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The Monsú chefs of Sicily

GUIDE TO SICILY

With the exception of the resourceful, all-knowing butler himself, few characters in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories emerge with much credit. One exception is Anatole, the supremely gifted French chef employed by Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia. So heavenly were the creations of this remarkable culinary genius, that Aunt Dahlia was forced to keep him in purdah to prevent envious rivals from poaching his services. Possibly unbeknown to Wodehouse, a similar situation prevailed in aristocratic palazzi throughout Sicily in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Noble families in Sicily had a penchant for splendour. The impressive façades of their palazzi swelled with goose-breast-balcony pride and swaggered with coat-of-arms confidence. Voluminous interiors were crowded with Murano glass chandeliers, hand-painted majolica tiles, elaborately decorated walls, gilt-edged frames housing works of art, and rococo furniture produced by the continent’s most sought-after master craftsmen. Such ostentatious majesty was also expected on the dining table, and any distinguished household worth its salt retained the services of a chef capable of conjuring up feasts fit for a princely palate. 

Italy’s southern aristocracy considered French culture and cuisine to be the ne plus ultra of sophistication and elegance and so it became fashionable to employ French chefs. Local linguistic sensibilities soon transformed these culinary maestros from Gallic Monsieurs into Sicilian Monsú and a new gastronomic fashion was born.

While the first Monsú were indeed French, Sicilian-born chefs soon outnumbered them. The name Monsú stuck, but rather than referring to the provenance of the chef, it now denoted a culinary brilliance capable of inspiring envy in the hearts of his employer’s guests - much like Aunt Dahlia’s beloved Anatole. Consequently, Monsú chefs held a position of prestige within the household and were treated with a respect and a reverence not normally bestowed on servants.

The original Monsú chefs brought with them a host of techniques and recipes belonging to the French tradition. However, some of the ingredients required for these recipes were not readily available in Sicily, and so a kind of fusion cuisine began to evolve. Sicilian ingredients were gang pressed into Parisian or Burgundian recipes and names were Sicilianised, much in the same way that Monsieur had become Monsú. Blancmange became biancomangiare, gateau became gattó (a dish of creamy puréed potatoes atop a rich meat or béchamel and ham sauce) and ragout became ragú.

At the same time, popular Sicilian recipes were elevated to a more sophisticated status both by the application of French techniques and by the addition of prestigious ingredients that most people could not afford. A classic example of a Monsú recipe where more is more can be found in a passage from The Leopard, where Lampedusa describes the Prince of Salina’s timbale:

“The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a smoke laden with aromas, then chicken-livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken, and truffles in masses of piping-hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suède.”  

Indigestion anyone?  

When entertaining, a typical Sicilian Marquis would demonstrate his finesse and savoir faire by serving his distinguished guests the most refined French cuisine possible. When dining en famille, however, he would encourage his Monsú to experiment with punchier recipes. Sophisticated béchamels made way for, or were incorporated into, rich tomato sauces, and delicate consommés were “souped up” to become voluptuous garlic-scented fish broths. In this way, each aristocratic household across Sicily soon had its very own recipe book of signature family favourites, an anthology of unique dishes to be handed down from generation to generation.

These private recipe collections are jealously guarded by those who have inherited them. When we speak of “Sicilian cuisine”, therefore, we should remember that there are actually two incarnations: those “public” dishes found on restaurant menus and in cookbooks, and those “private” creations dreamed up by the personal Monsú chefs of Sicily’s aristocratic families. Most of us, unfortunately, will never enter Sicily’s parallel culinary universe, unless, that is, you book a villa such as Don Arcangelo all’Olmo, La Favorita or Villa Tasca, where the owners draw upon their treasured family recipe book to offer guests a unique Monsú dining experience. Alternatively, we could arrange a Monsú cookery lesson with one of our in-the-know culinary experts.

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