The history behind food is what has always drawn Melissa Muller into wanting to discover and share gastronomic antiquity with people. As an anthropologist and chef, she has owned restaurants in New York City focusing on the underrepresented nuanced Sicilian recipes she grew up with. Muller has also authored a cookbook, Sicily, that goes beyond recipes alone, but into the history and cultural nuance of the ancient recipes and history of Sicily.
After years of the hustle and bustle of New York, Muller decided on a complete change of life. Nearly a decade ago, she decided to move to Sicily, where she fell even more deeply in love with the land where her grandmother came from, the largest island in the Mediterranean. Sicily, the place she would excitedly visit every summer since she was a child. Sicily also became the backdrop for her romance, where she met and fell in love with her now-husband, Fabio Sireci. All roads led her to Sicily.
Together, Melissa and Fabio expanded on his family’s vineyard, Feudo Montoni that now also offers organic specialty products that are specific to the region which they grow and cultivate on their expansive acres that surround the estate. Sicilian varietals of lentils, chickpeas, and ancient grains for instance. Everything made as it once was.
“From the time I was a student at Columbia University, I’ve been fascinated with how the history of food boils down to what we now know today. All these different ingredients arrived during a specific time in history, through the various conquests and dominions Sicily was under, and yet the dish we eat today is now known as Sicilian. My lifelong quest is to discover the origins of today’s Sicilian cuisine with a focus on long-lost culinary traditions. To truly know the region’s food is to know the roots of the island’s culture and history,” explains Muller.
Muller and her husband live in the remote inland countryside nearly 100 kilometers from Palermo. The entire estate is surrounded by wheat fields which for centuries has naturally created a barrier for the vineyard, protecting it from both genetic hybridization and chemical contamination that can come from neighboring farms. For generations, the Sireci family has grown high-altitude indigenous Sicilian grapes, including Nero D’Avola, which has notes of calamint, eucalyptus, and incense, all herbs that grow in the wild on the island.
Living in this remote area of Sicily for Muller is the ultimate experience, “The farm is a perfect observatory for me to descent even more deeply into the intriguing and mysterious history of Sicily”. Muller is currently assembling stories and recipes for a second book, which will focus on her journey from Manhattan to the remote farm as well as the traditions of the uncontaminated interior heart of the island. “It was refreshing to come out of the pandemic, in that incredible historical moment, and just a few years prior I had left Manhattan, and left restaurants because I found the rawest version of Sicily here. I feel this is where luxury is. I love that everything is organic, and it’s not just the wine we produce, but it is also in the ancient grains, and chickpeas, we cultivate, I am focused on the heritage and origin of these ingredients.”
There has been an increased awareness and understanding of what organic means in recent years, but also in the ethics of how food is grown, how the people cultivating the crops are treated, and the importance of the treatment of the entire ecosystem. The organic philosophy of food cultivation must go beyond whether pesticides are used or not – but also on the humanitarian ecosystem of how we treat the people behind it.
As soon as Muller married her husband, one of the first things she did was purchase a plot of land next to the vineyard to begin producing organic produce, she tells Forbes how incredibly liberating that moment was, “organic farming brings more work to the local economy, but when not done ethically, it can also make people sick. So I’m adamant about ethical agricultural farming. I purchased land of my own to register it as organic. I was taking this land that was once used in a nonorganic way and we are returning to give dignity to it, in an area that is an amazing oasis but also an area that is sometimes forgotten by the world,” says Muller.
The lack of development in Sicily and much of southern Italy has a silver lining in that much of it remains untouched and can become a pioneering region for organic produce to be grown and can allow for more ethical farming opportunities. “All of the food and ingredients that are now in Sicily stem from how much this island was fought over. It’s such an earthly paradise, if you take away politics and the broken roads and focus only on the island itself geographically, it is clear why this island was fought over for centuries. It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and it was desired even for its religious purposes,” says Muller.
The culinary diversity and wealth of ingredients are largely thanks to the centuries of invasion, conquest, and trade the island had and ultimately culinarily benefited from. Muller writes about the iconic dish of Sicily: Pasta con le Sarde, or Pasta with Sardines. An incredibly flavorful dish composed of inexpensive elements that have become iconic to the island. Flavored with some of the native ingredients like wild fennel and sardines which swim in abundance in the sea, often used as bait for the bigger more desirable fish. Muller writes about the legend of how this iconic dish was created thanks to a Muslim general, Eufemio, and his chef, “When landing in Sicily during the conquest of the island, Eufemio was forced to feed his troops with a combination of foods brought from North Africa and fruits of the Sicilian island. His chef combined Sicilian sardines and wild fennel with his supply of raisins, pine nuts, and saffron,” and so one of the happiest melanges for the palate was born.
“In every dish, you see there is so much history. Caponata, for example, there is eggplant that arrives from the Arabic period, tomato, introduced from the Spanish period that comes from the Americas, the sugar introduced by the Arabs, it’s all centuries of food,” says Muller.
Even the reliance on mother nature influenced Sicilian food traditions that are still prepared today. Preserving foods by cooking and canning fruits, vegetables, and even seafood. “Historically, before the introduction of refrigeration and modern technology, Mother Nature provided us with raw elements to keep food from spoiling: sun, salt, air, ice, wind. Today, this reliance on nature is still a major part of Sicilian cuisine. Food preservation is an important way to keep typical Sicilian flavors and aromas alive at all times cooked into luscious caponata, many fruit and vegetable seasons are extremely brief; preserving them allows us to extend their seasons,” writes Muller.
One of the most beautiful elements that the rich and vast Sicily offers is the variety. Here, you can find everything, because some of the greatest cultures of the world have all set foot on the island at some point, leaving a piece of their culture behind allowing for a new culture to emerge of its very own: Sicilian.