Food Programme

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Investigating every aspect of the food we eat


My Food Hero: Dan Saladino meets Mary Taylor-Simeti

August 31st, 2015

Episode 558 of 661 episodes

Dan Saladino retraces his Sicilian food roots and goes in search of a great expert on the island's cuisine, Mary Taylor Simeti. She left America in the early 1960's and has now lived in Sicily for 50 years. Sicily has one of the oldest, continuous, food cultures in western Europe. Invasions, conquests and Mediterranean trade led to influences being exerted by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French. That combined with an abundance of sun and fertile soil has given it one of the most important and delicious food stories to tell. With a Sicilian father, and extended family, Dan spent a lot of his childhood staying with his grandmother, watching home cooks in action, visiting markets and eating in espresso fuelled bars. For many years traditional Sicilian foods like caponata, cannoli, arancini and pasta con le sarde, were enjoyed but not fully understood. Sicily remained a mysterious place with an equally mysterious array of foods. In the last in the series in which presenters meet their food heroes Dan meets Mary Taylor Simeti at her home and farm on the outskirts of Palermo. Her series of books on Sicily and its food provided the first detailed insights into this ancient cuisine in the English language. She started to write in the early 1980's, "On Persephone's Island" is a personal account of life on a family farm and of life lived near Palermo. It was a violent time in the city's history, a period now known as the "second mafia war". The book weaves in snapshots of that side of Sicily, but also captures the changing seasons on the farm, olive and grape harvests, religious festivals that feature food rituals and first-hand accounts of traditional lives lived on the land and producing ingredients. It was followed by "Pomp and Sustenance: 25 Centuries of Sicilian Food", a book that explores the island's cuisine from the classical world right up to her own experiences of food among family and friends. A third book, "Bitter Almonds" told the story of Maria Grammatico, who grew up as an orphan in a convent, trained to make intricate biscuits, cakes and sculpted almond paste. The book explains how from a Dickensian childhood she'd produce the most skilfully made and delicious foods. Mary Taylor Simeti's work not only helped Dan make sense of all the food, cooking and festivals he saw around him, but also helped chefs including Giorgio Locatelli have a better understanding of Italian food. Mary explains how she left a life in Manhattan that seemed destined for an academic career to life on a Sicilian farm documenting one of the world's most colourful food stories. Presented and produced by Dan Saladino.

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