Salta direttamente ai contenuti

Daily life and dietary customs in Sicilian-Norman Sicily

PDF Print E-mail
Home arrowDaily life and dietary customs in Sicilian-Norman Sicily

William II, the King of Sicily, had two high ranking prelates as preceptors:  the French Peter de Blois and the English Walter of the Mill. Later on, Walter became the Archbishop of Palermo and the reconstruction of the Cathedral of this city is owing to him. Peter, a man of letters and a vastly cultured intellectual, left Sicily in a hurry after a few years which he spent living at the court of Palermo, due to certain conspiracies in which he was rightly or wrongly involved. He took refuge in England and the island wasn’t synonymous with good memories for him, to those who asked him to return he replied saying that he would never have done so, listing various reasons associated with the untrustworthy character of the people and the adverse nature of the land. Among other things, he considered Sicilian wine to be sour and he stigmatised the dietary customs of the islanders, saying: “Your people are mistaken in keeping to such a miserable diet because they feed on a great quantity of celery and fennel which constitute almost all of their sustenance, these foods generate a humour that causes the body to rot and leads the people to the border of serious illnesses and even death…”.
In truth, Peter de Blois did not like the excellent salad that is still present today, especially on the tables of the people of Palermo. Moreover, he did not recommend an adequate alternative diet that would be suitable for the financial possibilities of the population of the time.
Criticism of the dietary customs of Palermo in the Middle Ages was certainly nothing new: approximately two centuries previously, upon visiting Palermo (972-973) Ibn Awaqal, a traveller, merchant and Iraqi reporter noticed the great number of shops and butchers, approximately one hundred and fifty, but what surprised him even more was the amount of onions that the population of Palermo ate on a daily basis: “It is truly this food, that they love and that they eat raw, that spoils their senses: There is no man of any condition among them who does not eat it every day and who doesn’t have it eaten in his home in the morning and evening: it has therefore blurred their imagination, offended their brains; perturbed their senses, altered their intelligence; appeased their spirits; clouded their faces; it dilutes the constitution to such an extent that they almost never see things correctly…”.

Not everyone was of the same opinion however, for example: Ugo Falcando, a non-Sicilian writer who was resident in Palermo for a long time, wrote a letter, in the spring of the year 1190, to Peter, the treasurer of the Church of Palermo, nostalgically praising the splendour of the city of Palermo, in a style reminiscent of Tacitus, during the period of the Norman Kings, among other things, he also describes the abundance of fruit and vegetables that the inhabitants used to cultivate for consumption. This is how he described the gardens and orchards and their produce: “bushes of vines, fertile orchards, cucumbers, watermelons, melons that are almost spherical in shape and pumpkins hanging from very long intertwined canes (like today!), pomegranates and then citron trees inspiring heat for the scent and colour of the exterior skin, while inside the acidic juice gives a sensation of cold, and the intermediate part is temperate. With their acidity, the lemons give a flavour to the foods, the oranges full of bitter juice delight the eyes with their beauty, more than the extent to which they seem otherwise useful”. (Perhaps the types that we have nowadays were not yet available) and he proceeded saying: “walnuts, almonds, various species of figs and olives for seasoning and for oil lamps...The legumes, with an insipid sweetness are an ignoble fruit that allures the palate of peasants and children...tall palm trees with dates, and canes, the juice of which transforms into a sort of honey and lastly sugar when cooked accurately”.
“For their part, given their origin, the Normans ….put up with hunger and cold if the circumstances require such, they are dedicated to hunting and the training of falcons and they enjoy the ostentation of having horses, military trappings and outfits…”.  (Goffredo Malaterra, a reporter on Roger the Great Count and Robert Guiscard).
We know that their diet consisted of spelt soup and that they drank cider, a sparkling wine made with apples, which is still produced in Normandy today.
The daily life of the families of peasants was quite simple: their houses often consisted of a single room with a table for lunch with some chairs around it, a chest of drawers, and if necessary, a cot, a kitchen cupboard and pots, bowls, as well as varnished or glazed earthenware jugs. Cooking was often done outside of the house. Their diet was based on edible herbs and cereals but there was no lack of mutton or pork, for those who didn’t abide by the law of the Koran. Cheese and poultry were also eaten; but a scarce amount of fish. Mollusc shells were however found in one of the canals that drained the waters from the fountain located in the tetrastyle of Zisa Palace, on the third floor. Food was cooked by boiling (boiled and stewed), roasts were not common.