Tastes of Sicily: Touring Catania’s markets

Market stall in Catania, Sicily

Like a lot of people, before going to Sicily I’d assumed that as part of Italy it would have a similar cuisine to other areas of the country. But the food of this island is a lot more complex than that. Years of occupation have left it with a mix of influences, so you’ll find ingredients and dishes you’d expect to see in Greece, Spain or even North Africa. To learn more about Sicilian cuisine I took a gastronomic tour of Catania, starting in the place where all good food begins – the market. The freshness of ingredients is the key to Sicily’s delicious food, and its markets are overflowing with local, seasonal produce. Our guide Maurizio took us around Catania’s markets, introducing us to new ingredients and providing an insight into Sicily’s history through its cuisine (while being incredibly patient as we stopped for photos every two minutes).

Stallholder in Catania fish market, Sicily, Italy

A fish market stallholder wields an impressive cleaver

We started off in Catania’s fish market – La Pescheria. This is one of the biggest fish markets in Italy and its atmosphere has hardly changed in hundreds of years. The market takes place around Piazza Alonzo on weekday mornings from 7am to 2pm and all day on Saturdays. When we visited early in the morning set up was in full swing. Young guys hauled bags of ice and wheeled stacked trays of fish through the alleyways into the square, where they were piled up on a jumble of makeshift tables.

Fish stalls in Catania fish market, Sicily, Italy

Piles of seafood, including the mantis shrimp with their fake eye markings

I’d never seen so many different types of seafood. Some I recognised, like the plump pink prawns, buckets of tiny clams and the long, silver metallic-looking eels. Then there were some weird and wonderful creatures I’d never seen before. There was the octopus that opened up like an umbrella when you picked it up, the pannocchia or mantis shrimp with markings on its tail that mimic big eyes, and the rare slipper lobster, a sort-of cross between a crayfish and lobster only found in the Mediterranean.

Catania fish market, Sicily, Italy

A slipper lobster and a stallholder showing off a giant metallic looking eel

Fishmongers wielded dangerous looking cleavers, slicing thin steaks from giant tuna on chopping boards marked with blood and knife marks from years of use. They line the fish heads up to show how fresh the produce is, though the ground was covered with bits of fish and pools of water so sturdy shoes are a good idea. When the setting up is done, things get even more rowdy when the shoppers start to descend later on. Stallholders compete for sales, calling out their deals of the day and straining to out-holler each other.

Octopus in Catania fish market, Sicily, Italy

One of the strange umbrella-like octopi

But the market isn’t all about fish – other stalls spread into the sidestreets around the Piazza. There are cheeses and mushrooms brought down from the mountain villages, as well as fruit and vegetables from the fertile soils around Mount Etna. In late spring the stalls were full of plaited stems of wild garlic, bunches of asparagus and juicy strawberries. We also tried a few more unusual things like orange medlar fruits, spiky wild artichokes roasted on an open grill, and white mulberries that looked disconcertingly like grubs.

Fruit and vegetable stalls in Catania market, Sicily

Maurizio shows us around some of the fresh produce on display in the market

We also stopped at a spice stall, where in among the spices, dried fruits and candied peel we spotted these strange things that looked almost like carved stones. Stall owner Theresa explained that they were actually edible – known as Mostarda, they are a kind of solid jam made from grape must. Each year after the grape harvest, pressed grape juice is mixed with orange zest, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves then cooked and reduced down to a paste. Then it’s put into decorative moulds and dried in the sun.

Mostarda in Catania spice stall

Mostarda in Catania spice stall

Sicilians love their sweets, and many of the island’s classic desserts were were created by convent bakers. These nuns combined ingredients like sugarcane, pistachios, spices and candied fruit that were introduced by North African Saracens with cookery techniques that came from French pastry chefs. And the result was delicious sweets like cannoli, tubes of fried dough filled with creamy ricotta, or cassata, a sponge cake layered with candied peel and ricotta and covered with layers of marzipan and icing. There are plenty of others too, many using almond or pistachio flours so they are gluten-free too.

Pastries in Catania, Sicily

Delicious pastries on display in Prestipino Cafe

We dropped into Prestipino Cafe to try out two sweets dedicated to Catania’s patron saint, St Agatha. First were the Minni di Sant’ Agata – aka St Agatha’s breasts – where the gory story of her being tortured and having her breasts cut off has been turned into a tasty cake! They are a dome-shaped cassata topped with a red cherry nipple. Next were the Olivetti di Sant’ Agata, or St Agatha’s little olives, green olive-shaped marzipan balls which commemorate an olive tree she sheltered under. Then – already starting to feel stuffed – it was time to learn how to put this great produce to use in some classic Sicilian dishes.

St Agatha’s breasts, Sicilian pastry, Catania

Minni di Sant’ Agata – aka St Agatha’s breasts

A guided tour around Catania’s markets forms part of the Celebrity Cruises Sicilian Gastronomic Tour shore excursion, along with a cookery class. Many thanks to Celebrity for hosting my trip to Sicily to try it out. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.

Comments

  1. says

    What an interesting tour of the market! It’s one of the best ways to really understand local cultures and people, and the one in Catania surely didn’t disappoint. I’m really intrigued with Mostarda since it uses ingredients not native to Sicily; the exact same spices that drove the Europeans to come all the way to Asia to find the fabled Spice Islands. Fascinating!

  2. says

    Those pastries look yummy! Trying out the local food, especially cakes or anything sweet actually, is one of my favourite parts of exploring somewhere new.

  3. says

    It is so interesting to understand the different influences that impact the cuisine. I love when cities and villages revolve around the market – it always makes for the freshest ingredients! Looking forward to reading about your cooking class!

    • says

      Yes the food of a place can really reflect so many other aspects of its culture and history. I’m a big fan of overseas markets (and even supermarkets!), you always come across something new and unusual.

  4. says

    I saw a kebab pizza on a menu in a nice restaurant in Palermo. My mate ordered it for a laugh and it was as you’d imagine – kebab meat and salad dumped onto a pizza base! The perfect mix of east and west.

    • says

      I’ve always fancied the idea of Sicily too so was really glad to get the chance to get a taste of it – there’s so much more to see that I will have to go back, and will be trying out a few more markets when I do!

  5. says

    Wow that Mostarda looks very interesting, would love to taste it! And also there is a cake with my name! That is so cool! I think the history of the food makes this place extra special.

    • says

      Yes you’d find a lot of things with your name on in Catania – the cakes are probably the best though! Mostarda was very strange, I wonder who first came up with the idea?

  6. says

    Love the pics and the virtual tour through the market! Definitely hungry now. I have been to Palermo but not Catania, but I think I will have to go check it out!

  7. amilejessica says

    Your pictures of the fish market remind me of the charming (and smelly) markets I visited at the sea side town of Essaouira in Morocco.

  8. says

    There is nothing better than a Mediterranean food market! I love how you’ve really brought it to life with your descriptions of the fish stalls. I’m on a mission to get my family more involved in my love of proper food – and what better way than to drag them round a market on a holiday!

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