history and legend.

Many of the recipes are born almost by chance, they arise from the art of getting by, an essential routine to bring to put food on the table. A simple dish but rich not in taste and nutrition made with few simple ingredients available. Staple food recipes over the years turn into traditional recipes.

Today, I would like to share the origin story of Sardine Pasta. Folklore tells that it was an Arab cook who invented this dish at the beginning of the 9th Century A.D, the era of the Byzantine empire in Sicily. During this period, there was a commander named Eufemio da Messina, he had fallen madly in love with a nun. He tried everything to ensure that his love was repaid and that she would abandon her vows to be with him. The Nun returned his love and they both had to leave the island to pursue their love. Euphemio had never hidden his hostility against Byzantine domination. This was a great opportunity, he led some rebels to fight the Byzantine soldiers with the hope of ultimately being able to gain independence from Byzantine ruling. Unfortunately, Euphemio's plan was unsuccessful, and he was captured. The Byzantine rules wanted to exile Euphemio out of the island forever. Euphemio retreated and spent some time in Africa plotting for revenge. He allied himself with the Saracens, Arab Muslim soldiers. He led the Saracens fleets on a military campaign to conquer Sicily. His soul was burning with fire for revenge.

The fleets arrived in Mazara del Vallo, in Capo Granitola. The journey had not been easy at all, a journey that had put a strain on the Saracens. They were tired, hungry and weak. They needed something to eat that would allow them to feel better before proceeding with their mission. Eugenio da Messina's cook knew he had to create something. The hunger was extreme and he had many mouths to feed. The soldiers needed to be nourished, but the ingredients available were a few. He decided to accept all the gifts that this wonderful island offered, both those of the sea and those of the land - sardines, wild fennel, saffron, pine nuts and more. Sardines to which he added fresh fennel to add a little the intense flavour of the fish and give freshness to the dish. Pine nuts that were considered very useful to avoid any intoxication, saffron to better mix the flavours. With these components, he gave life to an exceptional condiment for pasta, which remained in history.

During the celebrations for St. Joseph, on March 19, the women and men of Sicily set decorative tables in the churches to honour this important saint. They offer the saint delicious food like the decorative bread of St. Joseph especially in Salemi, as a thank you for the graces received and to request protection for families. Among the many courses that can not miss on the tables are pasta with sardines. This explains why all Sicilians are used to enjoy this exceptional first course for San Giuseppe (the Italian name for St Joseph).

The pasta with sardines is so good, tasty, and loved by Sicilians, certainly not to be eaten only on this occasion. Pasta with sardines is always perfect to enjoy on a Sunday lunch as well as on any other day of the week. The month of March and September are the best time to enjoy Sardine pasta as these two months are the best season for Sardines! The choice of the best and freshest Sardines is of fundamental importance to ensure that your dish can be tasty. However, many other ingredients are also needed, such as wild fennel, pine nuts and raisins. The wild fennel allows you to give freshness to the dish and offers that light hint of liquorice, which goes perfectly with all the other tastes that take the field. The roasted pine nuts enhance with their strength the other flavours and give crunchiness, while the raisins are the sweet, slightly sour element, which balances everything at best creating a truly incredible harmony. Pasta with sardines is for the reasons a real work of art of flavours!

Read here for the full Sardine Pasta recipe!